(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

Returning to the Classroom

This spring, I’ll be co-teaching a course that I’m really excited about, along with my colleague Matt Brim: Equity, Elitism, and Public Higher Education. We are teaching together as part of the Futures Initiative’s slate of interdisciplinary team-taught courses. The opportunity to teach is significant for me: the last time I taught in the formal, classroom sense was over a decade ago, in spring 2009, as a doctoral student.

Teaching as a grad student terrified me. Like most doctoral students, I had almost no pedagogical training. I was tossed into whichever class needed staffing, sometimes introductory French language classes, sometimes broad humanities courses that covered literature, art, and music over a span of centuries. One notably difficult semester found me teaching Norse mythology, which, as someone mostly studying contemporary French and Latin American literature, I knew next to nothing about. Of course it was terrifying and exhausting to teach in these circumstances: I was a precarious worker, woefully underprepared and undersupported, though I didn’t know enough about university labor structures to understand that.

Now, though, I’m coming to the (virtual) classroom with a very different feeling. I’m nervous, but not as nervous as I expected to be. Mostly I’m incredibly excited. I am coming to this classroom from such a different place than when I taught as a graduate student. I’ve been working in and around universities for more than a dozen years at this point. Even though I haven’t been teaching in a classroom, informal teaching and mentorship is a cornerstone of my role. I also know so much more now about pedagogy, university structures, group dynamics, and so on than I did as a student.

Plus, the opportunity to build a small, temporary community and to engage in a sustained inquiry and conversation together feels almost indulgent. Over the past year, largely around the publication of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, I’ve given a record number of talks and workshops. But especially in a virtual context, these talks are so fleeting. I zoom into a space, meet wonderful people, and then it ends in a flash. As Matt and I have built this course together, we’ve prioritized a sense of slowness, trying to find a way to make and hold space as our class comes together to read and learn and digest.

Returning to the classroom also feels incredibly necessary to me. I’ve had my hands in so many different administrative areas over the past several years, and I truly enjoy working at a structural level. But classrooms are the lifeblood of the university, and as such I think it is incredibly valuable for me, as an administrator, to have a continued teaching practice. I don’t know yet what I will learn this semester, but I have no doubt I will be learning at least as much as students in the class.

Read more about our class here.

Featured image by CUNY Rising Alliance.

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed Personal

Reflecting on a decade

2020 is on the horizon, ushering in a time of looking back and looking forward. January will bring not only a new year but a new decade, and a metaphorical connection to 20/20 vision. In the U.S., the year also brings a high-stakes and emotionally fraught presidential election that feels something like a moment of reckoning. Naturally, this is a time of reflection for many, myself included.

I’ve been thinking especially about how much has changed in my professional life in the last ten years. At HASTAC, we’re in the midst of planning our 2020 conference at UT Dallas, with a theme of Hindsight, Foresight, and Insight. That theme resonates as I reflect on my own journey. Part of this professional trajectory connects to another unexpected ten-year mark. As Twitter reminded me, ten years ago Jason Rhody and Bethany Nowviskie started describing their work as “alt-ac”.

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(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed Writing

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

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.

Stylized book title and author name

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:

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

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed Talks and Events

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.

Continue Reading Putting the PhD to Work—For the Public Good

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

Speaking with power – as a public good

Next week, GC Director of Media Relations Tanya Domi will join the Futures Initiative for a discussion and hands-on workshop on translating research for broader audiences—and getting it published. (Join us!) One of the major stumbling blocks for academics looking to break into this kind of writing, I think, is feeling confident enough to pitch an idea and strong enough to absorb many potential rejections before something lands. As we prepare for the event I’ve been reflecting on an activity that I led recently for our graduate fellows that had a similar aim of developing confidence in one’s voice.

The activity was part of a professional development session for FI Graduate Fellows. To start it off, I borrowed an exercise from the Op-Ed Project on establishing credibility. I had each person introduce themselves using the template, “Hello, my name is [x] and I am an expert in [y].”

This is a miserable exercise. When I first encountered it as a participant, my heart was pounding as my turn approached, and I felt ill as I began to speak, willing myself to swallow the usual caveats and hedges that I use to undercut myself. When I led the fellows in doing the same, using my own intro as an example, I stumbled even more, feeling deeply uncomfortable to perform in this way among people who know me well (even if they know me *as an expert*).

In both cases, nearly everyone shared my discomfort, even as they spoke beautifully about all that they know and do.

For many of us, it can feel deeply wrong to say that we excel at something. It creates physical discomfort and mental anguish. And yet, this discomfort is precisely what makes the exercise so effective. The degree of discomfort is, in large part, inversely proportional to how much authority participants are accustomed to having when they speak. In many cases women, people of color, and others who are generally not assumed to be experts may be conditioned to position themselves in a way that is more palatable and less threatening. Women know well that asserting authority can be perceived negatively; to avoid that negative perception, we often smooth things over, soften the edges, and defer to others even when we are the expert in the room.

And yet, undercutting one’s own expertise can prevent others from hearing important perspectives and challenging truths that are so needed in public discourse.

The major paradigm shift that I think is important is moving from imposter syndrome—which is always focused on the self, and how one may or may not measure up to others—to a sense of how our knowledge or expertise might benefit some broader public.

This is such an important transition. I hope that the Futures Initiative’s upcoming workshop offers some concrete strategies to help move in that direction. Everyone has something powerful to share; it is the perfect time to make our voices heard.

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed Writing

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.

(#Alt-)Academia Personal

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.

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

The Urgency of Public Engagement

Higher education is again under attack, raising the stakes of public engagement for scholars higher than ever. The disdain for truth, research, and critique is palpable: Within days of the inauguration, we have seen the White House impose stop-work orders and media blackouts on federal scientific agencies like the EPA and USDA. We have seen proposals threatening to eliminate the NEH and the NEA. And we have seen the administration nominate an unqualified Secretary of Education, all while spinning official narratives that willfully oppose evidence (think “alternative facts” or the “Bowling Green Massacre”).

In this environment, scholarly work that looks only inward is doomed not only to irrelevance, but elimination. We as scholars must ensure our work can reach broad audiences in a powerful way. Institutions may not recognize that work, but especially in the current political climate, when our research and writing has the potential to influence policy, public opinion, and more, there is much more at stake than simply tenure.

Plus, public interest in the humanities is growing. Orwell’s 1984 has seen an enormous rise in sales since the election; there is a thirst to understand Islamic history and culture (see this interview in Business Insider with Graduate Center President Chase Robinson, a historian of Islam); and many are turning to the writings of Hannah Arendt and others to understand the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Humanities-related work is also being incorporated into non-specialist publications; for instance, The Vault, by historian Rebecca Onion, is a regular feature of Slate, and BuzzFeed recruits humanities scholars like Anne Helen Petersen as analytical writers. But if such work is not respected by universities, then it remains an extracurricular pursuit or a plan B for emerging scholars.

With this in mind, I believe critical reflection about what constitutes academic success is crucial to deepening public engagement in the humanities today. Such reflection must include not only changing modes of scholarly communication, but also career paths, with the goal of improving the health and inclusivity of the humanities for the public good.

One often-overlooked element in discussing new modes of scholarly discourse is the relationship between innovation, equity, and public engagement—all of which contribute to an understanding of higher education as a public good. Though innovation is frequently considered something for elite, well-funded institutions, through my work with the Futures Initiative and the international scholarly network HASTAC I have witnessed countless ways that innovative solutions can be developed organically to solve real needs and connect communities.

If equity and innovation are linked, then it follows that recognizing more varied scholarly work enables a broader range of scholars to break new ground. This was apparent in a 2014 event at CUNY called “What Is A Dissertation,” in which graduate students shared projects that didn’t resemble the protomonograph of most dissertations. Their work included the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; and a dissertation on comics in comic form.

Living in an increasingly interconnected world—under an administration hostile to knowledge—means we need the humanities more than ever. Recognizing the expansive social value of humanistic knowledge and methods means understanding the myriad ways scholars can make a significant impact beyond academe. Even as the specific types of work are constantly evolving, we have an opportunity to adjust graduate program structures to better equip students to take on a wide range of roles where they can apply their training.

Our country needs more, not fewer, scholars trained to understand and contextualize the cultural, historical, and linguistic valences of contemporary geopolitics. We need more scholars who can read, critique, and synthesize complex arguments. We need more scholars who know the national and global histories of systemic racism and institutionalized bias and who are equipped to speak out against ongoing inequalities. We need them in the classroom—but not only there. The impact of humanities training could be far greater if we trained students not only to teach, but also enabled them to pursue careers that carried them beyond the university.

Rigorous, deeply creative work makes research and scholarship more accessible to broader audiences than ever before. When the academy embraces a wider range of outcomes as signs of scholarly success and merit, I believe the result will be a deeper connection with local communities and more powerful exchange of knowledge among them. In moments of great uncertainty, scholars can do their best and most important work by applying their expertise in ways that engage broader publics.

This piece is adapted in part from a book project on career paths, academic labor, public engagement, and diversity. It was originally published on Media Commons on February 22, 2017, in response to the following Field Guide question: “How might digital and media scholars and educators engage with the commons, both physically and online? What roles should we assume in such spaces or within such communities?”


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!

(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

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.