Berman Delivers Bold Plan for Reforming Humanities PhD

Professor Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, visited the UC Davis campus on Tuesday, Dec. 2nd, with an ambitious vision for the future of humanities graduate education that stressed shorter time to degree and greater professionalization of doctoral students.

Speaking in the Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker’s Series, Berman, the former president of the Modern Language Association, argued three fundamental reasons to preserve doctoral training in the humanities: “the values and competencies cultivated in the humanities are good for societies at large,” the humanities PhD is “good for passionate undergraduates who want to study materials that they love,” and important for the University as an institute that should provide a “universe of knowledge.”

But in order to preserve this value, Berman warned, “We are going to have to change things.”

The key arguments in Berman’s plan draw from the 2014 report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. Motivated by concerns about the future of humanistic study, the MLA Task Force Executive Council, with Berman as chair, assessed the prospects of reformulating doctoral education to maintain academic excellence, preserve accessibility to humanities higher education, and broaden career paths for PhDs beyond the tenure-track position.

“Rethinking the PhD in the Humanities”

The context for Berman’s talk titled “Rethining the PhD in the Humanities” was the post-2008 academic crisis marked by evaporating tenure-track jobs, the casualization of the academic workforce, and the acknowledgement of growing student debt. Circulating in this social moment were arguments suggesting that students should just not go to graduate school, that programs should be shut, and that we should radically reduce the cohorts of students studying the humanities at advanced levels – effectively reducing access to higher education.

“All of those arguments seemed logical and, really, fundamentally wrong,” Berman said.

Instead, Berman offered a vision for reformulating the humanities PhD that is a counter-argument to that logic and which expands access rather than restricts it.

He stressed that a humanities doctoral degree is a vital part of higher education and that humanities doctoral students are crucial actors in public life. Along with research experience, communication expertise, and a grasp of historical depth and languages, the ability to engage in “extensive thoughtfulness and skepticism about a problem” is the keystone of a humanities PhD, and an invaluable skill in any aspect of society, Berman argued.

“We want to see humanistic values proliferated in society,” he continued.

However, the current system of doctoral education in the humanities is not an ideal situation for students, universities, or society. In his Chancellor’s Colloquium talk and in his public writings, Berman identifies two major problematics in the humanities PhD – excessive time to degree rates and the lack of development for humanities PhDs in non-tenure-track employment.

Lengthy Time to Degree

Berman stressed that the average time to degree of nine and a half years is too long. In that time, students delay entry into professional life all the while accruing debilitating loan debt. Berman explained that doctoral programs can be restructured to meet student needs and reduce time to degree by, among other things, assessing the effectiveness of existing coursework policy, and reimagining the format of the humanities dissertation.

Berman also acknowledged the need for increased mentorship and advising of graduate students by their faculty advisors to accelerate progress through the program. He suggested that humanities faculty take a cue from their science-based colleagues and build cohorts of dissertation-writers working under a particular faculty member, who would meet frequently with each other and one-on-one with the faculty advisor.

Alternative Academic Employment

Speaking to a group of graduate students interested in “Alt-Ac” careers, Berman encouraged the attendees to break out of “specialized silos” and “invent your own career path,” “develop para-curricular skills,” and use the university as an example to “understand how institutions work.”

This advice is aimed at addressing another important shortcoming of contemporary humanities doctoral education, which fails to adequately support and develop the transition of humanities PhDs into non-tenure-track employment.

Berman advised students to develop “para-curricular” skills with broad translational appeal by taking advantage of the “whole university.” This could take the form of management or technology training, skills-based workshops offered through the Career Center or University Library, or seeking out non-academic mentorship from university experts that are not departmental faculty.

Using the university as a model for how institutions function, Berman suggested that humanities PhDs learn about governance structures by participating in student government, or taking up research positions where they learn programmatic management practices like budgeting.

Faculty also play an important role in graduate student success by “validating” their students’ decisions to peruse non tenure-track, or even non-university, work.  Indeed, Berman described that one of the most profound barriers for humanities PhDs interested in work outside the academy is telling their advisors, for fear of losing their support and guidance.

Challenges to Berman’s Plan

Berman has undoubtedly thought deeply about the future of humanities graduate education, and he repeatedly stressed how this vision must first and foremost serve the needs of PhD students. His plan has produced a robust conversation in academic circles and from the audiences at his UC Davis visit.

For some, the idea of a five-year PhD is impossible without five years of financial assistance – a proposal that Berman supports, but could not be universally implemented across institutions in the United States. Similarly, some graduate students pointed out what appeared to be a contradiction in terms: that humanities PhDs should still produce excellent academic work, while also broadening their alternative-academic job prospects, but on a significantly reduced timeline.

A five-year program would require incoming PhDs to “hit the ground running” with a project in mind and a clear plan on how to achieve it. This is not always the reality, especially for graduate students from historically underrepresented communities and first-generation college students who might need additional time to comprehend not only their individual research projects, but the cultural and social dynamics of the university.

There are no immediate or easy answers for rethinking the PhD in the humanities. Berman’s plan provides a well-considered blueprint and a call to action for humanities graduate departments across the United States. For our part, the Davis Humanities Institute is helping to support humanities PhDs through its professionalization series, PhD Unlimited, and serving as a central hub for connecting graduate students with the resources of our university.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies