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Dr Alistair Brown
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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


The Value of an English PhD

Abstract

This essay interrogates the economic and social value of having a PhD in English Literature (but also in the Arts and Humanities generally). It proposes that questions about the value of an English PhD can be deflected by making PhD research more accessible through posters and blogs.

Essay

The Value Question

When settling in to their new universities and studies, PhD students in English literature soon learn that the most challenging research question is the one routinely asked at the parties heralding the start of a new academic year: "What is your PhD about?" New students should quickly learn a stock response, the optimum one being simple enough to be understood without patronising the questioner, and elevated enough so that the interrogator is not tempted to engage in a long dialogue about it. With the exception of conferences, parties are for escaping research, not discussing it. However, if one socialises outside of the academic context armed with that stock response, a follow up question may be asked, to which an answer is even more difficult: "Why is it relevant?" This is particularly acute if one is lucky enough to receive funding for research, since the party-going taxpayer who ultimately supports the Arts and Humanities Research Council is entirely justified in asking it and expecting a reasonable answer. In some ways, being funded answers the question, or at least redirects it: if research is not relevant, then the administrative bodies in education would not have sent down their nuggets of gold from the heavens. Nevertheless, higher education can be accused of being a virtuous circle in which traditional university scholarship is felt to be worthwhile because the people at the top in government, themselves products of that system, feel it to have been of value to them. The question of relevance, then, is tied up with the value of the PhD in social, intellectual, or economic terms outside the academy.

It is in relation to economics that the Oxford English Dictionary defines "value" in the first sense: "That amount of some commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else."1 According to this definition, the value of a PhD in English is not too difficult to work out quantitatively, if one incorporates English subjects within the PhD statistics for Arts and Humanities more generally (though there are ample statistics broken down by individual subjects at first degree level, to date statistics have been amalgamated into broad faculties for PhD graduates). The English Subject Centre's new "Why Study English?" website claims that potential employers are looking for "someone with motivation, intelligence, and proven ability to work."2 Aimed at A-level students considering an English degree, the website's advertisement is surely even more valid for an English PhD student, who spends self-motivated weeks in solitary study. However, is the value of an English degree really that significant? The gross additional lifetime earnings for an Arts and Humanities graduate with a first degree over a person leaving school at G.C.S.E. stage are £34, 000 (although this hardly compares well against the additional earnings, £243, 730, of an engineering graduate).3 Indeed, economist Anna Vignoles of the Institute of Education has hinted that there will soon be a surplus of Arts and Humanities graduates, and the value of their degrees is likely to fall below the cost of the tuition fees paid to obtain them; she recommended fees be varied depending on the needs of the UK economy, and that degrees most in demand should charge the lowest fees.4 At postgraduate level, too, the benefits seem far from clear-cut. With around 6 percent of PhDs in Arts and Humanities unemployed a year after completing their thesis,5 postgraduates in English will be more likely to obtain a job than if they had left with just one degree, since 8.2 percent of BAs were unemployed at the equivalent period after graduating.6 Nevertheless, it is a narrow margin, the employment rate for Arts and Humanities PhDs is falling, and in 2005 was 5 percent lower than in all other subject groups.7 Across the board of subjects the additional benefits of a postgraduate degree are up to £80, 000, and although unlike for first degree graduates there is no data on how this varies by subject at PhD level, it seems reasonable to assume that there will be comparably lower returns for PhDs in the Arts and Humanities as opposed to science, technology or engineering subjects. Additionally, in 2003 the percentage of doctoral graduates on permanent contracts was significantly lower for those in careers in the Arts and Humanities than for those with PhDs in the physical Sciences or Engineering, at 38 percent and 50 percent respectively.8 This probably reflects the way in which arts projects are funded for briefer time periods, whether this is university scholarship (such as through Fulbright or British Academy grants) or in the public sector (such as through the Heritage Lottery Fund).

Using the blunt tool of statistics, then, the case for having a PhD in Arts and Humanities as opposed to a BA does not speak for itself. Whilst of course many people will be researching simply because of their holistic interest in the subject, rather than for financial and careerist ambitions, in the current climate of Higher Education the unwelcome spectre of the second meaning of the word "value" cannot help but be raised: "The relative status of a thing, or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness, or importance." By what measure is it a good thing that an English student with three years of Arts and Humanities Research Council funding will receive around £50 000 to study literature? Would that money not be better spent on an engineer? Of course, this comparison dips into a larger, ongoing debate in relation to the "two cultures." That novelist V.S. Naipaul could recently suggest that universities should "deal in measurable truth" and teach only science, and that all English departments should close and staff could "go and work on the buses," indicates that far from reaching finality or moderation, the debate still lingers in the background of intellectual life.9 Whilst English departments naturally responded vehemently to Naipaul's comments, the clichéd response that one can do research simply for the joyful sake of it will satisfy neither taxpayers, nor Naipaul, nor the Blairite politician (it being quite hard to tabulate joy).

There are certainly more qualitative and sympathetic arguments about the value of the Arts and Humanities - and particularly English literary studies - in education and society to be made than I have attempted to put forward here, concepts Naipaul overlooked. Likewise, contrary to Naipaul's caricature there is no such thing as the monolithic practice known as science, which inevitably leads to social benefits and which therefore should be copiously funded without question, in all cases, and to the detriment of all other subjects. It would be wrong to become too coldly economical judging a discipline which deals in passions and emotion. Nevertheless, given the inevitable absence of a definitive solution to the question of the qualitative value of English studies, the problem of value in quantitative terms exists with greater intensity and infects the former, qualitative contest. This is more than just a vague epistemological issue. During research, on the personal level, most students in the Arts and Humanities will feel anxieties of this sort at some point. According to a Higher Education Funding Council for England report, completion rates in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities tend to be lower than in science subjects precisely because of the "value" issue:

Sometimes it may be difficult to identify topics which can yield substantial results through a PhD research programme [in Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities]. Completion rates for students on programmes in these subjects are not universally low, but when we take account of other factors we see that the 'subject effect' is negative compared to the natural sciences and related subjects.10

Although it is not really necessary fully to enter the "two cultures" fray as a PhD student in Arts and Humanities subjects, that is not to say that students will not benefit by learning ways to circumvent or delay a head-on confrontation with the value question at a PhD level. This can be thought of as putting the value of an arts' PhD on the credit card, rather than paying for it directly (as any student who buys books from a popular online retailer knows, this is far less painful!).

In the wake of the 2006 Leitch Report into skills, the buzzword in the corridors of university offices and of the government's new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills is "knowledge transfer."11 In its simplest terms, this means making knowledge available and accessible to those outside of the confines of the academic community, whilst bringing ideas and needs of business and industry into universities. There seems to be much hesitation about what this means in practice. Should it mean making journal publications of publically-funded research free to the public, in which case the model of peer-review might be at risk? Does it simply mean choosing and developing courses which provide employers with graduates with the skills they need at any particular time (as Anna Vignoles implies)? If it means communicating in an accessible, jargon-free way, how can this be done without dumbing-down serious scholarship?

In the remit of a PhD study, the most relevant thread from these unresolved issues is a growing requirement to communicate what researchers do, making research accessible not only to those within the research academy, but more broadly within the university context and in society as a whole. In spite of the facts and figures presented above, this may not be an idea that entirely convinces. However, even if not every arts' researcher is afflicted with the self-conscious angst of the present writer, searching for ways to respond to this meta-research dilemma can lead to alternative methodologies and modes of working that have had very positive effects on core research itself. Such benefits might not be acquired through more traditional scholastic activities - usually alone, in a library, with books and a laptop. Continuing the economic metaphor, the value problem gets deferred to credit, with intellectual cashback as a bonus. In the context of PhD research I propose two ways in which students can relatively easily mitigate against the value problem, whilst accruing new concepts and ideas that can feed back positively into research. Naturally, given my own experiences, these are directed towards those researching in English studies, but should also apply to researchers in the Arts and Humanities more generally.

The Poster

Walk down the corridors of any science department, and flickering in your peripheral vision will be posters from undergraduates, postgraduates and research staff, explaining the nature of their research. The poster acts as a way of getting research noticed when results are too provisional for a full journal paper, and also provides a bulletin board to draw people into research networks and teams. Perhaps because literary research tends to be a solipsistic activity, and perhaps because it seems an oxymoron to produce a visual poster of a subject grounded in words, posters do not seem to have caught on to the same extent in the arts, English studies in particular. Yet posters not only force one to confront the question of relevance head-on, they also offer opportunities to understand one's own research in oblique ways, perspectives which will not be gained by typing in a word processor.

At a recent poster session in which I participated, people would come up to me asking one question - "So what's all this about, then?" - and leave with a comment - "That looks interesting." This was a different sort of response to that which they made about the research displayed on the other half of my board, which promised ultra-lightweight bicycles and cars produced from carbon-nanotubes. The response to this was "That looks useful." But if I could not hope to hear the latter, the best I could hope for was that people were provoked with interest. However, if that was the positive outcome, in research terms the first question was the most significant. What is my research about? Whilst the fact that it was asked at all indicated that my poster was a first-timer's failure at making research self-evident and accessible, nevertheless the process of developing it was useful precisely because it got me to ask these sorts of questions of myself. What is my research question? What is my methodology? What is my conclusion? And, tellingly, what is the benefit? Typically, science posters divide into four areas much along these lines, and although it is not possible to represent the abstract formulations of a literature thesis in such concrete ways, they are still divisions which can be traced, fuzzily, in my research.

I am looking at the way in which metaphors of monstrosity accompany moments of paradigm shift in the sciences, both in public reactions to the new epistemologies and technologies, and in the scientists' own thinking and theorising. Writing that sentence now, it seems odd to realise that I could not have formed it a few months ago, before the poster session. Having honed so many funding proposals for a specialist audience, and having moved from the proposals to research in line with its wiry theory and jargon, I had forgotten that, essentially, this was the concept, my thesis in the most literal sense. However, it wasn't until I chose the pictorial material for my poster that I realised just how so. I found a Punch cartoon, typical of the nineteenth century, showing Darwin's bearded face atop a monkey's body; I chose Blake's engraving "Newton," which shows a mottled and thin Isaac Newton hunched over his compass; and, from the recent press, I picked a newspaper cartoon of a cow-man embryo. These pictures may not have been worth a thousand words, but they did make me realise that I could describe my thesis in six: science changes, reactions to it don't.

To represent my research visually, I came up with the idea of a "cultural cardiogram," in which two lines represented culture and science. The line for science was flat at either end (simplistically representing Thomas Kuhn's period of normal science) and in the middle was erratic, representing the moment of the paradigm shift. The line for culture lagged behind the line for science, and tracked it. Soon after Galvani prodded his frogs was a parallel spike with a quote from Frankenstein beneath it; after Darwin pondered on monstrosity and mutation in nature as evidence for evolution, a point on the cultural trace was linked to The Island of Dr. Moreau. One foundational concept of my research is the relationships between science and art are not contingent in just one direction: not only does art react to science but science is informed by culture. However, this was too abstract a theory to model visually. But this necessary simplification left me with another problem, and another cue for deeper investigation. For since the line for literature followed the line for science, and was flat at both ends, this implied to my poster viewer that literature has periods of stability and instability. Was this simply due to the fact that the form of my poster bore no resemblance to the content of my thesis? Looking at my thesis in this diagrammatic way, I realised that there are of course "paradigm shifts" in literary genre, too: Enlightenment science starts with metaphysics and ends up with empiricism, and English literature moves over the same period from metaphysics to the advent of popular gothicism (as in Frankenstein); driven by evolutionary science, the nineteenth century takes up the gothic to end up with something like modern science fiction (H.G. Wells); and science fiction in the late twentieth century merges with magic realism inspired by new sciences of relativity, chaology and neuroscience. Again, this is an over-simplification (with the whiff of Northrop Frye's outmoded taxonomies), which reduces complex and intertwined cultural concepts to a statement of hypotheses and results, which would look more in place in a paper on physics than one on literary history. Nevertheless, the poster infected my research with a germ of something which I am now developing in the more conventional but nuanced form of my written critical thesis. I am not sure I would have realised it in any other way than the visual one that this is indeed the case. Thus although my poster may not have self-evidently answered the value question, it did help to put my research on a quasi-scientific foundation, as I adapted it in response to a changing perception of the data.

The Blog

Whilst reading around the subject is something that has long been taken for granted as necessary to a literary PhD, the positives of writing around the subject have been less well emphasised. However, research students are increasingly using the blog as a way of practicing writing in a safe, informal environment, before inscribing the final copy of a thesis. For example, Craig Laughton, a Mathematics research student at Manchester, maintains the popular Gooseania blog.12 He notes that were it not for his weekly blog posts he would have become a stammering solipsist with his specialist equations for the first two years before "writing up." Although writing is the foundation of literary studies and no PhD student will lack opportunities to write, the blog can still provide a useful alternative to any of the other spaces in which writing is performed, whether notes, journal articles or the thesis.

When I write for research, I do so fully conscious that I must be technically accurate, with the complex style my specialist audience anticipates. Blog posts, however, are self-contained and must be written quickly, in response to recent events (the political situation in Lebanon, my critique of the new Simpsons' movie) rather than in response to a piece of literature considered and dissected over weeks or months. As Umberto Eco, a scholar who has long understood the personal and public benefits of writing for a popular audience, commented on his journalism:

I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them and then forget them. I don't believe there is any gap between what I write in my "academic" books and what I write in the papers.13

Eco feels that the translation between academic and popular spheres are of mutual benefit, particularly given the way in which research develops slowly as the accumulation of thought and writing. Whilst blogging may seem no different to what has long been done in discussions round pub tables or private diaries (or, if you are Umberto Eco, in newspaper columns), the difference is that by publishing immediately it forces thoughts to be framed in coherent and complete ways. Further, if at the end of a particular day it appears that you have got nothing much done other than reading (surely the least "productive" aspect of a literature PhD), then it is far easier to relax if at the start of that day you had "published" five-hundred words on the digital page.

Secondly, a blog provides a space in which to rest academic issues which might crop up, at the time apparently tangentially to research interests but then, more often than not, creeping their way back in a while later. For example, when Richard Dawkins presented his television programme Enemies of Reason, I took issue with his perspective in my blog; but although polemic has no place in a doctoral thesis (PhDs are passionless pages), six months later this post has mutated into the first paragraph of my formal research. I might not have bothered to put my original thoughts in note form, thinking them tangential to my research at that earlier stage; even if I had, given that notes will not be read by anyone else they would have been treated disrespectfully, crumbled in the cluttered cabinet of my mind or office, easily forgotten. By contrast, since the act of writing on the digital page in a structured way demands deep rather than superficial engagement, my blog post fluoresced in my mind over the months until I wrote my introduction, long after the initial light of thought had gone. Further, as readers respond to posts, this encourages an ongoing dialectic which makes filing them away impossible. Since the blog is part-way between notes and a formal essay, the entries I wrote for it stayed alive in my mind, since I actually had to get something on the digital page.

Further, as people respond to posts, this encourages an ongoing dialectic which makes filing them away and forgetting them impossible. On this note, a blog immediately opens your writing to a wider audience. Even if your blog is read by a few tens or hundreds, this will exceed the number who will read your thesis (probably not more than its two examiners and a supervisor). Academic blogs with thousands of regular readers are not uncommon, whilst quite well-focused communities of literary bloggers now use the space to debate issues in loosely affiliated research networks.14 Although in an academic context there may be drawbacks to the ephemeral and popular nature of the blog (such as one's writing in that arena being perceived by employers to evidence a lack of intellectual rigour in one's academic publications, or more seriously the threat of litigation if personal opinions are taken as reflecting one's institution) it is possible to retreat behind the veil of a pseudonym.

It is too early to say whether blogs will simply be a generic bubble. It is possible that, whilst personal blogging may hit a peak, blogging will remain a vital output of traditional media organisations (such as The Guardian blog network or the BBC editors' blogs), offering established reporters a mechanism for expressing instinctive and personal reactions to the news and getting feedback from readers. It has a similar potential when tied to academia. Whilst the lone blogger may be a voice in the wind, when linked to the holistic activity of departments and universities personal blogs can provide a powerful way of reaching a readership who might otherwise not know about research, both in terms of the public and as part of an interdisciplinary agenda within the university. Recognising this, organisations such as the British Library and Oxford University have already started experimenting with a presence in virtual worlds such as Second Life; for individual academics, a blog provides a less daunting bridge between the closed pages of an academic article and the soap box.

Conclusion

Neither producing posters, nor keeping a blog, are sufficient in themselves to present a case for the English PhD in the terms of value as I have laid them out here. Conversely, there are certainly more sincere, reasoned and impassioned arguments to be made for the place of literary studies in the academy, and in relation to wider society, arguments that involve a more ephemeral notion of "value" than my cold and calculating one. However, if I have focused too intently on the economics of value, this is only because this is precisely the sort of focus taken by policy makers and, increasingly, by funding councils. PhD students may be at the tail end of a debate, but it is nevertheless worth considering the implications for the "value" problem now, if only because that question is one all students will be asked at some point in their studies, whether at a party or networking with researchers in other faculties. At this point, it would be tempting to put the Arts and Humanities up against the Sciences, to suggest that it is precisely because the value of English (or most arts) PhDs is non-quantifiable as opposed to the hard facts produced by the sciences that it is worthwhile. This seems to be a flimsy case, and risks regressing to the old "science wars" of the 1990s, which did little to challenge the social implications of unfettered scientific advances whilst ironically undercutting the postmodern vein of cultural scholarship. Rather than setting the Arts against the Sciences, it is best to seek out ways of presenting Arts and Humanities PhDs in a more attractive light and, though this requires accepting one of the jargon terms of the moment, "knowledge transfer," this is nevertheless a worthwhile exercise for all early-stage researchers.

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Footnotes

  1. "Value," The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989. [Back to text]

  2. "Job Skills: But All I Can Do Is Read," Why Study English, 2007, The English Subject Centre, 14 Apr. 2008 <http://www.whystudyenglish.ac.uk/you-can/index.htm>. [Back to text]

  3. Universities UK, Research Report: The Economic Benefits of a Degree, 7 Feb. 2007, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/downloads/research-gradprem.pdf>. [Back to text]

  4. Louise Radnofsky, "'Surplus' in Arts May Spur Shakeout," Times Higher Education, 7 Sept. 2007, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=310347>. [Back to text]

  5. Sara Shinton, "What Do PhDs Do? 2004 Analysis of First Destinations for PhD Graduates," UK Grad, 2004, The UK Grad Programme, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.grad.ac.uk/downloads/wdpd.pdf>. [Back to text]

  6. Ibid. [Back to text]

  7. Karen Haynes and Janet Metcalf, "What Do PhDs Do? - Trends. Commentary on 2004-2006 Surveys of PhD Graduates: Key Changes and First Destination Trends," UK Grad, 2007, Career's Research and Advisory Centre, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.grad.ac.uk/downloads/documents/WDPD/WDPD_trends_pdf.pdf>. [Back to text]

  8. Shinton, "What Do PhDs Do?" [Back to text]

  9. Melanie Newman, "Close English Departments for Benefit of Nation, Says Naipaul," Times Higher Education, 31 Aug. 2007, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=310315>. [Back to text]

  10. United Kingdom, Higher Education Funding Council for England, PhD Research Degrees: Entry and Completion, Jan. 2005, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2005/05_02/05_02.pdf>. [Back to text]

  11. United Kingdom, Department for Enterprise and Skills, Leitch Review of Skills: Prosperity for All in the Global Economy - World Class Skills (Norwich: HMSO, 2006) 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.dfes.gov.uk/furthereducation/uploads/documents/2006-12%20LeitchReview1.pdf>. [Back to text]

  12. Craig Laughton, Gooseania, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://gooseania.blogspot.com/>. [Back to text]

  13. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt, 1990) x. [Back to text]

  14. See, for example, The Valve: A Literary Organ, ed. John Holbo and Scott Eric Kaufman, 13 Apr. 2009, 14 Apr. 2009 <http://www.thevalve.org/>. [Back to text]

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This page was published on April 15, 2009 | Keywords: English PhD, posters, blogs, two cultures

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