some keywords from last semester’s discussions of doctoral studies: synthesis

Spending a semester with students entering PhD programs in Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric/Composition was both interesting and difficult for me because I struggled to find language for our activities that could serve for all three groups, each of which had distinct orientations towards writing, research, and teaching.

Throughout the term, even designating the class as a whole, or addressing the different groups that comprised it, was a challenge: was English studies in any sense a discipline, with discrete sub-disciplinary groups?  were we three distinct disciplines?  two research-oriented disciplines joined with an arts program? And so forth.  These answers varied, too, depending on whether we were comparing groups internally or externally.

One of my “solutions” (which of course only deferred these problems) was to begin the semester with Bruce McComiskey’s English Studies, which offered a narrative of a loosely disciplinary English studies that comprehended the various groups, but to pair it Tony Becher’s Academic Tribes and Territories, which described university life as a kind of organized chaos of competing disciplinary cultures and sub-cultures.  The advantage of Becher’s more “anthropological” approach, I learned, was that it showed that the hierarchical and boundary relations, as the source of both conflicts and institutional power, were the focus of everyone’s attention, and constituted the battleground in the usual Hobbesean war of all against all in the contemporary university.

One of the terms that came up repeatedly was synthesis, the combination of different elements to create new wholes.  Though it seems that each group maintained its own professional version of synthesis, it seemed to me that the literary studies group had the most institutional investment in a deliberate, closely monitored process of synthesis of one’s research and reading.

This heavy emphasis on synthesis to me seemed to be the most plausible rationale for practices like the comprehensive exams and the dissertation, which remain the transformational moments in grad education for lit students (different kinds of exams and expectations surround the other groups at these stages).

It also seemed to me that both periodization and close reading offer very distinctive forms of synthesis for lit studies. To use Shulman’s term, these are “signature pedagogies” whose rationale remains often unclear to students until they reach more advanced stages of reading and research. And, of course, it is precisely this kind of synthesis that we forget we have learned when we teach novices or address others from other academic subcultures, even if those are found in “our” departments.


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