Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Updates, abstracts, and more

Stylized book title and author name

I’m delighted to share that Putting the Humanities PhD to Work is in production at Duke University Press, and should be out in the world in time for Fall 2020! It has a fresh new subtitle (Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom), and a structure that has been much improved thanks to thoughtful comments and questions by generous peer reviewers.

In addition, our team at the Futures Initiative is using ideas in the book as a starting point for what I think will be an exciting nationwide conference in Spring 2020. This conference, Graduate Education at Work in the World, aims to collectively imagine and redesign graduate education to support students, scholarship, and the public good. If you’re interested in these topics, please consider submitting a session proposal (by Oct 21, 2019) or joining us in NYC on April 30-May 1, 2020. Graduate Fellow Cihan Tekay (Anthropology) will be leading much of the conference development, and I’m so excited to be a part of the conversations that emerge.

What has become incredibly clear to me, both through writing the book and now through the process of developing the conference, is how important it is to embed any discussion about career pathways in a broader context of the values and structures of higher education. Even when a university has deeply-held values about its purpose and mission (such as supporting the public good), those values can easily be undermined by inequitable structures. I think a crucial starting point for reform is finding where the tensions are between values and structures, as those points of friction often illuminate tacit values that work against the university’s goals.

These are the kinds of difficult questions that are woven throughout the book. It will be released by late summer 2020, and I hope it will be useful to graduate students, faculty, and administrators alike. Read on for an updated table of contents and abstracts:

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Powerpoint slide with the title Putting the PhD to Work for the Public Good

Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

I recently had the privilege of giving a joint keynote address at the Big XII Teaching and Learning Conference at the University of Texas, Austin, together with Adashima Oyo, doctoral student in social welfare, a graduate fellow in the Futures Initiative, and the director of HASTAC Scholars. Our goal in giving the talk was to situate the push for career preparation for doctoral students in a broader context of graduate education reform, including issues such as equity, inclusion, labor practices, and more.

Here’s the description we provided for the program:

Doctoral education opens doors to engaging and often unexpected pathways, with opportunities for significant public impact—an essential element of reinvesting in higher education as a public good. And yet, in many cases, faculty careers remain the default expectation. A number of programs are working to broaden students’ professional horizons, but it is not enough to talk about professional development in isolation.

The effort to prepare graduate students for careers beyond the classroom is most effective when it is embedded in a comprehensive discussion of the academic prestige economy, equity and inclusion, labor practices, and definition of scholarship. By providing thoughtful mentorship, material and intellectual resources, and flexible curricular and project design that considers the full landscape of graduate education today, faculty and administrators enable doctoral students to translate their skills and knowledge for different audiences and to conduct scholarly research that matters to their communities.

I’m sharing my part of the talk here. It contains some ideas that I’m still working through and hope to explore in more depth in future talks and writing. (Our complete slides are also available at bit.ly/big12tlc-phdtowork.)

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The problem with prestige

I recently had the honor of speaking alongside brilliant public scholars Jessie Daniels and Alex Gil at an NYC event hosted by the University of Edinburgh. The event, which was organized by (also brilliant!) Karen Gregory, Melissa Terras, Sian Bayne, and their Edinburgh colleagues, carried a daunting title: What is the future of the University? Teaching, learning, and research in a time of crisis. Karen asked each of us to prepare a brief “provocation.” I spoke about the problem with prestige, and about the challenge of moving from a competitive, prestige-oriented model of higher education to one that builds from (and creates) abundance, joy, and a sense of possibility. This was a very quick talk, and one intended to spark questions rather than provide answers. I’m sharing here an edited version of my remarks, as this is a topic I would like to continue exploring in my work—in my writing and speaking, and in my capacity as an administrator.

***

When I think of the future of the university, I think specifically of the future of the university as a public good. With that lens in mind, I would argue that one of the most fundamental (and under-discussed) issues in thinking about the future of the university is the question of prestige.

The prestige economy of higher education is often something that is a tacit undercurrent that propels and silently shapes both personal and structural decisions. From selecting a research topic, to student and faculty recruitment, to broader questions of institutional investment in particular programs or fields, there is nearly always an awareness of how such decisions will affect the relative prestige of the scholar, department, or university. That this would be the case seems impossible to change; it is part of “the way things are.”

But the pursuit and glorification of prestige has a deep impact on the way we do our work. For that reason, all of us who are invested in higher education must be willing to look directly at the role of prestige in academia, and to think critically about what constitutes scholarly or academic success. Until we are able to think more expansively about that, it will be very difficult to make headway on meaningful reform efforts, whether those efforts are centered on diversity and inclusion, labor issues, reinvesting in teaching, broader career pathways, or anything else.

A little bit about where I’m coming from: I co-direct a program that focuses in part on innovation, but not in the way it is typically framed. The Futures Initiative emphasizes innovation in service of equity in higher education, a positioning that upends the question of prestige and the usual gloss of educational technology to instead center equity and the public good. I also have a book in the works with Duke University Press called Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, which focuses on how to create broader career pathways for humanities scholars, and why that effort matters.

What I have seen is that when people have space to work differently, the results can be absolutely amazing. The undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members who work with the Futures Initiative do so outside of the structures of their departments, and have freedom and flexibility to explore ways that their work and ideas connect with other fields, and how they might apply to big societal questions. Grad students in our program run a series called “The University Worth Fighting For” that tackles a wide range of issues related to higher ed, and gives students a way to think really expansively about their work and how it can have an impact in the world. We also have a number of peer and near-peer relationships structured into the program so that people are constantly teaching and constantly learning from one another, formally and informally.

But these kinds of opportunities are rare. People in our program say they were waiting for this kind of opportunity, it brings their work to life, they couldn’t find it in their home departments. More typical modes of working and of assessing scholarly success revolves around what is valued as prestigious. This includes a pronounced dominance of research at the expense of teaching, service, leadership, and even collaborative projects (at least in the humanities). Teaching is under-supported, and faculty may rely on course releases to accomplish the work that is valued for tenure and promotion. Somehow we have created an educational system in which not-teaching is seen as a reward.

Broadening our sense of what matters must be paired with a critical consideration of the academy’s formal structures of evaluation (promotion, tenure, admissions). This structural component is essential if we want to make it possible for people to work creatively and thoughtfully. Otherwise, we will continue in the status quo, which relies on an overarching investment in a conservative understanding of success that hinge on a very traditional prestige framework. This leads to training students to succeed in the same ways as their predecessors, and generally repeating what has come before, in a professionalization process that is reproductive rather than generative.

As long as this is the case, real change is very difficult. Teaching remains devalued because it is often not incentivized within prestige economies, contributing to an increased reliance on adjunct faculty members who are not adequately supported or compensated for their work. Service is totally undervalued, and people (usually women, and especially women of color) who take on higher service loads may be implicitly (or even explicitly) penalized for not making enough “progress” on the kinds of work that are formally rewarded. In addition, recruitment of both students and faculty remains conservative—or people may be recruited to do things that the institution isn’t actually prepared to support, which is incredibly counterproductive and often personally damaging.

If we want to move away from this conservative model, we have to think about what really matters. Not what is prestigious, but why we do our work and what good it can do in the world. Some of the things that I consider core values and goals are:

  • Reinvesting in teaching
  • Fostering and celebrating work that has a significant public impact, and rewarding that work formally
  • Strengthening academic labor structures
  • Creating more inclusive structures
  • Bringing people into the field in new ways, looking for new kinds of scholarly products, and meaningfully supporting that work
  • Thinking more creatively about which students are primed for “success”
  • Supporting students and faculty through mentorship and especially peer mentorship

These values bring me to one underlying hope that we can create academic structures that are rooted in abundance and joy. On some days this seems frankly impossible. On other days, I see glimmers of hope through the work of individuals and programs that aim to work differently.

How can we get to a place where joy is a value that is supported structurally? Part of the answer involves material support for the full range of scholarly work (not just prestigious research), and part involves a fundamental shift in priorities. I think we see a glimpse onto this through the Futures Initiative, but I would challenge us all to think about how can we make it a part of higher ed more broadly. Scholarly work is all about creating new knowledge, new ways of being, new possibilities. It should be something that creates a mindset of abundance, but somehow higher ed has come to be dominated by a sense of scarcity and competition. How can we change that? Resolving this question is something that I consider worth fighting for as we look to the future of the university.

 

Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work

I’m excited to announce that Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom is in contract with Duke University Press. The book is a project that I have been working on in one way or another ever since working with the Scholarly Communication Institute and the Scholars’ Lab at UVa. The book will be a solid discussion of career pathways for humanities Ph.D.’s, from nuts and bolts to why it matters. In the coming months, I hope to blog about the project, especially some of the more complex questions I’m wrestling with. Feedback is most welcome.

For now, here’s the working abstract:

Intended for graduate students in the humanities and for the faculty members who guide them, this book grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce and an emphasis on reaffirming humanities education as a public good. It explores how rhetoric and practices related to career preparation are evolving, and how those changes intersect with admissions practices, scholarly reward structures, and academic labor practices—especially the increasing reliance on contingent labor. The book also examines the ways that current practices perpetuate systems of inequality that result in the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in the academy. Rather than indulge the narrative of crisis, this book invites readers to consider ways that graduate training can open unexpected doors that lead to meaningful careers with significant public impact. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and personal experience, the book provides graduate students with context and analysis to inform the ways they discern opportunities for their own potential career paths, while taking an activist perspective that moves not only toward individual success but also systemic change. For those in positions to make decisions in humanities departments or programs, the book offers insight into the circumstances and pressures that students are facing and examples of programmatic reform that address career matters in structural ways. Throughout, the book highlights the important possibility that different kinds of careers offer engaging, fulfilling, and even unexpected pathways for students who seek them out.

New Beginnings

After my daughter was born in 2014, I couldn’t believe how hard it was to avoid clichés when everything was so startlingly new to me. She was growing so fast, I felt so much joy and so much exhaustion, I worried about diaper rash and breastfeeding and the state of the world. Thoughts of health and growth and happiness and safety—just like every new parent, ever. So many things I had never felt before, but that had been felt and expressed by countless parents across time and space. Words failed me.

I had my second child, a baby boy, this past July. Having watched myself transform into a parent when my daughter came into the world, I feel (somewhat) less stunned by the simultaneous wonder and triviality this time around. Becoming a parent feels miraculous and utterly mundane, a tension that recurs every day through brand-new smiles and endless repetitive tasks, through deep hope and moments of frustration.

So now, with the paradoxes of life with a new human very much on my mind, it’s time for me to return to work and think once more about the ground that we as educators prepare for the generations to come, while building on the work and wisdom of many who have come before. I am at once not ready to be back, and happy to be returning.

I am grateful for the unfailing support of my colleagues, who made it possible for me to be completely focused on my family and my health during these past three months. And I’m full of admiration for the hard work it took our union, PSC-CUNY, to obtain paid parental leave not only for me, a birth mother, but for any new parent in a full-time position. This kind of support, both institutional and personal, is too rare in workplaces in the U.S. and I do not take it for granted.

In the weeks and months ahead, I will be blogging about my book project, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work; our work at the Futures Initiative; and issues around higher education more broadly. And I’ll be trying to bring more of my whole self into these posts than I sometimes do, which may mean reflections on parenthood (especially motherhood) in an academic workplace—especially given that my breast pump often provides my writing soundtrack these days.

So with deep thanks again to all who support me, I’m happy to be embracing the new beginning in my personal life and bringing a fresh perspective to my work.

Neither here nor there

I couldn’t attend this year’s HASTAC Conference, because I’m not quite ready for work travel after baby S was born in July. But I’m still tuning in. During the opening plenary, which was a fantastic panel discussion featuring Tressie McMillan Cottom, Purdom Lindblad, T-Kay Sangwand, and Anastasia Salter, I tweeted this:

I posted it as a small gesture toward the ways that bodies and caregiving can complicate work, a nod at why attention to accessibility (like livestreaming) matters, and also a consideration of the ways that I try to remain in community even when I can’t physically be somewhere. But I’ve been thinking more about it, and I realized there’s something else behind it, too—something that makes me a little sad.

Watching a livestream while pumping breastmilk is not just an indication of where I am, but where I’m not. I’m not at the conference; that’s why I’m watching the livestream. But I’m also not with my baby; that’s why I’m pumping. The tweet was meant to show that I was embodying two identities at once, but it also means I’m not in either space fully.

The transition back to work has been more challenging for me this time around despite an incredibly supportive boss, coworkers, and institutional structure, and I think this tweet captures a big part of why. I want so much to be more fully present in both parts of my identity, and at this particular moment, I feel distanced from both. And that is not an easy place to be.

Pausing to Reflect

This has been… a big year. While the Futures Initiative team and I formally reflect on the past year through the exercise of writing and designing our annual report, and while we plan for an unusual year ahead, I’d like to take a moment and offer a more personal reflection as well.

In working on our annual report, I and others on our team have been struck by how much the Futures Initiative has accomplished this year, and how far we have come in just three years since our founding in Fall 2014. From the collaborative writing and publishing experience of Structuring Equality, to our growing collaborations across the GC and CUNY, to the way our ongoing programs like team-taught courses and peer mentoring are thriving, it has been a banner year for the program. I look forward to sharing sharing that document when we wrap it up.

And yet, this has also felt like a particularly difficult year, one laden with anger at unjust systems and the persistence of white supremacy, with sorrow at lives wrongly taken, with uncertainty as the political climate threatens to wreak havoc with higher education and the lives of CUNY students.

The particular day that I’m writing this has started with sorrowful news that is at once uniquely terrible and also broadly emblematic of the year we have come through. This morning, before the day had even begun, I read in the news about too many lives taken:

  • Charleena Lyles, a mother of four and pregnant with her fifth child, was shot and killed by police after calling to report a suspected break-in in her home in Seattle. Lyles reportedly had a history of mental health issues. This morning, she becomes yet another example of police violence against black people in a year filled with names of those wrongly killed. The news feels unbearable and unsurprising at once.
  • Nabra Hassanen, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, was killed after leaving a mosque in Virginia following Ramadan prayers. The incident is not even being investigated as a hate crime, which seems utterly inexplicable.
  • One person was killed and eight were injured when someone drove a van into a pedestrian zone near a mosque in London. All those injured and killed were Muslim, and the driver reportedly targeted the Muslim community intentionally.

This is just today. Attacks like these have been far too common all year, and while incidents like these against women, against Black people, against Muslims, against people with disabilities are not new, the pace at which they are happening and continuing to happen despite more extensive reporting feels dizzying in the worst way.

It is against this backdrop that the Futures Initiative does our work. We continue to work across CUNY and the HASTAC network in support of innovative approaches to move toward greater equity in higher education. Our work feels more urgent than ever, though it also feels like we have so very far to go.

Beyond all this, it has been a big year for me personally as well. I’m expecting baby #2, a boy, later this summer, and my pregnancy has been very much present in my work—in an embodied way, as fatigue and headaches and other discomforts have distracted me in ways I’m not accustomed to, and in an emotional way, as I think about the world this baby boy will grow into.

I started a post early in my pregnancy that I never developed. Its working title is “Rage” and it is just four sentences:

I learned I was pregnant a few days before the presidential election. Trying to nourish a pregnancy and raise a small child in this nightmare of a political scenario has been incredibly difficult. I recently found out that the child I’m expecting will be a boy. While the dominant model of masculinity in the U.S. is nothing short of horrifying, you better believe my spouse and I are going to do everything in our power to raise both our kids to be strong, caring, feminist, questioning adults.

Those early days of assimilating the knowledge of a new life with that of our country’s new political realities were rough. I’m thankful to work in an environment where the emotions around identity, family, and politics can inform the work we do. The shock of new pregnancy has worn off, as has the shock of this new presidency. As a team, we are planning for my absence, preparing for the year ahead, recalibrating our goals and expectations to engage with the current political climate without being consumed by it.

We have great plans in store for next year. As we work toward building stronger connections across our faculty fellows, graduate fellows, and others in the FI orbit, we’ll be launching a new series called “Thursday Dialogues.” These graduate-student led discussions will focus on research, public projects, themes in this year’s team-taught courses, matters of professionalization, and more. We will continue our University Worth Fighting For series, with a theme of “Transforming Learning” and event topics focusing on pedagogy for LGBTQ educators; community college teaching; and Cathy Davidson’s forthcoming book, The New Education. Our undergraduate Peer Mentoring program will shift slightly as we run our first Undergraduate Leadership Institute. We’ll forge deeper integrations with the Humanities Alliance as it enters its second year. Through it all, our graduate fellows will be taking on more leadership roles than ever before, and I’m both sad to miss it and excited to see where they take our programming.

I’ll close this post with deep gratitude to my team members at the Futures Initiative and HASTAC, from whom I am constantly learning. I look forward to all that is yet to come.

Practicing what we preach?

Today, our Futures Initiative team—graduate students, postdoc, and staff—will be taking a step back to consider how we are doing relative to our stated programmatic goals. The two things that I find most important about this temperature check are (1) that the suggestion came from within the group, not from administration; and (2) that we’ll be pausing to evaluate not only our public-facing work, but also the quieter, less visible side of what we do: our individual work, our group dynamic, and the day-to-day ways that we may or may not be inching towards a more equitable system of higher education. Through the discussion, we’ll be looking for ways that we can bring our individual and collective goals into closer alignment, and ways we can improve our own practices.

I direct our group of fellows, and one of my major goals as the program enters its third year has been to cultivate trust, openness, and leadership among our team—and the fact that this discussion is happening is an encouraging sign that we are moving in that direction. The Futures Initiative is unusual in the degree of ownership that graduate students take in shaping and running the program. Each fellow has a specific domain in which they take the lead, such as web development, social media, research, communications, and even directing sub-programs like HASTAC Scholars or our peer mentoring program. We continually refine the structures that govern our time and energy, not only for efficacy, but to foster reflection about the connections between our programmatic goals, our individual hopes and challenges, and each fellow’s ongoing scholarly development.

Our team’s weekly meeting structure has been one of the key elements in working toward the kind of dynamic that will not only help our program to succeed, but more importantly, will create unique opportunities for connection, collaboration, and growth. As many teams do, we gather weekly to report on our individual projects and progress. The fellows take turns leading these meetings, giving them the chance to lead their peers while also establishing structures that will ensure all voices are heard. The meetings are not long, but recently, we have been making it a point to spend time on personal updates—giving us all a moment to talk about achievements, challenges, self-care, and more. In the unreal political climate that we’re currently facing, these moments of connection and vulnerability have been incredibly valuable.

The ways we structure our group’s work reflects our aim of developing integrative structures in higher education—systems that emphasize meta-cognition as we reflect together on what we are doing, how we’re doing it, and where there might be points of connection that we hadn’t anticipated. The fellows are all gaining crucial professional skills, too—everything from event planning to communications to leadership and collaboration more broadly. As I have written elsewhere, learning these kinds of skills—especially in the service of projects that students find meaningful—is incredibly beneficial to students’ likelihood of success in any career, whether in the classroom or in any number of professional contexts.

For the Futures Initiative, these skills are not ends in themselves, but tools to empower the next generation of leaders to continue building systems that work toward equity and public reinvestment in higher education. As a program, we are constantly working toward institutional change—not only through the content of our public programming, but through our work structures and our shared values.

We have a long way to go. While I strive to make decisions that reflect a commitment to our values of equity, social justice, and student-centered learning, sometimes I act out of expediency instead. We are working to see our own blind spots, to engage voices that challenge our own perspectives, and to consider ways that we can be more deeply collaborative—all of which can be difficult and uncomfortable. We will likely uncover tensions and challenges in today’s conversation. By creating the space for these tensions to come to light, we can collectively transform them into opportunities to grow.