Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PhD IS WORTH IT, Part 2

This entry is a continuation of a previous post, “Academia (n): the world of university scholarship / WHY I THINK THE PHD IS WORTH IT, Part 1.” My purpose for this pair of entries is two-fold: 1) it allowed me (in the first entry) to take my position on the very hot-button issue of whether or not pursuing a PhD is worth it, and 2) it will allow me (in this entry) to offer my particular stance/rationale as a creative writer pursuing a doctoral degree in composition and rhetoric (instead of the potentially more obvious choices of literature or creative writing). Largely, I want to explore some of the ways in which composition and creative writing study can (and I argue, should) intersect, and extend my claim that prospective PhD candidates must think both passionately and practically about future scholarship and the job market.

The State of Things, With Regard to the Humanities

I want to extend the conversation regarding the state of higher education (see Part 1) with some discussion of the humanities, in particular. Reports regarding the decline of students enrolling in the humanities have used the word “crisis” to reflect the fears of the supposed decline of the humanities. There are, inevitably, those whose rebuttals infuse the same romanticized  nostalgia of study in the humanities as “educating the emotions with art in order to refine it” (sounds nice, but what does that mean?). Fortunately, however, there are also plenty of well-reasoned arguments that the humanities are not in crisis (see David Silbey’s “A Crisis in the Humanities?” wherein he reminds us that more people are majoring in humanities fields and more books are being published in them), that the humanities are of value for STEM fields, and that come from prominent CEOs who actively seek to employ English majors. There is even a government committee whose purpose is to offer “a rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.” (Side note: certainly recent discussion surrounding the digital humanities is another push for relevance in our contemporary time that is worthy of our attention, but I’m not yet well-versed in this conversation enough to make it a larger part of this entry).

In terms of the job market in the humanities the picture painted is often quite dire. What has been emphasized, though, is the paucity of tenure-track positions and the problems of supply and demand, which is a difficulty for all fields. Certainly, if the academic jobs wiki for creative writing is any evidence, specializing so fiercely in only creative writing or in literary interests only relevant to a small circle of scholars seems to be a surefire way to paint yourself unemployable post-degree, so that kind of specialization has to be part of the problem. I find Michael Bérubé’s The Humanities, Unraveled” to be helpful, as he makes a call for reconsidering the ways in which we think about graduate work in the humanities without relying on romantic notions that cannot and will not serve doctoral candidates (or institutions) in the current climate of higher education. Rather than wax nostalgic over the loss of the humanities, the arguments, like Bérubé’s, I find persuasive offer ways in which we can make use of our studies in the humanities and what that study can enable us to do as professionals (in tenure-track positions or otherwise). Bérubé even goes so far to suggest that “the study of the humanities is more vibrant, more exciting, and (dare I say it) more important than it was a generation ago,” a sentiment I tend to agree with!

Passion and Practice

So for those of us considering doctoral degrees in the humanities, how do we best make use of our study for maximum impact? I’m thinking here, in particular, of creative writers who already have MFA degrees, since that’s the perspective I’m coming from with this question (though I hope this discussion might be helpful for would-be literary scholars as well).  As I expressed in Part 1, it’s a misstep to think purely about doctoral degrees as the pursuit of our passions. We have to think practically as well. It’s worth emphasizing that most of the creative writers I know are already invested in teaching and in expanding their spheres of influence beyond their individual craft or literary interest. My point, I suppose, is that we need to do better to find programs that will allow us to capitalize on those extra-scholarly interests and not put ourselves in boxes we cannot get out of. One of those boxes is certainly the adjunct pool, a world those with creative writing MFAs know all too well.

It might seem that the only choice for literary or creative types is to pursue practical experience within range of where you are, so to speak (squarely located within your field of interest), with hopes that professional development, publications, and teaching experience will help bolster your CV in all the right ways when you’re ready for the job market. So, it seems, the choices for doctoral work would be either a PhD in creative writing, or a PhD in literature. As I see it, however, there is another obvious choice: the PhD in composition and rhetoric. I don’t want to go so far as to reduce composition studies to the practical side of English-related study (first of all, composition departments are becoming independent of English departments, and secondly, that would be an overstatement that does disservice to the range of possibilities within comp/rhet). Personally, however, I see composition studies as complimentary to my creative work, as it offers me opportunities to apply the concerns I’m invested in as a writer beyond the scope of my own creative production. It also, more importantly, helps me understand writing and writers better (and what creative writer wouldn’t want to do that?).

Unfortunately, from the gaze of those focused entirely on literature or creative writing, composition and rhetoric is not always seen in a positive light. Too often teaching composition is seen as a “necessary evil” for graduate students to obtain teaching experience and funding for their degrees. I hope, however, that the remainder of this entry will reveal some of the productive energy surrounding the relationship between creative writing and composition studies and will serve to debunk some of the misconceptions that might be preventing creative writers from seeing this option as a choice.

Composition Studies and Creative Writing

For help in framing my position here, I want to turn to the work of Douglas Hesse in his article “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies” (2010), from the journal College Composition and Communication, wherein he distinguishes the fields of creative writing and composition as writer and craft-focused versus teacher- and research-focused. In other words, it seems, creative writers are focused inward to individual perceptions and practice in craft (the process of producing/creating work), and those in composition studies are focused outward (how to help others compose and/or understand the rhetorical situations/contexts within which we compose). He sets up the tensions between the two fields as such:

Creative writing sometimes condemns teaching composition as a regrettably necessary rite of passage toward a degree or ballast to more meaningful teaching, as many graduate students have made clear to me–at least, until they find religion on the job market. It is largely disinterested in (and occasionally contemptuous of) systematic research on writing and writers, especially empirical studies, trusting instead in authors’ own accounts, in memoir, essay, or interviews, as far more valuable than anything in the guise of ‘scholarly article.’ I certainly value these latter ways of knowing about writing, grounded in the interpretive humanities and the tradition of artists speaking about artistry, as healthy complements to more social scientific traditions. So do others (think of how Wendy Bishop valued writer’s self-reports and the field values reflection), though most composition scholars are wary of author talk cast too far into unique and unassailable genius (p. 32).

I acknowledge this is his generalized description of the tensions at play between those focused in creative writing or composition, but I find it an accurate and helpful depiction to serve as a launching pad for my own rationale. Below I’ll take the key tensions described and use them as a jumping off point for my own reasons for entering the composition field even further in my doctoral work:

1) Valuing pedagogical preparation, and teaching composition from a craft perspective. As described above, teaching composition is often seen “as a regrettably necessary rite of passage, but the truth is, most tenure-track positions in English-related fields will require the teaching of first-year writing, so finding value in writing pedagogy and in teaching composition is paramount to our success as teachers post-degree.

That, however, is not an easy task. I felt, early on, that any lens I imposed on a first-year writing course would be artificial and therefore would come across as arbitrary for my students (and it did, in my first semester teaching). I then became exposed to composition pedagogy scholars such as David Bartholomae (whose influence I’ve spoken of elsewhere on this blog, also here), whose work, along with others, seemed to give me permission to make use of my own expertise in writing to shape my course. In other words, I felt I’d been given permission to teach composition from a craft perspective. Rather than attaching an arbitrary theme through which students can practice their writing, writing itself becomes the subject of the course.

While composition scholars wouldn’t necessarily use the term “craft” in relation to their pedagogy, the concept of making writing the subject of the course has been dubbed by Elizabeth Wardle as the “writing about writing” approach to first-year writing. I ask my students to consider issues that should be familiar to creative writers; I ask them to reflect on their habits and behaviors as writers, and to read and write with a mind toward the ways in which we can make use of writing to help us investigate, inquire, and try out ideas (see previous posts here and here).  

Creative writers, I believe, are perhaps best equipped to teach from a writing-about-writing approach, as our own inquiries as writers have everything to do with the kinds of concerns we want students of college-level writing to adopt. While the purpose of the writing differs, we, as creative writers, can identify with out students easily because we share the same anxieties about the process and purpose of our work. Fortunately, as expressed, such an approach is gaining steam in the composition world, which perhaps will make it easier for us to find our way in it.

2) Demystifying the writing process. Authors’ accounts of their own writing process have been inspirational for creative writers since such works have been shared. Writers’ correspondence, day books, memoirs, and interviews give us an image of what a working writer looks like, and offers us theories of writing to consider in our own practice. It’s how we best understand writing movements, and how manifestos have been circulated. What is fortunate, as well, is that we have the author’s own work as evidence for the claims presented. Together the author notes and the work itself provide a closed loop of theory and practice, so why turn elsewhere? What would be the purpose?

As we seek to prove the value of creative writing in a world where most literary works do not have a common reader, we have to find language that differs from depictions of the individual genius (more on the idea of genius later) in order to describe its import for our students, and for others. Empirical studies on the writing process and creative intellectual practice can do that, and the best scholarship in these areas often comes out of composition studies. Potential doctoral candidates thinking about the future job market might benefit from having an expanded understanding of the inner workings of the writing process from multiple perspectives. If we can learn the value of creative intellectual practice for students who do not intend to be creative writers, than we can argue for the value of our field in environments where the humanities appear to be in crisis. 

3) Pioneering new ground through engaging in cross-talk. Hesse suggests that creative writers are largely disinterested in empirical studies on writer and writing, but it might also be that creative writers aren’t aware such studies exist, to the extent that they do. Beyond composition pedagogy, composition and rhetoric scholars are invested in many of the same point of inquiry as creative writers, and in a myriad of topics regarding language use and rhetoric that might serve a creative writer’s desire for complicating and challenging the ways in which we think about writing and the writing process.

Let me offer a specific example that is of interest to me, personally. I happen to be very interested in hybrid genres and the places wherein different genres intersect and overlap (this should come as no surprise to you, dear readers… if you are new here, poke around and see more of what I’m talking about). There is plenty of dialogue about this topic from the creative side, and plenty of conversation on the composition side, but rarely, if ever, do the two sides take advantage of the other side’s scholarship. While I’m well exposed to the conversations surrounding genre in the creative world, I’m only beginning to discover the wealth of scholarship in this area from composition studies. The doctoral degree will not only provide me with the opportunity to learn of that scholarship, but will afford me the opportunity to bring the conversations happening on the creative side of the coin with me. The potential impact of this work, therefore, would reach beyond the scope of creative writers engaged in the fruitful dialogues we often have with each other and toward a broader sense of the ways in which language comes together in recognizable structures we call genre.

Genre, of course, is not the only subject where mutually exclusive conversations are currently happening. More creative writers entering the composition field would help to bridge the gaps and expand these conversations, and, again, broaden our sphere of influence beyond the small circle of creative writers, thereby increasing our value for future employment.

4) Challenging conceptions of “unique and unassailable genius.” In composition studies, writing is often spoken of in light of discourse community, cultural context, or other social influences that affect how it is produced and read. The social influences that play a role in texts are often prioritized over individual choices as writers. Thus the distaste for conceptions of individual “genius.” While creative writers might think less often (or less conscientiously) about the social influences that impact their own writing, more creative writers than might be expected share that disinterest in concerns for individual genius. The current generation of doctoral candidates grew up with file-sharing, Wikipedia, and musical mash-ups, and concerns related to authorship have been a part of our active conversations ever since.

I believe, in general, that these shifts in the treatment of popular media are evident in communities of creative writers as well. The writing process is more visibly collaborative, and the ways in which writers can test the boundaries of authorship are bound up in many creative projects themselves. We’ve, by now, reconsidered the ways in which allusion and intertextuality function, seeing them more as borrowing and collaboration than allusion or reference. It seems, perhaps, that concerns for capital “A” “Authorship” have never quite been what they’ve seemed. As such, composition scholars might be losing out on an incredible wealth of language and ways of thinking about texts and writing that creative writers have at our disposal, and creative writers might benefit from knowing more about the social and cultural influences that impact the types of language we mimic, borrow, or refer to.

Practically speaking, as a poet invested in so-called “experimental” poetics including textual appropriation, constrained and procedural methods of production, and collaboration (again, if you’re new here, poke around a bit and you’ll see what I’m talking about), my sphere of influence with regard to these concepts is relatively small, as the group of poets invested in similar thinking is also small. I am well aware of what other poets have to say about these practices, but less aware of how those in composition studies might use these terms, or might otherwise complicate these notions as I’ve developed them as a poet, but I know they exist and want to find access to them. In addition, I wonder about undergraduate students’ even looser sense of ownership, and how the ways in which they feel comfortable borrowing and making use of others’ texts might help lessen some of the anxieties they often feel about authorship, agency, and using source material in college-level writing. Once again, I see ample opportunity for cross-over in a way I find energizing for my future scholarship in composition and for my own creative work, and the context of composition studies seems the most appropriate environment within which to pursue this work.

Concluding Thoughts

It is my hope that these two entries offer those considering pursuing doctoral work in the humanities some perspective on how and why I’ve made the decision to pursue the degree, despite the unstable (or at least described as such) territory of the humanities in academia. Whether or not a composition and rhetoric degree is something you might consider, I hope what I’ve offered in this most recent entry is evidence of the ways in which new doctoral candidates might find productive energy between or across fields that might otherwise appear disparate.

If I can boil down all of my long-windedness of these two entries into a more consolidated sentiment, it would be this: pursing the PhD is worth it if you have experience that has lead you to a precipice where only an advanced degree can help you traverse, and if you can see ways in which the doctoral degree can help you expand your interests rather than constrict them. At least, it seems that way to me, and the reasons for which I feel confident in my decision. Of course my sentiments will change with experience once I actually enter my program and begin the arduous task of pursuing my research and teaching over the next 5 to 7 years… but stay posted, I plan to continue to document my thinking along the way.

Please do offer comments, as I would love to engage in more dialogue on the topic of whether or not the PhD is worth it, and extend the conversation beyond what I’ve expressed here. You can also contact me personally, at moriahlpurdy [at] gmail [dot] com.


One thought on “Academia (n): the world of university scholarship | WHY I THINK THE PhD IS WORTH IT, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Student (n): A person who is engaged in or addicted to study. Const. of, in, or with defining word prefixed, indicating the subject studied. | here now, myriads


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