Category Archives: Higher Ed

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 #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.

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.

Now available: Report and data from SCI’s survey on career prep and graduate education

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab website]

I am delighted to announce the release of a report, executive summary, data, and slides from the Scholarly Communication Institute’s recent study investigating perceptions of career preparation provided by humanities graduate programs. The study focused on people with advanced degrees in the humanities who have pursued alternative academic careers. Everything is CC-BY, so please read, remix, and share. I’d especially welcome additional analysis on the datasets.

All of the materials are openly accessible through the University of Virginia’s institutional repository:

(Note that the files available for download are listed in the top left-hand corner of each Libra listing.)

Having worked on this for over a year, I’m more convinced than ever about the importance of incorporating public engagement and collaboration into humanities doctoral education—not only to help equip emerging scholars for a variety of career outcomes, but also to maintain a healthy, vibrant, and rigorous field. It has been fascinating to connect with scholars working in such a diverse range of stimulating careers, and to see some of the patterns in their experiences.

Many, many thanks to everyone who has contributed time and energy to this project—from completing the survey, to reading (or listening to) the preliminary reports, to providing feedback and critique.

MLA14 Roundtable on the Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and In Public

I’m delighted to announce that our proposed roundtable on the Praxis Network has been accepted for the 2014 MLA Convention. Here are the details:

Session Proposal
How can humanities programs better equip students for a wider range of careers, without sacrificing the core values or approaches of the disciplines? While not new, the question becomes more urgent as public funding for the humanities shrinks and the proportion of contingent faculty grows. Rather than see these pressures as threats, however, many programs see in them an opportunity to develop vibrant programs that take a broader view of possible methodological approaches, research products, and desirable career outcomes.

The participants in this proposed roundtable are all members of the Praxis Network, a new international partnership of graduate and undergraduate programs that are making effective interventions in the traditional models of humanities pedagogy and research. They represent programs that are embarking upon collaborative, interdisciplinary, project-based approaches to humanities education.

Continue Reading MLA14 Roundtable on the Praxis Network: Rethinking Humanities Education, Together and In Public

Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab site.]

I’ve had the privilege of talking about graduate education reform and career preparation for humanities scholars at several universities this spring, including Stanford, NYU, and the University of Delaware. I’ve adapted the following from those presentations. The full dataset from the study that I discuss will be available later this summer, along with a more formal report. A PDF of this post is available here.

Already familiar with the background of this project? Jump straight to the survey results.

HumanitiesUnbound_APR13.001 Image source

Graduate students in the humanities thinking about their future careers face a fundamental incongruity: though humanities scholars thrive in a wide range of positions, many graduate programs operate as though every PhD student will become a tenured professor. While the disconnect between the number of tenure-track jobs available and the single-minded focus with which graduate programs prepare students for that specific career is not at all new, the problem is becoming ever more urgent due to the increasing casualization of academic labor, as well as the high levels of debt that many students bear once they complete their degrees.

Continue Reading Humanities Unbound: Careers & Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track

Announcing the Praxis Network!

I am thrilled to announce the launch of the Praxis Network, a new partnership of graduate and undergraduate programs that emphasize innovative models of methodological training and collaborative research. I see the Praxis Network as a counterpart to the survey work that I’ve been doing—an illustration of a few of the kinds of programs that are making effective interventions in the traditional models of humanities pedagogy and research and preparing their students for a wider range of careers. The goals of each unique program are student-focused, digitally-inflected, interdisciplinary, and frequently oriented around collaborative projects.

Read all about it on the Scholars’ Lab site.

Works in progress: Survey results, Praxis Network

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab blog]

This spring marks a new phase for my work with SCI. Data collection for the survey on career paths is complete, and analysis is underway, meaning that the next step will be much more focused on sharing outcomes. In some ways, this is a less comfortable step in the process for me (nerves! public speaking!), but also an exciting and satisfying one.

I’m honored to be giving several invited talks over the next few months:

All talks are open to the public, so please come if you’re in the area! I’d love to see friendly faces, and I’m very much hoping for dynamic discussion at each event.
Continue Reading Works in progress: Survey results, Praxis Network

Rebooting Graduate Training: An MLA Roundtable

Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog.

I gave the following talk at the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston as part of an excellent roundtable organized by Paul Fyfe, who has also collected a number of resources in a Zotero library. The wide-ranging presentations sparked many thoughtful questions that I hope will lead to continued discussion about the ways that graduate training could be modified for the good of students, the discipline, and the public. Some of the slides are taken from my earlier presentation on SCI’s survey on career paths for humanities PhDs (a full report of which will be available later this year).

Rebooting Grad Ed_COPY.001

Continue Reading Rebooting Graduate Training: An MLA Roundtable