ACCUTE conference

Changing by Degrees: A Pre-Panel Discussion on Redefining the English PhD

Elan Paulson (Western) and Morgan Rooney (Carleton) are presenting the ACCUTE-sponsored panel, “Changing by Degrees: The Impact of the New Approaches to the PhD upon Research and Practice in English,” along with Josh Lambier (Western), Paul Yachnin (McGill), and Heather Zwicker (Alberta), chaired by Mark McDayter (Western). In the dialogue below, they jump-start the conversation that will take place at Congress, reflecting on how PhD careers can change tracks. 

The panel takes place on Day 2, Sunday, May 27, 8:30am-10:00am, Room LC 208.
All are welcome to attend.

Tweet #ChangingByDegrees at #ACCUTE2018 to join the conversation on Twitter.


Elan: I was listening to Stereophonics’ “Change Changes Things” (2003), and some of the lyrics seemed relevant to our upcoming ACCUTE-sponsored panel in May: “A change of direction / Could change where is home.” We both began working in higher education following our English PhDs, but neither as tenured faculty members. Did a change in the direction of our careers change our sense of the humanities as “home”?

Morgan: Tricky question. Navigating the “identity” question post-PhD is a challenge: am I an educational developer moonlighting as a professor? Or a professor who is also an educational developer? It might seem insignificant, but it has consequences. I’m still “at home” in the sense that I always envisioned myself working at a university, but I’m not working in the role I had envisioned. I love what I do now, but, truthfully, I didn’t know this job existed when I was a doctoral student. To stick with the analogy: I guess I feel “at home,” but the space or “room” I occupy in that home isn’t quite the one I had expected—the bed is a bit unfamiliar, as is the decor.

Elan: Good analogizing. At our panel, we will consider what effects certain “renovations” to the PhD program might have on teaching and research in English. We’re meeting a number of folks associated in different ways with English as a humanities field to discuss—among other issues—how the increase of adjunct/contract faculty may be changing English research and teaching as we know it. How has your contract faculty position changed how and what you research in English, and how has your full-time work influenced how you teach in English? Or, as the Stereophonics put it, “A change in your job / or did your job change you?”

Morgan: This is a tough one, and you should know in advance that I’m militantly opposed to the ongoing adjunctification of the professoriate (for more on this subject, I recommend Marc Bousquet’s “How the University Works”). I think the most honest way to describe how my role as a contract instructor has impacted my research practice is “entirely negatively.”

My typical pattern is to work my 35-hour day-job during the week, then complete the work relative to my teaching during weekday nights and on Saturdays, and then to save Sundays for research-related projects. Not surprisingly, that schedule slows down my productivity: since 2013, I’ve published 3 articles and 3 book reviews, and I have a set of entries for a larger edited work forthcoming. There is no doubt that I would have produced more in the same timeframe given different working conditions. I find it next to impossible to work on the sorts of larger projects that I otherwise would have pursued.

The second question you ask leads to a happier answer. Working as an educational developer has forced me to read and reflect on a lot of educational literature and research, and to do countless hours of teaching observations, so I feel like I understand better what works well in the classroom with current students. As a result of these experiences, I’m much more conscious that teaching is not just knowledge dissemination but the active production of learning in my students. That means I’m more open to the possibility that, on those occasions when my students fail to live up to my expectations, the decisions I’ve made as a teacher might well be among the root causes.

Elan: Accepting that at least some of the decisions we make within the discipline are among the root causes for where we are with the PhD is another issue we’ll address at our panel.

My move to the Faculty of Education has resulted in positive changes along the lines you have described. I bring literary analysis strategies to the Education classroom, and my research aids both what and how I teach, although I face many added barriers to research compared to TT faculty. Conversely, my experiences in Education have helped me to grasp some of the methodological differences between Humanities and the Social Sciences, which to my memory was never really discussed in my PhD program.

Morgan: One thing my work as an educational developer has made me painfully conscious of is how little I know about how quantitative research is conducted. In that sense, I’m being forced to learn about new things that my doctoral research didn’t prepare me for—and that’s not a bad thing.

Elan: I agree. Learning about different research methodologies helps me to make more sense of research in English, particularly what the humanities uniquely contributes to the-sum-of-human-knowledge.

One issue I know members of our panel feel passionate about is how crossing boundaries (between academic fields or between the academy and the community) provides new ways of seeing PhD programs that could have positive, new effects in the discipline. My exposure to Education doctoral studies and Social Science research doesn’t change what I most value about the Humanities, but it has positively influenced my thinking and my work.

Morgan: I think this is largely the same for me, especially your point about how “social science methodology” might impact your own future work. My exposure to quantitative approaches certainly will force me to think even more carefully about cause-and-effect relationships in literary studies, for instance, than I otherwise might normally have.

Elan: In their previous presentations and writings, our panelists have remarked that largely only minimal “tweaks” have been made to English PhD programs that avoid disrupting core disciplinary traditions. Education, as a field, has interdisciplinary origins, and its professional focus perhaps means that folks aren’t so anxious about maintaining sacred academic norms. But “professional” is almost a dirty word in English, isn’t it?

Morgan: Yes, I think you’re pressing on the key issue—i.e. how it is that we define our discipline and our “idea of the university” (to borrow from Newman). Education, like many other disciplines, is more at home with defining itself as a professional degree. If you think of Education programs as preparing students for a vocation, then it follows that your curriculum would change to keep pace with professional practice.

By contrast, English scholars are, I think, less likely to embrace that vocational understanding. When asked “what does a university degree in the humanities do?” many humanities scholars will probably say something like, “We train students in the core reading, writing, and critical thinking skills they need to participate meaningfully in civic life.” For me, that is a crucial mandate, one whose vital importance has been re-confirmed by the recent US election and its aftermath.

I often feel like universities are caught between these two “missions,” with administration and professional programs using the vocational one to “sell” higher learning to an audience that often identifies with that vision, while humanities programs gravitate towards the older “civic life” argument to justify what they do and how they do it. You’d think that the university is big enough to accommodate both visions, and it probably is—but whether governments will fund both is another question entirely.

Elan: I have found that many Education faculty believe that their role is to help graduates learn to create and use scholarship for professional practice to promote civic life. I think we risk unhealthy league-tabling when we label and divide the “scholarly” from the “vocational,” particularly for how that binary devalues professional knowledge. This view deepens the chasm instead of building a bridge between “town” and “gown.”

Morgan: It’s certainly a mentality we’re going to have to confront if English doctoral programs are going to continue to be a fixture at Canadian universities. No one disputes any more that only a small number of our graduates go on to take well-paying, stable academic jobs, which begs a series of questions about why we structure our PhD programs the way we do, with an overwhelming focus on preparing candidates to produce the key output of an academic labourer (i.e., peer-reviewed publications).

To me, we need to start examining the full range of careers that our graduates pursue, and then start thinking carefully about how it is that we can build programs that will help prepare them for those careers. That process could lead different English departments to develop PhD programs (or “streams” within those programs) that are more diversified, with different program structures and learning outcomes.

Elan: Your idea brings us back to the central issue of our panel: how will changing PhD programs re-shape the core activities that constitute our discipline? And, what new ways of envisioning the discipline might lead to deep but positive shifts within our PhD programs?

Morgan: I think the second question, in particular, raises many complex issues we have yet to address. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing from our panelists and audience members on both subjects.

elan paulsonElan Paulson, PhD (Western) is Program Director of the Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership program at Western University’s Faculty of Education. She has taught over 25 courses in English, Women’s Studies, Global Studies, Media Studies, Writing, and Education. Her current research interests include leading and managing educational technology in higher education and academic development for online teaching and learning.
rooneyMorgan Rooney is an Educational Developer (Educational Development Centre) and Adjunct Research Professor (Department of English) at Carleton University. As an Educational Developer, his main responsibilities include providing services and programming designed to foster the pedagogical development of Carleton’s faculty, contract instructors, teaching assistants, and graduate students. As a researcher, his area of study is British literature of the “long” eighteenth century, especially the Romantic-era novel. His latest publication is a chapter on Charlotte Smith in Hilary Haven’s Didactic Novels and British Women’s Writing, 1790-1820 (Routledge, 2017).


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