It's the End of the Dissertation as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

Well, not exactly.  But Michael Bérubé writes in The Times Higher Education that the dissertation may have run its course.  As part of a study of tenure and promotion in the humanities, it became clear to him that there was an impending crisis.  While schools still require junior faculty to publish their dissertations with university presses, publishing houses are not financially able to edit, print, market and sell books that will only move a couple hundred units.

Bérubé writes,

Still, the crucial question remains: why are we continuing to demand that our junior faculty produce monographs that fewer and fewer libraries are going to purchase – and still fewer people are going to read? Can’t we think of some other, better way to conduct scholarly exchange?

The problem begins, of course, with the dissertation: if you demand that graduate students write proto-books for their PhDs, the departments that hire them will (quite reasonably) expect them to be able to revise those proto-books into first books.

It is a problem, to be sure.  In fact, at one of my alma maters, I have encouraged professors to at least publish with more popular presses in order to have their work read by more people and thus spread their influence further, only to be thwarted by a memo from the president of that institution informing all faculty that they are to publish only with university presses.  Ugh.

Sidione Smith, the president of the Modern Language Association (a major force in humanities higher education) has picked up the baton from Bérubé.  She writes,

How might the dissertation be reimagined as an ensemble of forms? The most commonly proposed alternative to the long-form dissertation is the suite of (three or four) essays. A suite might involve a theme and its variations or include a set of distinct essays, probing different topics, mobilizing different analytics, employing different methods or theoretical frameworks. The emphasis would be on honing skills in the short form, precisely structured, persuasively argued, elegantly written, at once lean in purpose and compelling in the story told.

As someone slaving away at a lengthy dissertation*, that sounds fantastic.  But in the meantime, those of us trapped in the old system can chip away at the dissertation in 15 minutes per day** (or, preferably, more).

*My current dissertation stats:

  • 100 pages (out of 250ish)
  • 153 footnotes
  • 2nd (and final) extension granted by the PhD Studies Committee

**I commend Bolker’s book to anyone writing anything of any length.  Seriously.

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  • Dissertation writing begins July 2010…

    Your right, hell does exist…

  • Just beginning my proposal, so this is both a helpful and a soul-numbing post. That said, I love teaching enough that this is a mountain I am willing to climb and I’m just geeky enough that I will (deep, deep down) love to hate the process. Best to you…

  • Dude!
    I saw the title in twitter and jumped over here to congratulate you on finishing and to ask where i could find a copy… son, i am disappoint.

    But seriously, encouragement and prayers as you get into the second half of this monster. Keep going!

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  • Dan Hauge

    Amen, amen, amen and amen again to all this–I’ve felt for a long time that these academic systems are the perfect example of instiutionalism–where the goals of perpetuating the institution (keeping the university presses running, making sure that a certain level of social status is maintained) consistently trump the goals of actually doing the thing that the intsititution was formed to do in the first place (i.e. making more knowledge and intellectual endeavor available to more people).

    It does seem that pursuing a particular topic in extended depth is still a valuable exercise, so I’m not sure completely abandoning the dissertation in favor of short forms is an absolute solution. However, I do believe there should be more flexibility for scholars with different talents and interests, and that the whole academic-industrial complex needs a huge overhaul of vision and values.

  • Tony, last I knew I’d sold 150 copies of my revised dissertation. But I stopped receiving notices long ago.

    You do raise an interesting question — one raised in Borg’s new novel — as to the way books are perceived. Especially in Religious Studies, there seems to be a fear that popular means injecting faith which leads to a loss of objectivity. I think that’s part of the problem. There is a felt need among some religion faculties to exude objectivity, which limits opportunities to publish broadly.

    Fortunately, neither my academic nor my popular books have sold well, so I’m in good stead either way!

  • tom c.

    Ugh, today’s blog entry is bringing back my dissertation trauma (just a little — not so bad really), and I’m one of those trying to revise it to get a press to accept it as a monograph. It’s all part of the process of reaching out for that golden ring of the tenure track job.

    Still, I think the idea of undertaking a sustained project of considerable length has great merit. Publishing a series of journal articles might better prepare graduate students for the real academic world, but I do like the idea of systematic learning which comes from carrying an overarching argument across several otherwise distinct chapters…

    Anyhow, good luck with yours, Tony.

  • While schools still require junior faculty to publish their dissertations with university presses

    That depends on the discipline. In my field–philosophy–articles are relatively important, and many philosophers, including many at top departments, get tenure with no books. I just published my first book this past year, 19 years after getting my degree, 13 years after getting tenure, and 8 years after becoming a full professor. That’s not unusual in philosophy. Also, some philosophy PhD programs (including, I think, MIT) allow students to submit several independent paper-length essays instead of a traditional dissertation–which sounds a lot like the kind of thing that Sidione Smith is thinking of. So there is some actual precedent for the kind of changes you’re looking for in another, but related, field.