William Cronon’s Shout-Out to (the original) PhD Octopus… and How That Relates to College Level Teaching
In this month’s issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president William Cronon wrote an excellent piece on the need for professional historians to be trained for breadth along with depth, to be able to synthesize large amounts of material and ask (and maybe answer) big questions, along with the rigorous but narrow analysis that is typically embodied by dissertation research.
As an aside in this article, Cronon wrote “William James’s provocative 1903 essay, ‘The PhD Octopus,‘ should still be required reading for all scholars.”
Since that’s the name of our little blog, I tend to agree. And what exactly does “The PhD Octopus” say?
James began his essay by telling of a “brilliant” graduate student in philosophy who had been teaching English literature at another university when it was discovered that he did not have a PhD, the “three magical letters” that were a requirement for a teaching position at the university. When the department told the student about the situation, he returned to the Harvard philosophy department and wrote a thesis. Yet James, a member of that department and dissertation committee, noted that they could not pass him.
And so James noted:
Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear. So, telling him that he was temporarily rejected, we advised him to pad out the thesis properly, and return with it next year, at the same time informing his new President that this signified nothing as to his merits, that he was of ultra-Ph.D. quality, and one of the strongest men with whom we had ever had to deal.
To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of. We wrote again, pointing out that a Ph.D. in philosophy would prove little anyhow as to one’s ability to teach literature; we sent separate letters in which we outdid each other in eulogy of our candidate’s powers, for indeed they were great; and at last, mirabile dictu, our eloquence prevailed. He was allowed to retain his appointment provisionally, on condition that one year later at the farthest his miserably naked name should be prolonged by the sacred appendage the lack of which had given so much trouble to all concerned.
This anecdote hits home because I’m about to embark on a college teaching job without my PhD in hand. Like many of my peers, I’ve had virtually no pedagogical training en route to my degree, except for learning by doing as a teaching assistant and as instructor in various courses along the way.
Thus we see how Cronon’s and James’ theses are related. The typical PhD program in history, if it trains teachers at all, prepares us for teaching other students how to write a dissertation. What prepares us for breadth are the the A and the B in ABD (all but dissertation): our course work, often including large surveys of the literature of the field, and our comprehensive qualifying examinations.
It stands to reason, then, that the PhD in the humanities, under its current formulation, is not really necessary to teach at the college level. I made a similar observation in this sad post on the fate of the humanities in American universities.
In response to that post, over on Facebook, my friend Liora suggested that graduate school in the humanities should function in two tracks, sort of the way that MDs and MD/PhDs function for medical school.
The idea would be that most schools offer a three or four year degree (call it an MA, or whatever) that includes pedagogical training to teach comprehensive survey courses at the college level, and a shorter, master’s thesis that could be converted into a publishable article. The graduates of these programs would teach at the college level. The universities that offered these programs would not need to have funded doctoral programs.
At the same time, a group of “top schools” (the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, etc.) would offer fully-funded six or seven-year degrees, which would include the same as the former, plus a book-length dissertation. Additionally, people who did the three or four-year track at “lower-ranked” schools could then transfer into these longer programs based on their performance in the MA track. The graduates of these six/seven year programs would then be employed at the same level universities, basically to train the people who will eventually become like them.
I think Liora’s suggestion is great. I don’t know if this workable. But it seems better than the status quo, which fetishizes both the PhD and the dissertation to detrimental effect. Don’t get me wrong, I love my dissertation topic and research, and I’m going to finish. But I do this with the recognition that my project is not really related to my ability to teach, and that the current system which leaves so many people without doctorates without jobs, or even on food stamps, is unsustainable and unacceptable.