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Monday, December 5, 2011

Why This Is Wrong

Clarissa pointed me to this vile editorial by Russell Berman. I'm afraid I might have to quit the MLA again in protest. In my field, two years of course work for the PhD is not going to be enough. The reason is that students coming from Spanish majors simply have not read enough in their undergraduate programs. To do enough reading to be even minimally competent would require more than three or four years of course work, but two is ridiculous. This proposal would give an even bigger advantage to students from Latin America and Spain who have more extensive cultural capital coming in.

I know it takes a long time to get a PhD. But let's think for a moment about what level of erudition it takes to be a "doctor," or learned one, in literature. There are few prodigies in scholarship, because it takes time to absorb knowledge and develop originality. An originality based not on disconnection from the field, but from deep absorption.

Berman also proposes a kind of fixed, lockstep curriculum, streamlined to allow for quick progress. So students would not be exposed to the research of their faculty members (courses based on the interests of the faculty) but a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that would make graduate teaching deadly for all concerned. This streamlined approach would not have allowed Jill and I to do our "poetry and performance" seminar, for example.

In place of a dissertation, Berman proposes three articles. In practice, this would amount to three seminar papers. The so-called PhD would not really be an expert in anything in particular, having written 75 pages rather than 250. He or she would never have been exposed to the original research of the faculty, and so wouldn't have a clue to what research really is.

Why do we elect literature haters to the presidency of the MLA? People who have contempt for the life of the mind? First it as MLP, then Gerald Graff, and now Berman.


profacero said...

Good point on the foreign students.

Clarissa said...

Exactly! I'm really incensed by this. I don't think anybody could have come up with a more efficient plan to destroy literary studies if they tried!

The two years of coursework for a PhD work in Canada, for example, because there nobody comes to the doctoral studies without first doing an MA (2 years of courses, comprehensives, and the dissertation). But students who go to the doctoral program straight from a BA are simply not ready to be scholars of literature in two years.

And canning the dissertation?? What sense does that make? Writing a seminar paper and writing a book are two completely different things. If the students don't get at least some training on how to construct a book, they will never master it.

I've had 7 years of grad school (MA and PhD) and out of those 7 years, 5 were dedicated to coursework. As a result, I'm very well-read and can participate in discussions not only of Peninsular but also of Lat-Am. literature fairly well.

What is the point of pushing out more and more half-baked PhD holders if it's already very hard to find a TT position in literature? Isn't it better to have more selective and rigorous programs?

I'm very appalled by this.

Jonathan said...

Do you think Berman would hire someone like this (having gone through a program like he proposes) at Stanford? It's blatant hypocrisy.

profacero said...

He just wants to keep those TAs coming even when academic jobs dry up.

Clarissa said...

"Do you think Berman would hire someone like this (having gone through a program like he proposes) at Stanford?"

- Good point!!

profacero said...

- his first book was in Peter Lang
- he is at the Hoover Institution

(I learned these things on Wikipedia)