I attended my first Three Minute Thesis competition last week – or rather, a very small portion of last week. Is it absurd to be surprised how brief such a competition turns out to be? Each graduate student has just three minutes, their voice and a PowerPoint slide to introduce their research. It was fun to see how the students responded to the challenge. And yet, while I appreciate that the competition encourages students to develop their communication skills and improve their ability to explain their work to non-specialists, part of me felt uneasy that I was giving these smart young people no more time to describe the important and complicated research that is the focus of their present existence than I keep conditioner in my hair.
But 3MT – the name inevitably compressed – is symbolic of the time pressure of modern life. We live in an age of efficiency, of shortened attention spans, of elevator pitches. Corresponding to time pressure is a “text pressure” that shrinks written communication shorter and shorter. This is the age of text messages, Tumblr and Twitter, after all (and brevity is the soul of Twitter).
Text and time pressures permeate the academy today, calling into question how much we should expect our students to read and write. For example, my course reading lists have shrunk somewhat over the past 15 years as I came to the conclusion that two shorter articles read by the whole class (OK, most – OK, some of the class) make for a better seminar than three or four ones read unevenly. Other professors are holding the line, but is that actually translating to more read, let alone more understood? TL;DR, as the kids say: too long; didn’t read.
Such matters affect the whole structure of academic life. My university funds the first four years of the doctoral program in the belief that the vast majority of PhDs should complete within that period. But that can be very difficult to achieve in practice: in my field, after coursework, comprehensive exams and archival work often in foreign countries, it is quite common for a student not to begin seriously writing their dissertation until sometime in the fourth year.
Disciplines bear their own responsibility; some fields’ dissertations may be prolonged because they are overlong. I used our library system to track the 10 most recently completed PhDs in each of the departments in my faculty and found that the average size ranged from 314 numbered pages in history to 149 in economics. This did not take into account a lot of things, including what might be called a discipline’s textual intensity, but it was hard not to notice that some departments produced dissertations as long as two others put together.
But if my department were to consider shortening the PhD, it should be aware that it has already been doing so. Looking at the page-length of every history PhD that Western has ever produced, beginning in 1968, I discovered that the trend line has moved steadily downward from an average of about 480 numbered pages to about 320 over that time, a decline of one-third. Whereas almost 40 percent of all history dissertations have run over 400 pages, only 10 percent of the most recent third have. Text and time pressure has been with us for some time.
I worry where the university is headed: Office minutes? Assigned skimmings? Dissertationellas? Essays measured in tweet-counts? (“Discuss this Russian novel of 140 characters in fewer than 140 characters.”) For some, it can’t come soon enough. I am friends with a young scholar who tweets acerbically about how many more people read his blog than his peer-reviewed work, the disconnect between effort and audience. And he is not wrong. But a focus solely on the number of readers misses the point. An academic work may get more deep reading and may ultimately endure longer because its length allows it to offer a richer contribution to knowledge. When I provide more detailed events and analysis when writing History, it’s in part for my immediate argument, but it’s also to make the most of the chance to portray more of the past more fully. Sometimes more is more.
As a young scholar I assumed I would be a book guy whose career would be measured in ISBNs. But talented at multitasking – a.k.a. easily sidetracked – look, a bunny! – I found myself to be an article guy, their length better-suited to my professorial life. Just as the perfect is the enemy of the good, the short is the enemy of the long. This column hasn’t helped. But I finally feel I am heading back into book mode, and as the rest of civilization’s writing gets shorter and shorter, mine is getting longer. TS;WW: too short; won’t write.