Ph.D. Octopus

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William Cronon’s Shout-Out to (the original) PhD Octopus… and How That Relates to College Level Teaching

with 5 comments

by David

William Cronon

In this month’s issue of Perspectives on History, American Historical Association president William Cronon wrote an excellent piece on the need for professional historians to be trained for breadth along with depth, to be able to synthesize large amounts of material and ask (and maybe answer) big questions, along with the rigorous but narrow analysis that is typically embodied by dissertation research.

As an aside in this article, Cronon wrote “William James’s provocative 1903 essay, ‘The PhD Octopus,‘ should still be required reading for all scholars.”

Since that’s the name of our little blog, I tend to agree. And what exactly does “The PhD Octopus” say?

James began his essay by telling of a “brilliant” graduate student in philosophy who had been teaching English literature at another university when it was discovered that he did not have a PhD, the “three magical letters” that were a requirement for a teaching position at the university. When the department told the student about the situation, he returned to the Harvard philosophy department and wrote a thesis. Yet James, a member of that department and dissertation committee, noted that they could not pass him.

And so James noted:

Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear. So, telling him that he was temporarily rejected, we advised him to pad out the thesis properly, and return with it next year, at the same time informing his new President that this signified nothing as to his merits, that he was of ultra-Ph.D. quality, and one of the strongest men with whom we had ever had to deal. 

To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of. We wrote again, pointing out that a Ph.D. in philosophy would prove little anyhow as to one’s ability to teach literature; we sent separate letters in which we outdid each other in eulogy of our candidate’s powers, for indeed they were great; and at last, mirabile dictu, our eloquence prevailed. He was allowed to retain his appointment provisionally, on condition that one year later at the farthest his miserably naked name should be prolonged by the sacred appendage the lack of which had given so much trouble to all concerned.

This anecdote hits home because I’m about to embark on a college teaching job without my PhD in hand. Like many of my peers, I’ve had virtually no pedagogical training en route to my degree, except for learning by doing as a teaching assistant and as instructor in various courses along the way.

William James

Thus we see how Cronon’s and James’ theses are related. The typical PhD program in history, if it trains teachers at all, prepares us for teaching other students how to write a dissertation. What prepares us for breadth are the the A and the B in ABD (all but dissertation): our course work, often including large surveys of the literature of the field, and our comprehensive qualifying examinations.

It stands to reason, then, that the PhD in the humanities, under its current formulation, is not really necessary to teach at the college level. I made a similar observation in this sad post on the fate of the humanities in American universities.

In response to that post, over on Facebook, my friend Liora suggested that graduate school in the humanities should function in two tracks, sort of the way that MDs and MD/PhDs function for medical school.

The idea would be that most schools offer a three or four year degree (call it an MA, or whatever) that includes pedagogical training to teach comprehensive survey courses at the college level, and a shorter, master’s thesis that could be converted into a publishable article. The graduates of these programs would teach at the college level. The universities that offered these programs would not need to have funded doctoral programs.

At the same time, a group of “top schools” (the Ivies, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, etc.) would offer fully-funded six or seven-year degrees, which would include the same as the former, plus a book-length dissertation. Additionally, people who did the three or four-year track at “lower-ranked” schools could then transfer into these longer programs based on their performance in the MA track. The graduates of these six/seven year programs would then be employed at the same level universities, basically to train the people who will eventually become like them.

I think Liora’s suggestion is great. I don’t know if this workable. But it seems better than the status quo, which fetishizes both the PhD and the dissertation to detrimental effect. Don’t get me wrong, I love my dissertation topic and research, and I’m going to finish. But I do this with the recognition that my project is not really related to my ability to teach, and that the current system which leaves so many people without doctorates without jobs, or even on food stamps, is unsustainable and unacceptable.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2012 at 19:07

5 Responses

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  1. In contrast, in the UK – where the MA and PhD are definitely separate things (although a PhD is still necessary for university teaching) – PhD students have to do a minimum amount of teaching training usually something called the Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice, although there are a couple of different options when it comes to this.

    In order to get the first position as a lecturer (temporary or permanent) you have to sign up to teacher training courses administered through the university’s education school or similar. These are all overseen by the Higher Education Academy ( This involves several hours of coursework (usually 15-20) over a year or two, several teaching observations from the department and from the education specialists, and a portfolio/thesis/project on your own teaching practice as it relates to the educational academic literature.

    Lots of people complain about this as a workload burden, but honestly I think it has the potential to make a world of difference to teaching received at university level – at the very least because people are forced to think about why they teach the way they do, and maybe gets some pointers along the way.

    I’m not sure I agree about splitting the tracks – especially based on ‘elite’ and ‘non-elite’ universities (who picks the cut-off point? and who’s to say that the ones that are the top now will always be the top? what about people who need to be near families in other parts of the country? how will other universities attract top academics if they have no shot to supervise PhDs? how will ‘research-led teaching’ take place if most universities are producing non-research teachers?) But I certainly agree that training for the teaching side of academia is vital!

    Bronwen Everill

    May 17, 2012 at 03:29

    • In the (North) American system, I think TAing can be good on-the-job training, but it’s not prioritized enough. I’m not sure if the idea of the two tracks is workable, but I offer it only because the status quo is unsustainable: there are simply too many PhDs, and too many PhD programs, and not enough jobs. It’s really a question of funding: all the unfunded doctoral programs leave too many students with poor job prospects and a mountain of debt. A significant amount of downsizing is necessary, and only the schools with larger endowments can really survive to have extensive doctoral programs in the humanities. As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s already happening: schools are cutting entire programs. This will only continue because eventually the universities have to respond to the poor job market for the sake of their students.

      We also need to increase the prestige of undergraduate teaching, so that top professors won’t see it as a chore but as a major part of their profession. And of course give equal credence to those who seek PhDs but then choose to work outside of academia. There are unfortunately no good or easy solutions on how to get there, though.

      David Weinfeld

      May 17, 2012 at 15:00

  2. I’ve got a few problems with the “elite” school idea.

    One of them would be that you want the best Ph.D. advisers to train Ph.D.s, and these people are spread throughout the entire university system.


    May 20, 2012 at 13:38

  3. Sorry that I’m late to the party on this one. One point of objection about the three or four year track idea. My concern would be that most of the academics they could learn from might offer the pedagogical training they require to teach courses. However, there’s no guarantee that they would provide the requisite skills. Frankly, after teaching for two years (and I don’t believe that I know everything about teaching), I firmly believe that history PhDs–or long track MA as you and Laura posit–need to observe teachers and learn ways to interact with teens and children to learn fresh ways to approach instruction and classroom leadership.


    June 7, 2012 at 19:41

  4. […] understanding of recent historiographical trends.” Meanwhile, David Weinfeld at the PhD Octopus relates the column to his concerns about whether the PhD has prepared him for teaching. Next, Katherine […]

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