Join us for “What Is a Dissertation?”

[Cross-posted on HASTAC]

This Friday’s #remixthediss event will be a great way to end an exhilarating first week at CUNY. I’m looking forward to hearing about our panelists’ innovative dissertation projects, and to discussing questions, ideas, and other models with everyone who attends in person and virtually. It’s amazing to have all of this coming together while I’m still feeling my way through a new place, getting to know new colleagues, and figuring out new systems.

My own dissertation experience was about as analog as it gets. New to New York City and far from my own department in Colorado, I wrote much of it in the serenity of NYPL’s Rose Reading Room. Whenever I finished a chapter, I’d print it and mail it to my dissertation advisor, who would mark it up with questions and comments and mail it back to me. I managed my research materials with Zotero, but that was about it in terms of digital tools.

Perhaps because my own project was so traditional, I love hearing about the creative ways that graduate students are presenting their research. I learned so much in the process of writing a traditional dissertation, but the most important elements had little to do with the format of the final product. I often wonder how I might approach the project if I were starting my dissertation now—I suspect it would look quite different, even though only a few years have passed since my own graduate work.

Taking a creative approach to presenting new knowledge can foster a much deeper learning experience, since it requires constant evaluation of a wider range of variables. Moreover, digital projects on the open web can reach a wider audience than most traditional dissertations, resulting in more engagement, discussion, and refinement. The challenges of completing a dissertation that takes an unusual form can be significant, but for those getting started, there are models and resources that offer invaluable guidance and lessons learned. For instance, the Graduate Center Digital Fellows have developed a terrific resource page, Amanda Visconti is documenting each step of her own digital dissertation process, and the MLA offers Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Work.

Even if you can’t join us at the Graduate Center in person, we hope you’ll participate virtually. Check out the live stream from 4-5:30pm EST on Friday, October 10, or participate on Twitter using the hashtag #remixthediss. Hope to see you there!

New Horizons

I am incredibly excited to announce that I will soon be joining the Graduate Center at CUNY as Deputy Director of the Futures Initiative and HASTAC@CUNY. The initiative, directed by Cathy Davidson, aims to develop innovative models for graduate education that will stimulate institutional change while also empowering the current generation of graduate students—which is to say, the next generation of professors, leaders, and agents of change.

The opportunity to help shape this initiative is exciting and a little daunting. The Graduate Center will be an amazing place to think through questions of the future of higher education not only because of the extraordinary work being done there, but also because, as a huge public university in a distributed urban setting, it offers a particularly interesting vantage point on systemic issues such as public support for and access to higher education. It also presents an opportunity to investigate critical questions related to labor practices given that, as is true nationwide, contingent faculty members shoulder an ever-greater proportion of undergraduate teaching duties. Finding a sustainable and equitable way forward is essential to a strong future for higher education. I look forward to thinking through the ways in which all of these questions intersect.

This good news carries with it mixed emotions, since I will miss working with my colleagues at the MLA, from whom I have learned so much. I have deeply valued my time working there. MLA Commons has made great strides since its launch, thanks to member feedback, our outstanding technical team, and the strong leadership of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Rosemary Feal. The decision to take this new opportunity has been a difficult one. I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with the MLA in their tireless efforts to support the work of humanities scholars and the overall health of the discipline.

The Futures Initiative is in its early stages, so I’ll be doing a great deal of listening and learning as I get started. Watch this space to see the ideas and questions I’m thinking through in this new role, and join the open Futures Initiative group on HASTAC to take part in the conversation!

New #Alt-Academy section on graduate training

Since its launch in 2011, #Alt-Academy has provided a space for scholars working in and around the academy to explore and describe the relationship of our work to the broader ecosystem of higher education. Now, under the leadership of co-editors Melissa Dalgleish and Daniel Powell, #Alt-Academy will begin a more focused exploration of the role of graduate education in a changing scholarly environment. In their words, the new section, Graduate Training in the 21st Century, “focuses on the challenges, the potential, and the pragmatics of the graduate school years that precede the move into one of many academies.” Read more about the project and consider submitting an essay for the first cluster, Beyond the Proto-Monograph: New Models for the Dissertation.

Announcing a New Phase for #Alt-Academy

I’m incredibly pleased to announce that I’ve begun work as coordinating editor of #Alt-Academy, where I’ll be building on the work of Bethany Nowviskie and the 32 authors who contributed to the site’s inaugural collection of essays. Nowviskie launched the first iteration of the site in 2011, when the term “alt-ac” was just gaining traction as a useful shorthand to describe the kinds of intellectually satisfying careers that many humanities scholars pursue in and around academic institutions.

The conversation has evolved a great deal since then. There’s new data available about the kinds of work people are doing and the career preparation they’ve had; scholarly societies like the AHA and the MLA are investing resources in additional data collection and programmatic recommendations, not to mention hosting discussions at their annual conferences; and the term itself has become both more commonly used and more hotly contested.

All of these things are signs of a maturing discussion. When the term “alt-ac” was coined, it appealed to many because our collective vocabulary lacked a term for the kinds of work it suggested—work that built on their scholarly training and perhaps contributed to the larger academic system without being a teaching- or research-focused job in a university. The label itself is not particularly important. What matters is the discussion about the careers humanities scholars pursue, and the ways that discussion can inform the structure of graduate programs so that they better support students across a broader range of employment outcomes.

With the conversation evolving, it’s only fitting that #Alt-Academy should undergo some changes as well. In addition to the change in editorship, we’re making the first volume of essays available for download as an e-book. We’ll also be publishing new content more regularly, beginning with a new cluster of essays edited by Brian Croxall, called Looking for Signposts. Watch for this cluster—and others—to grow in the year ahead as we continue to publish new material. And if you want to get involved as an author or cluster editor, we’re always looking for fresh ideas! Here’s how to contribute.

Thanks to everyone who has helped to make this site what it is. I look forward to exploring where the conversation goes from here.

On graduate education reform and program size

At this year’s MLA convention, I had the privilege of participating in a number of sessions related to graduate education reform and career paths for humanities scholars. Now that the flurry of convention activity has passed, I’d like to expand on the brief remarks that I made at one such panel, “Who Benefits? Competing Agendas and Ethics in Graduate Education” (#s471).

While graduate program enrollment rates were not the primary focus of the panel, the subsequent conversation about the session has largely circled around the question of whether graduate programs should shrink in order to improve the career prospects of PhDs. As I noted in my remarks, I agree that admitting fewer PhD students to existing programs may improve the support and funding provided to graduate students. However, it isn’t clear that reducing program size will by itself significantly improve tenure-track placement rates. I came to hold these views while working for the the Scholarly Communication Institute, where I conducted a broad-based survey of humanities scholars who self-identified as working in “alternative academic” careers.

As I mentioned in the session, graduate programs have a responsibility to be much more transparent about career outcomes prior to admitting new students and throughout their students’ course of study. Too many students are still completely blindsided by the realities of the academic job market—which remains the primary goal for many as they enter their graduate studies. On this blog and elsewhere 1 I have advocated reimagining graduate programs so that students have a clearer understanding of likely employment outcomes and are better prepared for the full range of career possibilities that they might pursue. In fact, these kinds of innovative programs were the central focus of another panel that I organized for the 2014 convention, “Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and in Public” (#s599, which Esther Rawson has documented in this Storify).

Among the many reasons I think we must do more than simply reduce program size if we hope to improve the employment prospects for graduates are the following:

  1. Staffing decisions are not tied to the number of graduating PhDs. The cost-cutting measure of using more and more contingent faculty members can and does operate independently of the number of PhDs on the market. Contingent faculty members frequently hold MAs, so having fewer PhDs available will not significantly change the available labor pool. (According to the 2012 report of the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 40.2% of contingent faculty members hold the MA as their highest degree, while 30.4% hold the PhD.)
  2. Other kinds of career paths are satisfying options for many PhD holders, and encouraging humanities scholars to engage more deeply in other sectors—in and around the academy, as well as in not-for-profits, government, and businesses—can be healthy for our society. I also think that more varied employment and engagement can create a positive feedback loop back into the academy, increasing the importance of publicly relevant research, writing, and teaching. Therefore, trying to reach a one-to-one equilibrium between graduates and tenure-track jobs may be not only counterproductive, but also undesirable.

We need graduate education reform, not a preservation of the status quo, as I hope I make clear throughout my work on the topic. But the reform must go beyond simply reducing program size, which on its own may not significantly improve employment prospects or reduce the reliance on contingent labor. Rethinking curricula with an eye toward collaboration and public engagement, tracking and celebrating the varied career outcomes of graduates, advocating for fair working conditions for all faculty members, and exploring ways to better support graduate students both during and after their studies are key elements in moving toward systemic improvements.

1. See for instance the full report and data from the survey I referenced in my talk; another talk I have given on the same subject; and write-ups of my work in The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle (1, 2).

Complexity of adjuncts’ working situations

My friend Erin recently asked on Twitter what I thought about Matt Bruenig’s post on adjuncts. I realized I had more to say than just a tweet or two, so here are a few quick reflections on the post:

  1. Data use: The data Bruenig is responding to is from 2004—nearly a decade ago. I would be extremely hesitant to draw conclusions about today’s landscape from this data, when both higher education and the overall economy have undergone major changes in the intervening years. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce’s data (pdf) would be a better place to start. (The sample is smaller, but the data’s more recent, having been collected in 2010.)
  2. Desirability of part-time work status: One of the things that complicates advocacy for contingent labor conditions are the range of career goals of the people in part-time faculty positions. Pushing to convert all contingent positions to full-time, non-tenure roles would be an undesirable outcome for many. The reasons a full-time position might not be desirable are varied—some people have other careers, as Bruenig highlights, while others have family or personal considerations that make full-time work difficult or impossible. Still, in the CAW data, more than 70% of respondents indicate that they would probably or definitely accept a full-time, tenure-track position at their institution if that were a possibility.
  3. Adjuncting as secondary employment: Bruenig highlights cases in which adjuncts teach courses in addition to what they consider to be their primary employment. This may be normal in some disciplines (Bruenig cites business and education), but it is far from typical in the humanities, where many cobble together adjunct positions as their sole means of employment. A lack of benefits (like health care coverage) isn’t a major issue for people who hold a primary career outside of academe, but it is a huge concern for those who don’t have another means of support. Further, the CAW data paints a different portrait, with a majority of respondents reporting an annual personal income below $35,000.
  4. High average family income: To me, this suggests the importance of an alternate source of income, benefits, and stability for adjuncts. Teaching university courses as one’s primary employment should not require the privilege of a well-compensated spouse.

Admittedly, the complexities surrounding adjunct employment make it difficult to generalize, and measures that improve working conditions for some may be undesirable for others. Still, as the academic labor equation continues to shift toward increasing reliance on contingent faculty, it’s essential to work toward supporting working conditions that promote student learning and effective research outcomes—which means stable employment, reasonable compensation and benefits, and a voice in governance.

Winding down; gearing up

I’m on the cusp of transition: My 18-month term at SCI and the Scholars’ Lab ends today, and in a couple weeks I’ll begin my new role with the Modern Language Association as managing editor for MLA Commons (with a vacation in between, happily!).

Transitions are always a good time for reflection, and there are a few reasons why this one is particularly important for me. Taking the position with SCI was a bit of a risk, albeit a calculated one: I left a full-time job with excellent benefits (and no end date) in favor of a short-term position where I’d be the only person working remotely. Of course, the Scholars’ Lab and SCI are good horses to bet on; I had long admired their work and the people involved, and suspected that in addition to being an outstanding opportunity to work on complex problems and innovative solutions in the world of humanities higher education, the role would also help me to grow a great deal and eventually transition into a long-term career path that would excite me.

Really, though, I had no idea how much I would learn, how much the role would push me, and how impassioned I would become about the questions that we worked on. I’ve posted before about some of the skills I’ve developed during my stint here, from basic tech skills (UNIX, GitHub, HTML, CSS, a little JavaScript and Ruby—this is a lot, considering that even working with a remote server was new to me), to survey development and data analysis, to learning how to talk to the press and engage with the public in more meaningful ways. I always cared deeply about the challenges that graduate students face when thinking about their future, but this position has helped me to develop a much more nuanced understanding of the issues, challenges, and opportunities in the current higher education climate.

It’s bittersweet to say goodbye to my time at the Scholars’ Lab. Aside from the rewarding professional nature of the job, it has also been a ton of fun. I’ll miss my colleagues, even if I saw them mostly in IRC and Skype. I’ll also miss the grad students; it was a delight to see their brilliant work and careful thinking develop through the course of their time in the Praxis Program. And I’ll miss the silliness, too. [ADDENDUM: More heartwarming silliness!]

And yet, I am so incredibly excited to be stepping into my new role at the MLA. I’ll again be working with people I admire and respect, this time on a new platform within a longstanding organization—at a crossroads of experimentation and stability. I’m looking forward to working on the next stages of MLA Commons, and am particularly enthusiastic about the move toward interdisciplinary collaboration that will come of the development of a new Humanities Commons. I’m also looking forward to finding new ways to keep working on graduate education reform, particularly with an eye toward broader career paths for humanities scholars.

So watch for more here as I dive into new waters!