david sherman
January 23, 2023

David Sherman, Associate Professor of English, Brandeis University

At the end of 2020, battered by that year, faculty in Brandeis’s English Department committed to reimagining its PhD program. We couldn’t fix the world, but we could fix the curriculum. We had paused admissions, like many programs, to better support our current students, and over most of 2021 we debated how an English PhD could work and what it might be for. A critical mass of disciplinary, institutional, and world-historical events finally helped us understand that our old ideas about a humanities PhD were unsustainable. 

It felt something like: the English PhD is dead, long live the English PhD.

We had a lot of meetings; long memos were composed; there were many arguments. Across genuine differences, we stayed motivated for a nearly year-long process by one basic, shared idea: without betraying our future students, we couldn’t simply keep doing the same thing for another generation, or even the next cohort. Just about everything in the world—including academic job markets—had changed over the previous thirty or forty years, except the basic shape of the English PhD. 

(That shape is well-known: spend several years in small graduate seminars on topics related to current faculty research projects, pass a qualifying exam in a long-recognized academic sub-field, and write a dissertation, that is, a draft of a draft of an academic monograph. The dissertation, which nearly no one will read, should be written in near-isolation; there will be talk in the program about “alternative” careers but no training in skills related to anything but academia, and little connection to alumni in other professions; and the process will typically take six or seven years, with accumulating debt.) 

Unsustainable. As we embarked, we were lucky with one resource, and seized this luck: the Modern Language Association organized a virtual gathering in November 2020, the Summit for the Future of Doctoral Education, that was invaluable for our work. Two faculty members and one graduate student from our department participated. This was a powerful forum for language and literature scholars to exchange curricular ideas and devise reform tactics. The summit gave faculty from dozens of departments ways to initiate hard conversations about reimagining their humanities PhDs, program by program. And it was vivid evidence of the programming creativity in our fields—evidence that scholars of the imagination are able to apply it to our own profession.

At Brandeis, we needed time and space to negotiate two core tensions, as we more clearly envisioned doctorate education for non-academic careers. These two tensions were entangled, just as every component of an academic program is entangled. We had to find ways for students to learn skills that we, ourselves, couldn’t teach. And we sought to balance practical career concerns with the intrinsic value of advanced humanities education, irreducible to commercial valuation. Along the way, every curricular change we considered had to answer the time-to-degree question: we sought to create a PhD that could actually be completed in five years by most students, the duration of their guaranteed funding. 

We spent several weeks holding informal focus groups with our alumni in diverse careers. Their emphatic and consistent and even desperate message was to have students learn non-academic skills during the program, as a complement to academic training. A single course in, say, coding, practical ethnography, media strategies, data science, publishing, journalism, film production, rare book and manuscript care, paleography, and so on, can open possibilities—both for non-academic projects and more sophisticated teaching and scholarship.

Such courses were widely available in the area, but the faculty faced a zero-sum dilemma as we tried to limit time to degree: for every course on a transferable skill that earns program credit, students would take one fewer traditional academic seminar, with a cost to field expertise. We debated requiring a transferable skills course, but finally decided to make one optional. Students themselves would have to decide, over their first few years, whether in a given semester to take a course on modernism or non-profit management, coding or the rise of the novel. Students hadn’t directly faced such a decision before, not because it wasn’t necessary but because it was suppressed, as if there were no need to worry about non-academic skills in their professional futures.

With crucial support from the Dean’s office, we had created an internship requirement just before the pandemic, and this helped us move into other curricular changes. So far, in their fourth-year internships, students have worked in academic and non-profit publishing, documentary production, prison education, game design, and a public humanities project. Several observers, like Leonard Cassuto, have argued that internships should be an integral part of doctoral education in the humanities. At Brandeis, we’ve already seen its benefits.

Other changes to the program stretched from admissions to the final doctoral project. We now ask applicant statements to address “the potential social and cultural impact of your doctoral work” and include a new “Career Paths” section: “The Brandeis PhD in English is designed to prepare students for a range of careers. Please describe three careers you might be interested in pursuing after graduation. In one paragraph, describe how you think your PhD will prepare you to pursue these different goals. If applicable, please also describe any previous experience relevant to your career goals.” This question should be asked at every stage of doctoral program, as a fundamental part of this education.

Our department’s most extended debate was about new, required seminars on topics with different professional relevance. In part inspired by our alumni interviews, we decided to require advanced courses on pedagogy and writing about the humanities for diverse audiences. English PhDs are uniquely capable of writing and speaking to many publics about complex and even controversial cultural topics, a skill useful in many professions—but doctoral programs have rarely cultivated this skill as an explicit part of a student’s portfolio of accomplishments.

Finally, we adapted the idea of the dissertation with such a portfolio in mind. In addition to the traditional dissertation, students can design other doctoral projects with several components. These have already been fascinating, adventurous applications of critical and creative thinking that use research and field expertise to engage worlds beyond academia. These projects work along radically different first principles than the traditional humanities dissertation: collaboration, community contribution, pedagogical innovation, public access, creative use of media technologies, artful expression. In these projects, students are developing new, highly knowledgeable ways to promote literature and literary education in the world.

Our program changes are a new and still-unfolding experiment. But the intense, sustained faculty conversation about our program was necessary and productive. We recognized the ethical need to at least try to address a professional crisis—not faced by us, personally, but that directly implicated us. The reform process asked us to de-center our own expertise, better consider student needs, and imagine academic humanities as more dynamically related to other organizations and enterprises. I think of our uncertain situation as a useful uncertainty, of a different sort but no less in degree than that facing traditional programs, in our shared professional crisis.