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IN JANUARY 2020, we attended the Modern Language Association’s annual conference in Seattle. There we convened with a working group — organized by Katina Rogers and Stacy Hartman — of professionals, professors, and graduate students who work across various roles in higher education or adjacent institutions. This piece on humanities doctoral programs that follows was co-written by six working group members.
— Rachel Arteaga and Stephanie Malak
Graduate Education in a Moment of Malleability
The interlocking crises of this moment — a global pandemic, economic instability, and renewed protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the most recent incidents in a long history of violence — teach us that what we may have previously understood to be immutable can, and must, be changed. Our responses to a new and serious threat to public health, the urgent needs of those who live in economic precarity, and the persistent and undeniable evidence of racial injustice in the United States will take different forms across the many institutions and communities that make up our society. In Higher Education, as elsewhere, this is a moment for reflection and action. Those of us who work in this sector are now called upon to remake the practices of teaching, learning, and research.
In this essay, we reflect on how we can and must contribute to this needed transformation. We suggest possibilities for how to rebuild the dynamic systems and institutions of Higher Education from within through intentional creation and change, rather than through the haste and triage of crisis management — or, worse, through the performance of reforms that superficially alter the veneer of our sector while leaving its fundamental realities intact.
We focus here on graduate education, specifically, on the humanities PhD and the challenges that doctoral students face as they are apprenticed into leadership roles in our institutions of higher learning. Graduate education is an important nexus for change: many humanities doctoral students work in instructional roles, at once learning and teaching in their fields of study. The doctoral students of today are preparing to serve as the next generation of scholarly leaders, and as such, changes to the programs that shape these students will be felt for decades to come across the entire system.
But existing norms and values are sticky, and change comes haltingly. Reform work has been happening in this space for decades, often supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; many of the co-authors of this essay have undertaken this work with support from these very sources, and we have witnessed both the potential and the limitations of reform. What we and many others have observed is that, by and large, graduate education replicates itself. It produces academics who value and protect the prevailing structures in which they are trained. A linear system of education — valuing the product of the thinker, rather than the process of thinking and creating new knowledge — discourages mistakes and risks, two elements that are crucial to effective teaching, learning, and research. With high stakes and failure sharply penalized, emerging scholars are in a precarious position, first-generation and scholars of color even more so than their white colleagues. In a system that prizes a genealogical model of scholarly formation, graduate students have strong incentives to absorb the spoken and unspoken codes of their university and departments and then pass them on to undergraduate students.
However, even the most change-averse institutions have been thrust into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, and even the most hesitant participants in discussions of racial justice have been forced to consider how they might act with more resolve to build an equitable and just world. Nationwide — indeed, globally — we have seen that structures that were assumed to be intractable can actually be rapidly changed under these pressures. In a moment when the status quo appears unusually vulnerable, how might we incite changes that are real and lasting?
Product versus Process
Many of the challenges we are seeing in colleges and universities right now reflect an overvaluing of product, or research, and an undervaluing of process, or teaching and mentorship. Veronica Barrera-Kolb, professor of Humanities at Seattle Central College, notes that much of this imbalance originates with the American capitalist overvaluing of property at the expense of labor:
Many of the challenges we are seeing in colleges and universities reflect an overvaluing of product, or research, and an undervaluing of process, or teaching and mentorship. I came to my graduate studies as an immigrant, working-class, first-generation student believing deeply that the project of Higher Education was a pedagogical one. I quickly learned that my training would be at the service of a capitalist economy that privileged the production of knowledge over everything else. My intellectual labor was to produce knowledge that could quickly be published and become my property, or belong to the institution where I do my work. Property that could be sold and exchanged in a market that in turn would produce prestige for my career and my institution. In contrast, the labor of teaching, the very project I thought was at the ground of Higher Education, was the place where I witnessed the most exploitation and alienation. The devaluing of teaching as non-productive labor, in the context of the prestige economy puts the very relevance of our intellectual projects into jeopardy.
Academic products include the various markers of prestige for scholars and students: a publication, a good grade, a large grant, a tenure-track job. These markers, by their nature, are built around exclusion. Exclusion is one of the primary metrics by which universities judge themselves against their peers: selectivity, as measured by the number of people admitted relative to the number who applied. That ratio is an indicator of the university’s prestige. Institutions like Harvard (acceptance rate: five percent) and Stanford (acceptance rate: four percent) are considered “elite” largely because they exclude so many undergraduate applicants.  Exclusion is used as a stand-in for excellence, even though a school’s acceptance rate says nothing at all about the quality of its teaching or research, or how well it prepares its students for life and work.
A person’s background — their race, class, educational status, or gender — influences the reaction they have to these exclusionary practices. Unsurprisingly, that reaction is likely influenced by whether or not they feel like an insider in a Higher Education setting — whether they feel that the space is for them, that they belong. First-generation college students or those who historically have had limited access to Higher Ed are more likely to feel out-grouped in prestigious spaces in Higher Education.
Among humanities doctoral students, these factors are especially acute. Nowhere is this emphasis on prestige more evident than in humanities PhD programs.
Within graduate education, especially at the doctoral level, we can articulate the ethos of valuing process over product as the difference between the production of scholarship and the act of “being scholarly.” Valuing advanced study primarily as a site of production for a single, inflexible end product both reduces the substantive richness of education and strips agency from the student. Being scholarly, in contrast, is a process-oriented approach which highlights the role of community and civic responsibility, and values the development of the scholar and their communities.
Scholarly Work for the Public Good
Many humanities PhDs land in “alternative” professional positions, inside of Higher Education, but outside of the tenure track. In our vision of a better academy, we see humanities PhDs who are engaged in working toward the public good, even if this work lives outside of academia. Many of the authors of this piece are in one way or another involved in this important work.
An oft-repeated note of resistance to the idea of humanities PhDs working outside of the academy is that it represents a caving-in to capitalist logics of job development. For example, it’s one thing to have a career development boot camp that helps prepare students widely for their working lives, and quite another to imagine a PhD program curriculum that is not primarily designed around the production of traditional forms of scholarship and the placement of PhDs into tenure-track, research-focused professorships.
In recent years, doctoral programs at places like the University of Iowa and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and in the career boot camps run by organizations like Humanities Without Walls and the Modern Language Association (MLA), have called the unquestioned value of prestige to account. Participants have realized that they are not the problem; it’s the system working exactly as it was designed to work. Sites of resistance to such a system have developed within and without institutional walls, serving as a home for those who feel that the university is not for them. But these sites remain, in most places, peripheral, serving a fraction of the students they wish they could serve.
To take another example, the intellectual formation of graduate students has long been the focus of doctorate training, often to the exclusion of their social and emotional formation. How can individuals and institutions more effectively support doctoral students — the stewards of our disciplines  — and where do we direct them for said support? Humanities PhDs will be better positioned to find and contribute to communities outside of their scholarly disciplines if their programs of study acknowledge and underwrite these components of their development.
However, there is no single approach, as there is no single entity governing Higher Education. Putting aside the impossible task of changing a whole system at once allows us to think and act locally, and to “lead from where we are,” as Kathleen Fitzpatrick puts it in a recent blog post. Fitzpatrick reminds us that revising locally controlled documents — departmental bylaws and policies, for instance — can lead to real and lasting change, and that ad hoc measures can grow through emulation and influence.
Indeed, in the case of doctoral education, codified power exists only at the local level: the pulling of levers within departments and programs is what actually changes structures, one institution at a time. There is no governing body to oversee or enforce such changes more broadly across institutions, or to make more sweeping “structural” changes. National organizations like the MLA possess a soft power — to create resources to support this work, to convene those doing it, and to bring them into conversation and help legitimate best practices. This soft power can affect the culture change that is necessary for — indeed, that perhaps amounts to — what might be called systemic change: a better balanced system, a thriving ecosystem of doctoral education. But soft power has no teeth without individual advocates and change-makers working at the local level, building a healthier system node by node.
Ultimately, we must move from perceiving the need to change, to developing ad hoc and short-term solutions, which will in turn foster systemic change in graduate education.
Testimonies for Change
In this section, we offer ways of reframing humanities doctoral studies. All of these first-person accounts engage the central provocations of this essay.
A Graduate Student
Our colleague and collaborator Jimmy Hamill, PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, describes what a graduate assistantship opportunity revealed about the product/process tension — which we understand as a tension more broadly between prestige and equity — as it takes shape in doctoral education in the humanities:
Early in my doctoral program, I felt divided between the expected desire of a tenure-track position and other kinds of administrative work in Higher Education. An opportunity came up to work as a graduate assistant at Lehigh’s Pride Center, an advocacy center dedicated to intersectional queer justice and education. The center’s work fit well with my scholarly interests in LGBTQIA+ literature and queer theory, but I was worried it would take me away from teaching in a college classroom and its potential to “distract” me from my studies. I also worried what future employers would think about me taking an alt-ac position instead of committing to my research. As I reflected on whether or not to apply, it was clear to me that I had internalized limited understandings of what pedagogy and scholarship could look like.
Thankfully, my director of Graduate Studies and faculty advisor were there to help me deconstruct these assumptions. Both of them encouraged me to look at my doctoral program as a time to go deeper into my interests, which sometimes meant exploring unforeseen opportunities and paths. They helped me realize that this position wouldn’t be a distraction from my scholarship but, in fact, would concretize many of the theories I had only encountered in seminars. Ultimately, they were pushing me to look at my doctoral education as a process of discovery that would produce multitudes of products in different spaces. If it wasn’t for their reframing, I would’ve passed up one of the most formative experiences of my doctoral education simply because it didn’t initially fit within the image I had created for myself.
These experiences, shared by so many doctoral students in the humanities, demonstrate that there is anxiety around redefining what our scholarly and pedagogical pursuits could be. By valuing products of tradition rather than processes of discovery, institutions tend to (intentionally or inadvertently) create systems that work against broader access and public relevance. They also exclude the people who may be most likely to drive change.
An Administrative Team
Two of us, Stacy Hartman and Katina Rogers, work as administrators at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. The Graduate Center (GC) is a unique interdisciplinary space at a large public urban university dedicated to graduate (primarily doctoral) education. At the GC, we strive to address the disconnect between the values and the structures of Higher Ed at both the institutional and the individual levels. At the institutional level, we develop programs and structures that are realistic about constraints while also envisioning different possible futures. At the individual level, we work to mitigate students’ feelings of alienation as part of our efforts to help them flourish. In effect, we help students to navigate questions of belonging and alienation that they confront every day in educational spaces. We would like to share a bit of what that looks like in the day-to-day, and what we see as the stakes of our roles.
We spend a lot of time talking about labor — specifically, emotional labor — with each other, with our students, and with our faculty allies. Our fellowship programs exist in interstitial spaces, outside of departments; they push boundaries and create spaces that are less circumscribed by the traditional rules and economies of the academy. We’ve deliberately created interdisciplinary, non-evaluative, public-oriented programs that are more collaborative and less competitive than many academic departments. We don’t grade our students. We don’t decide who will advance to candidacy and who won’t.
It is probably for this reason that our students are comfortable revealing to us the anxieties and struggles that erupt in the course of their PhD programs. These anxieties and struggles are all quite normal for people in their situations — people who are trying to live on too small stipends in a too expensive city. Uncertainty about the future in both an immediate, personal sense and in an existential, political sense adds to the stress that our students experience. In group meetings and one-on-one mentoring sessions, as we plan public events and innovative courses and undergraduate leadership programs, students in our programs consistently step up with creative ideas without the fear of judgment or performativity that pervades many graduate seminars. This is possible because we build trust among our groups, slowly, by sharing ideas and joys and concerns (and baked goods). We pride ourselves on having created programs that nurture our students, and we hope that the support we provide is helpful in navigation through the PhD.
However, through the course of engaging in so much emotional labor — labor that other parts of the university do not take on, because it exists outside the bounds of a prestige-based incentive structure — we are aware of the fundamental ways in which doctoral education is failing our students.
Our roles encompass so much of this type of work in part because our programs are a space for students to process their positions relative to the institution. By reminding graduate students of their agency, we’re also inviting them to question their assumptions about Higher Education, about equity and merit, about their identities as emerging scholars in their fields. The process of self-reflection often involves moments of frustration as students realize that the system of Higher Education is not broken, but rather is working exactly as intended: a prestige economy doesn’t function unless it excludes more people than it includes. Once we understand that the goals of the system are focused around prestige, we more readily understand students’ relationship to that system.
Many of the students in our programs emerge from this process ready to fight for a system that has equity and inquiry at its core rather than prestige. And so, the challenge becomes how to envision and design systems that offer a completely different value system and to find ways to move the kind of sustaining work that happens in co-curricular programs like ours into the core spaces of universities.
Community-Based Working Groups
MLA Career Boot Camp
Several of us worked on January’s Career Boot Camp at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, a group that brought together a cohort of 30 graduate students for professional development activities designed to connect them with their values and help them get past the hurdles to finding fulfilling work. Participants attended panels, a career fair, and a site visit to meet humanities PhDs in a range of careers, while also connecting with their own profiles and interests.
It’s no accident that many boot camps require participants to reframe the way they think about themselves as products of academic labor. Many career development programs rely on reframing an individual’s experience in a way that challenges grad students to think about the tasks they did in graduate school in a more holistic, process-based way. Participants are challenged to reframe the time they spent talking with students during office hours, figuring out how to use the school learning management system, or their “non-academic” interests as a vital part of their career profile. 2020 Bootcamp alum Treviene Harris says,
The boot camp helped me isolate, with specificity and concreteness, the most fulfilling aspects of the work I do in academia. Part of that process involved actually learning how to name and therefore translate my expertise and social commitments for a wider professional audience. This in turn helped me identify viable career pathways, beyond academia, where my advanced humanities training would be valuable. Attending the bootcamp better equipped me to embark on a broad and diverse job search with competence and confidence.
For those of us leading this programming, it is far less about teaching these graduate students something new than it is about helping them relearn what they already know — seeing their training in a different way, seeing their personal values as something worth preserving, understanding that their family needs are valid and not distractions, and above all, a message of empowerment. To sum it up, our message is: “You do actually know how to do things.”
While bootcamps are often limited in participant capacity and, at best, take place only adjacent to institutional spaces, the ad hoc nature of these types of programs nevertheless can foster real structural change because of the potential for transformative community building. Depending on the cohort convened, our experience shows that there is a unique reciprocity among the relationships of the participants; they themselves are changed and they change one another in their willingness to come together. They share anxieties, find common ground in experiences and vulnerability, and begin working toward reimagining the world and their capacity to contribute to it. The participants often share a common interest in taking their new thinking back to their colleagues, friends, and departments and thereby reinforce the value of being scholarly.
At the January 2020 Boot Camp, we ended with an activity in which participants brainstormed how they were planning to bring back the information they had learned. The boot camp participants covered a whole wall in post-it notes of ideas. Some focused on the other graduate students in their departments, thinking how they could share resources and run their own workshops. Others brainstormed campus events, ways to connect with alumni and different programs on campus. Quite a few wanted to start with a heartfelt talk with a chair or a mentor about what their graduate programs could be doing better. Of course, not all of these ideas will materialize, and not all of them might lead to much visible change, but some of those conversations might trigger another conversation. A student might bring new ideas to a chair, a chair might bring concerns back to a departmental meeting, and then the conversation could be taken up by a curriculum revision committee.
Ideally, these values and empowerment will ultimately be re-integrated into graduate programs, so that we can fully celebrate humanities PhDs as full people with a great deal to contribute within and beyond the academy. The real goal would be a PhD in which this translation effort is not necessary, because the connections have been made obvious from the beginning, built into the process.
Humanities for the Public Good
Other efforts are underway to aim and land interventions inside the institution that reach outward. In 2018, the University of Iowa received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to design a new interdisciplinary humanities PhD program, Humanities for the Public Good (HPG). This PhD program will be student-centered, practice-based, in service to the public good, and enacted through deep humanistic research and professional preparation for a sweeping range of careers.
“While we often hear about the devaluing of the humanities,” HPG principal investigator Teresa Mangum explains, “I proposed this grant because I hold the opposite view.” We need to reimagine what it means to “do” the humanities both within and beyond academe, which in part means embracing how “businesses as well as political, nonprofit, and cultural organizations see the importance of humanistic values — commitment to equity, inclusion, justice, empathy, and compassion — and humanistic methods and emphases on interpretation, storytelling, and meaning-making.”
The HPG initiative plans to leverage the courses, faculty expertise, and community-oriented goals already espoused at the University of Iowa in order to create a radically new programmatic architecture to support the mission of the initiative. For example, the grant welcomes its second cohort of PhD candidate interns in summer 2020. The doctoral interns applied to work with curated public partners for two months over the summer, devising projects with their site mentors that benefit the needs and goals of the organization and capitalize on the academic training, scholastic aptitude, and personal interests of the interns.
The inaugural cohort of interns from summer 2019 provided a rich example of the practical and intangible benefits of PhD students learning from and contributing to communities beyond their traditional disciplinary parameters. Through their internships, they articulated new facets of their dissertation research, refilled their personal wells of energy, and (re)discovered joy in being differently challenged and in being empathetic new learners. The summer internship component of the HPG program will continue in years to come and, in all likelihood, be expanded into additional full-year internship opportunities.
The grant also just completed its first full academic year, which was devoted to researching and exploring transformative ideas to build the new PhD program. Much of this work was engaged through the considerable efforts of its advisory board, organized into working groups, each of which included faculty, staff, and graduate students from a broad range of humanities-based units and departments, from University of Iowa museums, Office of Engagement, and Center for Teaching, to English, Philosophy, and World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures.
Members of the advisory board are committed to radically imagine otherwise in terms of doctoral humanities education today. The builders of the HPG program not only must reckon with the current state of graduate training, but also must boldly situate the merit, utility, and place of humanists in the world. Because of this, the HPG PhD program “presumes that humanities scholars can contribute much-needed commitment to culture, values, careful research, historically and culturally sensitive practices, and civic dialogue to every sector,” as Mangum remarks. That COVID-19 brings to stark relief both the precarity and the promise of the HPG program (and humanities graduate studies writ large) only confirms that systemic change is at once urgent and prescient, and that graduate training must be conceived of beyond academe, to service the many publics by which it has always been shaped.
It is a unique and unexpected moment that we find ourselves in given the renewed energy to combat police brutality, protests demanding racial equity, and COVID-19. It is not lost on us that uplifting opportunities often present themselves on the heels of crisis-based change. Make no mistake: In the semesters and years to come after a vaccine is created, the academy will work to rebuild itself and will use all its fiscal and social capital to do so. What if we throw out the blueprints of exclusionary prestige and instead fuel a resistance that defunds the traditions of Higher Ed that lionize product over process and therefore inevitably fail graduate students and the public? Sometimes stress and sadness can sharpen our sense of what is imperative, what is ethical, and what has been accumulated over time in efforts for prestige or tradition. We invite our colleagues and readers to perceive this time as a clarion call to more intentionally make universities sites of resistance to everything that has been outed as fickle and false.
- Before pursuing change, take the time to assess the situation and your positionality within it. Learn about the institutional histories that have shaped your current reality, and find out about reform efforts that preceded you. Why did they succeed or fail? How can you build on what has already been accomplished?
- Acknowledge your privilege in the existing system, especially if you are white. Develop an awareness of the ways in which the people around you are being differently impacted by the events of the world.
- Recognize and resist the prestige economy within Higher Ed by rendering more visible the importance of process, and try to see where in the process (of teaching, research, and mentorship) we can make different choices.
- Offer spaces for doctoral students to reflect on their academic, professional, and personal trajectories, whether through peer-to-peer conversations or formal events.
- If you are a white faculty member or administrator, do your homework and find ways to be explicitly anti-racist in your teaching, mentoring, and administrative work.
- How do you embrace your students as full people? In advising them, do you make space for them to center their values and personal goals and needs? How will you actively support their emotional and social, as well as intellectual formation?
- Rather than assessing if a scholar or their scholarship is “rigorous,” question the arbiter, and arbitrariness, of that rigor.
- Fight for stable and sufficient funding — including TAships — for graduate students and contingent faculty, especially BIPOC individuals.
- Speak up for reinvestment in public Higher Education at the city and state level. Contact your representatives directly and talk with them about the value of Higher Ed.
- If you are a faculty member, ask to serve on review committees in your department for tenure and promotion guidelines, and work to integrate language that recognizes publicly engaged scholarship, excellence in teaching, and mentorship of students as important facets of professional life within the academy.
- If you’re on a hiring committee, do research in advance on institutional practices, particularly on how diversity in hiring committees impacts hiring outcomes.
- Build new peer-mentorship structures to foster trust, support, and community.
- Shift toward holistic forms of doctoral admissions and advising. Students bring many experiences, skills, and commitments with them. Acknowledge those as important and valuable and help students incorporate them into their work. Ask students to share not only their research but their skills with their peers.
- Seek authentic input from current and former graduate students about which parts of their experience were/are valuable to them. Revise curricular structures that are not serving students well.
- Establish new TAships or advanced level internships in your department with positions in other areas of the university (administrative, centers, advising).
- Launch a career boot camp at your institution or offer funding to your doctoral students to attend one.
- Explicitly train doctoral students to center diversity and accessibility as a core part of their work. Mentor students through designing class syllabi and policies for equity.
- Revise the language on your department’s website to be more intentional and representative about which students you are recruiting and why.
- Revise application process and metrics of “fit” in existing humanities PhD programs to be more inclusive.
- Offer opportunities for graduate students to meet and network with staff and administration in areas of Higher Education outside their department.
- Celebrate all career outcomes.
Share Resources and Start Discussions
- Read Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, Katina Rogers (Duke University Press, July 2020).
- Read about new and emerging interdisciplinary graduate programs that are hospitable to process-centered pedagogy, community-based inquiry, and the public humanities, such as at University of Iowa and Georgetown.
- Use the MLA’s Doctoral Student Career Planning Guide and consult ImaginePhD.
- Consider creating a crowdsourced “guide to the hidden curriculum” for your program so that people can share knowledge and questions without judgment.
- If you are in a department with a highly competitive atmosphere, take actions to counteract it. Share resources equitably. Work collaboratively with others on your research and teaching.
- Involve diverse teams of faculty, staff, and students from units across campus to engage discussions of humanities for the public good.
- Ask PhD alums in a wide range of fields to give feedback on your graduate training curriculum. Were the courses useful? What did they need more of to prepare them for their roles? Commit to making at least one change based on their feedback.
- If you are a faculty member, find out what other humanities departments, the dean’s office, the graduate school, and career advisors are doing for students at your institution. Can you support existing initiatives, or replicate support structures within your department?
Our purpose in these reflections has been to categorize and assess efforts toward systemic change in Higher Ed and describe how we have come to reimagine the purpose of doctoral education at the intersection of the US economy and social values. It seems much easier right now to imagine the future of Higher Ed as a place of increasing precarity and resource-scarcity. But fear of the future makes for poor decision-making. If we want a different future, we have to imagine it differently. The examples that we’ve offered are a blueprint for what a different future might look like: one in which prestige is not the coin of the realm in Higher Ed, where process is valued over product, and where students and educators are invited to bring their whole selves to their educational experiences. A wholesale rethinking of education as a public good, rather than a private benefit is necessary, but it is not necessary to wait for it; indeed we cannot wait for it. We all have methods of soft power; we all have levers we can pull.
Katina Rogers is an administrator, researcher, and faculty member at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (Duke University Press, July 2020).
Ashley Cheyemi McNeil is an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the humanities at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in Public: A Journal of Imagining America and Racial Ecologies, among other publications.
Featured image: “Members of Occupy Cal Deliberate Demands for UC Berkeley’s Anthropology Library” by Colleen Young is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
 Based on fall 2018 enrollment data as reported by US News.
 “Stewards of the discipline” is a phrase coined by Chris M. Golde and George E. Walker in their work for the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. See Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline (2006).