Blog Post

Rethinking Civic Engagement in Humanities Graduate Education

Last week, I spoke at an Association of American Universities conference with graduate deans about the future of graduate education in the humanities.  My mentor, Teresa Mangum, and I presented on ways that civic engagement can be one source of revitalization and change. 

The University of Iowa is a national leader in efforts to integrate community-based teaching and research into graduate education.  Now in its fifth year, the Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy at Iowa has graduated 75 graduate students in a myriad of disciplines, training students in an intensive one-week program in civic engagement.  As a result of this program, graduate students at the University of Iowa write community-based dissertations, teach civically engaged courses, and explore digital humanities initiatives as a part of their graduate studies.  For many students, myself included, this program opens new and uncharted possibilities for the humanities in higher education, and it changes the way we think about life after graduate school. 

Our presentation focused on how this background in civic engagement changes the job search for humanists: how does community-based work shape the jobs you apply for, the way you apply for these jobs, the job you get, the career and life you eventually lead?  We talked about ways that training in civic engagement can prepare graduate students for engaging careers both inside and outside the academy, and how it can open unexpected opportunities for life after graduate school.

During the Q&A, one dean astutely asked us to consider graduate school from the other end: how might the Insitute contribute to the entrance, rather than the exit, of graduate students in the humanities? How does a program in civic engagement not only shape students' applications on the job market, but the applications for entrance into graduate school in the first place?

This question is exciting to me for a number of reasons: it suggests that interest in community-based projects might be worth considering in graduate student applications alongside the GPA and GRE scores; it suggests that the Graduate Institute (as much as any particular disciplinary program) could attract students to a particular institution for their graduate education; and it suggests that civic engagement is enough of an asset on the job market that it would be worth recruiting some graduate students on this basis. 

A few days after the conference, I found an advertisement in my inbox that confirmed the value of his question; I hope this announcement may be the first of many!

By using Tulane's post-Katrina focus on community engagement as our inspiration, the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand has sought to implement service-learning across the institution as our response to the devastating earthquakes that rocked our city in 2010 and 2011.  As part of our efforts, we have an amazing opportunity for a PhD student to conduct research on the connection of higher education, service-learning, and natural disasters through a $60,000 scholarship that includes tuition and living expenses for 3 years.  Please consider this quickly as we need to have expressions of interest by October 14.  Enrolment start date can be flexible.  Please contact Dr Billy O'Steen at if you're interested!


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