Category Archives: MLA

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).

Big news: I’m joining the MLA!

I am delighted to announce that, following my term with the Scholarly Communication Institute, I’ll be joining the Modern Language Association as Managing Editor of the MLA Commons.

The new role begins in September, which seems far away, but the months will undoubtedly fly by. I’m in the enviable position of wanting to linger in my current position while also looking forward to the next. As many of you know, my position with SCI came with an expiration date; like many grant-funded jobs, this one runs out when the grant concludes. Were that not the case, I would have loved to keep working with Bethany Nowviskie and the team at the Scholars’ Lab; it is a wonderful place, with brilliant colleagues, smart, creative graduate students, and a constant stream of new ideas. It has been a privilege to work with them; I’ve learned an incredible amount in the past year, and the people at the Scholars’ Lab are a big reason why.

But if I do have to move along, I cannot think of a better place to land than working with Kathleen Fitzpatrick at the MLA. (I know, I’m incredibly lucky to have such phenomenal bosses and mentors.) I’ll be responsible for much of the editorial work and community building related to the brand-new MLA Commons. So please, start using it now if you haven’t already, so that I have a wealth of material to work with when I come on board! As you might imagine, I’ll be thinking a lot about how the Commons might best serve not only its existing active members, but also people in alternative academic careers. I’ll also be thinking about the potential for cross-disciplinary collaboration as the Commons matures.

Between now and September, I have a lot of work to do: I am continuing to work on the analysis and reporting of SCI’s recent survey on career preparation for humanities scholars; SCI is convening one more meeting on each of our two main topics (new models of scholarly production and reforming humanities graduate education); and we’re starting to think about future directions for the newly-launched Praxis Network. Watch for more on all of those things in the months ahead. In addition, I’ll have a couple of fun “firsts”: I’ll be attending DHSI (for a course on visual design! I’m terribly excited) and giving a long paper at my first Digital Humanities conference (here’s the program, hot off the presses). It’s an exciting time for me; I never could have predicted any of this a couple of years ago, and I’m looking forward to seeing what unfolds down the road.