Writing (into) the Academic Past, Present, and Future: Graduate Students, Curriculum Reform, and Doctoral Education in English Studies

By Burmester, Beth | Composition Studies, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Writing (into) the Academic Past, Present, and Future: Graduate Students, Curriculum Reform, and Doctoral Education in English Studies


Burmester, Beth, Composition Studies


Stephen M. North. Refiguring the Ph.D. in English Studies: Writing, Doctoral Education, and The Fusion-- Based Curriculum. Refiguring English Studies Series. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. (With Barbara Chepaitis, David Coogan, Lale Davidson, Ron MacLean, Cindy L. Parrish, Jonathan Post and Beth Weatherby.)

In the 1989 film, When Harry Met Sally, thirty-something Harry confesses one of his vices to his best friend Sally: due to his fear of death, whenever he begins reading a new book, he always flips to the back to read the last page, so just in case the inevitable occurs, he will die with the knowledge that he knows how the story ends.1 On the last page (of Chapter 10) in Stephen North's Refiguring the Ph.D. in English Studies, the story is just starting; it is a story both promising and provocative. While the focus largely centers on the example of SUNY-Albany's doctoral program in "Writing, Teaching, and Criticism" (in fact roughly half the book's ten chapters involve the curriculum and graduate student writing at Albany), these illustrations are in support of a proposal with wide-reaching implications for the whole field. And this is all the more obvious when the last page is read first: here, North, on behalf of himself and his collaborators (former and present Albany graduate students), asserts that "the key to power in English Studies-its conservative linchpin-is doctoral education," so that it is necessary to "mak[e] doctoral student writing one of the primary means by which this refiguring of the Ph.D. will be brought about" (260). Doctoral education fits into "a cycle of disciplinary perpetuation" (xv), and the means of this reproduction is writing. Because "doctoral students must write their way into English Studies," North proposes that, "[a]ny serious effort to alter graduate education in the discipline... must be grounded in a refiguring of the role that writing plays in such education" (xv). For these reasons, North and his collaborators urge faculty to consider how "the power in doctoral education in turn lies in what students (are allowed to) write" since this writing "most powerfully determines who [graduate students] are and/or can be in disciplinary and professional terms" (261). Based on this belief, he offers a solution to the crisis now facing doctoral education: "Ultimately, then, and not at all surprisingly, I rest most of my hopes for any help English Studies might get in refiguring the Ph.D. on the shoulders of the field's doctoral students" (248). And it is this conviction that drives the inclusion and analysis of graduate student writing, both to show its value to the profession, and to reveal the potential work that could be accomplished if writing forms and occasions were reconceived. But I am now getting ahead of myself; let's return to the beginning-the beginning of the book, and of the story. In this review, I have put North's proposals into the context of other scholarship on graduate education in order to trace a full picture of what we say and know about ourselves, and how we have come to hold these views.

The book itself is structured into three parts: a history of American doctoral education from 1876-1989, a portrait of Albany's Ph.D. program reflected through examples and analysis of graduate student writing, and his suggestions for the future, which focus on a "fusion" model that differs from the field's past and present.2 While each section is thoroughly researched and detailed, roughly half the book is devoted to discussion of the Albany program and curriculum, including lengthy excerpts from response papers, exams, and dissertations.

By way of introducing his view of the history of doctoral education in English departments, North observes how little scholarship has been conducted to date that examines English's "efforts at doctoral education," despite the prevalence of institutional histories.3 Even when books do appear, they focus on "programmatic commentary," which is concerned generally with "the problem of the Ph.

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