I really miss school.
I work at a school, yes. But I miss being a student in one. Many people think I’m crazy, but I love being in school. I love the reading, the writing, and most of all the discussion. I’m a Harvard graduate, I know what it can be like to sit in a room full of extremely bright people and wrestle with a thorny problem. I love not knowing and struggling to understand, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if any of them work.
But I’m a drop-out. I dropped out of a phd program at the very institution at which I am currently employed, in fact. It’s simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the smartest decision I ever made, and the decision I am most likely to feel regret about. I don’t regret it because I want the life that would have come with finishing; I think I’m far better off as a librarian, playing with tech and managing projects and helping faculty with their courses, than I would be with a load of research and teaching to do. I adore my job, and I feel very lucky to have found this particular path. I only regret it because I’d like to do the work.
There’s nothing stopping me from going back. Not to that program, or that topic, or that department, though. I think I’ve moved into a new area now. If I were to go back, it would be in a very different way. And I wouldn’t do it in order to become an academic in the end. Not as job training. Just to improve the person that I am, and to enrich the work I’m already doing.
But you couldn’t drag me back to that style of PhD program. I was lonely, bored, confused about the purpose behind anything I was doing. I felt lost. I have discovered over time that my motivation comes from interacting with other people. This wasn’t immediately apparent all through graduate school because I was de facto surrounded by others. I didn’t realize how much my enthusiasm depended on the community. As soon as I lost that community, I seriously lost my way.
So I was thinking about it a bit, and talking to some doctoral students about the issues they’re facing, I think I’m actually on to something. I think I’ve figured out what kind of doctoral program I’d want to enter. It would go something like this.
You start a doctoral program with a group of like-minded people, interested in working together. In fact, I think the group should actually apply to a program together, be upfront about their collaboration. It’s not a huge group, maybe 4-5 people. Those 4-5 people have agreed beforehand that they want to work on an area of mutual interest. But each of them comes to the subject from a different angle, maybe even a different discipline altogether. They’re looking at maybe the same data, or the same subjects, or at historical data from the same decade, or the same region. Something ties them together, makes each other’s work interesting and appealing to each of them. It gives them a common language and common heroes.
They would all have their own advisers, potentially their own departments to turn to for support and guidance. But the group goes through their programs together, sometimes off doing their own courses and conferences, sometimes working closely together. If they’re doing data collection, the data is shared among the group. They may actually gather data together, and work from the same starting point. Sharing data isn’t plagiarism, after all; the insights you draw from it are the key part.
They discuss approaches and revelations, they have people to turn to when they are wrestling with a thorny problem. They influence each other; they also resist being influenced, or deliberately buck the trend. They read some books in common, but not all. Each brings a lot of unique insights and perspective from their own perspective, or discipline, or area. Comps would be a course (or set of courses, really) where the reading lists are created in an order that will allow all the participants to gain from each other’s thinking along the way. You read your own comps reading list, but you get insight from four others at the same time. Maybe they bring in speakers to talk to them. People to come inspire them or challenge them.
When it comes time to start writing, they have a structured plan, with key milestones and deadlines. They arrange to write their sections with commonalities at the same time, like writing a research paper for a seminar course. The writing process for the collaborative group might look like another set of courses, in fact: they take a “course” together to get each section or chapter finished, with a common deadline and requisite celebrations. They can get a mental tick mark as they complete each step, move through the process like an undergraduate moves through first, second, third, fourth year, graduation. The path of progression would be clear, manageable, collegial. The group could work together along the way to publish collected essays revolving around a theme or element of their collective work. They would meet weekly to discuss their work, their ideas, to be inspired and influenced by each other. They would work collaboratively toward independent goals that are inter-related and complementary. When they’re finished, their dissertations could be published together as a series of books, all related and referencing each other.
Chemistry already works this way, in collaborative units. I think if the humanities started doing the same, the work would be richer. And less tedious to produce.
After I thought it all through, I realized what I was considering: creating a fandom. A fandom in academia, around a topic/theme/group/region. A fandom with it’s language, traditions, communities, familiar cast of characters all re-written and re-imagined by each member. As long as it’s a fandom, it comes with a built in audience of people who are actually interested in your take on the very familiar subject. The conversations are deeper, the details and differences are more obvious. The process gains some meaning, even if that meaning is entirely about finding something to contribute to the group. Flagging enthusiasm can be bolstered up by someone else’s reinvigoration.
It’s not that it’s easier than the traditional PhD; it wouldn’t be. You’d still have to do the reading, pass your comps, do your languages if you have to, collect your data and compose your dissertation. It’s just that it wouldn’t have to be such a solitary task. I think this is the kind of PhD that could actually be fun to do. And wouldn’t the work be richer, with constant insight from others? It wouldn’t prevent you from doing solitary work. Solitary work is the foundation of most academic work, and, ironically, most fandom work too. But what is the benefit of solitary work? Don’t we learn better and think better when challenged and supported and listened to by others? Why do we cut so much of that out of the doctoral process? Doesn’t the solitary work gain meaning when it’s in aid of the collaborative? Isn’t academic inherently collaborative, with academics building on each other work, just at a relatively slow pace? From the slow process of getting an article published and the long wait for meaningful citations in future published work, it’s still highly collaborative. Just crazy slow. Would it be terribly wrong to speed it up a bit?