THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 7, 2012

Not a day goes by in the UK without scholars in the humanities complaining that they are under attack from politicians, the media or employers. But they may perhaps take some comfort from the knowledge that their colleagues across the Atlantic feel similarly ill-treated and put upon.

"Perusing the higher education news of late, one gets the sense that the state of graduate education has never been worse," writes Lindsay Thomas, a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the 4Humanities blog.

"Most recently, Inside Higher Ed has featured the efforts of Russell Berman and five other Stanford professors to 'radically' rethink the structure of humanities PhD programs by decreasing the time to degree to four or five years, about half as long as it currently takes most graduate students."

Ms Thomas says such a timescale is not practicable in the humanities. "The problems facing graduate education in the humanities...cannot simply be boiled down to things like time to degree, the lack of clearly defined expectations or alternative career paths, or even student support," she writes.

"Certainly, much can and should be done on these fronts to improve graduate education in the humanities...However, improving graduate programs themselves is only half the battle."

She says what such critiques fail to address are the greater systemic problems affecting the academic labour market as a whole. "Graduate students, especially in the humanities, are not just students, endlessly toiling away in our foxholes/ivory our lurching quests for new knowledge. We are also instructors and...constitute over 70% of the postsecondary instructional workforce nationwide."

But Ms Thomas admits that she not only finds it difficult to come up with a solution but wonders if there is one.

"Restructuring higher education to fit Amazon's model - online platforms for buying and selling college courses - is also not going to fix will only further corporatize higher education."

Meanwhile, writing on the hook & eye blog, Aimee Morrison, associate professor in the department of English language and literature at the University of Waterloo, Canada, points out that the humanities are often misrepresented.

Commenting on an article about procrastination by an academic who advised setting "mini-deadlines" to break down larger projects, she says: "The problem with writing in the humanities is that our work proceeds differently than in the social sciences...let alone the hard sciences or other experimental disciplines.

"Our papers are not broken down into discrete, standard sections...Each piece of writing, if done really well, develops its own organizing structures."

She adds: "The process of scholarly writing is itself the act of research, of experiment, and the texts we are producing constitute the data we are analysing, as well as the analysis.

"So in the humanities we may strike upon an idea, and begin to read up on it, often quite substantially. But the 'experiment' we perform is the act of analysis that develops in the course of writing, not before."

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