Doctoral Training Is Ossified. Can We Reinvent It?

Doctoral Training Is Ossified. Can We Reinvent It?
From The Atlantic

Lessons from the short-lived Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. program.

We republish this piece by Zeb Larson, originally published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tells the tale of a cooperative effort to transform graduate and post-doctoral education at Washington State University and other post-secondary institutions. It clearly illustrates the precarious economic landscape that increasing numbers of education workers from every sector are confronted with, as well as the broader economic forces at play behind them. In particular, take note of the role of grants in this story. It is ironic that a land-grant university—an institution of higher education founded through a gift of land originally held by a state government as a symbol of generous American investment in public education—like WSU now has to depend on an unstable mosaic of private and government grants.

In this story, when the National Endowment of the Humanities grant money ran dry, two California universities were forced into the arms of the Mellon Foundation in a desperate bid to keep their new programs going. The Mellon Foundation is one of many philanthropic institutions founded by Gilded Age Robber Barons. This is significant because philanthropy is a tool the ultra-rich use to infect industries like education, healthcare, and other socially necessary (re)productive work with the logic of capitalist exploitation.

They can also pick up and toss aside institutions and causes like a child would with toys. This update on the article from Zeb comes as little surprise, then: "I would add too that as these philanthropic bodies abandon this funding (and they are: Mellon announced last fall that they're done, along with Ford), there's not much else left. The NEH doesn't do this anymore, and the schools themselves are often outright hostile to the humanities, so... the future looks pretty precarious for the academic humanities. Academic humanities are facing a new funding crisis and I see no sign that help is coming; maybe a couple of institutions will step up and fund the groups I described here, but my expectation is that by 2026, the things I described in that piece will mostly be shuttered."

Much the same can be seen in the K-12 school sector, as well. Education workers are ordered to overhaul systemic problems, given impossible benchmarks, and punished for inevitable failure. The UC Strikes, along with this piece, demonstrate that no worker, no matter how highly educated, is safe from the onslaught of the juggernaut of capital.

More broadly, this story draws attention to the seeds of a better, socially controlled education system buried within capitalism. Capitalist relations in social reproduction are a barrier to an education system that can serve the holistic needs of all people. We, as education workers specifically, can play a central role in dismantling that barrier, for good.

If you feel similarly, get in touch.

In 2016, Todd Butler, an English professor at Washington State University’s main campus, joined a committee charged with exploring changes in graduate education. At first, the group’s planning sessions felt typical: the slow consensus-building, the circling conversations. But then something shifted. “Two months into our planning process, the dean of the grad school said to all of us who were assembled there, ‘Are we just going to talk about doing something, or are we going to do it?’” Butler perked up: “I was not interested in writing another internal white paper that would get read, be appreciated, and stall out somewhere.” He saw the work as vitally important — an opportunity not just to improve graduate education, but to articulate the importance of the humanities to a rural, land-grant university like Washington State.

Butler and his colleagues had received a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities under a new grant program called the Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Begun in 2015, its mandate was broad, offering funds for graduate institutions to rethink doctoral education in the humanities. The goal was to focus on what the NEH delicately called “disparities between graduate-student expectations for a career in academe and eventual career outcomes,” and to further the role of the humanities in public life. Colleges could apply for either a planning grant, with the NEH matching an institutional commitment of up to $25,000, or an implementation grant of $350,000, to further efforts already underway. In 2016, the NEH awarded an initial round of grants: 25 planning grants and three implementation grants. Grantees planned to study a host of possible changes in doctoral education: practicum internships, curricular reform, professionalization, changes in academic advising and mentoring, and even new dissertation formats.

And then, in 2017, the program was quietly canceled. What went wrong?

The goals of the program were ambitious: supporting struggling humanities graduate students by opening new career paths, changing departmental attitudes toward nonacademic careers, creating new public engagement for academic humanities practitioners, and rethinking graduate education. The work was led by committees like the one on which Butler served, usually a mix of graduate students, faculty members, and administrators. These groups met in working sessions for a full academic year, brainstorming and strategizing. At the end of the year, they wrote reports outlining their plans.

A few common areas emerged. First, many colleges worked to develop internships that would give graduate students experience with nonacademic work. This proved to be the single-most effective innovation. Second, colleges planned changes in dissertation requirements, curricula, and training. Third, they explored how to change the culture of graduate humanities education to promote better advising, mentorship, and alumni relations. These areas were less successful: Curricular reform struggled unless done under very specific circumstances, academic-advising models remain difficult to shift, and academe’s cultural norms remain, for the most part, deeply entrenched.

When asked to reflect on the work that University of Chicago had accomplished with an NEH implementation grant, Deborah Nelson, a chair of the English department, was emphatic. “The most important thing … was the internship. It’s the most useful in terms of getting a job, and the most flexible in building it into the Ph.D.” Humanities internships — also known as practicum work, labs, or public fellowships — are opportunities for students to work part time in a nonacademic capacity. Glenn Wright, director of programs at Syracuse University’s graduate school, compared its internship model to a legal clinic: Graduate students work on projects proposed by groups from elsewhere in the university or city. The experience can introduce students to potential career paths, strengthen their résumés, and help them develop relationships with professionals who work outside the academy.

But many grantees embraced this model for reasons beyond career prep. Edward J. Balleisen, a history professor who oversees the versatile-humanists program at Duke University, suggested that the purpose of humanities internships was primarily to strengthen doctoral education, regardless of students’ planned career paths. The point of such programs was “not about somehow solving a jobs crisis,” he argued, but “complementing and amplifying research training.” That these internships could be collaborative made them all the more attractive to Balleisen: Humanities graduate students accustomed to solitary writing could work on a team, bringing insights from their own disciplines while learning from colleagues with a range of backgrounds.

One example of this work is Story+ at Duke, a six-week, paid summer research experience. Run through the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, Story+ pairs graduate-student mentors with a team of undergraduates to work on specific projects. One project dealt with photographic archives from the state hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., a psychiatric hospital that was segregated until 1965. Under the supervision of an art-history graduate student, undergraduates researched the lives of those pictured in the photographs and explored deeper questions: What responsibilities does an archivist have while documenting sensitive moments from a person’s life? What lessons do these photographs share about caretaking? The work, in conjunction with other Story+ programs, grew into the Hungry River project, which tries to return to families the images and history of loved ones who were institutionalized. For graduate-student supervisors, it represents an opportunity to lead a team, create a public-facing project, and bring together different disciplines: archival work, art history, and African American studies were all involved.

The nature of such practicum work varies significantly from college to college. At Fordham University, fellowships focus on higher-ed administration, with students collaborating with the dean’s office on specific projects relating to student mental health or mentorship. At Washington State University, graduate students work with institutions serving the region’s rural population: libraries, groups for Indigenous Americans, and health-care organizations. Florida International University, in Miami, created a partnership in which graduate students in music and history helped strengthen educational programming at Hampton House, a former hotel that catered to African American celebrities who could not stay in segregated Miami hotels. Many of these programs are designed to be interdisciplinary and collaborative, creating opportunities for cross-pollination that grad students may not encounter elsewhere in their programs.

But building internship programs that reach beyond the usual industries — higher ed, museums, archives — can be tough. SueJeanne Koh, grad-program director at the University of California at Irvine’s Humanities Center, noted that most of their initial partners were in the cultural and public humanities. Initially, only two companies would meet with them to discuss employing Ph.D. graduates. Other grantees reported similar experiences: Their contacts were largely with arts and culture groups, or public humanities institutions. (One exception: Some universities successfully connected humanities graduate students with their medical schools. Wayne State University’s interns work with the university-affiliated Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute to study the pandemic’s effect on cancer treatment, and Washington State University follows a similar model.)

The focus on arts and culture makes for exciting internship projects — but as career prep, it’s inadequate. Hiring in public history, archival work, and museums suffers from many of the same problems as academe: too many graduates, too few positions, and declining public funding. Newly minted Ph.D.s seeking work in such institutions must also compete with public historians and master’s in library science graduates who were trained for those jobs. Building those private-sector career connections that many grantees hoped for is still a work in progress.

And then there’s the larger question: Does participating in internships help graduate students find satisfying work post-Ph.D.? The evidence so far is all anecdotal. The University of Chicago’s Next Gen Humanities Ph.D. program has begun to map career outcomes for alumni who are five years out from graduation, but it’s too soon to draw any conclusions from that data. Balleisen, the history professor at Duke, argued in a recent opinion piece that universities “need much more information and analysis” to assess the efficacy of graduate-student internships.

A second major focus of the Next Gen grants was revamping curricula and dissertation requirements. Traditional graduate coursework is geared almost exclusively toward the academy. While graduate students certainly acquire soft skills that can help them in nonacademic careers, their formal training focuses absorbing, field-specific literature and writing for scholarly audiences — skills that aren’t particularly transferable to careers outside of academe. So grantees proposed curricular adjustments: new courses in quantitative or technical methods, as well as revamped professionalization seminars that offer guidance on both nonacademic and academic careers. They also suggested that graduate coursework focus more on public-facing work: instead of training students to write only for peer-reviewed journals, departments would teach and reward writing for magazines like LARB, The Point, and n+1.

Carrying out these changes at the department level was tricky. Many grantees reflected that curricular committees make it difficult to add new courses, especially when coordination among multiple departments was necessary. Some departments are more active than others in adding or revising courses because of idiosyncratic factors: motivation of individual faculty members, the size of the department, and so on. And grantees worried, reasonably enough, that additional coursework would burden graduate students, many of whom who already struggle to graduate in five years. Revising the curriculum without extending time to completion would require dramatically rethinking the timeline and content of Ph.D. education — a logistically challenging and existentially fraught task that few departments are eager to tackle. J. Patrick Hornbeck II, a professor of theology at Fordham University, described the problem as “one of the toughest elements for any department to navigate.” In most cases, these efforts stalled.

Grantees found more success in bypassing departments altogether, offering workshops through humanities institutes (UC-Irvine, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Washington State University) or the graduate-school office (University of Chicago). Under this model, the new requirements are extracurricular, or in a few cases, co-curricular. Because faculty members aren’t usually well-equipped to support a career shift — as Jean Allman, a professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, put it, “We just know how to reproduce ourselves” — this strategy allows students to access other kinds of expertise.

This extracurricular approach removes from faculty members the burden of having to counsel students about career paths that they themselves may never have pursued. Still, there were downsides. Bypassing departments leaves the core of graduate training untouched, and the onus remains on students to pursue these opportunities.

Strengthening mentorship presents many of the same problems that training and curricular reform do: Individual faculty members control the process, and departments set requirements that can be quite detailed. Mentorship has been easier to enable outside of departments: Humanities centers often focus on both peer and group mentorship, while institutions with dedicated staff people can provide another level of support. Internship programs often include an informal mentorship component as well. As Irena Polic, managing director of the Humanities Institute at UC-Santa Cruz reported, “We have not been able to figure out how to formalize mentorship in a department, and these things really need to happen at the department level.”

Attempts to transform the dissertation were even more disappointing. Several colleges expressed interest in this idea, invoking models like Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, a graphic novel that earned its author a Ph.D. in education in 2014. But few actually tackled it. Rethinking the dissertation stirs up tough questions, both intellectual and practical: What counts as knowledge creation? How effectively can scholars judge adequacy (let alone excellence) in genres like the podcast, the video game, or the rap album? Would an unconventional dissertation sink a students’ chances on the job market — or their tenure bids? Syracuse University tackled such questions head-on, using its Next Gen grant to create an online resource for graduate students considering alternative dissertations. But other grantees prioritized less rancorous debates.

The third focus area was the intangible and elusive “culture shift.” In short, how to get faculty members to take seriously — and work to solve — the mismatch between graduate students’ training and their job prospects in academe? Most grantees noted some degree of faculty opposition to changing graduate education, resting on a combination of unfamiliarity, overwork, and a commitment to traditional, tenure-track-oriented career prep. Amanda Jeanne Swain, executive director of the Humanities Institute at UC-Irvine, noted that many faculty members felt deep discomfort in talking about the issues, and clung to the notion that preparation for nonacademic careers was something graduate students might do “personally, not as part of their training.” Culture shift also doesn’t come with direct incentives for faculty: As Eric Hayot, a professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Pennsylvania State University observed, “faculty get promoted for publishing, and not for redoing the curriculum.” There’s also prestige embedded in “placing” students in tenure-track positions.

Yet it is possible to break through the resistance. Even skeptical faculty members came around to projects that demonstrably helped their students. At Washington State, Todd Butler found that faculty members whose students gained additional funding and work experience through public humanities programs were more open to future changes. At Duke, Ed Balleisen reported that some professors who were initially skeptical warmed up once they saw results from the program. (It helps if the new programs don’t add to faculty members’ own work burdens.) Institutional quirks also play a role: Kenneth Lipartito, a history professor at FIU, observed that because the history department’s Ph.D. program is less than 20 years old, faculty members were substantially less attached to the prestige of tenure-track job placements.

Many grantees also hoped to improve their relationships with alumni. Departments often lose track of alumni who, willingly or unwillingly, wind up off the tenure track. College alumni offices rarely share information with individual departments about students once those students have graduated, which leaves it to departments or individual faculty members to keep track of students. This usually doesn’t happen. Some grantees planned to rebuild those relationships, hoping to use their alumni to jump-start career programming and mentorship. How enthusiastic alumni will be about these plans remains to be seen: Graduates who sidestep the tenure track often feel ignored by their former departments, and may not relish being asked to volunteer more labor on those departments’ behalf. Building career programming around anecdotal experiences also replicates some of the risks of relying on faculty experiences. As someone who left academe, I can still speak to only the career tracks that I’ve pursued.

One of the striking aspects of the Next Gen grant program is how much colleges were able to accomplish with a relatively small pot of money. That $25,000 may not seem like a transformative sum for multiple academic departments, but it can be surprisingly catalyzing. (Some colleges were able to supplement with outside funding, but others simply made do.) Jason Puskar, an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, noted that for “the humanities, which don’t bring down a whole lot of grant revenue, it turned out to be pretty legitimizing having this money.” And while we don’t yet know the extent to which the Next Gen grants bolstered graduate students’ careers, we can say for sure that they fostered a striking set of public humanities initiatives — like Duke’s Hungry River project. Such projects offer a model for universities trying to connect with their surrounding communities. At a time when the humanities face political and fiscal threats, these initiatives build needed bridges between academe and the public — and among universities. The program’s national reach allowed grantees to meet one another and workshop ideas together, and the NEH imprimatur amplified the reach of those ideas.

But if the initial cash infusion was catalytic, it did not assure longterm stability. Eric Hayot described why the program at his institution ended: “Once the money dried up there was, at least at Penn State, simply not the faculty or administrative will to do more. Without the impetus of more outside money — whose major benefit is that it forces you to actually do something, and the institution to back that doing — you need a really strong consensus among faculty and administrators.” Grant funding keeps things moving, until it doesn’t. Institutions like Duke or UC-Santa Cruz pivoted to apply for funding from the Mellon Foundation in 2017, and each received nearly $1.5 million dollars. But those grants, too, are due to end soon. A few of the grantees I spoke to hoped to raise additional grant money, or negotiate funding agreements with internship partners. But as the history of the Next Gen Humanities Ph.D. program demonstrates, making these programs wholly dependent on external funding leaves them vulnerable to abrupt cancellation. Institutional investment is critical.

June 29, 2022

Zeb Larson works in curriculum development and as a freelance writer. He completed a Ph.D. in history at The Ohio State University in 2019.

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