Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Passive Reading?

The argument against dissertations confuses me a little. This article in the Chronicle has been the subject of discussion recently, but it doesn't really seem to make the case that "the dissertation is broken". Rather, it suggests that some PhD programs could be better and that some PhD students should probably consider other careers. All of which is something that's been known for decades.

The most concrete issue that the article raises is that of outright alternatives to the dissertation. As usual, these alternatives are based on "new media" platforms and appeal to the virtues of "interactivity" and "collaboration". These digital projects are opposed to the "traditional, book-style dissertation", which is described as "a written text that readers would engage with only passively". It's interesting. We live at a time when we worry that grade schoolers are losing the ability to enjoy books because they are watching those "interactive" screens all the time, while at the same time denigrating the very site that "traditionally" produces the knowledge-bearing prose of our civilization.

The idea that a 200 page book consisting of, say, 300 paragraphs of prose that each supports a distinct knowledge claim can only be engaged passively is nonsense. What has really happened is that we have stopped valuing the careful expression of ideas in well-written prose. So now the idea of a "digital edition of Ulysses, which allows users to read the novel's first two episodes with explanatory annotations and images that appear when the reader moves his or her mouse over words that might be confusing" seems like a ground-breaking new possibility.

But somebody has to discover the knowledge that goes into those annotations. And those discoveries have to be presented to other knowledgeable scholars for critical discussion. These scholars will not passively consume annotations (by moving their mouse over words that confuse them!); they will assess their peers' claims critically. The whole conversation will proceed in prose. And the dissertation is an occasion to produce a good example of such prose.

Proving you can mitigate confusion in the minds of lay readers is not the purpose of grad school. Nor, frankly, should grad school be preparing you for work outside academia. It should be your first serious attempt to work inside academia. If you fail, you can find something else to do. Many people have changed careers. That does not prove that the first career they chose was "broken".


Z said...

I actually went to graduate school on the idea that it was a nice first job out of college. You were working (TAship) and getting professional training (academic) and expertise. Of course, the cant was that there were no jobs in general, and not for women in particular, and that I was not a strong enough student to be an exception to these general rules. So I thought I would be able to get a job for UNESCO, the Ford Foundation, something like that. But I'd not have seen that as a reason to change the graduate program -- the program as it was was what I had come for, and I would not have been willing to be tracked in some other way (there are professional schools and other things one can do, after all).

Jonathan said...

I thought I needed to be one of the best people coming out of grad school to get a job at all. That was always my understanding. Of course jobs were fairly plentiful when I actually got my PhD, but by aiming to be one of the best emerging scholars in my field (in all modesty) I was not considered by Liberal Arts colleges at all.

Anonymous said...

Having to be one of the best and be in certain demographics and have a certain kinds of protectors, yes, that was what was said.

The fact was and is that you just had to be competent. Seriously. You've hired, you have got to know what 80% or so of the applications look like.

This is of course in Spanish, which is an expanding field that even I, much though I have tried, have not managed to get myself thrown out of yet. ;-)

And: liberal arts colleges, you can't mean you were disappointed, can you?

Jonathan said...

Not at all. I would have hated a SLAC.

Jonathan said...

... and competence is kind of hard to get to, if 80% of the applications and interviews are to be believed.

Anonymous said...

I do not get the SLAC mentality at all.

I also do not understand how the 80% manage to be as they are. All that schooling and they are still that lost, it mystifies me.