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Margin Notes

Humanities scholars try new ways of talking about the PhD

Some are daring to ask how to change the culture of academia.


This is a guest post by University Affairs editor Peggy Berkowitz.

I went to a terrific conference last week at McGill on the topic of transforming graduate education in the humanities.

The conference was organized by Paul Yachnin, a Shakespeare scholar and director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas at McGill University, who recently wrote an essay, Rethinking the humanities PhD, for University Affairs. Both the essay and the conference are connected with the Future Humanities program, an initiative of the institute “to rethink graduate education and the culture of the academy.”

The conference was different from others I’ve attended on the topic of graduate studies. For starters, the conference organizers had invited a lot of humanities PhD students from across Canada – probably a quarter of the attendees were students – and they had a central place on the agenda. What’s more, the grad students had benefited from a full-day workshop the day before where they were able to prepare for their plenary.

They organized the plenary around two themes: “Humanities programs lack transparency and accountability;” and “Humanities must engage beyond the academy.” Their short talks on funding, supervision, mental health, public scholarship and career preparation, among other topics, and the ensuing discussion, got things off to a strong start.

During the pre-conference workshop, the students also had been coached on preparing for non-academic careers by Anne Krook, a former literature professor and high-tech industry professional who now consults to grad students and universities. Her keynote was about mobilizing the humanities for careers outside the academy that gets to the meat of the issue and which she has allowed UA to adapt and share with our readers.

Dr. Krook was one of several new voices and participants from outside the Canadian university community. Another was an independent researcher based in Denver who is collecting data for a U.S. publication on who is getting hired for faculty jobs in the U.S. and Canada.

Since it was a humanities conference, some of the breakout sessions on offer were a little out of the ordinary: creativity workshops on dance, clowning and hip-hop. (I, alas, went to the session on collecting and sharing data on retention, completion rates and placement, but it was excellent, too. I learned that the kind of data on grad studies that universities are sharing with the public range from quite a lot to almost nothing, and at one university not even the associate dean of grad studies for arts and science was given this information.)

Deans and associate deans of graduate studies attended the conference, of course, but also faculty members, people working for non-profits and PhD graduates with careers in filmmaking, broadcasting and magazine publishing. Some of the invited graduate students are aiming for careers outside academe or working on dissertations in “public humanities” with a focus towards a broader community.

“There is an outward-in focus,” to the new discussion about graduate education, noted Chad Gaffield, history professor and former president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“The focus now is what happens after graduate studies” and how to “begin to change the culture of the academy itself.” This, he said, reflects a revolution in the way graduate studies are being discussed, compared with 20 years ago when the preoccupations were around retention, completion rates and attrition (not that those concerns have gone away).

University Affairs has published many articles, opinion pieces and blog posts in recent months about graduate studies and graduates’ lives and careers after the PhD. Our readers want to be part of this conversation and we intend to offer more on these topics. In the fall, we’re planning stories on alt-ac careers and on new kinds of PhD programs that are developing in pockets across the country. For now, please do have a look at Anne Krook’s essay.

Peggy Berkowitz is the editor of University Affairs.
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