Since the 2008 economic downturn, there has been a vigorous, ongoing conversation about the purpose of doctoral education, funded largely by the Mellon Foundation. Mellon is the most significant private funder of the arts and humanities in the United States, and it has invested millions of dollars in humanities graduate education over the past decade and a half. Mellon-funded work has pushed graduate education to become more public and more inclusive. Many faculty of color and artists doing public scholarship who came up through Mellon-supported pipelines are just beginning to grow into a critical mass, finally gaining access to positions and sites that enable them to make long-term structural change.
However, overreliance on private philanthropy—and on a single funder—to shape this conversation has left the field vulnerable. Since 2019, Mellon has had a change in its mission and strategic direction. Focusing on supporting “just communities,” the foundation is funding important work with grassroots organizations, activists, artists, and programs at institutions that Mellon and its peers have historically neglected, including community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities. This shift comes under the leadership of gifted poet and scholar of English and African American studies Elizabeth Alexander, whose 2022 book The Trayvon Generation speaks powerfully to the significance of this political moment. In many respects, these investments in social justice efforts are long-awaited and welcome.
And yet, based on the nonrenewal of certain programs, there is now a sense that Mellon may be stepping away from humanities graduate education, and that has caused serious concern and consternation among those in the field. Many of us are worried that the work that has been done will be lost and that 20 years from now, we will find ourselves in this very same place, under worse conditions.
These changes to Mellon’s priorities have come at a moment of real precarity—and possibility—for humanities graduate education. Although the present conversation about the purpose of doctoral education dates back to the 2008 recession, recent political currents have given it particular urgency. The Movement for Black Lives, the pandemic and subsequent economic volatility, and increased labor organizing have forced universities to grapple with how these events shape educational and occupational pursuits. Legislative attacks against critical race theory, Black studies, trans and queer people’s right to live and love, and “woke” practices in K–12 schools and universities, alongside desperate fights to hold onto previous hard-won victories, all illustrate the push and pull of this moment. Times such as these call for organizers, artists, writers, community builders, teachers—creative thinkers and doers.
And doctoral programs at US universities are full of creative thinkers and doers. Since 2018, the two of us have worked together as faculty lead (Williams) and director (Hartman) of the PublicsLab, an initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The PublicsLab, like so many other experimental spaces in the humanities and higher education, has been funded by the Mellon Foundation. Its purpose is to support students who want to do publicly engaged research as graduate students. It has funded fellowships, internships, curriculum reform, and a range of events and supplemental programming. Two cohorts, for a total of 22 fellows, have completed the program. We have been continually impressed by their recognition of the power of combining the critical insights and experiential data from their lived experiences with the generative lenses and languages that graduate training can offer.
In the course of this initiative, we have often heard students say that the motivation for their graduate study is to do work that is useful to and for communities they grew up in, or communities they care about deeply. PublicsLab fellows and other students like them have clear social and political ambitions that go far beyond traditional ideas of academic success. They recognize that their experiences and values outside the classroom are not only relevant but often also essential to the questions they want to explore in their research.
These aspirational goals and expectations for academic training should be viewed as a win, especially for critical interdisciplinary fields such as Black studies, ethnic studies, and gender studies. These fields, which have long valued lived experience, grew out of a commitment to education and activism. However, students are often at best discouraged and at worst marginalized for being honest about these educational aspirations. Even as university mission statements proclaim commitments to service and leadership to “the public,” graduate programs across the country are still training and assessing students within a culture that privileges neutrality, objectivity, rationality, individuality, and disciplinarity. But the reality is that doing work in service to the public good often requires emotions, experimentation, collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and (radical, consistent) honesty about power and oppression.
Based on what we’ve learned from five years of running the PublicsLab, we offer a set of provocations about graduate education as a public good.
These provocations are about centering justice, student needs, and the public good over faculty interests, institutional demands, or disciplinary legacies. They suggest that great change must take place if academic institutions want graduate education to be relevant in the world that is currently being created. We do not expect that readers will agree with all of them—indeed, that is what makes them provocative! However, we ask you to sit with them. Academics, consider what this would look like in your program, for your students.
Provocation #1: Definitions of and ideas about “the public good” must be rooted firmly in racial equity and social justice.
“But what is the public good?”
This is a question that we received frequently, and with a certain amount of skepticism, from students and faculty alike during the early years of the PublicsLab. The skepticism is warranted. Universities, as with all institutions, are deeply flawed, embedded in a social history of extraction and exploitation.
If we hope to address, in ways that are accessible and meaningful, the most difficult questions facing society, then we must acknowledge the role universities play in perpetuating racial capitalism—not only now but also historically, including in the so-called “Golden Age” of the 1960s. There is no past to return to in which universities did not exclude specific groups based on racial or ethnic identities, sell enslaved Africans for capital, steal land from Indigenous communities, or receive funds from the US government for research that would contribute to arms races and wars overseas. Any definition of “the public good” must therefore be unflinchingly self-reflective and must center racial equity and social justice.
This is easy to say and far more difficult to do. Academia remains a predominantly white institution with practices that are rooted in organizational racism, particularly organizational white supremacy. Academic culture often tells us that there are limited ways to do rigorous scholarship, that conflict is to be avoided, that individual achievement matters above all else, that “the researcher” should be disconnected from “the researched,” and that “objective” knowledge must be pursued. This creates an environment that is actively hostile to scholars of color in ways that are often invisible to, or ignored by, their white colleagues.
PublicsLab fellows were keenly aware of these power dynamics and expectations, as they frequently encountered rigid notions about scholarship during their graduate school journeys. It is not a coincidence that many of the fellows were queer students and/or students of color interested in projects committed to social justice and equity. Though some came from supportive departments, most applied to the PublicsLab fellowship yearning for a place within academia where their publicly engaged projects would be valued as “real” research. They resisted the typical narrative of doctoral education, which goes something like this: “Graduate school is a rigorous intellectual training in which you examine a research question for five to 10 years, earn your degree, enter the academic job market, and get a tenure track job; and six or seven years later, after you have obtained tenure, you may return to the public-facing passion project you are currently interested in.”
The students were not willing to put themselves, or the communities they desired to serve, on hold. As we built the PublicsLab community with them, we tried to figure out what graduate education could look like if a commitment to racial equity and justice and a focus on public scholarship were institutionally nurtured and affirmed.
It was generally easy for us to answer questions about the public good, because we followed the students’ lead. While some PublicsLab fellows did collaborative, community-engaged work, others sought to make their scholarship publicly accessible, tearing down the gate that frequently keeps academic research out of the hands of those it might serve. Others wanted to create their own organizations and networks to connect practitioners, researchers, and community members. They used their research (and PublicsLab resources) to do activist and organizing work now instead of after completing their degrees (or achieving tenure). We supported these experiments, recognizing that putting their theories into practice with communities they were accountable to was the best way they could train to both understand and address inequities.
We found that training graduate students to do public scholarship and contribute to the public good frequently served as a litmus test for how committed universities are to the aspirational goals of diversity, inclusion, and equity they so often proclaim. If the academy seeks to contribute to the public good with public scholarship, why do we continue to teach and produce knowledge in elitist and racist ways?
Universities must therefore ask themselves a series of uncomfortable questions: Is the institution simply pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into public-facing programming, or is it engaged in the difficult work of making campuses truly accessible to the communities students often study? Are there processes in place for those communities to hold the academy accountable? Does the institution participate willingly? Are graduate programs changing cultural norms to be less harmful and more equitable (particularly for those most marginalized), or are we simply diversifying syllabi? Are institutions redistributing resources so that all faculty—especially contingent faculty—can do the research they came to the academy to do in sustainable ways? Or are we disenfranchising them and threatening their safety and livelihood when they participate in public, democratic processes and strikes?
Some professional organizations and grant-funding agencies have traditionally suggested that the humanities are good for the public just because they are the humanities. However, we would argue that, while it is possible to do useful humanistic research that is not centered on equity and justice, scholarship that is both effectively public and for the good of society must address the inequities that are present in society. To do otherwise is to pretend that our research is produced in a political vacuum—that it is possible to do apolitical public scholarship. This is a fiction that exercises great privilege. Social inequities are always already politicized.
What this provocation looks like in practice:
- Create intergenerational spaces for graduate students to have critical conversations about the flow of power and resources within and beyond institutions with peers, faculty, and administrative mentors. There are spaces for graduate students to speak with each other about these topics at many institutions, but the opportunity to discuss these issues openly with their mentors is much rarer.
- Have open and honest conversations about the ways racism, classism, and other systems of power influence graduate admissions and funding, and work to align university-wide and departmental admissions practices with aspirational goals of anti-racism, equity, and inclusion. This should not be limited to discussion about the applicant pool’s demographics. Explore the types of research projects, questions, experiences, and pursuits that faculty consider valuable and important.
- Encourage students to do the work that matters most to them. Disciplinary requirements and traditional ideas about academic success can stifle student creativity by forcing work to fit the forms we believe it should take, rather than allowing the form to be determined by the research itself. This might entail creating more inclusive language around theses, papers, or exams, and developing coursework that allows for alternative forms of knowledge creation, such as podcasts, exhibitions, or digital storytelling.
- Remove barriers to genuine scholarly collaboration, whether between scholars of various disciplines or between scholars and members of the community. At the moment, the single-author monograph as a requirement for tenure in the humanities prevents a lot of groundbreaking, collaborative public scholarship. Most graduate students are not trained in how to do creative public work by their programs; this means they either have to teach themselves through trial and error or they don’t do it at all. Public work is often viewed as less intellectual—activism rather than research. If we are to think about graduate education as a public good, we must entirely rethink what counts as “rigorous scholarship” to include forms of knowledge creation that are subjective and applied. If justice is at the center of what we think of as “the public good,” new forms of scholarship must not only be accepted but also celebrated.
- Finally, eliminate the derogatory and offensive term “mesearch,” which has been weaponized against scholars of color and queer scholars doing work with and for their communities. This is especially important in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, where narrative and lived experience are often essential data and useful case studies for understanding structures, systems, and other phenomena.
Provocation #2: Public scholarship is necessarily interdisciplinary and collaborative. This requires graduate education to be generative and experimental.
Doctoral education in the humanities and social sciences has traditionally been about mastering the methods of a discipline and addressing a deep but often narrow question. In contrast, public scholarship is about asking big, broad questions that rarely have a single disciplinary answer and working collaboratively with others to address concrete problems. We must confront how the organization of knowledge within the academy has perpetuated epistemic violence and inequity. In short, doing public work means decentering disciplinary thinking.
Questioning the value of discipline-based training and scholarship can feel threatening for scholars who identify with their disciplines and often feel protective of them. But for all the knowledge that the disciplines have produced in the last 200 years, they have also stifled knowledge that did not fit the disciplinary mold.
This phenomenon is especially visible in gender, queer, and ethnic studies, where tenure denial on the basis of (lack of) discipline is well documented. Fields like Black studies and feminist studies were called into being through resistance, collective demands, and social movements like the Black Power and women’s liberation movements. Subsequently, many of these scholars are adept at using an interdisciplinary toolkit to address urgent issues. They understand that reading promiscuously enables one to generate more useful questions and to assist in finding the best solutions. They also recognize that scholars are not the only people able to do analytical work, and that some of the best thinking happens in collaboration with those beyond the academy.
Today, across disciplines and industries, people are using concepts like abolition, care, and futurity to reimagine what freedom might look like. These terms often come from interdisciplinary collaborations. A striking example was the Loophole of Retreat: Venice, a 2022 transnational convention of over 60 activists, scholars, and artists initiated by multimedia artist Simone Leigh and curated by choreographer Rashida Bumbray, with advising by scholars Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman. Here, participants and online attendees alike celebrated Black women’s intellectual and creative labor through a multiplicity of dialogues and performances. Another example is the Vision for Black Lives policy platform, researched and co-authored by over 50 organizations within the Movement for Black Lives. The authors, both academics and others with expertise gained through experiential knowledge, lay out a comprehensive, evidence-based imagining of what a just society could look like, complete with specific demands for structural change.
These types of public scholarship can reach audiences that the 200-page monograph misses, while also being useful for teaching. They disrupt the notion that theory happens in here (the academy) and praxis happens out there (the public). They highlight collaborative intellectual work that is frequently dismissed within the academy. Graduate education should view them as key models for training excellent researchers and thinkers.
PublicsLab fellows often experienced the joy that comes with these experimental projects. Daniel Valtueña, a member of our first cohort, engaged in several, including: (1) using a PublicsLab grant to collaborate with faculty and peers on courses that encouraged students and faculty to think expansively about the role language plays in public-facing research; (2) curating an art exhibit and performance art experience with international artists while writing his dissertation; and (3) completing a research-based internship with the Queens Council on the Arts in New York that connected him with artists throughout New York City. These experiences helped Daniel successfully complete his degree and become a consultant for a multinational grant democratizing public art in Europe.
These successes came not only from Daniel’s tenacity and commitment to his community but also from his expansive thinking about what humanistic research and public scholarship could look like. He was able to make art more accessible to the people he so often saw marginalized in the art world.
Daniel’s work was also made possible through the PublicsLab’s support of multimodal models of mentorship. Each of our fellows had a faculty mentor, specifically for their publicly engaged work. For some fellows, their PublicsLab mentor was also their dissertation advisor, but for others, they were not. Curriculum grants offered additional opportunities for mentorship and for faculty members to explore their own relationships to publicly engaged work. Daniel’s mentors understood that his curating, interning, and departmental advocacy were not simply extracurricular activities or “distractions” from his research. Many graduate students are told to focus, focus, focus, but too much focus results in tunnel vision and the inability to see what is happening in the periphery, with all its generative opportunities.
As universities become more equitable and graduate education less oppressive, those previously forced toward the margins will be able to move closer to the center, if they so desire. This process will include its own forms of experimentation, as students, faculty, staff, and administrators generate new ways of conceptualizing graduate training.
What this provocation looks like in graduate education:
- Think differently about the apprenticeship model of graduate admissions, whereby faculty admit students as individual advisees or protégés interested in extending an aspect of their own research. Instead, think about cohorts relationally, admitting students with research interests that complement one another. Consider co-advising students instead of creating one-to-one advisor-advisee relationships. This cross-training of faculty and students could be intellectually stimulating and generate a strong sense of collectivity.
- Encourage students to take courses outside their disciplines in order to gain an introduction to a wide variety of analytical tools and methods. Programs could scaffold cross-disciplinary training into the curriculum beyond coursework, by considering a variety of methods and internship experiences. Finally, share professional development courses between departments. Offer students the opportunity to think critically about what is viewed as professionally essential in various fields.
- Remove barriers to team-teaching across departments. Team-taught courses can model interdisciplinarity and collaboration. Faculty can show students how team-teaching both marks and challenges discipline-specific thinking.
- Craft alternative assignments that ask students to imagine what a grant proposal, exhibition proposal, or high school syllabus based on the material might look like.
- Train graduate students who want to do community-engaged research on how to do that work ethically, responsibly, and in an accountable relationship with those they are working to serve. Challenge the extractive nature of community-engaged and public-facing work and take real action in making their educational resources available and accessible to community partners and collaborators in research projects. Indigenous scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith, author of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999), and others have been calling for these changes for decades.
- Consider adding a community partner that participated in the research to the dissertation committee as an external reader. This is one way for community members to have a voice and agency in the research being produced about them, and an opportunity to create relationships with the students and faculty engaged in the knowledge-making and credentialing process. That said, the labor involved in serving on a dissertation committee can be considerable; the invitation should be extended carefully, with appropriate compensation and very clear expectations of how much time is expected of the community partner.
- Provide teaching releases to graduate students to do internships outside the academy. Instead of asking students to do internships outside of term, give teaching releases during graduate programs, to allow students to understand the dynamic, mutually constitutive nature of praxis and theory.
- Provide supportive, judgment-free spaces for students to express doubt and wrestle with works in progress. Go beyond peer-review processes that take place in courses or conference presentations. How might we think differently about the spaces graduate education provides for the processes that lead to various research products? How can we make space for embracing risk, experimentation, and failure?
- Recognize co-authored and collaborative work as on par with single-authored work, for faculty and graduate students.
- Open up dissertation requirements beyond the proto-monograph, and promote and tenure interdisciplinary scholars whose work does not fit neatly into a disciplinary box. Ask different questions about what “expertise” might look like, beyond the imprimatur of a small subset of peer-reviewed publications. How might various publics find research useful? Should the dissertation be an art exhibit, a play, an organization, a series of political actions, or something else that we can’t imagine yet? How do we make space for these innovations? How might we assess different modes of intellectual work? And how do some of the fields “on the periphery” (like Black studies and queer studies) already model some of this for us?
Provocation #3: Students are experts in their own intellectual and professional development.
Students enter their PhD programs at a wide range of points in their lives and for an even wider range of reasons. Their experiences are shaped by both their prior lived experiences and by their reasons for being there—and yet most programs assume that all entering students are blank slates. This assumption results in an experience that is infantilizing, frustrating, and sometimes even harmful.
Doctoral education has, traditionally, been a process of disciplining students into a discipline. This process has transformative potential, but it also renders a student intellectually, psychologically, and materially vulnerable. It is where students are the most at risk. The vulnerability of it all contributes to the epidemic of emotional and mental suffering among graduate students today.
These risks are not evenly distributed. Many students from marginalized backgrounds experience the disciplining process as one of self-negation or alienation, in which they are forced to deny the parts of themselves that the university or the discipline is not comfortable with. This is even more true for students whose desired research interests are deeply connected to their shunned identities and communities. Students who enter their programs with significant professional experience also find themselves frustrated, as that experience is treated as irrelevant at best and a hindrance at worst. Students are rarely recognized as fully formed professional adults, with the ability to make their own decisions.
The current system assumes that graduate students cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own futures. Because it doesn’t trust students, the system pressures students to surrender their decisions, along with their psychological, intellectual, and material well-being, to the program and to the process. And yet, graduate students know themselves far better than any advisor ever could; they are experts in their own needs and aspirations, which are individual and unique.
From the inception of the PublicsLab, we wanted to create something that would be student-centered in a way that most doctoral education simply is not. This meant getting to know our students—their backgrounds, their reasons for being in the program, their aspirations and goals—and then trusting them to know what they needed. It meant that we had to be flexible in how we applied our own program requirements.
One example: Cameron Rasmussen was a member of our second cohort who already had significant professional experience in both social work and social justice organizing when he became a public fellow. Early on, it became clear that our standard internship requirement made no sense for him; he needed the freedom to pursue projects that did not slot neatly into the standard “research” and “teaching” buckets. Rather than forcing Cameron to contort himself to fit our existing requirements, we adjusted them for Cameron. He ended up using his internship year to help build the Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work (NAASW).
Another example: Britton Williams was a member of our first cohort of fellows. She already had a thriving practice as a drama therapist, as well as a myriad of other professional experiences such as consulting and teaching. Through her internship with The Animation Project (TAP), which uses animation as therapeutic workforce development for young people, Britton was able to combine her experience as a therapist and artist with the deeper skillset and network obtained through her doctoral training. She was able to help TAP create a BronxNet TV series, for which she served as both writer and host—a project that was very much underwritten by Britton’s previous (and simultaneous) professional experiences.
Faculty members are usually most comfortable training students for roles like the ones they themselves have. Rather than playing the role of the expert when it comes to students’ professional goals and ambitions, faculty members need to cultivate the mindset of a learner with curiosity, openness, and intellectual engagement. Those who are able to do this may be surprised by how much richer their advising relationships become, as students bring more of themselves to those conversations.
What this provocation looks like in graduate education:
- Ask every single student about their goals, early and often. Students should not feel like only some people are asked to think about a range of careers. No one is exempt from the vagaries of the academic job market, so no one should be exempt from this question. At the same time, faculty members should check their own impulses to make status- or prestige-based judgments about what students tell them they want to do.
- Provide compensation for a range of professional development experiences. Paying students for off-campus internships has proven bureaucratically tricky at many institutions, but credit-bearing courses or course releases may be options. An internship course can also host broader conversations about the university, the role students want work to play in their lives, and long-term career aspirations.
- Support alternative exam and dissertation structures that give students the latitude to make autonomous, informed choices. This might mean, for example, revisiting the language requirement. Are students actually learning a new language or are they learning to read a paragraph of Proust with a dictionary next to them? If it’s the latter, is that useful? Are there other skills that might be more meaningful to students, and what are they?
- Do not assume that the academic job market is the only job market that matters or that every student will enter it. A faculty advisor can ask advanced graduate students (in a neutral tone!), “Do you intend to go on the academic job market? What other types of jobs or professional experiences are you interested in?” Crucially, the dissertation phase should not be the first time they are asked such a question (though late is certainly better than never). Students change their minds about this as they move through their programs, and keeping the lines of communication open means that neither advisor nor advisee will be caught off guard when it comes time to apply for jobs.
- Commit to gathering feedback regularly from students about the program, making that feedback available for discussion, and creating change based on those conversations. The way that we have always done things is not always the way we should continue to do them.
Provocation #4: Abundance thinking and generosity can and should be cultivated even under conditions of material scarcity.
For many years now, the humanities have operated under both a mindset and real conditions of scarcity. This has stripped our relationships of care and our work of its joy. It has created an atmosphere of perpetual overwork, competition, and hoarding of resources. It has cultivated an endemic conservatism, rooted in an aversion to risk and the assumption that all change is bad and must be resisted. If we think of graduate education as a public good, then we cannot allow austerity politics and a pervasive mindset of scarcity to narrow our thinking. We must approach our scholarship with generosity and abundance.
The PublicsLab was somewhat insulated from the repeated demands for budget cuts in the CUNY system by its funding from Mellon—right up to the moment when it became necessary to discuss how to institutionalize the program without Mellon’s resources. Under persistent conditions of precarity and austerity, material abundance is often fleeting in higher ed. But it is in such moments of precarity that we should resist the urge to hold on so hard to what we have that we lose any possibility of a better future for our students and our institutions.
And let us be clear: the present situation is not sustainable. In the past year, graduate students across the country, from such disparate institutions as Columbia, New York University, the University of California, the University of Michigan, Rutgers, and Temple have struck for better pay and benefits, while graduate students at a number of other campuses voted to unionize. This should come as no surprise. Systemic public disinvestment in higher education, austerity measures, and an overreliance on graduate instructors at the undergraduate level have left graduate workers more overworked and underpaid than ever before.
And yet, despite these conditions, universities have seemed bewildered by the sudden uprising. The ivory-tower myth of the “life of the mind” makes it all too easy to deny that the conditions under which scholarly work is produced matter—when in fact they matter a great deal. Precarious conditions and stress have physiological consequences that affect our ability to think and work. They also make the academy a less desirable workplace and graduate education less accessible for students from marginalized backgrounds. These strikes underscore that we must commit to caring for our students as whole people with social, psychological, emotional, and material lives. We must recognize that the demands students are making about labor and equity are not only about their paychecks but are also about the type of agency and learning they desire in their doctoral training. As this movement calls for an end to labor exploitation as a persistent academic business practice, it also necessitates that faculty change the ways they do graduate education.
Subsequently, abundance thinking and generosity are not only about individuals. They are also about the publics we want to serve. Scarcity thinking harms our relationships with those publics and makes it more difficult to develop close partnerships with other organizations and institutions. Bureaucratic roadblocks to spending the money we do have make it harder and slower to pay collaborators. For universities to engage in meaningful public work, it must be possible to redistribute resources away from the institution—and in an atmosphere of austerity, that becomes increasingly difficult.
A scarcity mindset turns public scholarship into a luxury we can’t afford, and this is perhaps its most damaging aspect. It reveals that the university still does not consider scholarship for and with its publics to be “mission critical”—even as public investment in higher ed and faith in our institutions both continue to decline, with catastrophic effects. Under those circumstances, one might reasonably argue that we cannot afford not to engage our publics in meaningful and substantive ways.
Since the beginning of the PublicsLab in 2018, we have been aware that this period of Mellon-funded abundance likely would not last, and that the Graduate Center would struggle to maintain a program of this size on its own. We made sure to seed change across the GC through programs like our curriculum grants—$8,000 grants to departments and programs to incorporate elements of public scholarship into their curricula. We also approached partners with as much generosity of both time and resources as possible, nurturing those relationships with the hope that they would last far beyond the end of the grant. Sometimes this looked like taking responsibility for gathering folks and facilitating conversations across departments and disciplines, for students and faculty to tackle issues and build together. Other times it looked like paying stipends to alumni practitioners with PhDs so they could offer workshops while (re)building connections with students and programs. Those changes and relationships will, we hope, sustain the practice of public scholarship at the GC even without further Mellon funding. In doing this, we hope that we contributed to a mindset of abundance and generosity that will resist the politics of austerity plaguing so many institutions.
What this provocation looks like in practice:
- Don’t admit more students than the institution can provide with a living wage, adjusted for cost of living. Admitting a diversity of students without adequate support for those students is not equity, it’s exploitation. Departments and programs need to “right-size” to the level of support, while also adjusting their admissions processes so that they do not become more conservative (e.g., whiter and even more driven by traditional markers of academic prestige).
- Ensure that students have affordable, high-quality, year-round insurance coverage that can be extended to families and partners. Parental and medical leave should be available to all grad students in a way that allows them to keep their health insurance. Given the ongoing crisis in mental health among PhD students, universities should ensure that mental health coverage is robust and universal, without an arbitrary cap on the number of sessions.
- Revisit business systems, where possible, to ensure that they support the work of the university and not the other way around. How difficult is it for collaborators and partners to be paid? Are there places where that process could be streamlined or smoothed out?
- Make public engagement and scholarship “mission critical” to the university. Center it within strategic plans, encourage departments to incorporate it into curricula, adjust tenure and promotion guidelines to acknowledge and reward it, and celebrate the public work that faculty and students are already doing. Large, expensive initiatives (of which the PublicsLab was one) are all well and good, but it is often the smaller initiatives that are sustainable and become part of the fabric of the institution.
- Recognize that much of the abundance and generosity that sustain students within the university, especially during periods of great crisis like a pandemic or school shooting, are within the realms of teaching and mentoring. This essential form of relationship building and emotional labor should be recognized as institutionally valuable, especially for graduate instructors and contingent faculty who perform it at great cost.
To exist for the purpose of moving us toward a more just and sustainable world, higher education must do things differently. In a moment when public conversations and resistant actions demand structural change, our students are calling for us to reimagine how the entire project of graduate education might be transformed. The groundwork has been laid, but it is up to universities and departments to pick up the ball and run with it.
This essay has laid out some of the lessons we’ve learned and offered substantive advice. But it is only a snapshot of a fraction of the work that has been done. Now, this is a space that is open and ready for all of us to do our part. In our time at the PublicsLab, our students have graciously participated in a version of this transformative experiment, pushing us to reimagine what graduate education could look like in the urgency of right now—graduate education not only as a private benefit but as a public good as well.
Stacy M. Hartman (she/her) has served as director of the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, since 2018. Her co-edited volume Graduate Education for a Thriving Humanities Ecosystem will be available from MLA Press in fall 2023, and you can find out more about her work at stacyhartman.com.
Bianca C. Williams (she/her) is associate professor of anthropology and faculty lead of the PublicsLab at CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism (Duke U Press 2018) and co-editor of Plantation Politics and Campus Rebellions: Power, Diversity, and the Emancipatory Struggle in Higher Education (SUNY Press 2021).
Featured image: Liubov Popova. Painterly Architectonic, 1918. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, CC0. artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed May 25, 2023.