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Should Doctoral Education in the Humanities Be a Marathon?

Posted by on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 in News.

The April 9th Chronicle Review includes an essay titled “Doctoral Education Shouldn’t Be a Marathon” by Lee Shulman, president emeritus of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  In the essay, Shulman argues that doctoral education in the humanities could benefit from adopting some of the pedagogical practices of education in the professions (law, medicine, engineering, nursing, the clergy, and so on).

Of the value of the dissertation, Shulman asks if doctoral education should be less of a marathon and more of a triathlon or pentathlon.

Already some fields—like chemistry, psychology, and economics, although none that I know of in the humanities—are replacing the classic dissertation-as-monograph model with one of dissertation as compilation of shorter and more-varied written performances. Those fields are defining doctoral completion as having successfully traversed a number of challenges rather than having confronted a single mammoth demand. It’s as if the doctoral capstone has been defined as an academic triathlon or pentathlon—no less rigorous or challenging, but less daunting in prospect—instead of a marathon.

Shulman argues that experimentation and assessment are needed in doctoral education.  “Doctoral preparation remains a striking example of faith-based education,” he writes.  This work should inform faculty engaged in doctoral education:

We must design the training purposely and systematically, rather than educate by erecting extensive barriers to completion and then wait to see who survives.

What is your view of the state of doctoral education, particularly in the humanities?  Can the humanities learn something from education in the professions?  Might a rigorous “pentathlon” replace the “marathon” of the dissertation?

For more research and resources on this topic, see the CFT’s teaching guide on graduate education.

Image: “arrow to the action” by Flickr user shoothead / Creative Commons licensed


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