Graduate Education for the Public Good: Event Recap and Reflection

Event date: May 1, 2020

What a joy to gather, in the midst of a time of separation and loss, to talk about what we imagine for higher education. On Friday, May 1—Labor Day across much of the world—my colleagues and I hosted a digital forum on graduate education for the public good. That more than fifty people would come together from their homes on a Friday afternoon to talk about education, equity, and the public good was a delight, and it brings me hope.

Graduate education opens doors to engaging and often unexpected pathways, with opportunities for significant public impact —an essential element of reinvesting in higher education as a public good. In this special Digital Friday session, Stacy Hartman, Cihan Tekay, Justin Beauchamp and I discussed how building a university that is truly worth fighting for means thinking more expansively about what constitutes scholarly success—not only to support individual career pathways, but also to work toward greater equity and inclusion in the academy.

As much as I loved the discussion, this was not the event we wanted to have that day. Over the past year, I have worked closely with my Futures Initiative and PublicsLab co-presenters to think not only about how we might redesign graduate education to support the public good, but also how we might design a sustained conversation that embodies the kinds of structures we imagine. That conversation was going to take the form of a national conference on April 30 and May 1, called Graduate Education at Work in the World. But the COVID pandemic got in the way. Given the circumstances, rather than an expansive two-day participatory event, we hosted an hour-long zoom webinar, with plans to reschedule the conference for Spring 2021.

You’re allowed to grieve the year that would have been,” writes Candice Marie Benbow in Zora. A conference seems a silly thing to grieve, but as co-organizers, it was hard to watch a year of planning fade away and get pushed to an uncertain future, to know that the people whose proposals we had read with enthusiasm would not be boarding trains and planes and joining us at CUNY.

At the same time, the unusual circumstances meant that this one-hour online discussion brought a surprising sense of hope, of community, of possibility. It was a way to say that designing new ways of working still matters—indeed, it is even more pressing than before.

The idea for the conference emerged as a collaboration between the Futures Initiative and the PublicsLab, as a way to examine the nature, value, and structure of graduate education—not only as it is, but as we can imagine it to be. It also emerged from my work on a book that I’m incredibly excited to be able to share in July, called Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (Duke UP). In the book, I argue that career development is not a standalone issue. It is embedded in questions of equity, inclusion, evaluation, labor structures, and more. I examine the intersections of these practical and structural matters and offer concrete recommendations both for students, faculty members, and administrators.

In other words, part of this conversation—both in the book and at the conference—focuses on possible career pathways, and the value of public engagement, as graduate students consider how to carry their deep education forward into many possible futures. But it is too simple to talk about careers without acknowledging the elephants in the room: the diminishing public support for higher education, and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor that has devalued teaching and made a faculty career seem like an impossible pipe dream.

Often conversations about career pathways are brief add-ons, or entirely separate from academic matters, or do not take into consideration the broader landscape of institutions and structures. But unless institutions address the increasing reliance on adjunct labor and the ways that undermines teaching and learning, and the gender bias and racism that continue to be deeply problematic for both students and faculty, deep and lasting change in other areas will be extremely difficult. This is why we created the opportunity to have a sustained conversation on the topic—one that focuses not only on skills or employability, but on how we got here and how we move forward. I shared these perspectives in my opening remarks.

Stacy then introduced herself and the PublicsLab and shared some preliminary thoughts. She discussed the misalignment between values and structures, and the damaging influence of the prestige economy on so many aspects of higher education. Stacy argued that prestige is the driver of much of higher ed, and that prestige hinges on exclusion—so, by its nature, it is at odds with a goal of serving the public good.

Cihan and Justin each introduced themselves as well, sharing a bit about their roles and their research. All of our bios are included at the end of this recap.

We then turned to conversation. For the rest of the hour, Stacy and I responded to questions that Cihan and Justin had prepared in advance, as well as excellent questions from the audience. In addition to moderating, Cihan and Justin also joined the discussion to share their perspectives as graduate students.

We began the discussion with this question: How does the notion of public good change in light of the pandemic? What is our role in it as scholars? What do you see as the purpose of the humanities and social science at a moment like this? Why do we do what we do?

Humanities education provides essential tools to enable students to navigate the complex realities of their personal and professional lives. Many CUNY students are the first in their families to go to college, are immigrants or children of immigrants, are multilingual and multicultural. Studying art, literature, music, history, science, and more provides a powerful lens to understand and articulate their own experiences in a broader context.

That has never been more true than now. In talking about the pandemic and its effects, it has been clear that we’re not just talking about scientific details of a virus and transmission, but the social, economic systems that create a differential impact of the pandemic. We’re talking about the human, emotional, and relational factors that make this a mental health crisis. The pandemic does not affect everyone equally; people who are marginalized in other ways are also disproportionately affected by COVID and its effects. That disparity has to do with racism and all forms of inequity that underlie nearly every aspect of US society, and humanities helps us to understand why. In addition, the creative spaces of art, music, language, and more provide an outlet for expression, as well as signs of beauty and hope within the pain and the panic.

Stacy also mentioned that the humanities offer historical context that enables us to see patterns in events that have come before. In prior pandemics, as now, people have reacted with fear that manifests as xenophobia and denial. If we know that is how humans tend to respond, how might we interrupt that initial reaction? Orhan Pamuk’s op-ed in the New York Times illustrates this beautifully: Opinion | What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us.

Cihan described a blog post series that she has started with our FI colleague, Siqi Tu. In the series, Cihan and Siqi reflect on our shared human history, and begin to translate what we know has been written about the history of pandemics, and the relationship between biology and race, and society and race. Siqi’s perspective has been especially valuable, as she is an expert on China and has been following the progress of the epidemic in Asia, since before it was labeled a pandemic. You can find their first post here: Thinking through a pandemic: reflections & resources from humanities and social sciences.

Finally, humanists and scientists will be sorely needed in the days after the pandemic. Moments of instability can be moments of change, and well trained humanists are important in that change if we hope to create structures that better serve our shared values.

The next discussion question was: How can we foster greater equity and inclusion—and also more creative (and public) scholarship—by breaking down some of the tacit expectations of graduate education?

Stacy discussed the prestige economy and its influence in higher education. She noted that there will undoubtedly be many changes after the pandemic, and that it’s easy to fear the negative possibilities. But at the same time, it’s important to resist that. The only way we’re able to push back against negative changes—those that increase precarity and diminish resources—is to imagine where we want to be. This is a moment for a lot of imagination for equity and inclusion for who we could be as scholars.

I talked more narrowly about one area where I think scholars and administrators could start making changes right now: admissions. The role of admissions in academia, and its role in equity and access in particular, is deeply connected with what constitutes “success” in academia. Admissions committees are looking for people who can successfully make it through the program and do good work from there, which comes from a good place—but the vision of what that success looks like is very narrow, and so the qualities that admissions committees are looking for are very specific and limited. When we’re looking for these same types of success, we are looking for students who can move through that world already. Institutions are trying to bring in more students of color, to improve their institution’s visible diversity, but they don’t have the services or supports for those students (and faculty and staff). As long as the types of evaluative materials we’re looking for remain the same as they always have, then it’s much harder for folks to make the case, if their work is something embedded in the community, in public work. Who are we recruiting? Who do we think can thrive in our systems? How can we change the systems to allow for a broader group of individuals to thrive in our system? 

Justin noted the important role that GRE scores play in admissions and equity, as well as funding structures, and urged faculty and administrators to consider the impact of longstanding structures when they are hoping to create change.

Our final discussion question was: What is the relationship between career diversity and academic labor issues, like the adjunct crisis? Where do they connect? How can we work toward reform on both fronts simultaneously.

This is at the heart of Putting the PhD to Work. When we talk about career diversity, an important note is the devaluation of teaching itself. Many academic spaces don’t actually reward or support good teaching. It is secondary to research. That’s why we see institutions relying more on adjunct labor, in addition to the public funding crisis. And yet, the best teaching—perhaps especially in introductory courses—is deeply scholarly work. Similarly, writing for a broader public than one’s disciplinary colleagues is sometimes considered less rigorous (deeply coded word) than writing a peer-reviewed journal article—and yet, it takes a great deal of intellectual precision and clear communication to generate enthusiasm and learning among students, as among readers. The scholarly craft that is required to take something very specific and present it to a nonspecialist group is hard to quantify, which makes it hard to value in processes like tenure and promotion. I think if it was easier to talk about the craft of teaching, it would be easier to talk about why public engagement matters as well. We need to advocate for reinvestment in higher education as well, but also to place importance on teaching itself.

Cihan and Justin both commented on the value of being part of a union. Although there are various things that we can criticize about the Graduate Center’s labor structure, the fact that many (though not all) students have access to health insurance, union representation, and basic workers’ rights is crucial. It definitely does not happen at many other universities, especially wealthy ones that engage in union busting when graduate students organize.

Members of the audience asked excellent questions, including:

    • – How do we have conversations about community college and even K-12 teaching in ways that don’t frame them as fallbacks? (Grace Afsari-Mamagani)
    • – Do you think that re-evaluating service—arguably the part of the service/teaching/research triad that most closely resembles public engagement—would help orient scholars towards public facing work? (Dylan Ruediger)
    • – Is there value to prestige that we would like to hold onto as we build new structures that are less beholden to it, less enthralled to it? (Rachel Arteaga)

Responses to these questions (and notes on the rest of the session) can be found in our public notes document:  

We closed the discussion with the question: What can we hope for in this moment? 

This is not only a question I reflect on for the end of this particular discussion, but also as a tumultuous academic year comes to a close. While we’re now in a difficult moment, the year has also had tremendous highs, such as the confirmation of $3.15 million in funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to extend the work of the CUNY Humanities Alliance. But it can be hard to remember those bright moments when the future feels uncertain.

When I think about the future of higher education I want to focus on the possibility of joy and sustainability. But I don’t think you can talk about joy without acknowledging the systems of power that are currently in place, and working to bring about greater justice and equity in those systems. Understanding our values is a crucial starting point for meaningful reform.

I have hope because of conversations like this one, because of the students and colleagues I work with, and because of good work I see happening at colleges and universities across the country. There are many examples of good work in this direction; we see it at CUNY, and we saw it in the conference proposals, and we see it in the ways people and programs are supporting one another in this pandemic.


Speaker Bios

Katina L. Rogers, PhD, is Co-Director of the Futures Initiative and Director of Programs and Administration of HASTAC 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 Academy (Duke University Press, July 2020).

Cihan Tekay is a doctoral candidate in anthropology who is writing her dissertation on how people’s engagement with technology, economy and politics shape possible futures. Tekay is also a graduate fellow at the Futures Initiative.

Stacy Hartman, PhD, is Director of the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is currently co-editing a volume titled Mission Driven: Reimagining Graduate Education for a Thriving Humanities Ecosystem.

Justin Beauchamp is a PhD student in the Sociology program, where his research interests are related to the role of higher education in the public good. As the College Assistant for the PublicsLab, Justin supports its programming, administration, website, and social media.

Featured image: Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash



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