Following on from last week’s post by Michael Blaakman, in which he reflected on his experiences preparing for oral exams and their practical value, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on another aspect of graduate education. Today—two years, four semesters, twelve courses, a couple hundred books, two research papers, and a dissertation prospectus draft later—I am attending the last seminar session of my coursework. Now, it’s nowhere near the equivalent of reaching ABD, but it is something of a milestone, for me at least. I was a non-traditional student who began my undergraduate work at the age of 32 and went straight from undergrad to a PhD program. So today marks the end of what was effectively six years of coursework.
As I come to this point, I have found myself thinking about the value of coursework. I have had a number of conversations with fellow students about the role of coursework in graduate education and how much is enough. The range of responses has been quite broad. After all, some people enter PhD programs with MAs in hand and others come either right from undergrad or after some time out of academia. This variety in the previous experiences of students means that two years of coursework errs on the safe side. Furthermore, Michael Bérubé made the point recently that changing one aspect of graduate education–such as the amount of coursework–requires reworking the entire structure. If one thinks that a single year of coursework is enough, does that mean that orals should be taken in the second year?
Last year, a group at Stanford released a report entitled “The Future of the Humanities PhD at Stanford” detailing the university’s attempt to rework the structure of their graduate programs. At the center of much of the discussion surrounding reform of graduate education in the Humanities is the primary goal of reducing graduate students’ time-to-degree. The desire to lessen time-to-degree is shared by two very different groups for two very different reasons. Administrators want to do it for purposes of efficiency and lowering costs. At the same time, scholars in the Humanities want to do it because it is simply not practical for students to spend nine years preparing for practically non-existent jobs. Proposals range from seriously reforming the dissertation to shortening coursework and doing exams sooner.
Personally, I have found coursework to be highly beneficial in all the ways it is supposed to be. I got to read in and get a grip on numerous fields outside of my own. I also improved my ability to assimilate large numbers of readings in a relatively short time and analyze previously unfamiliar historiographies. I also improved critical professional skills such as writing book reviews and journal article-length research papers. But the most enjoyable aspect of the coursework experience has been the seminar discussions. I suspect getting to sit in a room and talk about a book in great depth a couple of times a week with a dozen of my fellow students is what I will miss the most, especially since I am fortunate to have been surrounded by terribly impressive peers in all kinds of fields who often turned seminar discussions into enlightening experiences. That said, I would be lying if I said I have not been feeling a bit anxious over this final semester about getting started on orals reading and dissertation work.
So while two years of coursework may have seemed a bit long for me personally, one year just doesn’t seem enough (at least for most people). Some proposals have suggested incorporating exams into the second year of coursework in some way. The question for me would be whether it can be done while also accomplishing the goals mentioned above.
So what was your experience with coursework like? Was it too long, too short, or just right? How might it be reformed?