TEXT review


Good enough and fabulously exciting times

review by Patrick West

 

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Sidonie Smith
Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times
Digital Humanities Series
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI 2015
ISBN 9780472121717
Eb 238pp USD29.95

 

While reading Sidonie Smith’s very impressive study of the current state of doctoral education in the Humanities and its future prospects and potential pitfalls, I also happened to be reading the even more recently published, edited collection The Academic Book of the Future (Lyons & Rayner 2016). In many ways the two go together. To take just one of many possible examples, The Academic Book of the Future extends Smith’s argument that, in times that are rapidly changing as well as being simply ‘good enough’, we should be willing to explore forms of the doctoral dissertation that dare to break with, or at least freshly and differently inflect, the (relatively) long tradition of the PhD dissertation as proto-monograph.

On this point, Smith quotes with approval publisher and academic William Germano’s proposition that ‘Academe has been in the snow-globe business for years. The problem here is not the specificity of research but the intention of the finished product. Inward-looking, careful to a fault, our monographs have been content to speak to other monographs rather than to real, human readers’ (138). This ‘Age of the Reader’ announced by Germano sits in the slipstream of Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’. But it also fits nicely with the comment from Tom Mole in his contribution to The Academic Book of the Future: ‘Not all of the academic book’s future users will be human. As machine-reading, text-mining, online “social annotation” and related approaches come of age, the academic book will need to be optimised for new reading techniques’ (Mole 2016: 15). Of course, no-one is saying that this is, or should be, the end of ‘traditional’ academic books, or even necessarily of the PhD dissertation as proto-monograph. Germano, Mole, and Smith herself, are simply pointing to current changes in the state of knowledge and the modes of its dissemination and, on that basis, attempting a history of the future in respect of scholarly publishing, the shape of doctoral dissertations, and of doctoral education.

As this example perhaps demonstrates, the triumph of Smith’s book (and it is a triumph of its kind) lies in its combination of meticulous insights and detailed research into the current environment for doctoral education (and its origins) with a reaching out into related areas of interest and enquiry. Smith’s book is like the hub of a wheel with many spokes. Alternatively, it works as a moveable part that can be fitted to other moveable parts. Mole’s reference to non-human readers also weaves through Smith’s chapter on ‘The Possibly Posthuman Humanities Scholar’. ‘Posthuman’ is not the same as ‘non-human’, clearly, but this is the point: Manifesto for the Humanities practises what it preaches in respect of its portmanteau approach, its willingness to gather an assortment of elements into its argument. It is both about what it views as best practice in the PhD and also a species of monograph that exemplifies one instance of such a PhD. To quote from Germano again, Smith’s book resembles a ‘thing that “waits to be deployed” and thus has “consequence”’ (138). As one would expect from any manifesto worth its salt, it has, and I think will continue to have, real-world impact.

In addition to all this, I was very impressed by the way Smith brought a Humanities approach and sensibility to her analysis of the current doctoral-education state of play. Smith’s manifesto is remarkable for the subtlety of its engagements, its willingness to parry alternative positions, and its pragmatic yet principled defence of Humanities scholarship. It admirably lives up to the author’s personal vision of her task in relation to the current order of things, as expressed here: ‘For some, talk of change, with its rhetoric of urgency, becomes a trigger for holding fast to certain understandings of the life of the academic humanist. For others, it is a conundrum and a headache. I see it as an occasion to think purposefully about how to meet future challenges and how to calibrate the potential upsides of transformation’ (108).

What might I add, then, in the wake of Smith’s leadership in the conversation and her meticulous and passionate call to action? I am an Australian and Australian-based scholar whose teaching and research straddles the Humanities and the Creative Arts. I am also the Higher Degree Research Coordinator in my school at Deakin University, the School of Communication and Creative Arts. As such, it was interesting to reflect on Smith’s manifesto from an antipodean and Creative Arts perspective, especially with the added context of Deakin’s recent introduction of a new model of doctoral education in the form of PhD Xtra. A few things stood out for me. I was a little surprised that Smith did not spend more time discussing and describing the exciting innovations in PhD formats that for some time now have been coming out of the Creative Arts. In fact, on linking the Creative Arts to ‘alternative forms of the dissertation’ (148), Smith makes the single observation: ‘Some English language and literature programs already offer students the option of a creative dissertation’ (149). No doubt this (to me) absence or blind spot in Smith’s book relates at least in part to the parallel tradition of the MFA in the American (but not so much the Australian) higher education context. Still, why should innovations in the MFA not be transferred across into dissertation formats for American PhDs in the Humanities as defined by Smith?

Further, if I was to be picky, I’d note that for such an exciting and forward-thinking book, Manifesto for the Humanities does not draw on the energies and insights of the Creative Arts, or indeed of creativity in general, quite as much as I would have expected or liked. It is a very creative book, but would have benefitted from more engagement with the discourses and energies of creativity in the Arts and beyond. Australian PhDs in the Creative Arts, including Creative Writing in its close relationship with the Humanities discipline of Literary Studies, include an exegesis with the creative product. As such, the dissertation – or what Australian academics and PhD students would call a thesis – always already possesses a doubled quality that can morph into various modes of binary or non-binary relationships. If one were looking to experiment with new formats for the traditional Humanities dissertation in the American context then the thesis / exegesis format could well suggest some ideas.

A dissertation format, however, is not the same as a PhD model as in a model of candidature. Recently, on this point, there has been some increased discussion in the Australian higher-education media about how models of candidature might be distributed differently across the current divide between universities and industry or commercial entities. A large part of this relates to or impacts on supervision provenance and practices. At the far end of this scale, there have been calls for universities to forgo their monopoly on the granting of PhDs. More modestly, there is an increasing push for more and better cooperation between universities and industry. The current National Innovation and Science Agenda of the Australian Government drives much of this. It would have been interesting to hear more from Smith on how she sees dissertation models changing related to all the many and various recent changes in the relationship between the university, industry and industry-like bodies.

Smith’s book is a capacious engagement with the modern state of doctoral education. I got a lot out of it. Still, I do wonder if the title and the sub-title are in somewhat more of a tension than is fully acknowledged in the body of the book. Let me tease this out a little. The transformation of doctoral education in (and for) good enough times may not necessarily coincide with the most effective manifesto possible for the Humanities. Alternatively, the latter may not necessarily merge seamlessly with the former, may not necessarily incorporate the form of Smith’s transformed doctoral education. Taking either separately might have proved a better methodology for ultimately exploring the specificities of both. What type of doctoral education might best suit the Humanities? What constitution of the Humanities might best suit doctoral education? The book Smith has penned more than justifies its existence. By the form it has taken, however, it limits itself to a consideration only of the problems and possibilities that arise in the overlap between the Humanities and doctoral education.

In conclusion, Smith’s book is more successful in the argument it appends to its title than in the one appended to (or at least implicit within) its sub-title. That is, there is a manifesto for doctoral education per se yet to be written, a manifesto that would conceivably encompass the Humanities and beyond. That said, it is hardly reasonable to expect more than one manifesto per book! I highly recommend Manifesto for the Humanities to everyone interested in the future of the Humanities and / or the future of doctoral education in these good enough and fabulously exciting times (for when are the Humanities and education in general anything but fabulous?). In my work as a Higher Degree Research Coordinator at Deakin University, I have found myself thinking of this book, and talking about it, often. To borrow from William Germano again, Smith’s book is very ‘deployable’. It has ‘consequence’, weight, heft.

 

Works cited

 

 

Patrick West is a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature in the School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University, Melbourne Campus. He is also the School’s Higher Degree Research Coordinator. Patrick has a PhD from The University of Melbourne on the feminist psychoanalysis of Julia Kristeva and he is a widely published creative writer primarily in the short story form. His current major research interest is the relationship of architecture and writing.

 

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TEXT
Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
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