Blog Post

Future of Graduate Education: An Open Forum

The Future of Graduate Education:

Open Forum:

Twitter hashtag: #katz

On February 22, I conducted a workshop on the "Future of Graduate Education" at the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. All of the questions below were posited by Workshop participants using the "think/pair/share" method.   TPS is a system where each member of a group posits questions, as described in "Single Best Way to Transform Classroom of Any Size" and also here.  Once we had the questions, we discussed and collaboratively transcribed insights, links, resources onto an open Google Doc.  I have cut-and-pasted the version on the site as of February 24, 7 pm EST for your convenience.  Some comments are mine (and designated as such), some transcribed from a free-flowing conversation and do not represent my own view. The point is this is a conversation in the open source mode:  publish early, revise often.   

I invite you to share your own ideas in the Google Doc or to pass it on to others, including in your classes, so they might add comments, insights, references, or additional questions:


Participant generated questions:

!) How do we promote visual literacy?

  • Kristin Arola and Cheryl Ball’s Visualizing Composition
  • Teach wonder! Ideas?
    • A common exercise in sound studies (related to ethnomusicology & philosophy) is doing sound walks. It can involve blindfolds in a safe space, or no blindfolds in a more exposed space. The point is to walk (with stops as appropriate) and fully concentrate on the sounds in the world.
  • Make us look at familiar things in different ways.  White Album Soho record store example.
  • See Ana Salter and Roger Whitson’s upcoming CFP on “Comics as Scholarship”
  • A magician who does similar strange wonders - Derren Brown
  • two books: Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Stop, Look, Write
  • James Elkins, Visual Literacy and John Berger, Ways of Seeing   For sheer creativity:  Draw It With Your Eyes Closed:  The Art of the Assignment
  • Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder about the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles & Barbara Stafford, Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (I taught both texts in a first year composition class at GT and would be interested in talking more about the topic of wonder - @drbremm)

2) Can education be changed from below and from outside?

  • Corollary: Can we change from outside while protecting our most vulnerable members? Adjuncts, graduate students, etc.
  • It almost always is.  
  • just as a note - here is Cathy’s blog on HASTAC
  • Can university teachers be taught to teach?
  • How do we change the conversation about online education? (i.e. from it being cheap to genuine innovative approaches to education?).
  • Clayton Christensen addresses aspects of this in Disrupting Class and The Innovative University.  I’m sharing this for the disruptive technology innovation model, not to advocate the vision presented in these books of what schools could/should become.
  • For a specific sort of change (of audience) consider applying for the Certificate in Public Scholarship at the UW Simpson Center, reading about Public Humanities, and looking at national communities of publicly engaged scholars like Imagining America and


  • Davidson:  Education is almost always changed by historical external circumstances, beginning as I argue, with the Industrial Age transformation of the medieval academy into the modern research university, first in Germany, then in the U.S. with the establishment of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 and the rapid installation of many of the systems, structures, infrastructures, assessment methods, and assumptions that pervade education (K-22) today.
  • External, historical pressures constantly force education to change, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, or sometimes in ways that may seem positive or negative at the time but may have a different unintended consequence.  Whether we talk about the GI Bill that forced the rapid expansion of public education far beyond its original dimensions or the post-GI Bill crash in higher education that came in the late 1970s when the GI Bill generation was no longer in college and a slight baby decline meant for the largest “overproduction of PhD’s” trained to teach future PhD’s  until the present era.  
  • To historicize the present crash, we might just look around virtually any university campus and see the huge building boom in the 1990s-2008, often financed either by debt (low interest loans), by state funding, and/or federal and corporate funding.  The current crash as well as the soaring cost of tuition is partly a response to this overbuilding and this assumed dependence on corporate and federal sponsorship of buildings, programs, and assets, much of which has systematically shrunk in the 2008 period along with rapidly and often radically declining state support.   All of these fluctuations mean for huge changes, some of which educators react to quickly, others of which educators resist--sometimes wisely, sometimes at peril.
  • Davidson insists that being cognizant of these historical changes is crucial for any graduate student planning a future career in higher education.   Indisputably, in several fields, we have trained too many PhD’s with the end in mind of being college teachers, a disaster in a rapidly shrinking educational arena.  
  • Among the major issues raised by this question and this sense of historical impact on the shape of education for this Simpson Center Workshop on the Future of (Humanities) Graduate Education:    Will we now
    • (a) radically reduce the size of PhD programs  
    • (b) radically revise the shape and purpose of the PhD in relation to a world where tenured professors make up only about 40% of all those university instructors and where only a small percentage of those receiving a PhD in some fields (humanities, math, some other basic sciences and some social sciences such as cultural anthropology) will ever work in the academy in any role and then
    • (c ) is there a role and purpose for the PhD in such an economic environment?  
    • (d What is that role?  What does such a PhD look like?
  • It is also extremely important for all of us to articulate the reasons why higher education helps create more productive, resilient global citizens (Guattari’s term).  Higher education traditionally has been very poor at connecting the dots between courses and disciplines within the curriculum and even worse at connecting those to the world beyond.   

3) How can higher ed structures deal with PhD oversupply?

  • Is there an oversupply? Or simply jobs that aren’t invented yet? See Bousquet...
  • Davidson:  If you reach the point when you feel that the PhD program is not giving you a life tool, quit that program! By  that Davidson means that earning a degree is a choice, not a mandate.  If that choice nourishes you, it is a good choice.  If it depletes you and your options in life, it is a bad one.  What those “options” are, however, must be reviewed with circumspection, realism, and a historical sense of what a PhD can do now, in this economic environment.  Know the statistics.  Make your choices based on realism and your own ambition, willingness to take a risk for what you want.   We can rail all we want at a terrible historical moment (and we should) but, in making a life choice for yourself, you need to both survey the external possibilities realistically and survey yourself realistically--your willingness to commit to a path, to work insanely hard for that path (labor studies of tenure track academics suggest close to a  60-90 hour work week).   Even the notorious Forbes article saying the academic life is the “least stressful work life” noted that the average academic works 60-80 hours week.
  • Davidson:  The more “Buddhist” way of looking at the question of the oversupply of PhD’s is, given the above caveat about external realism and introspective self-assessment, then there is an “oversupply” only if you think that PhD students will teach other PhD students and this is the only possibility they have.  That is, if the value of the PhD is dependent on the acquisition of tenure-track jobs then there is emphatically an oversupply.  If the value is more intrinsic, not dependent on future job acquisition in academe, then perhaps not. The next logical extension, then, is that we need to be restructuring a range of doctoral possibilities, including several which are not intended to lead to a tenure track teaching position but that might have other possible job outcomes for which a re-imagined form of doctoral training prepares one.
  • I hear lots about alt-ac careers, but they tend to have VERY specific circumstances, and are often as impossible as TT jobs to grab. Are there good resources for ways to use a PhD outside the academy in useful, meaningful ways?
  • Here’s one! And another...and one more. Also, you should definitely follow Bethany Nowviskie on Twitter: @nowviskie
    • Appreciated!
  • There is also a lot of misinformation being disseminated about higher education and one has to think it is partly the purview of for-profit educational enterprises to perpetuate this in order to justify the increasing defunding of education.  If funding levels increased, the oversupply would still exist--but perhaps not in as extreme a fashion.  We need to fight back against propaganda--by policy makers, legislators, and self-appointed pundits--that is aimed to single out higher education as a problem without contextualizing other social changes.  For example, a recent article in Atlantic, counters a lot of bad math about debt, student unemployment, and the uselessness of college with figures that point to exactly the opposite conclusion.  It is a must read for anyone pursuing graduate education at this time.  Read,  “"The Myth of Student Debt"

4) How to move evaluation of digital humanities projects beyond current tenure definitions?

  • An important example of the “what counts for tenure” conversation: MLA Guidelines
  • CCCC’s guidelines for promotion and tenure while working with technology, for faculty work in community-based settings, and for teaching, learning, and assessing writing in digital environments.
  • An example of a model that attempts to move beyond this: Balanced Value Impact
  • I’m having trouble finding metrics for DH that are outside the box, especially outside of the tenure-as-end-goal box. Any ideas for this would be very appreciated!
  • Davidson:  A recent report called “Limitless Options, Major Possibilities” charts many kinds of options available for those with computational skills trained on human and humanistic problems.   This is the expansive definition of “digital humanities” and the same kinds of issues that pertain to graduate humanities education pertain to specialized “digital humanities” graduate education.  If we train graduate students to train future graduate students, whether in digital humanities or non-digital humanities, we are training for an increasingly shrinking and narrow perspective.  If we think about computational training and analytical abilities in addressing complex human problems, there is actually a shortage of good, qualified candidates.  A recent out-of-cycle postdoc search I was involved with in this area produced a pool of only a dozen or so qualified candidates.  

5) How to address power differentials and institutional change?

  • What can grad students do to mobilize change without biting the hand that feeds us?
  • A few thoughts: 1) practice open source values every day with peers (share best practices, working models, and resources) 2) for those of us who teach, think about how we can incorporate digital literacies and approaches into our classrooms 3) build relationships, discussions, and projects across departments, sectors, age groups 4) build our own options that defy the TT/Adjunct pathways -- this requires creativity, effort, and thoughtful networking outside of academia -- and it looks different for every scholar. It also doesn’t mean that you are renouncing academia.
  • Davidson:  the above transcription of some of my comments reflects fairly succinctly my views on this.  More practically, one reason we created the HASTAC Scholars network was to give sustaining power to graduate and undergraduates pursuing transformative research and who might want the power of a network to help them through their graduate work and who can also “shield” behind the HASTAC leaders in promoting change, flexibility, or revision to structures at their home institution.   In general, finding the right advisors and the right “posse” (actual or virtual) of colleagues aids change, at any level.

6) How to sustain innovation and collaboration at different scales?

  • Open platforms for community engagement
  • If anyone @ uw wants to experiment with technology tools for this, I'm happy to help with tech support/tactics.
  • Sustain innovation by finding the cheapest, fastest, least bureaucratic way to make yourself a perpetual learner.

7) Developing effective online tools while being aware of diversity and barriers? (Class, gender, race, age, disability, etc.)

  • There is so much on this topic that I will simply say go to HASTAC and use the Search function to find great resources and ideas on all of these areas. A recent post is "Connecting Disability with Connected Learning", for example, and the HASTAC Scholars have run brilliant forums on “Race After the Internet,” “Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces” and many others.

8) How do we toil as outcasts and make change?

  • Another word for outcasts might be “lunaticks” -- as Bethany Nowviskie writes, a group not really about the “big theories and breakthroughs -- instead, their heroic work was to codify knowledge, found professional societies and journals, and build all the enabling infrastructure that benefited a succeeding generation.” Looking at it that way, our toils are adding up to the creation of new infrastructure, which is changing the landscape.
  • Davidson:  We can toil as outcasts--but remember that insiders toil too, sometimes happily and sometimes, as Thoreau said, “leading lives of quiet desperation.”  If being an outcast fuels you and gives you energy, your very status as outcast is a change-maker.  If, however, it depletes you and undermines your energy and effectiveness, we have yet another moment where introspection is required.  Always ask: is my “outcast” status a position of strength (for me, for that which I am fighting for?) or a position of disability or invisibility?   There is no right answer, but that is a crucial question.   

9) How do we overcome “standardization” as a barrier to innovation?  How do you make innovation in a standardized setting?

  • Davidson:  I am a great believer in “parallel structures.”  That means that, even along side the most regimented, standardized system in the most hidebound institution, alternative or “mobilizing” energies persist.   The reason that David Theo Goldberg and I defined “institutions as mobilizing networks” is because we argue that, by finding other mobilizers within a given institution, you can understand the foundations of the institution together, see its cracks (there are always cracks), seize your opportunities, and, in targeted and strategic and collective ways, work towards institutional changes.  One version of that is the low-cost, agile, alternative, energetic, inspiring alternative structure.  If it is successful enough, if it competes for attention with the staid and standard, often the standard changes itself as a response to an alternative.   Think the old days of Microsoft and the old days of Apple. Or the impact race and gender studies programs have had on core disciplines.  Endless examples.  It is often easier to create a mobile external structure than to try to change the core.  If the mobile peripheral structure is successful, often the core changes in response.

10) How do we get people to drink our Kool Aid and understand institutional norms in transient situations?  Particularly where stakeholders and employees come and go.

  • Davidson:  Needless to say, I’ve dedicated my career to articulating these issues but it needs all of us learning to communicate well what we we do and why.  That’s another reason for  And it is why we advocated the “60 second   video” of “why we do what we do” as a supplement to the dissertation and dissertation abstract.  

11) What is the role of technology in the paradigm shift?

  • Davidson:  Since April 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser went public, all of our work lives, social lives, economic relations, and other communications and interactions have changed.   Education needs not to just use technology but think through, with, about, and beyond it.  Now You See It is all about this.  



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