Category Archives: “Living Humanities” Ph.D.

Transformation, Not Replication: Training the Next Generation of Doctoral Students

Is it possible to “unlearn” something? This was one of the main questions at the recent meeting of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century project, focusing on the planning theme “Inhabit the New Learning Ecosystem.”

This term comes from Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, in which she draws from Alvin Toffler to suggest that “the key literacy skill of the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn” (12). Some participants scoffed at this description, seeing it as old hat. Don’t we do this in our classrooms every day? Isn’t this a skill that dates back to Plato? But perhaps this idea bears repeating – in adapting doctoral programs to suit a twenty-first century learning ecosystem, we need to let go of old assumptions.

 
One of these assumptions is that every Ph.D. graduate will go into a tenure-track academic faculty position (or that every student enters a Ph.D aspiring to this career). Today’s Ph.D. graduates are grappling with a much larger job market. While many candidates still make the tenure-track professorship their primary goal, others focus more on so-called “alternative academic” careers (alt-ac) or careers outside the academy altogether in non-profits, museums, government, or business, among others.

A second assumption is that incoming doctoral students will learn and conduct their scholarship in the same ways that their professors did. The constantly evolving digital and informational landscape means that students have new avenues to acquire knowledge, from the internet to MOOCs, as well as new systems of learning. One professor noted that he finds it harder and harder to find cultural parallels with his students, and feels that he is forcing them to use his systems of learning rather than the ones they have grown up with.

 
So how can we adapt doctoral programs in the humanities to accommodate more career outcomes? One suggestion is to talk to Ph.D. graduates who have gone to other careers. In “Graduate Education Reconsidered,” James Grossman and Emily Swafford of the American Historical Association (and members of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. project) mention asking alumni from History Ph.D.s working outside the academy what they wished they had learned during their degrees. They found five areas to address that could easily benefit students going into academic careers as well: “communication beyond the scholarly and classroom modes, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy/engagement.”

Among these five areas, communication stands out. At the meeting, several participants emphasized the need for Ph.D. students to address different publics both inside and outside academia. They saw this skill not only as a way for students to advocate for themselves and highlight their skills to employers, but also as a means of promoting Ph.D. study in the humanities more generally. Ph.D. alumni working outside the academy could become strong ambassadors for their disciplines, communicating what they achieved in their degrees to a much broader audience.

Participants had many suggestions about incorporating more career outcomes into Ph.D. programs, but they were less certain about how to engage students who were accustomed to learning through primarily digital means. So how can doctoral programs adapt to engage these students? Some participants were skeptical about making big changes at a time when digital tools are changing so frequently. What if we adopt something that turns out to be a passing trend? How do we maintain our traditions and standards of excellence while also staying current?

The general consensus seemed to be that we have to be willing to change, to unlearn outdated methods and try new ones (even if they might not last). But participants also highlighted elements of doctoral education that still remain constant. The key skills of mastery and manipulation are still key to learning, even if they are being done differently in our digital age. Moreover, some of the functions of studying the humanities still stay the same. They can still tell us how we got to where we are today, creating a “living archive” that makes the past current, and they still offer self-knowledge to those who study them.

 
Through the process of unlearning, perhaps we can let go of old assumptions about what Ph.D. students want to do and how they want to learn to create doctoral programs that will best serve new generations of students. As the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature puts it in their 2014 report, we should encourage “a shift from a narrative of replication, in which students imitate their mentors, to one of transformation, since graduate programs should be centered on students’ diverse learning and career development needs.”

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For more about the “Inhabit the New Learning Ecosystem” planning theme and suggestions for further reading, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” To learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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The Faulty Memory of Nostalgia

The December holiday season is steeped in nostalgia, whether we’re singing about sleigh bells ringing and roasting chestnuts over an open fire or reflecting back on past years as we look ahead to a new one. We constantly reminisce about a past that probably did not happen quite as we remember it. This fond, if flawed, recollection of the past is a constant presence in academia, from looking back at the good old days (remember when all Ph.D. graduates could get professorial jobs?) to invoking academic tradition to discourage innovation (the dissertation has always looked like this; why change it?).

This inaccurate recollection of the past of academia and how it can hinder the transition to a new model of doctoral education were two of the main topics under discussion at the most recent meeting of the “‘Living Humanities’ PhD for the 21st Century” project. Entitled “Revitalize Learning Outcomes,” this meeting featured guest speaker Sidonie Smith, Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and the author of Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (available open-access from University of Michigan Press).

There are many exciting developments happening in higher education in this digital age. In her presentation, Smith discussed the use of new media for scholarly communication, shifting knowledge structures that focus as much on collaboration as on individual research, and a distributed university that has graduate students working not only with one or two faculty members at their own institutions, but also faculty and fellow students at institutions around the world.

But alongside these steps towards a more digital, collaborative model for higher education, there is also resistance to change. Smith explained how these changes could be misunderstood by faculty members, who sometimes perceive projects that use this new model as a Ph.D. “lite,” as opposed to a Ph.D. based on the more traditional formats they are accustomed to – a single student writing a proto-monograph with the assistance of a select committee of faculty members. With their students’ best interests in mind, some faculty advisers fear that making changes to the doctoral degree or dissertation can harm candidates’ prospects on the academic job market, rendering them less able to compete with their peers. Addressing these concerns, Smith is very direct – if we stick to the twentieth-century model of graduate education, we are actually disadvantaging our students, as these normative standards do not assure academic excellence.

Not only are these so-called normative standards not a guarantee for excellence, but they have also not always been the norm for doctoral education. As I said, nostalgia can give a flawed perspective of the past that does not match the historical reality. For instance, one professor from English highlighted that the current gold standard for the dissertation in the field, a four-chapter proto-monograph, was not always the only option. Going back to the 1960s and 70s, he noted the accepted alternatives of the critical edition of a neglected text or the three-chapter dissertation. If dissertation structures have changed before, can they not do so again? In the same vein, another professor noted that our concept of the academic tradition is not as fixed as we would like to believe, but instead is made up of many subtle, continuous changes over time.

With so many avenues available for doctoral students and faculty in the humanities to create innovative projects and take research beyond the boundaries of the university, we need to take a hard look at the traditions that we cling to. So as we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and prepare to face 2017, let’s try to set aside our nostalgia about the academia of yesteryear.

To read more about the “Revitalize Learning Outcomes” planning theme, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes. For the reading material for this meeting, see Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times.   If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Mentoring

The following post is a response/reflection to the Third Meeting of NEH Project on The Living Humanities PhD in the 21st Century, “Ensure Access and Inclusion.” For an overview of the meeting see the minutes here or read through our overview posts here and here

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As we reexamine the reality and the possibilities associated with the Humanities Ph.D., the relationship between mentor and mentee should be central to our considerations.

While it is generally accepted that mentoring is integral to the experience of graduate students, greater clarity about the purpose – or purposes – of mentoring is needed.

  • Why is this relationship integral to the students, not just academically, but professionally and personally?
  • What do we hope to accomplish as a result of mentoring?
  • What are successful mentoring outcomes?

This seems obvious in the sense that institutionally successful mentoring culminates in the awarding of a degree. It is likely that many mentees share this perspective. But perhaps it is important to reexamine the various aspects of the student experience a successful mentor may affect. As we look at the humanities today it becomes obvious that the awarding a degree is not automatically equating to a tenure-track job, or even a satisfactory academic experience. A mentor is largely a guiding force toward the Ph.D., but a successful relationship and a lauded mentor often engage farther.

On November 15th, the “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century” group tackled the theme of “access and inclusion”— a theme that we cannot untangle from the issue of mentoring, especially considering retention and completion rates. If we look to diversify higher education at the doctoral level, it must also be our goal to strengthen existing mentoring processes and, if necessary, modify them to support our changing community and academic landscape. To do this, we need to examine the roles that mentors ideally fill.

If other outcomes beyond basic matriculation might also be considered components of successful mentoring, what should they be?  Below is a potential list of mentoring components and associated outcomes:

  • Academic– the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s advancement toward completion of the degree.
  • Disciplinary– the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s increasing expertise in a specific discipline as evidenced by advancement through the curriculum as well as participation in discipline-specific events (conferences, conclaves, and webinars).
  • Social– the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s increasing social integration as evidenced by participation in “extra-curricular” events and the development of a social network. As studies show students in graduate programs feel they lack “community” this aspect seems extremely vital.
  • Professional– the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s progress in the development of a professional network as evidenced by attendance at recruiting events, a completed CV and the development of a professional network. Professional mentoring and support should not be limited to academic careers, and a successful mentor, if not able to advise on alternative professional outcomes should be able to advise the student where to find them.
  • Ethical – the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s growing sense of the ethical implications of holding an advanced degree as evidenced by measures specific to a given discipline.
  • Cultural– the mentoring relationship will support the mentee’s understanding of the complex nature (values, practices, norms) of academia and of a particular discipline. This last outcome seems central, especially given the exclusionary history of the development of these cultural norms and practices. Outcome measures seem more elusive.

If we look at this list, it becomes increasingly clear that the mentor serves as a touch point for most aspects of the student experience and that without responsible mentorship students will flounder even more in the uncertain landscape of Higher Ed. We need to better understand how departments (and who in them) are filling these roles. So, how can we as an academic community and institution evaluate and access mentorship across disciplines?

Perhaps the development of a rubric might serve to help broaden how mentoring is evaluated and how a successful mentoring relationship at GSAS is not limited to achieving the degree. This is helpful for the purposes of reporting – it may behoove us to have many dimensions along which mentors and mentees can experience success. A rubric might help with the development of training protocols for mentors, evaluating the effectiveness of mentoring and providing clear expectations for mentees.

  • Steven D’Agustino, Ph.D., Director of Online Learning, Fordham University
  • Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14

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Helping Students to Navigate through Graduate School: Let’s Talk About Mentorship

This is post two on the “Ensure Access and Inclusion” theme- see part one here!

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Entering graduate school can be a bewildering experience. As well as struggling with the demands of coursework and the expectations of professors, students must also learn the norms of their new environment. For some, this process is a necessary component of preparing for a doctoral degree. For others, it feels needlessly punitive and even like a form of hazing.

The question of how to welcome new students into the community of the graduate school and into individual departments was a central component of the meeting on Access and Inclusion, especially for the group focusing on student retention and support. The discussion in this group centered on one possibility for helping students acclimatize to the department – mentorships between students and faculty members. A productive mentorship can open a window into departmental culture and practices for students, as well as fostering the passion for the subject that prompted them to enter graduate school in the first place. Ideally, faculty mentors could not only provide valuable resources to their mentees and increase their confidence, but also develop a relationship with them that is goes beyond the requirements for the degree.

These ideal mentorships can be an asset for a department, but they depend on one key element: the mentor him or herself.

While many graduate students develop beneficial mentorships with faculty members, some are less lucky. Different faculty members can have different expectations and rules for their relationships with students, which may be implicit, and students can also feel apprehensive approaching their mentors with their own expectations and issues. Stories of less-than-ideal relationships between faculty and students often circulate within departments, and students are subtly discouraged from pursuing relationships that could prove problematic.

Departments can help students create fruitful mentorships by encouraging them to develop relationships with several faculty members to evaluate them as possible mentors, but why should the burden of developing a mentorship fall entirely on the student? Drawing on their own experiences as current and former graduate students, meeting participants agreed that approaching faculty members can be a daunting task, especially for students who don’t feel they fit into the culture of the department.

Instead, why not ask students what they expect from a mentorship, and provide guidelines for both mentees and mentors that draw on? Departments might also consider building other forms of mentorship that could help bring students into their community. For instance, students may feel more confident sharing their problems with peers who are further along in their studies. Departments can also introduce students to their culture and expectations through a foundation class, such as the Graduate Proseminar in Fordham’s Philosophy department.

Mentorships can help students become happier and more confident members of the graduate school community. To reap these benefits, however, we have to consider the burden that we place on students to create strong relationships with mentors as well as the hidden expectations on both sides that can undermine these relationships.

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To read more about the “Access and Inclusion” planning theme (including a recommended reading list), see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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Opening the Gates: Ensuring Access and Inclusion During the Admission Process

On Tuesday, November 15th, “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century” held its second meeting, focusing on the planning theme of “Ensure Access and Inclusion.” For this meeting, the group was split into two parts, which will be addressed in two different blog posts (see part two here). In this post, I focus on the first group’s discussion on admissions, considering how GSAS programs in the humanities can attract and admit under-represented groups during the admissions process. A subsequent post will focus on the second group’s discussion on retention, mentoring, and student support for under-represented groups once they are attending the GSAS programs in the humanities.

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So what are these “under-represented groups” at Fordham? This term includes but is not limited to prospective and current students who are members of racial and ethnic minority communities, members of faiths other than Christianity, members of LGBTQ communities, and/or members of economically and academically disadvantaged communities. Meeting participants considered how these groups are not mutually exclusive and how diversity goes beyond racial differences, often including hidden identifiers that students may not be comfortable revealing.

And how can humanities programs in the GSAS attract members from these under-represented groups? The discussion focused on three elements: advertising the programs to create a more diverse applicant pool, rethinking how we evaluate applications to potentially create a more diverse student body, and above all considering the application process from the applicant’s point of view. Group members suggested advertising Fordham’s programs to promising applicants from under-represented groups by working more intensely with institutions in the neighborhoods around our campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan and using faculty contacts to forge links with institutions catering primarily to communities not well-represented at Fordham, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

As well as reaching out to these communities, group members considered factors that could discourage promising students from applying to graduate school, such as the many costs that prospective students face and the uncertain payoff of a Ph.D. degree in the current academic job market. Applying for a Ph.D. is an expensive proposition, including hefty fees to prepare for and take the GRE test, but even after students are accepted they must reach further into their pockets to pay for moving expenses and the deposit on a new home. To address initial expenses, the group suggested forgiving GRE fees for admitted students and providing advance funding for the transition to start graduate school.

Mitigating these costs still leaves the price of the degree itself. The cost of attending a Ph.D. program must be balanced with the rewards at its conclusion – if students do not want traditional academic jobs or feel that the market is too competitive, they see no point to even applying. To address these perceptions of limited or lackluster job prospects, the group proposed showcasing a wider range of career paths for Ph.D. graduates on the university website that could appeal to a broader group of applicants.

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But encouraging promising students to apply is only half the battle; they must also be admitted into Fordham’s programs. The group confronted current markers of privilege in evaluating graduate applications and how to acknowledge them. For instance, they noted that committees rely heavily on the GRE General test as a marker for student potential, but higher scores on this test have been linked with higher socio-economic status. As GRE scores are used for university ratings, the group found it impractical to get rid of the test entirely. Instead, they suggested training admissions committees about its limitations as a marker of academic potential to encourage them to take a more holistic view of each student’s application. The group then considered looking at applications without any clues to the applicant’s identity. One innovative suggestion focused on a technique called Blind Hiring, pioneered in Silicon Valley, which strips all identity markers from application materials and has resulted in more diverse and talented hires.

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To read more about this planning theme (including a recommended reading list), see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.”

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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“Living Humanities” Ph.D. Grant Project Kicks Off at Fordham!

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded GSAS and Fordham University a Next Generation Humanities PhD grant for the project entitled “The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” For more on this project, see its website.

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The inaugural meeting of “The ‘Living Humanities’ PhD for the 21st Century” project took place on Friday, October 14. The meeting started on a somewhat bleak note – the unhappiness of graduate students. In his introductory talk, featured speaker Leonard Cassuto highlighted that, in the current plan of graduate education in the humanities, professors teach graduate students to want something that their professors can’t supply – the tenure-track academic position – so they’re effectively teaching their students to be unhappy. Drawing on two chapters from his 2015 book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, “Admissions” and “Conclusion: In Search of an Ethic,” Cassuto charted how we got to this point, giving a snapshot of graduate education and job placement since the 1950s. Most damningly, he suggested that current doctoral education is designed for people who could be the grandparents of our current students – the doctoral candidates who graduated during an academic job boom in the 1950s and 60s.

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Having established this pressing need for change in doctoral education, the meeting then turned to how we can change, focusing on five key questions:

  • How can we connect what we teach with what our students do with their degrees?
  • How can we embrace the teaching mission of graduate study?
  • Should the PhD be reconceived with skills-based approaches, and what would these skills be?
  • What are the goals for the PhD degree, and what would it mean to reconceive doctoral education in the humanities as liberal education?
  • How should the PhD go public?

Meeting participants engaged in a World Café format, discussing these questions in groups of five and taking copious notes to share with the group.

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With these discussions, the tone of the meeting became a lot more uplifting, with participants discussing ways to make change and programs that had already started this process. Participants questioned what students get out of their degrees – how do we connect how we teach with what our students do with their degrees? What skills do students develop during the PhD? They also debated how to balance discipline-specific requirements with more universal skills – should graduate education be skills or content-driven (and is this an either/or question)? Are the disciplines dinosaurs? A common theme across the five topics that merits further exploration was what students actually do once they graduate from PhDs – are there recognizable categories of non-academic jobs that students go to? What options are available to humanities PhD graduates, and what do employers outside the academy value from a humanities doctoral education?

One key theme across the topics was the value of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Many participants emphasized the value of collaborative assignments for students, but also encouraging students to look beyond their departments for resources and providing teaching opportunities that weren’t just field-specific. They also highlighted current initiatives across the GSAS that help prepare graduate students for a range of positions, such as the proseminar for first-year students in Philosophy that provides professional orientation, or the Teaching Practicum in the English department that prepares graduates to teach at a range of institutions. New initiatives were also mentioned, like the Preparing Future Faculty program at GSAS and a proposed Eloquentia Perfecta seminar in Public Communication for graduate students across the humanities.

Other resources from outside Fordham were also suggested. In a discussion of post-PhD careers, one participant suggested the “Humanities Unbound” project, which promotes careers beyond tenure-track academic jobs and investigates what alt-ac activities are already being pursued by graduate students and academics across the US (see this paper by Katarina Rogers from the University of Virginia for details). In a discussion of internship opportunities for PhD students, several people mentioned the MLA’s Connected Academics Proseminar for alternate careers to academia, currently in its second year. In a discussion of taking scholarly research public, the “Knowledge Unlatched” portal was mentioned, which hosts Open Access publications that are proposed by publishers and then supported by libraries.

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Throughout the meeting, participants highlighted avenues for improvement and expressed a strong desire to implement such changes. They also considered both potential gains and losses from the evolution of graduate education, and emphasized the need for humility in looking to new models. The practicality, enthusiasm, and wealth of suggestions from PhD students and graduates across disciplines and careers set a promising precedent for “The ‘Living Humanities’ PhD for the 21st Century” project’s ongoing mission this year.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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