Category Archives: (#Alt-)Academia

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).

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!

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.

Summer of travel, DH edition

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab]

This spring and summer has been the busiest travel season I have ever had. While I won’t deny that I’m happy to be rounding the corner on my last two trips this summer, I’ve learned a tremendous amount as I’ve bounced from city to city, and feel lucky to have had so many outstanding opportunities.
Continue Reading Summer of travel, DH edition

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.

The place of beauty in scholarly writing

[Update: Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’ve just returned from two thought-provoking days of conversations about assessment and authority in new modes of scholarly production, the second in a series of three SCI meetings on the topic. We’ll synthesize the key outcomes and insights into a report very soon. For the moment, though, I want to think a little more about a question that occurred to me after the meeting: What is the place of beauty in academic writing? While this wasn’t something the group discussed directly, it did seem to be an undertone of certain threads of conversation.

I got home from CHNM on Friday evening feeling pretty brain-dead from the hybrid (and quintessentially #altac) work of wrangling meeting logistics and absorbing stimulating and thoughtful discussion. Ready to relax, I sat down to watch Pina and was entranced within minutes; the film is stunning. The clips of Pina Bausch’s dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are mesmerizing; they are made even more compelling by Wim Wenders’ directorial work. Something about the visual beauty of the film and the dance it portrayed helped me to think about the preceding conversations about scholarly work in a new light.
Continue Reading The place of beauty in scholarly writing

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

Reflections on 2012

When I look back on 2012, I have no doubt that it will stick in my memory as a year of renewal. It has been an incredible and enriching year in so many ways, from a new home to a new job to what feels like a thousand and one new skills (many of them half-baked, but good starts nonetheless). I know that the tech skills below are no big deal for most everyone in the DH community, but I came to them all from total unfamiliarity.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in the past year:

  • I learned how (and why) to use the command line.
  • I learned how to use Github, both for my own projects and to collaborate with others.
  • I learned how to use vim, and that using vim makes me feel pretty badass… or else it makes me feel like a hopeless case. The line between the two feelings is pretty thin.
  • I learned that everybody has to look stuff up in the documentation, and that half the battle is knowing where to look.
  • I’ve gotten pretty decent with HTML markup.
  • I can figure stuff out in CSS. Sometimes.
  • Along the same lines, I finally figured out how to get a domain name and host, get a proper WordPress install, set up a child theme, and start making my website look the way I want it to look.
  • I learned how to use an FTP client, and eventually I got brave enough to move remote files around from the command line.
  • I learned enough JavaScript to piece some D3 visualizations together (though not really enough to get myself out of trouble).
  • I learned a tiny little bit of Ruby.
  • I learned how to type curly quotes, and why it matters (thanks, @clioweb!).
  • And finally, it might rank low on the list of essential life skills, but I have learned to do a headstand without a wall to catch me, and that feels amazing.

Continue Reading Reflections on 2012