I’ve recently contributed to HASTAC’S Future of Higher Education Forum, “inspired by a recent workshop called Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education, which was organized by the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI)” (hastac.org).

We were asked, 

“If you could change one component about your own academic program, what would it be, and why?”  

You can bet your next holiday Starbucks drink that I was (and have been for some time) quite ready to answer. 

via Debra Rae Cohen


Here’s a brief run-down of my experiences, disappointments, and minor miracles over the past few years. At the end you’ll find my mini-manifesto on graduate education. 

What do you think? What would you change? I open these questions to those within and outside of academia because I think it’s an important question to raise about one’s professional development track, no matter what the profession is. 

Answer: coursework/exams

 had a great two years in my master’s program, but found my PhD program difficult from the very start. I’ve spent the past two and a half years taking courses of no interest to me or relation to what I’d like to study. Perhaps I should have spent that time trying to publish something that didn’t matter to my future work, but frankly I was so disheartened that I spent most of my energy just convincing myself to stay in the program. With little faculty support and a massive, hard-to-navigate administration (who three years later still has my last name wrong), I passed these years in social and academic isolation. 

If the emotional toll that this system has on us is extraordinary, the anxiety is made even more accute by the exam process.
I don’t mind that PhD exams exist, of course. But I do mind that I’m responsible for the equivalent of 2 years of coursework in material that I’ve had to read on my own, outside of my classes. If courses don’t matter to my exams,  I shouldn’t have had to take them– or not four semesters’ worth, anyway. And now that I’m interested in pursuing digital humanities, I feel that I’ve run out of time to commit to classes on programming or other interdiciplinary integrations to my field.
The members of my exam committee have been extraordinarilly understanding about my situation, and I’m quite grateful for their support. Still, in a conversation about funding by, support in, and general funcitonality of higher education, my case illustrates the too-frequently ignored example of an outdated system that costs the university money and the students time– time that is especially precious to those who want to have families, and whose biological clock seems occasionally at odds with our professional plans.
I am not as productive (and by that I mean as published) as those who had the luxury of faculty support during their coursework years. Indeed, of the three medievalists in my cohort, I’m the only one who made it through to the exam stage. And now that I’m here, and now that I have a bit of support, I wonder if it will all be worth it in the end, given what so many people in the third year of their PhDs have already accomplished.
This is not a situation unique to my program or even my school. There needs to be a re-evaluation of what’s expected from PhDs and a re-assesment of how programs can position us to be successful– within and outside of our programs.
I call for a radical streamlining that promotes faculty-student interaction and mentorship, interdisciplinary graduate courses, and a plan of study tailored to students’ scholarly interests and professional goals. Such a system would be inherently and necessarily transparent; it would reduce administrative red tape and demystify the process of applying for fellowships or assistantships. This new system would require and reward mentorship by making it easier for students to participate in professors’ research or teaching. By inspiring and fostering collaboration, this system would make candidates and professors more productive and more valuable. 
Most importantly, a new system would help students spend less but better time in their programs. 

Until next time, stay radical, readers.