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.”


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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