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.
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.