By Matt Schneider, PhD Candidate
Over the past week, this blog has been abuzz with insightful and well-considered responses to the now-infamous “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video. The conversation has unearthed a number of important concerns, and has identified some worrisome trends that have emerged in scholarship in the humanities, especially concerning the teleological assumption that PhD students are working towards employment in the academy. These concerns highlight the facts that the humanities in general function on the basis of a number of unexamined assumptions, and that these assumptions are damaging both to PhD students at any stage of their programme and to the public’s perception of the humanities in general.
One thing I think I’d like to add to the conversation is the way that departments tend to avoid dealing with students who want to work in what essentially amount to “unproven” fields. In my programme, I’ve noticed a lot of students finding themselves having to fight with their departments to varying degrees in order to be able to do the work they want to do, simply because some aspect of their work—be it comics/graphic novels, digital texts, children’s literature, romance novels, speculative fiction, etc—has not yet become a Proper Field and as such the university is unsure whether that work is Serious and Important. And to make matters worse, these projects are almost always SSHRC funded, normally with a CGS, and every one of these projects was accepted by the department when the PhD students applied.
It is frustrating that the government is willing to fund these projects (and well, too), and that the university is willing to accept them (at least initially), but when it comes time for the student to get to work, the university (or key figures in it) would then express doubt as to the feasibility/hire-ability/validity of this same work. This contradictory behaviour is especially frustrating because many of the students working in these unproven fields are especially well-suited to work in them, having great personal interest in an area that is either misunderstood or ignored by most scholars. Essentially, some of the brilliant students who could well one day be the stars of these new and emerging fields are being told that their work is interesting and could hold great potential (so much so that the government was willing to pick up the tab), but that they’re not allowed to do it until the field is better established.
This attitude is detrimental to those emerging fields, too. Several of my fellow students have had to change their projects drastically, often times cutting out the very interests and elements that made their work so valuable and unique. A student studying affect in the non-fiction comics of Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Marjane Satrapi, for example, quickly shifts focus, with supervisors and faculty asking the student to include more novels or biographies that aren’t comics until, by the time the student hands in her dissertation proposal, the comics have moved from the position of primary text to secondary, at best, or entirely absent, at worst. This is not to say that dissertations in new fields wouldn’t benefit from a grounding in canonical (that word!) texts and methodologies—I, for example, just recently discovered a connection between the work of Jonathan Swift and Unicode (for those interested, search for the words “bigendian” and “smallendian”)—but rather that these canonical works should simply enrich our studies into new fields, rather than authorise or rationalise these studies. If we insist that students spend the majority of their time studying the tried and true, we effectively stunt the developing fields by forcing students to wait until they’ve become established in a “traditional” field before shifting their scholarly focus back to their passions.
Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that many of these fields could well make the humanities more serious in the eyes of the public. Sure, the public may at first find it amusing that Intellectuals are Studying something like romance novels, comics, and videogames, but ultimately these are works the public can connect with. There’s a reason books like The Philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sell better than your average scholarly anthology. The latest collection of post-Lacanian psychoanalytic explorations of the works of Djuna Barnes may well be stunningly insightful and invaluable to scholars studying that amazing writer (I meant Barnes, but you can pick your favourite of the two), but much of the public is simply not in a position to connect with this work. By contrast, a dissertation examining the intersections between religion, gender, and politics in the Twilight series has the potential to reach a much broader, non-academic audience—the series has sold over one hundred million copies according to Publishers Weekly. If a scholar were to connect with even a fraction of a percent of this audience, she would, by academic standards, be a best-seller dozens of times over. When we discourage scholars from studying these popular works, we are wilfully distancing ourselves from the public at large.
Perhaps if we in the humanities want to be taken more seriously, we should encourage bright up-and-comers to prove themselves in these new or obscure fields. Not only would this attitude prevent students who were accepted for proposals in these areas from feeling like they fell for the old bait-and-switch, but it would also open up new avenues for the scholarly community to engage with the public. If we want others to take the humanities seriously, perhaps we should first ensure that we take the humanities seriously ourselves.