“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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