Tag Archives: higher ed

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.

 

What is the Futures Initiative? Defining and Redefining our Goals

The Futures Initiative can be difficult to describe. We work at the intersection of pedagogy, technology, professional development, and public engagement, all in support of fostering a more equitable higher education system for all. We’re trying to find better and clearer ways of saying that, not only through our mission statement, but through all that we do—from programming to written materials to the architecture and design of our website.

We’re in a sweet spot of the academic calendar from a program development perspective—far enough into the summer to feel rested from the slower pace, but close enough to the upcoming semester to be gearing up and getting excited. Yesterday, the Futures Initiative staff and graduate fellows held a mini-retreat to think not only about the activities and programming we plan to host in the year ahead (we’re working on some pretty fantastic events—more on that soon!), but also to take a step back and think about our program’s mission and goals and how we articulate them.

Here’s one of the ideas that emerged from yesterday’s brainstorming session:

Sketch of three interlocking circles labeled Pedagogy, Technology, and Professional Development

I love this simple sketch. To me, the large circle underscores our main goal—equity in higher education—while the three interlocking circles of pedagogy, technology, and professional development clarify our approach to creating institutional change to support that underlying goal. It’s not at all polished, but already it is helping us to think in clearer ways about what we want to undertake in the year ahead, and why.

This process of reflecting on who we are and what we do has been iterative in the best way. We hit the ground running in our first year and made things up as we went, jumping into opportunities that presented themselves and meeting and listening to people with far more depth of experience at CUNY than our little team of three had. When that year ended, we took a breath, reflected on what we had done and what seemed to resonate with the community, and then together with our graduate fellows developed a new mission statement and plan for the year ahead. We can only do this collaboratively, as we think together about what we are proud of, where we can do better, and what our highest aspirations are.

That first reflective process brought about the University Worth Fighting For, a powerful series of events and workshops that addressed equity and social justice through the lens of engaged pedagogy and non-hierarchical learning structures.

With the current political and cultural climate, the aim of fostering structures of equality within and around the university seems more important and urgent than ever. The nuts-and-bolts planning is still to come, so I don’t know yet exactly where we’ll take the program in the year ahead—but I can’t help but think we’re onto something big.

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.

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

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

Now at ProfHacker: “Turning Up the Volume on Graduate Education Reform”

The last couple of weeks have seen a great deal of news and conversation about graduate education reform. I have a lot to say about it (unsurprisingly!); you can find my take on it over at ProfHacker. The piece includes some discussion of SCI’s latest work, the Praxis Program, and the budding Praxis Network, so I hope you’ll take a look!

I’m also happy to note that I’ll be talking more about all of this at the upcoming MLA Convention in Boston—if you’re interested the topic, consider attending this roundtable on Rebooting Graduate Training. There will be ample time for discussion at the session, so come ready with questions and ideas.

Outside the Pipeline: From Anecdote to Data

I gave the following presentation at SCI’s recent meeting on rethinking graduate education. It was the first time I’ve publicly discussed results from the study on career preparation in humanities graduate programs that I’ve mentioned previously in this space. I was honored to discuss the topic with our extremely knowledgeable group of participants, and the thoughtful questions and comments that the talk generated will inform my thinking as I work toward a more formal report and analysis. I would welcome additional comments and questions.

A PDF of the presentation is also available, and has been cross-posted to SCI’s website and the Scholars’ Lab site.

Continue Reading Outside the Pipeline: From Anecdote to Data

MLA Convention conundrum

This year’s MLA Convention program is up, and I’m already excited about connecting with people and hearing about their latest work. I’m also feeling a little uneasy about my own presentation, though. Or rather, I wish I could belatedly add a second presentation that is rooted in my current work at SCI.

Proposals for MLA presentations are due early in the year; I submitted mine mid-March, and I think most deadlines fell around the same time. It’s an entirely reasonable time frame given the size and complexity of the convention, but it also means there’s a significant lag between submission and presentation. At that time, I was still at Sloan, though I knew (unofficially) that I’d be starting at SCI soon after. I knew that my work this year would have me digging deeply into the landscape of alternative academic careers, but I didn’t know enough of the specifics it would entail to write a proposal on it, and the study that has been my primary focus didn’t exist yet. So, because I knew I wanted to go to the MLA (and because I wanted to give myself some research and writing homework), I proposed a paper that was grounded in my academic background — one I had been wanting to write, and that I’ll be happy to present and get some feedback on.

Continue Reading MLA Convention conundrum