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In my opinion

Articulating the public value of the humanities

BY PAUL KEEN | JUL 28 2016

At the back of every conference organizer’s mind lurks the fear that sometimes you build it and they don’t come. That did not turn out to be a problem at the Future of the PhD in the Humanities conference held at Carleton University in May. Students, faculty and administrators came in droves from across the country, from the vast majority of Canadian universities with PhD programs in the humanities and from several related institutions. The Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and Mitacs were all well represented.

There are a few reasons for the strong turnout. People were clearly drawn by the importance of the topic. There was also momentum from last year’s conference at McGill University, where we had first gathered to wrestle with these questions. But people were also inspired by the sense that the ground is shifting: that our time-worn ways of doing things are no longer working and that it is up to us to forge new practices that will better serve our needs.

Beginning to initiate change

Last year’s conference at McGill ended with a sense that something important had begun. Issues had been raised and clarified. The scale of the challenge had become apparent but so had a sense of community amongst those of us who had gathered to address it. As we gathered together again one year later, the mood was slightly different. The questions were already in focus. The real emphasis now was on how we might turn the corner to begin to initiate change.

The point was not to cobble together any sort of grand solution. Universities are notoriously ill-suited to one-size-fits-all solutions. Any real change will need to come from the bottom up within individual programs. What we could generate was both a range of options and an enabling sense that the commitment to change is now widespread. If the turnout and the enthusiasm level are any indication, departments contemplating reform will not have to worry that they’ll be going it alone.

Three main themes dominated the conference

The first was the question of how we can more effectively understand and convey a sense of the public value of the humanities. This discussion does not need to be about the differences between the humanities and the sciences. Better to make common cause in a way that enhances our sense of the value of both. Jill Stoner, director of the Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism at Carleton, and Lesley Cormack, dean of arts at the University of Alberta, both stressed that as we focus on a number of practical issues, we need to remind ourselves of what it is that makes the humanities so compelling for so many of us in the first place.

A session on innovative doctoral programs from across the country formed a useful bridge to the second major theme of the conference: the challenge of doing a better job preparing students for the wide range of non-academic career paths that so many of them will pursue. One of the biggest hurdles is that we know surprisingly little about where our graduates end up, though the TRaCE program is making great strides to change that. This will help to make us better informed about the kinds of preparation that it takes to help our students succeed.

Reimagining the structure of our PhD programs

As we heard from several speakers, humanities students graduate with highly valued skills, but too often we do a bad job of training them to present these skills in ways that resonate with potential employers. There is a sea change happening in this respect, though. Delegates (students and professors alike) were eager to hear and think more about how we can close this gap between the skills we’ve developed and our ability to translate these into meaningful jobs, without compromising our commitment to the sorts of deep research that doctoral programs enable.

The final issue that came up was the question of how we might reimagine the structure of our PhD programs, partly to achieve reasonable completion times and partly to prepare students for these larger objectives. There was little consensus on practical solutions but, in some ways, that wasn’t the point.

Real change will need to come from the ground up. As delegates return to their home institutions across the country, the next step will be to work with individual programs on these questions. If we were united by one thing, it was a sense of the importance of getting on with this work, and by an understanding that it comes out of a deeply felt recognition of the importance of the humanities rather than a sense of crisis. That may be the best result of all.

Paul Keen is associate dean, student and postdoctoral affairs, in the faculty of graduate and postdoctoral affairs at Carleton University.

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