The Future of Higher Education

The Future of Higher Education

As the opening forum for our 5th year of this program, we’d like to ask you, our most innovative and engaging Scholars:

What would you change in higher education?

How would you rethink graduate education?

  • If you could change one component about your own academic program, what would it be, and why?

    • More collaborative projects? 
    • More support for interdisciplinary work? 

    • Better mentoring or advising?

    • Acceptance of digital academic scholarship?

    • Alternatives to the dissertation?

    • Practical training for disciplinary requirements, including publishing and conferences?

  • If you could design or request a workshop – outside of regular coursework – within your department, what would it cover?

  • What are some concrete changes to ensure graduate students are positioned for life even in this dire academic job market?

  • Has your department or campus developed a useful program for graduate students? 

This forum is inspired by a recent workshop called Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education, which was organized by the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI). You can read the executive summary, full report of the meeting's discussion, and see the list of participants. We welcome feedback on the ideas in the report and look forward to hearing your own suggestions and experiences.



Guests joining the discussion:

Jentery Sayers, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria (and former HASTAC Scholar)

Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute

Katina Rogers, Senior Research Specialist, Scholarly Communication Institute

Ernesto Priego, Editor, Networked Researcher, and as of January 2013, Lecturer in Library Science, City University London

Photo credits:
1st photo credit: sensitive noise / obvious 2 by flickr user milos milosevic
2nd photo credit: "?" by flickr user striatic


I know that the discussion here is meant to center on innovative ways to construct teaching and learning in higher education, but I have a suggestion that I wish more folks would discuss and accept.

That is: Set a reasonable mandatory retirement age, say 68. I do not view this as age discrimination. (I retired at age 62.) Rather, I view it as a matter of intergenerational justice.

The positive effects would include: 1. Affording job opportunities to new Ph.D.s, rather than their having to take adjunct positions when they would prefer not to; 2. Give an incentive to attend graduate school, facing a more open job market; 3. Lower the salary burden of universities; 4.Related to the primary concerns of the HASTAC community, get more digitally literate, non-Luddite faculty in place. (I speak as a largely digitally illiterate Luddite, by the way.)

The predicates for this, of course, would have to be decent pensions and other retirement income, and ways to facilitate continued research and, perhaps, teaching opportunities for emeriti. 


I have very strong opinions about the ways in which higher education can both provide opportunities for educators, researchers, and scholars and also function to debilitate folks financially. Perhpas I too might be going off topic a bit, but I simply cannot address this conversation fully without talking about the astrononical costs associated with pursing a doctorate degree. Where are the loan forgiveness programs for PhD/EdDs, who don't enter into the medical fields, join the peace corps, and/or are required to teach at a tribal college/university (where the salaries are literally a joke and frankly offensive)?

One of the reasons why folks are discouraged from pursuing higher education is because they simply can't afford it. What does this say about the institution of higher education in this country? I realize I sound like a broken record being that this conversation is all over mainstream media and is constantly discussed within the walls of the Ivory Tower, but this issue is very personal for me.

I'm facing huge (and I mean HUGE) amounts of debt because I believe in pursuing a higher education, but even if/when I manage to secure a tenure-track position, I still must have a plan B and C set in place in order to support myself financially. I don't come from wealth. I do not have financial support from family members or a spouse. I'm not pursing a medical doctorate or a JD, so the ratio of money spent (not just on tuition but living expenses being that I've voluntarily taken myself out of the full-time work force) to the amount of money earned will be unbalanced at best. I currently work as an adjunct lecturer in New York City. At the moment, the city is thinking about taking away health benefits right at the time when I will have been teaching at the college for 1 year. Surely, most of you know about how unjust adjunct life can be.

Pursing a higher education has become an upper-middle income to upper-class endeavor. And those who fall below a certain income level will likely find themselves slaves to an unfair economic system. How ridiculous is this? I have a feeling that in the near future, the college debt crisis won't only be the next economic bubble burst, but also an impetus for further and consequential class warfare.

I really would like to call on Congress and higher education instituions to band together and (re)think better ways to financially incentize doctorates who demonstrate a life-time dedication to educating the nation and contributing to scholarly research that does, in fact, contribute to the betterment of policy, science, and culture.


Agree. But I think that going to Congress will be more effective if we say what existing problems we can solve by being paid above poverty wages. It's necessary to say what it is that we are capable of giving to the country, in more concrete terms than "research" or "knowledge."


so let's start brainstroming those concrete terms! #imdown


This is exactly the point I wanted to talk about in this discussion. I think the humanities is facing a massive crisis of relevance. It's difficult to explain in concrete terms *why* contrasting Heidegger's interpretations of space and Deleuze and Guattari's interpretations of space is helpful for anyone.


Similar to the sciences we have signifiacnt barriers to comprehension:  massive sub-sub-specializations and lots of jargon. Unlike the sciences, the path from research to action is nowhere near as obvious to the average person, nor is it easily defensible. 


A friend of mine was telling me about a difference he views between physics and engineering. Physics is how things would work given ideal conditions. Engineering is how things actually work. If you want to model in general how bridges handle load physics may be helpful. If you want to build a specific bridge and need to know precisely how much load it can handle you will need engineering, because there are complicating variables you will have left out of your pure physics analysis.


I feel like all the philosophy/continental theory/social analysis etc. we do tends to stay in the realm of physics. Yes, the best of this work deals with actually-existing discourses or concepts, but rarely does it produce different discourses that regular people can use. Sure, a non-engineer might not understand how to calculate a bridge's maximal load. But that person can walk across the bridge. Who walks across our bridges?


My point is that we need to build things. It's easy (once you learn it) to think abstractly and stay in idea-land. It's much more difficult to take an abstract, innovative conceptual idea and then apply it, because that beautiful idea has to interact with the ugly world-as-it-is, and some comrpomise will be necessary because you want the idea to survive and replicate. Until we learn to think abstractly and build concretely we will be the first on the chopping block in times of recessions. And it's not like funding is great for the sciences either. The federal budget for research is $20 billion less than the American wedding industry - and half of those weddings end in divorces anyways.


As an obvious aside, this also means the incentives for getting a job need to be in line with building concrete structures. Currently they are not, favoring instead peer-reviewed journals that reward ever-more abstract claims read by fewer and fewer people.


The best change that could happen to higher education - for undergrads, grad students, and society, would be to incentivize Ph.D. employment in public high schools, and perhaps public middle schools. Make it easier for Ph.D. students to earn teaching qualifications without paying or starting a new degree.  Stop making it seem as if Ph.D. qualified H.S. teachers are failures. Colleges receive the students that high schools graduate. Sending Ph.D. grads who want to teach toward the private schools due to accreditation issues (and student debt) only increases the outrageous disparities between public and private student experience at the secondary level. If we want to teach high school students to be college students and other critically thinking, conscientious, informed, skilled, curious citizens, then please stop shooting down that ambition.


Rebecca, I think you're pointing to a really important detail, which is lack of training for Ph.D.s beyond the assumption that everyone will get tenure-track jobs in the location of your choice. We all know the state of the job market, and the rise of alt-ac possibilities is certainly tied to the fact that more and more Ph.D.'s are graduating without a next step.

There is SO much internalized shame about not succeeding in getting a tenure track -- and most people don't! Instead, most of us end up with visiting positions, endless postdocs, and of course, the rise of the adjunct. And -- as you point out above -- lots of folks actively choose another path, or decide to get off that path when it's no longer a realistic option.

I completely agree that there has to be better training and understanding for the variety of paths Ph.D.s might choose after graduation, including teaching in high schools, community colleges, tech colleges, cultural institutions, etc. 


Agreed, Fiona: "There is SO much internalized shame about not succeeding in getting a tenure track."

One challenge, then, is determining how to create and foster graduate programs where ---- as you suggest --- a variety of post-MA and post-PhD paths are integrated into the curricula and culture. In other words, that variety needs to be taught, practiced, and regularly discussed. Right? 

In graduate seminars, I'm wondering how this would work. Are we imagining community-based courses and research? Flipped or project-oriented learning environments? Studio-based, collaborative climates? 

Recently, I've been researching courses that encourage these various paths, but I'd love to know what examples are familiar to the HASTAC community. Please share! 



I love the idea of incentivizing, but the value of education can not be driven by external motivation.

Also,  PhDs are not equivalent to educators, many are poor teachers, and have no interest in teaching, but rather do it to support their research.  Simply moving them to lower "grades" wouldn't change that, and would be potentially more detrimental to developing minds.

We need to begin to reassess the values of "career".  Are we incentivized to teach, or do we want to effect real social change. 

To educate *well* is to provide one of the most invaluable human experiences. 

We need to change our perspectives on what it means to be an educator, rather than make graduate education about a race to the top.


I agree, Maria, that incentivizing cannot make people honestly want to do things they don't like doing.

However, in the long run, identifying the Ph.D.s who DO want to teach, and want to learn to be good teachers (they do exist, and liberal arts colleges like to snap up them up), need to be encouraged to help fix our catastrophically broken secondary system instead of taking undervalued adjunct work, if they would be willing to do so. Many aren't because training and credentialing are not part of their Ph.D. programs, so the opportunity doesn't exist.

I also agree that many professors/researchers/Ph.D.s can't teach as well as some people who have been explicitly educated to be secondary educators. My aunt and uncle have a combined 60 years - nearly a lifetime - of experience in public schoolteaching. I could not do their job right now: I am not trained for it. (Yes, I know that, Uncle Mitch, despite certain protestations.) That is why I respect public high school teachers, and think that training should be available for those Ph.D.s who want to emulate them.

However, some Ph.Ds, and graduate students CAN teach as well.

How do I know that?

Because who teaches so many of the remedial courses - in, say, writing and study skills - that some (many) college freshmen often need to make up for deficiencies in their education that even great teachers are institutionally unable to overcome, like high student-teacher ratio?

Ph.Ds. and graduate students, that's who.

Also, because many private school teachers, who don't need the same certification, are Ph.D.s. (and a few graduate students), and some parents PAY for their expertise, so, rightly or wrongly, it's considered better than what public schools offer.

So my demand that we (a) respect secondary school public teachers and (b) provide opportunities for Ph.D. students to earn skills and qualifications to join them.

In short: hey, university department heads: give me the chance to teach high school after doing some research, and I will give you better prepared, enthusiastic, informed freshmen.

And hey government: remember that Chronicle article about adjuncts on food stamps? Wouldn't it make more sense to pay them to teach high school?

Although teaching would help those adjuncts, this suggestion is not seeing public schools as a drop off point for Ph.D. grads who didn't get tenure track posts or want to go "alt."

It's about saving American education at all levels.


Here's the real issue as I see it. We are trained for research, and yet some of us long to teach also. As a Phd in History, I know that my good job offers are going to come based on my research, so where does that leave my love of teaching? It pushes that career goal to the back burner. I know that if I want to teach, first I must exel at research. And if I excel at research, how much room does that leave for actual instruction in the classroom? How much time will I really spend conversing with students? How deeply will I engage with their needs and look for ways to help further their own dreams? If I'm really looking for a place in academia, I have to forget about the students. After five years of graduate education, I understand all too clearly how easy it is to leave the students behind and focus on my work. Do I spend fifteen minutes grading each paper, or do I only spend seven? 

Maria wrote above that "PhDs are not equivalent to educators" and "We need to begin to reassess the values of "career"." I think one concrete method of tackling this issue of teaching vs resesarch is to first of all, ACKNOWLEDGE THAT THE RESEARCH/TEACHING DIVIDE EXISTS. - I put that in caps intentionally to draw your attention. Some PhDs want to teach, and some want to do research. Some want to do both, and they are the holy grail in my book. But the ones who want to teach must pretend they want to do research in order to land a job. And those who just want to research are usually abysmal teachers and undergraduates will drop their courses in droves.

How can we fix this divide? 

I have some thoughts, but I'd love to hear your suggestions...



Love the idea to look to 'marginal' departments like Ethnic Studies and Performance Studies to see how they've built a loyal, active and invested group of scholars. 

Want to pull this out for emphasis:

Part of my frustration is being in classes that are designed to teach students, rather than classes that are designed to foster a supportive environment for people already engaged in multiple forms of rich intellectual and artistic production. The best ideas I've heard come out of these conversations have been to redesign our curriculum to be focused around a studio model, where each student is assumed to be working on their own projects which may be art, writing, performance, technology, and they are asked to present what they are working on twice or three times in a semester.

The studio model is so fantastic. It's almost like an extended unconference -- folks are working on their own projects, but in conversation and collaboration with others. New texts and histories are taught and learned as they come up organically through the process. 

One of the professors at our school (in Women's Studies) started an 'article class' for advanced feminist theory graduate students. Students brought their paper or article in progress, and they were workshopped throughout the semester. But this was done in tandem with reading other important, genre-breaking, or unique articles from the field of Women's Studies -- we dissected the writing itself, to learn how and why they worked as they did. Such a fantastic experience -- got us over the anxiety of sharing our work in progress, and showed us that ALL blockbuster writing started in messy drafts!



I completely agree with you that the studio model is a powerful tool for education.  Also called situated learning, or more colloquially "learning by doing", the idea that students are empowered to work on what they wish, in the way they wish, at the time they wish is highly motivating to many students.  However, I want to provide a few cautionary thoughts on this model.  In education, there is a continuum that (roughly) stretches from highly standardized, scripted, methodical curriculum all the way to highly individual, unplanned, natural and freeform curriculum.  Through the years, the US has oscillated between these two philosophies many times.  However, as is the case in almost all things in life, the middle ground is where the real solution lies.  The trick, of course, is getting the precise combination of traits from both ends of the spectrum that results in really effective teaching and learning.  

Back to your post specifically, I would argue that the studio model is very far to the freeform side of this continuum.  I was thinking about how you said, earlier today, that "HASTAC Scholars are known as the most innovative, helpful and invested students" (Thank you!), and it occurred to me that perhaps their is a tendency or bias among our organization towards this kind of learning experience.  I say this because the more open-ended a class is, the more it requires the students themselves to be competent at that subject in particular and at "doing" school in general.  HASTAC Scholars love school - they are in college or graduate school, they are recognized by their professors as excellent students, and they are personally motivated to learn.  Thus, we are an ideal group to capitalize on the freedom given to us by a studio model of learning.

I am not saying the studio model should not be used; it should.  Rather, I want to add to this idea that in order to have a successful open-ended class, each student needs to be explicitly taught what content needs to be in their individual projects, how to generate ideas that effectively capitalize on the intersection between their own interests and learning style(s) and that content, and how to work through issues or problems they encounter while working on their own.  Students need modeling from their teachers on how to do this, practice with their peers, and practice on their own...before they are going to be really successful in a studio model of learning.  Some students will be more skilled at this initially than others, but all students will benefit from mastering the techniques needed for this kind of self-directed learning.  In fact, once they really grasp how it works, I think they will push or ask for it as an option even in their more traditional classes.  

Thanks for a great idea and a great post, Fiona!


I agree with your assessment of the studio model.  It really is a fantastic (as you say) way to bring students together in collaboration with one another for not only individual project development but also common growth.  Students are granted so much agency when they are asked to bring their own work to the table that there is a different kind of investment made on their parts -- and different kinds of opportunities for success. I think Tyler is right that execution is key: there has to be some kind of uniting thread, as in the case that Fiona describes. But in my opinion the benefits far outweigh the dangers.  As someone in an English department, I think we can have graduate "studio" courses that complement our surveys and topics courses in really productive ways.  

We'll have a class at FSU in the spring similar to the one Fiona described, and I'm looking forward to taking it.


While I'd love to see changes to graduate school programs that make them more productive for alt-ac positions; and  digital dissertations, etc., if I could change one thing, it would be to add courses and/or structure that emphasize metacognition, and help graduate students develop greater emotional and self-literacy. 

If these courses are taught at all, then they're a staple of the undergraduate curriculum -- a required course for freshmen -- but I think they would be just as beneficial at the graduate school level -- and possibly even more necessary. An MA/PhD program is difficult not only because it's a lot of work -- but because it involves work (in terms of developing long-term research projects, learning to recover from both successes and failures (since success is a stressor, too) in the process of completing long-term research projects across multiple years, and learning to professionalize oneself) that most graduate students have little experience doing. The assumption is that they'll pick these skills up by osmosis, or else, get a mentor -- but even finding a mentor and being mentored are already-complex tasks that are further complicated by the baggage of job-related anxiety and the challenges of navigating in a competitive and overscheduled environment. In short, the fears that Nate Kreuter describes in his Inside Higher Ed column from last month are major components of graduate education. From what I can see, right now they largely serve as a weeding-out mechanism: people who get too scared and can't hack it either drop out or just never finish. We assume that self-autonomy in academia is something that graduate students either have, or don't have, or develop through mysterious influence.

I feel like there's so much I'm not saying, and like all the assertions that I'm making so far need to be backed up, and I've got students showing up for office hours in 11 minutes -- but I'll try and come back and add more (or clarify and answer questions) later on.


"The assumption is that they'll pick these skills up by osmosis, or else, get a mentor -- but even finding a mentor and being mentored are already-complex tasks..."

Paige, I think your comments bring out a really important issue: the degree to which any graduate program or curriculum rests on certain assumptions not only about where people are going, but about who these grad students are.

Faculty and administrators often emphasize professionalization as one goal of a graduate program. (This is usually code for employability of students as tenure-track academics.) But, setting aside the question of whether we'll be able to talk more easily in future about plural professions as valid trajectories for humanities scholars, I have noted that "professionalization" conversations continually cycle between discussions of students' preparedness for research activity and ones about their basic grounding in the content of the program -- in other words, they stall on their intellectual backgrounds. I have been taking part in a number of productive and (I think) potentially fruitful conversations about graduate education reform this year, and I can't recall any one yet raising the question not of intellectual backgrounds, but of socio-economic ones, and to what degree "professionalization" means "socialization."  We spend a lot of time talking about the technical skills we suspect no-one has yet had the opportunity to acquire. What do our genteel social systems assume that "everybody" in grad school already knows about, feels fluent in?


Thanks to the organizers of the forum: the questions and provocations are ranging and challenging.  I'm not certain where to dive in.  So, I'll begin with a little bit about me: As a newly minted PhD (just defended November 5, 2012), I haven't really had a chance to totally reflect on my graduate education (if that is even possible).  But a couple of things are clear to me: I enjoyed my time (mostly) in my program, my department, and in my work; I generally felt supported and the moments/places where I did not I found help, stopgaps, and/or figured it out on my own; I think my process and experience and dissertation were "worth" it regardless of job prospects; and I want to continue in the academy, really would like to get a tenure track job, genuinely want to teach and do research, but I don't expect or feel entitled to any of it.  That being said, I think the best takeaway off the top of my head here is stakes.  Somewhere I figured out what the stakes of my education are, what the stakes of my pedagogy are, what the stakes of my work are, and what the stakes of participating and/or resisting the institution(s) are--a mess (in a good way) of the personal, political, and intellectual.  I think higher education and graduate education "works" best (and I really do want to fuss at any rhetoric of instrumentalization, commodification, efficiency, and corporatization) when the system and the student can fashion and find the edges of their stakes.  I do this because... I contribute this because... I love this because... I change this because... Granted, much of a person's stakes in their education often become overburdened or overshadowed by funding woes, work load, life (im)balances, lack of X, Y, or Z.  But I think that the folks that I see doing well are the ones that have been able to articulate or got help in articulating what the different stakes in their programs and work are...


I'm particularly interested in the many fantastic questions raised at the #transformDH panel at the ASA in Puerto Rico. Many fantastic HASTAC folks were present including Fiona, Alexis and Amanda and a main focus, as I understood it, was on the lack of deep considerations of race and gender in much digital humanities academic work, and the dangers of focusing too much on the technology to the detriment of not considering it's social, ethical and political implications. I came away from that panel with a great feeling that I'm not alone in this part of academia and that there are a lot of other amazing scholars working to transform graduate and undergraduate programs that are emerging in and around the digital humanities. I said that I think we should look to Ethnic Studies as a model for how to change our universities to reflect the curriculum we want, as they have a long history of struggle over the meaning of the university and what counts as legitimate questions and areas of study. 

More close to home, I've recently been working with other people in my department, including HASTAC scholar Adam Liszckiewicz to discuss our visions for what a theory/practice PhD in media art should look like. Part of my frustration is being in classes that are designed to teach students, rather than classes that are designed to foster a supportive environment for people already engaged in multiple forms of rich iltellectual and artistic production. The best ideas I've heard come out of these conversations have been to redesign our curriculum to be focused around a studio model, where each student is assumed to be working on their own projects which may be art, writing, performance, technology, and they are asked to present what they are working on twice or three times in a semester. The reading in these classes would be minimal, because we're each already doing our own reading for our PhD research and our publications. I'm hopeful that this is a model that can be adopted in our program and might serve to be useful in other theory/practice programs, such as art PhD's.

In our department this makes sense because we all already have MFA's, have taught at other universities and many of us are practicing artists. I think it also makes sense in many other cases because even many of our undergraduate students are already engaged with their own intellectual production, be it activism, video blogging, MMOPRG game additions or poetry and performance. I am inspired by writers like Paolo Friere, bell hooks and Augusto Boal and hope to work towards a more horizontal or transversal space in academia that can be enabled by technology and leave the banking model of education behind. Students, especially grad students, don't need information shoveled into their heads in our age of oversaturation, they need resources and direction. 


"the lack of deep considerations of race and gender in much digital humanities academic work."

Having dropped a DH class 9 weeks into a 12 week term because I don't own an Ipad or a portable computer and was the only student in the class who would have needed to use a crowded, limited-hours, one-room departmental computer lab to finish a project that required the use of expensive software after my free trial had run out, I agree. You stare at five Ipads and one Air while trying to take notes on paper and type on your phone and start correlating cynically sometimes.


"the lack of deep considerations of race and gender in much digital humanities academic work."

Having dropped a DH class 9 weeks into a 12 week term because I don't own an Ipad or a portable computer and was the only student in the class who would have needed to use a crowded, limited-hours, one-room departmental computer lab to finish a project that required the use of expensive software after my free trial had run out, I agree. You stare at five Ipads and one Air while trying to take notes on paper and type on your phone and start correlating cynically sometimes.


Thanks Micha for bringing up studio practice as a model for PhD coursework. I too come from a studio arts background (MFA)- and my own learning and teaching has always been practice-based, even at the undergraduate level.

As both Micha and Tyler rightly point out-  the studio practice has certain limitations- it is an easy move to studio practice when students already come from an arts background. It can be difficult for students who have no experience with it to be comfortable taking on something that seems so open.  Finding a space in-between is difficult- and changes depending on the students in the room - just like using any other teaching practice.  

I have been teaching undergraduates within a model that I call ‘theoretical practice’  - where there is a mix of learning, thinking, and experimenting. Essentially, I use the studio model as one methodology amongst many - the goal is to help students take the questions they are asking about course content and to experiment with various technologies (in a structured fashion) to answer them in multiple ways over the course of the semester.  The point is not to learn to code, or a skill-set such as a piece of software, but rather to think through how the media/tech works conceptually.  So- students don’t build/code a technology, nor do I ‘teach’ them software - instead we focus on the concepts that are deployed by and through the tools, not the tools themselves. Then, they take their questions about the course content and they answer those questions through the tech we are experimenting with.

Here’s an example from my Digital Queers course I taught last semester:

Students created experimental visual media by asking questions about LGBTQ identities formation (based on course readings/discussion) and then discussed these questions in relation to image-as-object (also based on course readings and discussion), and then finally, they made narrative slide shows to answer the questions they were asking.  Students shared these with each other in class, and wrote a critical analysis of their process and the decisions they made. (I wrote a post last year describing my theoretical studio practice in much more detail)

So, how does this translate to the graduate level? I am currently in a doctoral program where most people come from more traditional humanities programs- so although there are ‘incursions’ if you will - into practice - practice is not a core methodology. Although I have found this frustrating, this is not to blame my program, the faculty, or the students- I chose a highly theoretical activist department because I wanted to spend some time thinking, and knew I would have to turn to other spaces to create work while I write for my program.  However, in the context of this forum, what would it mean for graduate humanities classes to include a theoretical studio practice? How might we actualize this when our faculty and classmates may be unfamiliar with these processes? How can we provide/receive constructive feedback and critique - a necessary part of a studio practice- when people are unfamiliar with how this works?

(*note- edited 8pm est to fix spelling mistakes)


Micha, Jarah, and the others in this thread.


I like your focus on bringing studio art conventions into technical education.  Traditionally, computer sicence courses have had 'Lab' sections where a well-defined problem is presented and solved.  Evolving this into a 'studio' environment like Jarah has done encourages the experementation and creativity that I think are crucial for students to develop expertise and lasting interest.




Thank you for pointing us to your "6 things" post from last year, Jarah. I really enjoyed reading it, and --- like you --- I've been wondering how studio-based courses and practices translate to the graduate level. In the near future, I'd like to facilitate an applied media theory seminar for graduate students, and courses like Digital Queers are inspiring.

My question for you, then, is: What might be some ways to ease theoretical studio practice into graduate programs in the humanities? The impulse for this question is based on the observation that change almost always comes both gradually and in small bits. So, based on your already extensive experience, what might be some of those small bits for studio-based practice? How could we think small toward big change? 

Thanks for your time! 



As you know, I couldn't agree more with your comments. :)


One change that I would like to see is a shift in law school curricula from litigation-based education to including more classes applicable to the practice of transactional law.  Many law students would like to practice in the business field, and a curriculum structured to train litigators is ill-suited to developing the skills needed for negotiating and drafting complex transactional documents.  Most students learn from practical experience on the job, perhaps during their 2L summer, but more educational opportunities prior to graduation would enable these students to approach the workforce with more preparation and confidence.  Furthermore, it would give students something to talk about when trying to obtain transactional jobs in interviews, rather than stating why you might like to work in the business field.

Additionally, enhancing the credibility of online sources for legal research, from Westlaw and Lexis to blogs and websites should be tailored to suit the sophistication of today's technology.  Many online sources have become more academic and scholarly, yet they are shunned by the legal community, and it's time to adopt a more up to date attitude.


Not sure I agree with the previous comment about forced retirement.  In Canada, I'm not sure the job market for academics would benefit directly from forced retirement (call it what you like) because I'm not sure I have confidence that universities are hiring new faculty as full time permenant positions across all faculties when people leave or retire.  I'm alarmed by the number of jobs that are silently deferred to part time, sessional teachers, and how much of that workload ends up on the shoulders to teaching assitants.

In the same line of reasoning, if I could change one thing about graduate school it would be limits on the number of hours that graduate students are allowed to work on for the university for research projects.  I'm not sure how widely applicable this is, but I've encountered it, I know others have too.  I think that it's counter productive for researchers at a university to not be able to hire someone for more than X hours a week when the student and research projects could ultimately both benefit.  Universities need to do a better job of monitoring "diversional" work such as marking and as such allow students the ability to work on research projects as the projects demand to a reasonable degree.  I think particularly when the work is closely related to the work the student if doing for their thesis.  Limiting the number of hours, I personally don't think reflects the reality that is the rising cost of living and school for students.  Graduate students at many universities in Canada are forced to live so far below the poverty line it's no wonder so many graduate with an obscene amount of debt.  And with jobs being so scarce upon graduation, shouldn't the university work with the student to ensure they graduate in a reasonable amount of time with as low debt load as possible (if the student is willing and capable enough to work)?

As far as general quality of life at a university goes, I cannot stress enough the importance of digitzing all paperwork!  Whether it's paper submissions, registration, directed reading proposals, paying parking tickets, and as many course books as possible should be available online under a unified login system.  It is amazing how much more efficiently I can manage my time when I don't have to track down a printer and a fax machine just because one particular form hasn't gone digital yet.  And digital dissertations, absolutely.  There obviously must be strict requirements and redundancies but it doesn't matter.   Manual and paper processes, lineups for financial documents, all of that is hardest on the people who are trying to work while putting themselves through school.

I realize these are not novel ideas, but sometimes I feel that the solution isn't new programs and new research if the current research isn't being properly supported.


Andrew - totally agree about the reality that positions are not being replaced with full-time tracks -- they're often filled with visiting positions, or a series of adjunct hires. Have you seen the Adjunct Project? They're building a crowdsourced database of pay + benefits as adjuncts at universities across the US. It would be awesome if we could add Canadian schools as well. 




What a fantastic forum topic! Thank you for providing a space for feedback, immagination, and advocacy for alternative workshop spaces and academic experiences that can better support graduate students in new media, digital humanities, and science and technology studies! It is fitting that HASTAC hosts such a forum because I see the pedagogical work of the HASTAC scholars program as a crucial model of what graduate education in our respective fields should be. The learning opportunities that HASTAC fosters is tremendous and helps shapes our ability to re-imagine our own graduate education and the academy as a space of transformation.  
I will answer one of prompts above by sharing the CFP of a workshop I co-convened with my Feminist Science Studies graduate colleage at UCSC Martha Kenney, entitled Mutated Text. More information below. 
Mutated Text: a cross-genre creative writing workshop 
Improper Informalities :: Strange Writing :: Eclectic Ties

Following the inaugural Science Studies Creative Writing Workshop convened by Martha Kenney at UCSC, with scholars such as Donna Haraway and Karen Barad in attendance, we are holding a second workshop at UC Berkeley. With a special focus on process not product, we hope to foster a space of support and a community of scholars interested in trying out experimental forms of writing. New Media Studies scholars and all others, are welcome and encouraged to produce multimodal digital forms for scholarly expression.

Interested scholars and artists should send an email to both Margaret Rhee and Martha Kenney to reserve your spot. Reservations will be accepted until Monday, March 19, 2012 and on a rolling basis, until the workshop is filled.  Please place in the subject line: Mutated Text Submission and 1 - 2 sentences of why you’d like to participate in the workshop and your affiliation.  Everyone who submits will be accepted.  All participants are asked to submit a short ms. of experimental writing (less than 900 words) or a URL for digital pieces by Wednesday, March 28th, which will be circulated and read by workshop participants before we convene.

The workshop will be held on April 6th from 12:00 – 3 p.m.  Optional dinner and gathering in Berkeley evening.  Lunch and parking for out of towners will be provided.  Location will be at UC Berkeley, Sutardja Dai Hall, TBA.  Special science fiction writers and cross-genre guests TBA.  We look forward to hearing from you!

The workshop was renegade.  
After her amazing organizing at UCSC in 2011, Martha and I decided we needed this workshop again.  We met at UCSC and worked together again at the UC Humanities Research Institute Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory at the University of Hawaii.  During our time at SECT, we were able to dialogue and generate more ideas through the inspiring seminar. I feel blessed to know Martha whose scholarship and organizing praxis within the academy I admire greatly. After SECT, we wanted to collaborate and make the science studies writing workshop happen again. This time, Martha suggested we hold it in Berkeley in hopes to having a cross-UC collaboration of the workshop. We wanted to hold the workshop in large part because we knew there would be other graduate students in the fields of Science and Technology Studies and New Media who needed a supportive space as well.
After we sent out the CFP and the day arrived, we ended up with graduate students from over seven institutions across California including UCLA, UC Davis, Claremont, UCSC, UCSF, in addition to UC Berkeley and others. Local technologists, artists, and indepent scholars attended as well. I had posted online at HASTAC and even had a HASTACer visiting on that day but unfortunately at the end could not make it. 
Our sponsors Center for Race and Gender, Berkeley Center for New Media, and Science, Technology, & Society Center provided lunch for all participants. They also provided the political and intellectual framing of our workshop.  UC Humanities Research Instititue provided crucial funds so we can pay a modest stipend to our guest local feminist science fiction writers.  We were indepted to faculty at UC Berkeley and UCSC who were innnovative writers and scholars that joined us without any honoaria, to help provide an intimate workshop for the gathering of about 35 graduate students: Mel Y. Chen, Cecil Giscombe, Roxi Power Hamilton, and Ronaldo Wilson. It was truly an inspiring time! 
Organizing the space was a generative experience and demonstrated how those working in New Media, STS, and DH at times, must recreate our graduate education into the one we need. The beautiful experience of working together with other graduate students interested in Mutated Texts made us feel less alone in our higher educational institutions and ready to make change in our own work and institutions as well. I have more to write on the trajectory of organizing the workshop and why such a workshop may not exist within the academy. And how organizations like HASTAC, UCHRI, and CRG are critical for graduate education. But for now, I wanted to share this information. We hope to convene Mutated Text II next year as well and love more HASTACers to join. We also realize it was a lot of work, worthwhile work, to make MT happen. I am hoping a forum like this would help make alternative workshop spaces more possible in terms of resources and guidance as well.
For more information: 
The Berkeley Center for New Media wrote a post about the workshop and asked for photographs as well: 
One of our graduate participants Andrea Horbinski of the HIstory Dept at UC Berkeley wrote about the workshop here:

Wow! This is fantastic, Margaret. Thanks for sharing Mutated Text. I'm especially keen on how you're intersecting STS, media studies, and DH. Hope all's well. 


Throughout an undergrad program and two graduate programs I have often been shocked at the actual lack of teaching skills many professors have. Maria Cipollone reminded me of this fact when I read her post. While obviously great subject matter experts at their field of expertise, so many are simply unaware of principles and best practices to faciliate learning.

As I have BSEd, I was inundated with theoretical and practical techniques to employ to facilitate learning in the classroom. One example is simply for the lecturer not to discuss additional material when students are copying notes from a board or presentation. Seemingly obvious, lecturers do this with constant regularity.

I have thought for years, but am now reminded of my idea that graduating PhDs who plan to teach should be required to take at least one formal education class. In this class they would learn theoretical and practical applications specific to the art of teaching. It would certainly help in the transmission of knowledge and prepare future professors for sucess in actually transmitting knowledge.


I completely agree that there should be more formal opportunities for PhD students to learn teaching skills just as we learn research skills. I imagine that many departments try to outfit new Teaching Assistants with basic ideas for how to lead discussion, and how to design a syllabus, and even how to engage with different pedagogical styles (we do some of each in the History Dept. at Stanford). But this just scratches the surface of teaching, which for many graduates will become the dominant element in their post-grad employment. 

At Stanford, there is an initiative to link the Arts/Humaniites with the Ed school to provide an opportuntiy for PhDs to participate in STEP (Stanford Teacher Education Program). STEP would prepare PhDs to enter education fields outside of/in addition to higher ed. This is a fantastic idea, but it is limiting: the focus in STEP is on primary and secondary education, and so we continue to lack access to the Ed school resources when it comes to learning about higher ed pedagogy. Also housed in the Stanford Ed school is SHEG (Stanford History Education Group, run by Sam Wineburg). This is an extremely important research group that produces teaching materials for History classrooms, and yet - at least from my perspective as a non-Americanist - there is almost no coordination between the History department and SHEG. Why aren't we learning from each other? 

This year I have begun working as a writing tutor in our campus writing center. The basic training I received at the start of the year opened my eyes to the kinds of pedagogical discussions going on in other Humanities departments. Seeing how English PhDs were preparing to enter the academic workforce, with strong, practical experience in different mentoring/teaching methods has made me question our focus in the history department on   course design and discussion leadership: if most history courses are writing intensive, why aren't we learning how to teach our students how to write effective history? Discipline-specific training in the assignments we expect students to produce - and experimenting with the form and function of these assignments - would be such a benefit to graduate students. Before we write a syllabus, shouldn't we understand the components of that course better? Writing is just one example: we need to break down teaching into different practices: lecturing, discussion, student activities, writing assignments, digital and multimedia work, studio work, experiential or community learning. The traditional discussion section is necessary, but it's not all that there is to teaching the humanities to undergraduates. We need to be equipped with the skills to address the full spectrum of learning opportunities so that students leave classes with diverse communication skills in addition to disciplinary knowledge.



In the United States, classes often tackle a huge amount of material, but by doing so they sacrifice any real depth of study of the key ideas in that field or mastery of the key skills of that field.  College, one might hope, would be different.  Yet, all too often, undergraduate and even graduate classes cover extensive amounts of content and have students read large numbers of books and articles, the professors confusing “rigor” with effective teaching and then using tests to prove students mastery over this sea of digested content by assessing their recall of the most inconsequential minutia covered in the class.  Perhaps this is because it is assumed that knowing these facts “proves” the student deeply read or interacted with the material and now has true long-term comprehension and mastery of that subject?  Further, teachers and professors alike often resort to lecturing with densely packed powerpoint presentations, often read word-for-word, and then assigning dozens of readings each term.  Why do they do this?  I think that they feel pressured to cover much more in their class than they know students can really learn through authentic learning experiences – so they don’t try.


So what is to be done?  The question I want to answer in this forum is this: “Can you identify a rather small change that would have big impact on higher education or your own academic life?”




At first, I was tempted to approach this question through the lens of my thesis.  I wanted to talk about all the ways teachers and professors can change their classes to take advantage of key ideas that, when utilized, make student learning a transformative experience.  Ah, but that wouldn’t be a small change, would it?  Instead, I want to propose a small change that will nonetheless be very difficult to achieve.


Professors need to reduce the material they cover in their classes. 


I don’t mean the classes should be easier or have less work; they should not.  I mean professors (all teachers, really) need to use their professional knowledge and mastery of their field of study as a lens by which to critically analyze what they are being asked to teach in any particular class. Then, using that lens, they should distill that classes content into a small enough number of key ideas and skills that, in the course of the class, students will be able to achieve a lasting understanding, appreciation of and proficiency with those key traits.  Rather than forgetting 90% of what they have learned after cramming for exams to prove the efficacy of their short-term memories, the students will remember 90% of the (much smaller) amount of content and skills they have been shown for a lifetime.  Further, what they learn and remember will not be a random assortment of concepts and vocabulary.  Instead, it will be a deep understanding of the overarching framework of and reasons for a given field of study.  It will be real, practiced skills that professionals in that field use every day.  It will be situated, contextualized and meaningful key vocabulary, concepts and big ideas from that field of study.  This hypothetical student will not appear, by looking at their class syllabus, to have “learned” as much as a traditional student…but they will have in actuality learned much, much more.


It is a dangerous statement, I believe, for teachers or professors to speak out about curriculum being too hard for students.  These kinds of statements are invariably met with counter-arguments about students these days being incompetent or lazy, the teacher making this statement themself being incompetent or lazy, or both.  In fact, as a future educator myself, I found it difficult to write this for fear of that very reaction.  Still, I think that as much as educators focus on how to effectively teach content to students, it is just as valuable to think about what content we teach them as well.  I also fully acknowledge that educators often lack the agency to meaningfully change what is being taught, and thus focus on how they teach instead.  A possible solution, if you are faced with significant pressure to teach an overwhelming amount of content to your students, is to decide what is important, and teach students that first.  Then, as you go through the remaining material, have your assignments and tests focus on the student applying those key concepts and skills to that material to demonstrate their understanding and mastery.  You will be covering “all” the material while simultaneously providing ample opportunities for the students to practice the really important concepts and skills in that field. 


Have a comment or suggestion?  Please share it below!



I agree, Maria, that incentivizing cannot make people honestly want to do things they don't like doing.

However, in the long run, identifying the Ph.D.s who DO want to teach, and want to learn to be good teachers (they do exist, and liberal arts colleges like to snap up them up), need to be encouraged to help fix our catastrophically broken secondary system instead of taking undervalued adjunct work, if they would be willing to do so. Many aren't because training and credentialing are not part of their Ph.D. programs, so the opportunity doesn't exist.

I also agree that many professors/researchers/Ph.D.s can't teach as well as some people who have been explicitly educated to be secondary educators. My aunt and uncle have a combined 60 years - nearly a lifetime - of experience in public schoolteaching. I could not do their job right now: I am not trained for it. (Yes, I know that, Uncle Mitch, despite certain protestations.) That is why I respect public high school teachers, and think that training should be available for those Ph.D.s who want to emulate them.

However, some Ph.Ds, and graduate students CAN teach as well.

How do I know that?

Because who teaches so many of the remedial courses - in, say, writing and study skills - that some (many) college freshmen often need to make up for deficiencies in their education that even great teachers are institutionally unable to overcome, like high student-teacher ratio?

Ph.Ds. and graduate students, that's who.

Also, because many private school teachers, who don't need the same certification, are Ph.D.s. (and a few graduate students), and some parents PAY for their expertise, so, rightly or wrongly, it's considered better than what public schools offer.

So my demand that we (a) respect secondary school public teachers and (b) provide opportunities for Ph.D. students to earn skills and qualifications to join them.

In short: hey, university department heads: give me the chance to teach high school after doing some research, and I will give you better prepared, enthusiastic, informed freshmen.

And hey government: remember that Chronicle article about adjuncts on food stamps? Wouldn't it make more sense to pay them to teach high school?

Although teaching would help those adjuncts, this suggestion is not seeing public schools as a drop off point for Ph.D. grads who didn't get tenure track posts or want to go "alt."

It's about saving American education at all levels.


If I could change one thing about Higher Ed, it would be to put an increased emphasis on social media tools for cross-institutional learning.  It’s hard for graduate students to get enough money to attend conferences (especially if they want to go to more than one per year), so having additional opportunities to attend webinars or online chat sessions with scholars and students at other institutions would be a nice supplement.

At my current institution (Washington State University) our faculty do a fabulous job of inviting guest speakers via Skype and Google hangout into our graduate classrooms and professional development workshops.  I find these sessions invaluable as they help me meet other scholars in my field (rhetoric and composition) and to generate new research and teaching ideas.  I often wish, however, that there were even more opportunities for moments like these. 
Finally, I want to switch gears and end by commenting on a statement that Miriam Martin makes above regarding the divide between research and teaching. One of the reasons I moved from literature to the field of rhetoric and composition is because I enjoy teaching students immensely.  I also find a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction in the fact that much of my research centers on student learning.  It seems odd to me that so many other fields fail to connect these dots.  Like Miriam, I wonder: “Why can’t teaching, to some extent, count as research”?  I frankly spend far more time researching, reading, and experimenting with classroom pedagogies than I do producing scholarly articles.  Shouldn’t that count for something?  (Again, I’m lucky that it usually does in my field, but it seems absurd that it often doesn’t in others.)
I too would like to hear other folk's thoughts on this issue. 


I don't feel comfortable speaking for departments outside my own, but as far as DH and English Lit/Creative Writing goes, I don't think it's possible to point to ONE specific thing I'd change about those programs. One change won't upend the system, the underlying structure, the accepted epistemologies, which dictate things like periodization, tenure requirements, and everything that puts academics in boxes. 

I happen to be reading Gary Hall's Digitize This Book! at the moment, and some of what he says [though he claims to be writing specifically toward Cultural Studies] is highly relevant to me and my concerns with the academy. Hall is discussing the politics of open access and the problems inherent in a shift to the digital. He addresses specifically the current system of publication in the humanities: 

Yet must we really insist that digital texts conform to the standards and hierarchies of the paper world so that we might be able to understand and judge them and hence possibly include them in a cultural studies open-access archive? Is this not to take too little account of the ways in which electronic writing and publishing may differ from that of ink-on-paper, and thus risk restricting the production, publication, and even understanding of electronic texts to that which is merely a repetition of the same, or at least of the very similar? is there not a very real danger here of ignoring or excluding anything that is new, different, innovative, or exceptional, any heterogeneous excess that cannot be recuperated within the logic of identity? To understand the potential of, and the possibilities created by, digital modes of reproduction and publication, shouldn't we also require a certain openness to alterity, to the unknown, the unpredictable, and unexpected, to precisely that which cannot be recognized and subsumed under the familiar? (63)

This is what I came to graduate school to confront. Our environments are changing and the structures of our seminars, our departments, our conferences, our journals, our presses, need to change, too. But we're so stuck in this system that it often seems as if we only have the tools of that system at our disposal, and we therefore need to find a way out of the feedback loop.

This issue that Hall explores does not only have implications in the vacuum of the technologies and innovations of digital works. It has major implications ethically and politically for race, gender, sexuality, etc, in the academy. 

On a personal note:

Fortunately my program is highly supportive of interdisciplinary work, but I find that the English Department at my institution has not dealt with the above matters, and I have been looking outside the department for my future coursework. It would be nice if departmental structures weren't so rigid so that I wouldn't have to take classes in several different departments to fulfill coursework applicable to my area of interest. The traditional organization of institutions by "departments" seems to cause a lot of tension and bureaucratic related difficulty when a lot of us in different departments seem to be doing quite similar, often complimentary work to each other.




One of the things I would like to see encouraged more, on a systematic basis, is open collaboration among and between students, faculty, programs, and departments.  The opportunities are there, and this kind of collaboration happens a lot as is (even systematically at some institutions, as we know).  But it would be nice if open collaboration was a priority expressed by *all* departments for their graduate students.  In other words (and honestly, I don't know how it would work, but since we're aiming for the sky...), what if in addition to (or--gasp!--instead of) the thesis or the dissertation graduate students in the humanities were required to participate in a collaborative project (different from in-class group work) of some kind with someone inside and outside their department/major?  Systematizing collaborative work in this way would go a long way toward eliminating the perpetuation of the solitary author/researcher/genius myth and would put an institutional emphasis on humanities collaboration that from my vantage point has so much potential that is simply wasted.  Just my thought this Saturday morning.

On a side-note, the English department at FSU is hosting a workshop/MLA-preamble this Wednesday on "Getting Started in the Digital Humanities," led by Dr. Paul Fyfe and with perspectives from other faculty (and also from yours truly).  I'll be interested to see what other ideas are added here, as I'm sure many will be appropriate to discuss in the workshop.  I'll provide a full report afterwards for those who are interested!


Mentioned this in a response to a later post, but at an interdisciplinary studies conference this fall, heard a doc student present on the collaborative dissertation format at U of Idaho - IGERT program: Seemed pretty cool in concept, don't know how it has worked in practice, i think it's in its first or second cohort. But sounds promising...


Hi everyone, 

I'm particularly interested in the way that English Departments/Humanities Departments might be more amenable to one form of digital inquiry than others. The question I often have to the #transformdh collective involve how they define the digital humanities - as opposed to, say, computers and writing or media studies. If you look at the latter two fields, critical theory is often and powerfully employed. And it isn't simply a question of building (on the DH side) vs. writing about media (on the comp and writing/media studies side). I know scholars working in both media studies and comp and writing who design databases, construct GIS mapping projects - and do so in ways that include critical reflection. For example, one scholar I know configures metadata schemes that intersect w/ the concerns of Native American communities. Further, questions that DH scholars pose (like how do digital projects work with tenure) have been addressed by the comp and writing community. See, for example, the work of Cheryl Ball. 

I ask this because both media studies and computers and writing have been more easily incorporated and less hyped - traditionally speaking - than digital humanities in English and literary studies departments. Both the resistance to, and the hype surrounding, DH seem to be more heightened than these other fields. There seems to be some way in which DH more directly confronts the assumptions of traditional fields - that mirrors neither media studies nor comp and writing. 

It's a pretty specific question - and partly selfish - but I do think this question intersects with some of the concerns about the future of the humanities. I feel one of the reasons why DH is so exciting to some administrators is due to the promise of increased grant funding, as if humanities scholars haven't ever applied for grants before. I also think that the research of people in these fields show powerfully that the choice between studying technology and studying culture is a false one. And the discussion of open collaboration by many of the people who have already commented is pretty cool. But let's try to really figure out who we can already collaborate with in order to achieve some of the laudible goals of all of the communities represented here. We need to be better about what work is already out there - and how to use that before we start replicating work. 




Roger, in a recent issue of DHQ, Helen Burgess talks about the reception of digital humanities in English/Comp. and about the possibilities of doing new types of work. I've also noticed colleagues reacting negatively toward DH for shockingly superficial reasons. They want something they can hold in their hand as a sign of authenticity.


I really agree - the "shame" culture is a major problem, especially when opportunities to stay in the academia (or certain tiers of the academia, perhaps I should say) are, in reality, inevitably limited.  I was thinking, this issue extends beyond educational institutions - many grads are going into different industries, which can actually be a great way to build a sound foundation for humanities education. This year I saw many of my colleagues finding alternative career paths as online content (e.g. writing tutoring services) editors, online publication and marketing managers in companies that work on natural language processing technologies... these are great jobs that provide good work environments along with a sense of fulfillment. The thing is, it's kind of hard to know what's out there unless there's a concrete channel of communication, a venue where demands and supplies can be brought to light. For instance, our university started a new program called "bibliotech," the mission of which is to bring the IT industry and the Humanities together, seek ways to share the resources each sector has; there's an annual conference where grads get to meet people from various business entities and learn about positions that require humanities training. I think it would be great if schools (career development centers, especially) actively promote such events, reach out to different industry sectors. 


I often hear people saying "no one's ever going to read my dissertation, except for my committee members and myself"... it's probably true. And, disheartening. Investing so much time and scholarly effort in something no one would really care about. Perhaps the problem is that dissertations are just too long. Reading through a unified body of work could be a daunting task, and of course scholars would rather read books that are already well known in the field... would it make sure sense if Ph.D. students were allowed to produce a collection of articles instead, works that are shorter and complete in their own right, so that they can be readily published through various channels? 


Hi Haerin and all,

Thanks for your post, gave me a good window to jump in, as i've been trying to keep up with this swiftly expanding conversation! I think that your suggestion about a series of articles is starting to be enacted, though i'm blanking on specific examples. I heard a conference presentation this fall on collaborative dissertations, in which they allowed collaborative chapters within dissertations, which were in fact entire series of articles (See the IGERT project at University of Idaho.) 

I'm in the midst of a dissertation in comic book format - which has changed its accessibility and expanded its readership to say the least. (See in progress excerpts at This work argues for the legitimacy of scholarship in visual forms, but is also part of a broader argument about creating scholarly inquiry in multiple modes and pushing on existing boundaries. Along with digital/gaming scholar Anastasia Salter and a group known as Hack the Dissertation, we hosted a session on expanding forms of inquiry to explore and encourage possibilities for making works of meaning, works that extend beyond one's committee (if even read by that!), things that aren't shelved forever, never to be opened by another. (See a synopsis of this here: If we're going to devote this much of our life energy to something, why not have it better reflect our various ways of working and what we truly care deeply about? Thrilled that HASTAC is hosting this discussion and helping support important change... - Nick




Hi Helen,

Thanks for these ideas! I've often thought that if the collab. and individual work I've done writing shorter pieces counted for the PhD, I would have finished much sooner. On the other hand, I think there is something important about having to conceptualize a larger project. Is there a middle ground between articles and the 300 or 400-page dissertation? 

In France (and perhaps elsewhere?) masters theses and doctoral dissertations are read much more often - they are useful scholarly resources that are available in university libraries. The idea of reading a dissertation in the US seems absurd: we generally look for articles and books, and seem to revert to the dissertation only in dire need.

The culture of reliance on monographs in North America could (must?) be an excuse for not creating dissertations that speak to an audience beyond the committee. Nick's comic book dissertation and the new multimedia dissertations that others are producing speak to this need for redefining the dissertation as a useful object with a larger audience. Working with digital tools, including creative digital publishing solutions, encourages dissertation writers to recreate the dissertation as a more public document. 

As you say, we need to consider our readers, and I believe the first step to redefining the dissertation is to identify our audience not simply as our dissertation committee, or (if we are luckly) a job search committee, but as a more inclusive group, even if that group remains discipline-specific. For my own work, I am trying to write a dissertation that speaks to historians in North America as well as in France - and this goal changes the way I have shaped and composed my chapters/data visualizations. 


Hi everyone, 

Because of its central role in the doctoral degree, it's difficult to think about reforming graduate education without considering the purpose and structure of the dissertation. Beyond thinking about length -- which is a good place to start -- what are other ways that a capstone project could better serve graduate students and the academic community, while also ensuring that candidates demonstrate the level of mastery that the doctorate entails? 

A number of comments (such as this one) have mentioned the importance of collaboration, which is frequently absent from humanities study. Perhaps we could imagine a fundamentally collaborative model of the dissertation that would prepare students not only for the intellectual rigors of the discipline, but also for the ways in which they will work in the future -- whether as professors or, more likely, in the wide range of other professions that we pursue after the degree.

The MLA has addressed the question of how to move the dissertation beyond the monograph, and a few people have successfully convinced their departments of the merit of unusual models for their dissertations (see Nick's comment above; Amanda Visconti's advice is also very useful), but it's still pretty uncommon to see. What are some other kinds of projects we could envision? Or, perhaps a better first question -- what skills and knowledge is dissertation intended to demonstrate? (The same could be asked of comprehensive exams, which could also be reformulated in fruitful ways. I've heard of schools structuring comps as a collection of articles, for instance, which I think is great.)

One challenge is to ensure that people on the leading edge of the change don't find their work stigmatized because it doesn't fit the usual mold. Beyond ensuring that advisors and institutions back the work of their graduates, how else can we help people working in experimental modes to be evaluated according to fair standards -- both by their dissertation committee, and by hiring committees and employers?

Thanks, all, for such a rich discussion -- I'm finding a great deal to think about as I read through the comments.


We have talked about allowing for dissertations as a collection of articles. Inertia is a challenge, and sometimes students don't want to do something different than a format thatn understand. 





Hello everyone,

I have read with great interest the comments and suggestions in this forum, and I would like to add my two cents to the discussion.

At Stanford, in the DLCL (Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages), we are given every opportunity to develop our professional profile in order to be as competitive as possible on the job market. I think it is partly the students’ responsibility to find out and use all the resources available to them. I also think, however, that the professors within each department who are working closely with specific students (chairs, advisors, coordinators…) should stay informed about available resources and be able to point students in the right direction.

For example, at Stanford, Professor Elizabeth Bernhardt in the Language Center (an entity separate from the DLCL) teaches a fantastic course on the teaching and learning of second-language literatures whose usefulness many DLCL students ignore. In my opinion, that course should be mandatory for anyone planning to teach literature (even English literature). However, because of the traditional divide between literature and language teaching, graduate students in the DLCL tend to gravitate toward purely literature courses. They obviously do not realize that, once on the job market, what really matters to the hiring committees is not how much they know (the assumption being that they know a lot) but whether they can effectively teach what they know, and how many students they can draw to their courses.

I think, therefore, that one concrete change that could help future literature Ph.D.’s be successful in their job hunts is to bridge (very concretely) the gap between departments, teaching centers, and career development centers so that students can get a better idea of what it means to be a professor of literature and an educator. In today’s job market, where candidates are required to be so much more than just experts on a century or their dissertation topic, experienced professors must be prepared to teach their students more than just how to be good scholars. They must be informed, connected, and open, so that they can direct their graduate students to those courses or programs that will help them develop every aspect of their professional profile.

The Stanford BiblioTech program is doing a great job with this, i.e. offering graduate students opportunities to work in companies in the Silicon Valley and market their literary expertise outside of academia.

Literature Ph.D. students who plan on staying in academia must be shown the resources that will help them grow also as teachers and educators, so that they can secure those academic jobs that are not at the top research institutions (because, realistically, that is where the most jobs are).


Serena Ferrando



Thanks for your post. I'm planning to cite it in conversations promoting our trans-disciplinary doctoral program in Language, Literacy, & Culture. We have eight departments affiliated with us -- split between social science and humanities with strong roots in teaching english as a second language, text analytics, literary and cultural theory, and much more. Our worry is that it will be difficult to place students with an interdisciplinary approach rather than as experts in a single discipline or specific area.






Your contribution above inspired me to write my previous post where I argued that professors must be able to direct students to the right resources.

I wonder if anyone in your department told you of a great resource we have on Stanford campus. The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers several wonderful workshops (taught mostly by Prof. Mariatte Denman) on course design and syllabus creation.

The CTL has liaisons in all different departments on campus (I am the one for the DLCL), so I assume there is one for History as well. 


Serena - Thanks! I am aware of the liaison program, which I think is great. Last year our two CTL liaisons organized a speaker series with teachers of history who are employed in high school and community college settings. They were fantastic. I think CTL really began to ramp up their efforts to connect with graduate student teachers while I was away doing field work, and it's really an effective initiative for getting students to consider themselves as teacher-scholars.

I'm entirely on board with your proposal for stronger relationships between departments and teaching/career centers: I think I repeat some of your ideas in my later post about thinking of universities as laboratories for the dynamic possibilities of PhD career paths. Sometimes it seems like these resources exist too independently of each other, and we need to bring them together for student use: and you're right that students have a responsibility to seek out information just as faculty have a parallel duty to be informed about campus and community opportunities. Until the idea of employment beyond tenure-track is more widespread, I think we need to be proactive about introducing professional training (such as the CTL workshops, or the language course you describe) so that students aren't only reliant on professors to provide them with that information.


Above, Roger writes: "both media studies and computers and writing have been more easily incorporated and less hyped - traditionally speaking - than digital humanities in English and literary studies departments. [...] I also think that the research of people in these fields show powerfully that the choice between studying technology and studying culture is a false one." This comment really gets to the heart of what I want to say, as an English Ph.D. student whose research interests leave her feeling stranded between media studies, C&W, and lit studies. This is my quick attempt to answer the question: How would you rethink graduate education? I'd rethink it by putting new media in a much more central place, so that we could proceed from the assumption "all grad students need to know digital skills, since that is akin to being an academic" (or even just a literate person in the 21st century). I agree with Roger's claim (or at least how I understand his claim):  we need to admit that to study culture (or to study texts and texutal practices) IS to study technology. And it also means knowing how to produce digital objects, I think.

Humanities PhD students in the 21st century need to learn the thoery and practice of digital media. This is a generalized statement, and I always irritate people when I (try to) make this argument. Recently, I was having this conversation with another grad student, and she said something like "Well it's not all about the digital. There are other things like close reading, and writing skills! I was talking to my advisor, and he is amazed at how many grad students just don't write well. And I was never taught how to write a journal article. Seminar papers just haven't given me good practice for writing THE article." But I really do believe that Digital Humanities should just be HUMANITIES. Why?

The computer is not a tool. It is more like the railway system, which totally overhauled conceptions of time and space in the 19th century. In a comparable way, I believe the computer (along with the Internet) fundamentally transforms what it means to do scholarly work. It transforms what it means to write, produce an article, research a topic. Obviously "old" structures of academic production still hold strong, but there are lots of problems with these models and how they think about scholarhsip. We need new Ph.D. students who are digitally-savvy to help revise the system.

"If you could change one component about your own academic program, what would it be, and why?" No surprise, I'd call for more training in digital methods and more opportunities to learn how to participate and communicate within a digital network. I had to go to the computer science department to take JavaScript. I had to go to the art department for web design. I would argue that these courses should be integrated into my English program -- a program that deals with the study and circulation of textual objects. Even if not full courses in programming or web design, at least components of these courses should be incorporated into the curriculum. I really don't think it's enough for a department to have a one-day or one-hour workshop on some digital tool or skill. That is the "digital media is an add-on" approach. We need a more comprehnsive approach.

I haven't come to terms with how to make this argument well, I think -- not yet. I would love to engage in critical discussion of these suggestions. I understand micha's point (above) about the downside of DH fever, but I think looking towards "a more horizontal or transversal space in academia that can be enabled by technology" (as she writes) sees tech as somehow coming first, as an enabler of change, whereas as I see the technology and the change (or the social layer) as being imbricated and progressing along in a big messy ball that can't be disentangled.


I want to echo some of the great points that have already been brought up, particularly the discussions on collaboration and race, gender, and ethnicity. Thanks, Micha, for bringing up #transformdh (on a sidenote, I hope that I'll be able to meet you soon at USC!). There is often a lot of talk about the democratization of knowledge and democratizing potential of the internet, and I think this is true to a certain extent -- the underside of this, however, is that democracy may become just another word for inequality. We cannot simply talk about digital media without considering the racialized and gendered bodies that often get invisibilized in intellectual discussions about media. If I could add one component to graduate education, it would be a greater engagement with questions of race, ethnicity, and gender, and how politics play a part in what we do and talk about.

I recently just had a conversation with one of the professors I'm working with at USC, John Carlos Rowe, who, before his trip to the ASA, asked me what I wish I had in my graduate education, and a few of the things that I told him include: more established collaborations with the resources on campus (at USC, for instance, what if departments had collaborations the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, American Studies & Ethnicity, the Annenberg Innovation Lab, Critical Studies, etc.) -- this would allow for workshops and discussions that cut across disciplines. I would also add to this a transdisciplinary graduate student organization that is mentored by a transdisciplinary faculty (HASTAC is one version of this, a model that we can all learn from).




Doing archival research away from campus, and being immersed in a foreign scholarly culture helped me to rethink my role as a historian/humanities researcher.

First, I became more aware of the possibilities for doing historical research - belonging to a research community - even when not employed as a professor. 

Second, I was inspired by the hands-on training I saw occurring in archives between masters students and their professors. This kind of deep engagement with questions about how to navigate and use archival materials was really novel to me. (As a historian of France, it's obviously more difficult to pursue this kind of training when based in the US.)

These observations led to the creation, with help from other graduate students returning from the field, of a workshop encouraging critical engagement with archives. SHAW (the Stanford History Archival Workshop; was formed to bring students who were just beginning to consider dissertation topics together with more advanced students, faculty, and archive/library professionals. We organized sessions on practical skills for doing research with archival materials (paleography, research management plans, digitization issues), discussions about the history and future of archives around the world (including presentations by local Bay area archivists Rick Prelinger and Tanya Hollis), and presentations on archive processing projects ongoing on campus.

The SHAW events brought together members of the History department with the library/archive staff on campus and we hope that it generated new interest in archives not only as collections repositories useful for research, but also as an category worthy of historical analysis and a site of future employment.

This experience brought me into contact with historians and archivists who were also curious about the lack of formal education we (as humanities researchers) receive about how archives function. Particularly as we begin to rely more on digital databases of archival and library collections, researchers should be thinking critically about the creation of these collections, how they are organized, and what their limits are. If there has been a great deal of interest in the colonial and post-colonial archives of Africa and Asia, and the modern state archives in Europe that served as models for these colonial repositories, there has been much less inquiry in less centralized collections, or in pre-modern collections. This research topic sits at the intersection of the disciplines of history and archival science: it is an opportunity for historians and archivists to collaborate, to understand each other's methods, and to consider how the formation of the historical profession and the invention of the formally-trained archivist are closely related developments. 

For any historian, a general introduction to archives as historical (as in, they change over time) would be greatly beneficial. In departments where geographical and chronological fields divide the graduate student population, classes in the history of global archives would bring them together. Regular workshops about research practices (using Zotero or relational databases, how to read manuscripts, how to engage with archivists and local historical communities) would link departments with humanities-oriented research staff in on campus libraries and archives. Fostering this kind of connectedness inspires collaboration across fields and disciplines. By tapping into a shared interest in archives and historical libraries, humanist students and faculty and information science faculty and staff can create a scholarly environment that bridges departmental boundaries and provides models for future collaborative research and employment in archives and academic libraries. (Opportunities for this kind of collaboration seem to exist mostly at the postdoc level - ex. CLIR Academic Libraries Postdoc.) 

There is a lot more to be said about how this kind of collaboration between archivists and historians could operate (and this is just one example of the kind of connection that scholars in humanities departments should be making - it will vary from discipline to discipline). In the interest of finishing off this comment, I will only add that creating space for credit or paid internships is important. Instead of trying to juggle practical training always in addition to the traditional PhD requirements, I hope that in the future graduate education will be supportive of training in discipline-related fields that relates to student research (ex: assisting with the processing of an archival collection linked to the student's dissertation topic, or curating an exhibit with those materials). If work like this continues to exist outside of the framework of the PhD, either students will take longer to complete the degree (as I am) or they will not experiment with these opportunities at all (in favor of focusing on writing a stellar, traditional dissertation in order to land a tenure-track job). If institutions are to support students finishing PhD programs when there is a decline in tenure-track employment, they need to be serious about educating and encouraging students to delve into experiences that will open doors for them in altac, public history, administrative, or private sector careers.

Stanford, since this summer, has been taking major steps towards rethinking the Humanities PhD. The Bibliotech program, discussed earlier in this forum, the Spatial History Lab, and the Humanities Center (esp. through the work of Katja Zelljadt) are proponents of thinking outside the box when it comes to employment for PhDs. Zelljadt has put together a list of Humanities PhDs on staff @ Stanford (many of whom are employed in campus archives and libraries!) who are interested in mentoring current graduate students ( This winter, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education is sponsoring an AltAc career path speaker series ( What I would like to see in the future, in addition to these great forums for educating students about what careers lie beyond tenure track positions, are initiatives to link students to research projects outside of their home departments, but related to their topical interests: historians collaborating with archivists, as I outlined above; art historians interning with data visualization experts; French literature students working with bibliographers at the library. On campus projects are the natural place for students to seek out new career possibilities, and these kinds of collaborations should be better publicized. In some ways, it is easier to pursue practical training in summer programs or off-site workshops than to learn the same skills or acquire the same knowledge base on campus. Students who are already inclined to seek out non-tenure track careers tend to pursue these opportunities individually. It is time to broaden the net and open up this kind of transdiciplinary, practical experience to students who would otherwise not be aware of these pathways. Making the university campus itself a supportive environment for interaction between students, faculty, and staff all equally engaged in humanities-related projects is one step towards the broadening of PhD recipients' horizons.



Michael, I appreciate you introducing the topic of retirement to the conversation. I still like to think of when someone (I can’t remember who) said pithily that we’re not suffering from a surplus of PhDs, but an under-consumption of PhDs.

But I'm confronting this year-to-year myself from the perspective of a graduate student. In my small-ish department, to take what is probably not an atypical example, we’ve lost a half dozen or so faculty in the last few years without a single replacement. One of the most popular professors has expressed perhaps this trend in a nutshell—that he’d like to retire, but can’t out of fear that there will be no one to continue teaching his subject area. So given that retiring faculty seems to amount to a downsizing trend, what will graduate education in 10, 15, 20 years look like with a deficit of senior faculty?

Katherine, I really appreciate your post. I wonder if the looming structural problems of graduate education (faculty,  funding, format) might change dramatically in the coming future with the spread of humanities labs. 

Will every campus eventually have (or need to have) an interdisciplinary humanities lab? 

I hope so. That would certainly dramatically change the landscape for both job-seekers and their advisors. If the last year's worth of advertised faculty positions in English are any indication, a lot of departments out there want to hire a DH person to check that box off. But I don't pity the lone DHer who gets hired at Regional U with nary an infrastructure to support substantial and enduring digitally-enhanced research projects. 

On one wishful hand, the spread of humanities labs might mean a lot more jobs out there will soon exist. Certainly this would make for a different environment for graduate education, as places like Scholars Lab or MITH already seem to demonstrate.

But on the other hand to mouth, this development would require a great deal of resources. Is there any chance that the necessary resources will be equitably spread between wealthy R1 schools and Northeast Regional U? Excepting the exceptional CHNM at George Mason, are there any equivalents at places that don’t have the endowments of UVA, Maryland, Stanford or even Nebraska?

I’ll leave it there for now, by saying that I’m optimistic about the rising population of humanities labs, at which I’d hope to work one day, but alternately wary about what the job market might look like when I’m finishing graduate school in the next few years. 


Jim, Look at UMBC English department -- and the doctoral program in Language, Literacy, & Culture


My big idea for the future of higher education is a university-wide computational core curriculum.  Computers and other information systems are central to every field now.  Just as universities have common curricula in writing the universities of the future have to ensure that their students are empowered to utilize computers skillfully, regardless of their field of study or emply.


I don't think that this core currculum should be drawn from existing Computer Science courses.  This seems like a natural approach at first, but the academic field of Computer science is most directly concerned with advancing the frontiers of computation, not recapitualting its past.  Instead, we have the opportunity to come together as an academic community and define what an interdisciplinary computational education might look like.


Spurred by discussions at the Code in the Classroom panel event in October, I recently wrote a sketch of what a course like this might look like, called "Code and Computation for Humans: a syllabus sketch".  It covers the history, theory, and techniques of computers in a way I've always wanted but haven't found elsewhere.  I think the context, empathy, and creativity enabled by this approach could be truely revolutionary.  Combined with inexpensive devices like te Raspberry Pi, we have the tools we need to remake technical education.


Regardless of which curriculum is chosen (and it's quite healthy to encourage many approaches), we have to start peering into the 'black boxes'- computers- that surround us.  Increasingly, they are becoming the new medium of scholarship and knowledge of how to skillfully use them for research is not optional.


I had a great two years in my master's program, but found myself flailing in my PhD program. I've spent the past two and a half years taking courses of no interest to me or relation to what I'd like to study. Perhaps I should have spent that time trying to publish something that didn't matter to me, but frankly I was so disheartened that I spent most of my energy convincing myself to stay in the program. With little faculty support and a massive, hard-to-navigate administration (who three years later still has my last name wrong), I spent these years in social and academic isolation. 

The emotional toll that this system has on us is extraordinary, and the anxiety is made even more accute by the exam process.

I don't mind that PhD exams exist, of course. But I do mind that I'm responsible for the equivalent of 2 years of coursework in material that I've had to read on my own, outside of my classes. If courses don't matter to my exams,  I shouldn't have had to take them-- or not four semesters' worth, anyway. And now that I'm interested in pursuing digital humanities, I feel that I've run out of time to commit to classes on programming or other interdiciplinary integrations to my field.

The members of my exam committee have been extraordinarilly understanding about my situation, and I'm quite grateful for their support. Still, in a conversation about funding by, support in, and general funcitonality of higher education, my case illustrates the too-frequently ignored example of an outdated system that costs the university money and the students time-- time that is especially precious to those who want to have families, and whose biological clock seems sometimes at odds with our professional plans.

I am not as productive (and by that I mean as published) as those who had the luxury of faculty support during their coursework years. Indeed, of the three medievalists in my cohort, I'm the only one who made it through to the exam stage. And now that I'm here, and now that I have a bit of support, I wonder if it will all be worth it in the end, given what so many people in the third year of their PhDs have already accomplished.

This is not a situation unique to my program or even my school. There needs to be a re-evaluation of what's expected from PhDs and a re-assesment of how programs can position us to be successful-- within and outside of our programs.

I call for a radical streamlining that promotes faculty-student interaction and mentorship, interdisciplinary graduate courses, and a plan of study tailored to students' scholarly interests and professional goals. Such a system would be inherently and necessarily transparent; it would reduce administrative red tape and demystify the process of applying for fellowships or assistantships. This new system would require and reward mentorship by making it easier for students to participate in professors' research or teaching. By inspiring and fostering collaboration, this system would make candidates and professors more productive and more valuable. 

Most importantly, a new system would help students spend less but better time in their programs. 


One of the reasons I chose my program was the promise of interdisciplinary opportunities.  Fortunately I have been able to take advantage of them…but it wasn’t always easy.  I think colleges and universities need to study the structural impediments to students who want to work across disciplines.  For instance classes in one department are offered in the afternoon so that students can complete their TA assignments in the morning.  Those students have trouble taking courses in departments who only hold classes in the morning.  Students wanting to study across disciplines also have trouble meeting requirements in their core discipline.  Often only one class can be taken outside the primary department during the coursework segment of a student’s academic career.  It would be helpful if more flexibility were built into the structures that surround graduate education.

Even if all of the structural obstacles were swept out of the way, it would not mean anything without a change in mindset.  It seems to me that some professors look askance at your record if you didn’t take all of your courses in the primary discipline.  They question if your training is “rigorous” enough or of “sufficient depth.”  Questions may be asked about readiness for exams or assumptions may be made about your “seriousness.”  Sometimes students may not get “credit” for work done in other disciplines just as DH practitioners in traditional departments often do not get professional credit toward career advancement.  There are Masters of Liberal Arts and other degrees that allow students to create interdisciplinary curricula, yet do those students receive the same type of respect that “traditional” degrees seem to confer? Escpecially during an academic job search?

These issues may not be as problematic for students who want and choose to travel alt-ac paths, but they feel weighty for those interested in tenure-track positions as well as for master’s or undergraduate students trying to get into PhD programs. In many respects I am echoing similar thoughts that others have expressed, but it just underscores for me how much of a challenge these issues really are.

So, in summary, I suppose my recommendations are for more flexibility in scheduling and in requirements so that there is more interdisciplinarity in practice rather than just in theory.  Maybe there also needs to be more interdisciplinary workshops and conferences, especially within an institution.  I also would like to see more concrete evidence that students, especially in traditional fields, will be rewarded for their interdisciplinary work (DH projects or experiences that link coursework with projects outside the academy) both during their school years and during their academic job searches. 



Thanks to all for such an excellent discussion. I'm particularly interested in the suggestions being made that programs can use collaborative projects in DH to harness their departmental and faculty strengths. I also agree that digital literacy should be a crucial part of graduate education in the humanities.
I would like to add a few brief suggestions to the ideas we have thus far. I'm mostly interested in how the structure of graduate programs, including coursework, can function more effectively as a form of professional training. To that end, I would like to suggest the following:
  • Programs could build a consideration of career trajectory into graduate study. This could include "academic," "alt-ac," "private sector," etc. tracks that need not be mutually exclusive. Entering students could draft a work plan with their supervisor or GPD, in which coursework can be specifically geared toward generating material and expertise that will be directly useful on the job market.
  • Professional training could be built into the graduate curriculum. This includes revising papers for conferences and publication, presenting one's work and oneself in a professional environment, and networking to build collaborative projects. Strategies for integrating a focus on professionalization into the graduate curriculum could include hosting workshops and rethinking outcomes for coursework.
  • Prepare doctoral candidates for both academic and non-academic careers. This could include seminar offerings which face toward industries outside of academia, such as computational linguistics, human-machine interaction, and web development (to use examples from DH). This could also include larger flexibility in assignments by offering the option to generate material designed for non-academic venues.
  • In some cases, courses could replace the seminar paper with collaboratively-authored projects that will be useful to a larger public. Those projects could then be made available on the web. Or, students could co-author a truly polished work and submit it for electronic or print publication.
I hope people find these suggestions useful and I look forward to seeing how this discussion develops. Thanks.



Thanks, Alex. As you probably know, I'm especially interested in possibilities like this one: "courses could replace the seminar paper with collaboratively-authored projects that will be useful to a larger public." That said, I'm wondering if you've got any example projects in mind. What are some persuasive models? And, in the last instance, how is "useful" defined or performed? 

Hope all's well with you.   


Hi everyone, 

Given the rich discussion happening here, I'd love to hear people's responses to the work being done at Stanford by Russell Berman and others, as outlined in today's IHE piece:

Stanford has issued an RFP so that departments can move toward measurable structural changes in ways that work for their disciplines. Some of the proposed reforms that I find interesting include year-round funding, ensuring a better match between coursework and exams, and more deliberate attention to career preparation.

What do you all think? 


Hi Katina and other discussants,

As a Stanford student, I'm excited to see faculty taking pains to challenge the problem of humanities PhD culture that promotes isolation, identifies prestige with only limited types of achievements, and assumes we all want tenure-track jobs.

But it just might be that it is mostly faculty who are interested in making these changes: I would be interested to see how the current grad student population responds to these proposals. My hunch is that the majority of grad students in (at least in the history department) feel the most pressure to succeed in getting a tenure-track job from their peers. Changing the ideals of grad students at Research I institutions like Stanford may prove harder, because it is easiest to identify the PhD with what we see in our own departments: the tenure trajectory, monographs, no teaching overloads. Faculty have a leg up: they know how hard it is. Grad students about to finish, or those who have been on the job market before graduating also see the light.

The key will be to show students what options are out there at a very early stage in the PhD, something Berman and his co-authors suggest in their report. That way, TT jobs don't loom in the grad student imagination as the only endpoint. We should be aware of other pathways. This is why Berman et al.'s proposal to have students indicate their career interests before the dissertation state, and to design the dissertation and other pursuits around these specific interests, is really a key factor in reforming the degree. This kind of requirement puts pressure on departments and other institutional centers to educate students about other careers, something that just doesn't exist right now except in direct relation to job searches at the end of the degree. If departments make these changes, the university has to assist in providing infrastructure for career education that spans the entire time to degree.



The humanities is not in a crisis because we have too many PhDs, or as Jim Casey said because there is an “under-consumption” of PhDs. The humanities is in a crisis because fewer and fewer undergraduates are choosing to major (or minor) in English, History, etc. The current generation simply does not see the value in a humanities degree.William M. Chace put it well: “In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.” If there are no undergraduates in the classroom, then all this talk about the new and exciting things that our profession can do to reclaim relevancy amounts to little more than shouting to an empty room.

Look no further than this thread for evidence that there is a troubling lack of concern for how we get undergraduates in the classroom. I’m adamant to mention undergraduates as much as possible, because prior to this post they were mentioned only 12 times (compared to graduate students or graduate education which were mentioned in some form or another 83 times, PhD and doctorate 45 times, and professor 27 times). Jarah Moesch offered some helpful advice on teaching “theoretical practice” to her undergraduates, but aside from Jarah’s input undergraduates are treated as afterthoughts.

I’m working on a PhD in English, so for the remainder of my post I will revert from discussing “crisis” in the humanities to death of the English department.

Referring back to the quote from Chace, the question appears to be “How do we get more undergraduates to major in English?” That’s the root of the problem, isn’t it? That this generation of undergraduates thinks they need to major in business in order to have a happy and successful life? What we need to do is rebuild that army of English majors from the 1960s and 1970s, right? But let’s not fool ourselves—those majors are never coming back. Never.

Rather than aspiring to rebuild an army of English majors, we need to rethink the value that an English education will have for this new generation that, regardless of our whining, will continue to major in business, finance or any number of degrees that lead to higher paying jobs. I propose that every student who walks through our doors be told one thing: English is the perfect minor for a business degree. This is the quickest way to increase enrollment in English classes. It will stop or reverse the current trend in employment. And it will not force us to put all of our eggs into one basket, no matter how new, flashy, or exciting we think that basket is.

The best part about my suggestion is that, by telling our students that English is the perfect minor for all these other majors, we won’t be lying. Fortune 500 companies have long complained of graduates who are unable to write. If there was ever a time to reinvent the way the English department works, to rebrand it, to rethink our profession and our role in the classroom, then that time is now. We’re already in “crisis” anyway, so what have we got to lose?

We just need to ask ourselves what we value more in our classrooms—5 English majors or 10 English minors? This is simple math. As for me, I choose the latter.



Cosign. Coming from a French program (some foreign languages are in even more dire straits than English) I agree that we seriously need to rethink how we "sell" the relevance of our programs to undergrads, parents, university administrators, really the world. I no longer cringe at the concept of "selling." I am generally over the illusion that the academy is solely a place for the higher life of the mind etc etc with little regard for the rather pedestrian concerns of funding, sustainability, you know, real world issues. If this generally depressing forum has illustrated anything it is that 1) Change needs to happen yesterday 2) The academy (perhaps more than other avenues) is VERY SLOW TO CHANGE... hence the depression.


The question of relevance is a tricky one. For many humanists it means becoming something we are not. Tacking on something social-science-y to our work so that it looks useful to the rest of the world (such fraught terms). In the words of an English prof this is to lie down and die. But I think Jordan that you are quite on point. Rather than mask the humanities as something else, why not reframe how we articulate its utility to reflect and complement current trends in undergrads' career choices?

In my French class we have 3 sessions a semester of what we call a "Language Awareness Forum" where we talk about and try to think through the skills students are picking up in French that could be applied beyond French class. Because let's face it, most of them are there for credit and beyond that one semester will never speak another word of French again. So we talk about the concepts of bilingualism, intercultural awareness as well as the connection between language and identity and try to think about the way these things are played out/developed in leanring a second language. How do they think about communication differently when they don't have all the vocabulary? How would our discussions of navigating French and francophone cultures transfer if they travelled to Azerbaijan or if they took a physics class for non-majors? So hopefully when they write in their cover letters down the line that they are "global citizens" or that they can "think outside the box," they will be able to articulate these attributes in terms that are not trite or cliched. One possibility...


Thanks to all HASTAC Scholars and other network participants, first time and stalwarts, for all these insights into academe.   When I am brought in to do workshops with departments, I bring in lots of poster paper (giant post it notes that we can draw on and put on walls):


1st exercise:  many academics have a fantasy of going off and starting their own university.  Draw yours.   I usually have them work in teams of three or four.   Everyone posts their designs.  We take 15 minutes with no talking allowed to go around and have everyone take in everyone else's design.  30 minute discussion.   Who is the ideal university for?   What is its purpose in society?   What does it contribute?  How does it assess?   Who is its ideal student?  How much does it cost?   

    If the designs are radically different, I have them take their poster, return to their group, and decide either to keep their original or make a new one.   We post those and everyone spends two minutes, silently, going around and looking.



2nd exercise:  same group.   Draw a map of your discipline or department from scratch---you don't have to worry about keeping anyone's job---and how it would fit into your fantasy university?    Repeat process in 1st exercise.


3rd exercise:   This varies depending on how much overlap there is between groups.  If there is a lot, then I have them work in larger teams, maybe 8 or 10, to rethink their EXISTING department as inspired by their content map of their fantasy universities or fantasy departments.   If there is huge range, then I have them do this exercise in their original groups.   Then same follow up as previously.


4th exercise:   Think-pair-share exercise.   Index cards   a)   90 seconds, by yourself:  Write on your index cards what three things have you seen today that you would like to do in your actual department.     b)   90 seconds, work with a partner:  look at all six things.  Choose the ONE thing you have seen today that you would like to do in your actual department.   c)  Share:  have each pair read their one thing.   Someone records those things on a post it (and in an evolving google doc).  


5th exercise:   set yourself a time line, deadline, by which you will implement, as a department, at least one, two, or, if ambitious, three things on the final poster.  


Make a retreat date to return on that deadline to see how you have done.  



I really like this approach, Cathy - and think you're spot on to begin with drawing. That opportunity to spatially organize ideas and then be able to visually reflect on the relationships - brings the visual system into play to literally see new possibilities we're often blind to in thinking with through only the linearity of text. Thanks for sharing this.


Looking at the NCES data, more than a third of all four-year degrees are in business, engineering, or medical fields. Certainly more than half of undergrads are receiving professional degrees. At my own institution, SUNY Buffalo, the number is closer to 40%. And many of the students who graduate in other fields (the big ones at UB are Psych, Comm Studies, and Biology/Life Sciences) are often washouts from professional programs. These majors often require 80 to 100 or more credits to complete, barely leaving enough room for a minimal general education program. At my previous institution, the smaller SUNY Cortland, 41% of the grads were in education (also a professionalizing degree). 

In the good old, bad old days, a BA/BS wasn't really a professional degree. Today these degrees are almost exclusively professionalizing with the exception of two groups of students, typically at either end of the spectrum. The first group are those who are underprepared and don't succeed in their professionalizing major. The second group, typically better prepared and financially stable, are those who enter college planning to go on to law school, business school, grad school, etc. (which is not to say their plans always come to fruition). For example, the MLAs 2009 report on majors indicated that 47% of students whose first BA was in English went on for advanced study. The humanities, arts, and sciences now primarily serve these two very different groups.

Of the more than 2.5M degrees conferred in 09/10, 66% were BA/BS, 28% were MA/MS, and 6% were Phds. Looking at those numbers, it would appear that around half of all BA/BS recipients go on to some advanced degree. Again, looking at the NCES data, you would see these portions are reflected in Engineering and Business but not in English were there are approx 53K BAs but only 11K graduate degree recipients. Connecting this with the MLA study indicates English majors go on to graduate degrees in other fields (usually education or law). In short, not only are there more BA/BS professional programs but there are more students going on for even further professionalization. Education, Business, and Health make up 67% of masters degrees. Law and medicine comprise 64% of doctoral degrees. Education is third. Engineering is fourth in both categories.

In English, and I think other arts and humanities, there is a traditional rejection of the appearance of professionalizing that is very strong at the undergrad level but even extends to the doctoral level. Not only is this misguided strategically in terms of what students want and where higher ed seems to be headed, it is also, in my view, a misapprehension of what we do. In literary studies or rhetoric (my field), we introduce students to our disciplinary methods and we teach them to produce knowledge (i.e. write) in the technical/scholarly forms of our fields. We professionalize without realizing it. We professionalize and then imagine that because only a small percentage of English majors go on to be professors that we are preparing them for other professions in a general way (even though we give no thought to how that happens). In rhetoric, it is certainly possible to develop degrees at all levels in professional and technical communication with clear connections to nonacademic professions. 

As public and professional spheres become increasingly global and culturally diverse, as the demands for literacy practices (digital and otherwise) continue to be high, there are opportunities for English and other humanities that we need to take. There is an obvious feedback between undergrad majors and the long-term viability of a discipline. As a humanistic discipline, one will increasingly be faced with the following choice. One can become like Art History, a typically small department with a small number of majors and a modest role in general education, and speak to a relatively small range of nonacademic professions (galleries, museums, etc.); for rhetoricians this might be like a rhetorical philosophy degree. Or one can articulate with a broader range of industries in the way a professional-technical communication degree would do for rhetoric.

I think if you want to be a department with 50-plus faculty with many graduate students then you're going to need a major that is closer to the latter. As a rhetorician I can see it for my field (and professional/technical writing/communication BAs have been growing in number of the last decade). How other fields will do it I cannot say.




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