The Faulty Memory of Nostalgia

The December holiday season is steeped in nostalgia, whether we’re singing about sleigh bells ringing and roasting chestnuts over an open fire or reflecting back on past years as we look ahead to a new one. We constantly reminisce about a past that probably did not happen quite as we remember it. This fond, if flawed, recollection of the past is a constant presence in academia, from looking back at the good old days (remember when all Ph.D. graduates could get professorial jobs?) to invoking academic tradition to discourage innovation (the dissertation has always looked like this; why change it?).

This inaccurate recollection of the past of academia and how it can hinder the transition to a new model of doctoral education were two of the main topics under discussion at the most recent meeting of the “‘Living Humanities’ PhD for the 21st Century” project. Entitled “Revitalize Learning Outcomes,” this meeting featured guest speaker Sidonie Smith, Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and the author of Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (available open-access from University of Michigan Press).

There are many exciting developments happening in higher education in this digital age. In her presentation, Smith discussed the use of new media for scholarly communication, shifting knowledge structures that focus as much on collaboration as on individual research, and a distributed university that has graduate students working not only with one or two faculty members at their own institutions, but also faculty and fellow students at institutions around the world.

But alongside these steps towards a more digital, collaborative model for higher education, there is also resistance to change. Smith explained how these changes could be misunderstood by faculty members, who sometimes perceive projects that use this new model as a Ph.D. “lite,” as opposed to a Ph.D. based on the more traditional formats they are accustomed to – a single student writing a proto-monograph with the assistance of a select committee of faculty members. With their students’ best interests in mind, some faculty advisers fear that making changes to the doctoral degree or dissertation can harm candidates’ prospects on the academic job market, rendering them less able to compete with their peers. Addressing these concerns, Smith is very direct – if we stick to the twentieth-century model of graduate education, we are actually disadvantaging our students, as these normative standards do not assure academic excellence.

Not only are these so-called normative standards not a guarantee for excellence, but they have also not always been the norm for doctoral education. As I said, nostalgia can give a flawed perspective of the past that does not match the historical reality. For instance, one professor from English highlighted that the current gold standard for the dissertation in the field, a four-chapter proto-monograph, was not always the only option. Going back to the 1960s and 70s, he noted the accepted alternatives of the critical edition of a neglected text or the three-chapter dissertation. If dissertation structures have changed before, can they not do so again? In the same vein, another professor noted that our concept of the academic tradition is not as fixed as we would like to believe, but instead is made up of many subtle, continuous changes over time.

With so many avenues available for doctoral students and faculty in the humanities to create innovative projects and take research beyond the boundaries of the university, we need to take a hard look at the traditions that we cling to. So as we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and prepare to face 2017, let’s try to set aside our nostalgia about the academia of yesteryear.

To read more about the “Revitalize Learning Outcomes” planning theme, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes. For the reading material for this meeting, see Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times.   If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

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