Throughout Putting the Humanities Ph.D. To Work, Katina Rogers considers two organizing questions which form the backbone of her book: How might a broader understanding of postgraduate success improve the humanities as interconnected fields, and how can we think beyond existing institutional structures in challenging “default” careers for postgraduate humanities PhD students? (14-15). Rogers embarks on an analysis of academic labor structures, addresses the apprenticeship model of graduate study as a means of preparing students solely for a career as a tenure-track faculty member, and argues that expanding our definitions of scholarly success can create community engagement and wider public understanding. Illustrating her work by walking her reader through a series of innovative case studies, Rogers offers guidance for mentors who seek to improve their support for their students and alumni, and tips for students as they move from PhD application to professionalization in their field.
In the conclusion of Putting the Humanities Ph.D. To Work, Rogers points out that while individual success stories exist outside the academy, the system itself remains unchanged and unchallenged, “leaving assumptions about what constitutes scholarly success largely unchanged” (128). If unchallenged, our assumptions regarding scholarly success, fair working conditions, and student outcomes will lead the humanities into a decline, Rogers warns. Instead of maintaining an archaic system which continues to ignore the wellbeing of graduate students, adjunct faculty, administrators, and mentors alike, Rogers offers immediate action as a solution antidote. Curricula can be rewritten to facilitate collaboration and public engagement, colleges can track and celebrate the career outcomes of graduates in many fields--not just the tenure track, and departments can offer greater support to graduate students throughout their studies.
Rogers is not the only person to sound the clarion call for greater academic reform. Indeed, she points to historically Black colleges and universities to offer an example of a site of social change within academia. Instead of clinging to long-held academic norms such as tenure, peer-reviewed journal articles, and monographs, Rogers suggests that top-down and grassroots change would alter the face of academia as we understand it today. Such change would not only impact the academy, but would transfer beyond. Though individual students can indeed challenge departments to create greater change, Rogers emphasizes the need for collective reform, flexible graduate programs, and a reconsideration of “how innovative work with deep public relevance is evaluated and valued” (129).
As Rogers concludes, the humanities have great potential in engaging the public. Such an investment in public scholarship may not be easy, but requires us to develop new practices, norms, and support structures, in order to strengthen not only our departments, but our scholarly investment outside the academy. Departments can support and celebrate their students who engage with a public audience. Mentors can support their students who choose careers outside of the institution. We need a new definition of academic success which does not rely on the default, but expands upon the default to encompass careers beyond academia.
Putting the Humanities Ph.D. To Work diagnoses problems entrenched in humanities departments: an unhealthy standard of living, unrealistic markers of academic success, and a lack of support for interest and investment in public engagement. Many of these markers of success are based in an academy which has not remained updated with changing times. While peer-reviewed journals are often only accessible to those already in academia and may not be widely read, today, I can post an article to a public-facing blog, and thirty people will read it within an hour. Humanities scholars have great potential to impact the public; in my own graduate career, I have known many ambitious graduate students who have a vested interest in community outreach, public writing, and public research. There are no lack of students interested in writing and researching for a public audience- just lack of support, at many levels, for their work.
Traditional markers of academic success must be reconsidered as well, in keeping with the systemic barriers to academic success which many students encounter. As many students from historically marginalized backgrounds approach graduate school, they may not have received the same tutelage in approaching academic publications, the same guidance in proposing panels for conferences, and the same attention in being considered as co-authors for scholarly papers which their more privileged peers receive. Academic success cannot truly be considered an equal assessment of merit when the goalposts are so varied for students, and when mentorship is spread unevenly.
We will always “need people trained to read closely, articulate nuanced arguments, examine and interrogate assumptions, and understand the ways that values, meanings, and interpretations are culturally and contextually embedded” (129). Supporting and celebrating innovative methods which step outside the formula of academic articles and monographs will only encourage greater creativity, greater engagement with the public, and greater academic rigour in addressing difficult topics. If we are to see change, we must rethink the little-examined academic traditions which remain markers of academic success, in order to strengthen and diversify departments. Rogers diagnoses problems within academia, but these problems can be addressed with time, with effort, with greater communication between faculty, administration, and graduate students alike, and with a greater understanding of how systemic issues curtail historically marginalized students from traditional academic success. Let’s get to work.
Peer Reviewer: Avery Blankenship