Event Recap: Putting the Humanities PhD to Work Reading Group

PhD to Work Book CoverThis was a sustained discussion about graduate education reform using Katina L. Rogers’ Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (Duke University Press, July 2020) as a point of departure. “In Putting the Humanities PhD to Work Rogers grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce … Rogers invites readers to consider how graduate training can lead to meaningful and significant careers beyond the academy. She provides graduate students with context and analysis to inform the ways they discern their own potential career paths while taking an activist perspective that moves toward individual success and systemic change.” Read the full book description here.

Katina Rogers
Katina L. Rogers

Katina Rogers, the author of this timely and important book, is Co-Director of the Futures Initiative and the CUNY Humanities Alliance. She is the Director of Programs and Administration at HASTAC, and also a Faculty Member of the MA Program in Digital Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Following a beautiful launch party for the book, the reading group discussions took place in August as series of three videochats focusing on two to three chapters per week. Each week, the reading group was moderated by a guest host, and author Katina L. Rogers.

On August 5, Siqi Tu, PhD in Sociology and concluding Futures Initiative Fellow, led a discussion of the Preface, Introduction, and the first chapter of the book, “The Academic Workforce: Expectations and Realities.” Dr. Tu asked participants what point struck them the most from reading the introductory chapters of the book. Responses included:

  • “setting discourse around adjunct labor and careers outside the academy in conversation with each other;”
  • “reframing the ‘supply and demand’ equations – in ways that don’t result in reducing access to advanced humanities education;” and
  • Research intensive programs can de-emphasize the importance of a broader skill set, including teaching.”

These were just a few of the many excellent points participants raised. The group discussed several key passages, including this salient point that still resonants, especially for me, as a graduate student and adjunct: Rogers writes, “By casting teaching and research not as work—part  of a capitalist labor economy—but  rather  as a  noble  calling,  the possibility of exploitation is much increased” (22-23). To read more about the discussion, view the collaborative notes.

On August 12, Andrew Viñales, PhD Candidate, Cultural Anthropology and PublicsLab Fellow, led a discussion about chapters two, “Inclusive Systems, Vibrant Scholarship,” and three, “Expanding definitions of Scholarly Success.”

Viñales pointed to this key passage from chapter two: Rogers writes, “If scholarly work that has a clear public value were held in higher esteem within this economy of prestige, graduate programs might also become appealing to a wider range of students who aspire to many different goals. And, if the emphasis on public engagement and applied research was connected with an inclusive approach to recruitment and support, doctoral programs could become a very different kind of community, with a much broader understanding of what constitutes excellence and rigor” (71).

Viñales asked graduate students, whose voices were prioritized in the videochat, this question: “What initiatives have you seen your department take up to foster public scholarship, or how has public work been silenced?” This question opened a discussion of current practices and critiques of current systems and structures as well as some initial thoughts on what could be done differently (a conversation that would continue the following week). To catch up on the discussion, read the collaborative notes.Participant Faces on VideochatTo conclude this engaging series of discussions, the third and final discussion took place on August 19, led by myself, Christina Katopodis, PhD Candidate, English, and Futures Initiative Fellow. In this reading group, we discussed chapters four, “What Faculty and Advisors Can Do” and five, “Students: How to Put Your PhD to Work,” and the conclusion, “Building a University Worth Fighting For.” Read the collaborative notes from the discussion here.

In this reading group, I learned a new tip from author Katina Rogers. I had set up a typical inventory activity, a Think-Pair-Share, in which I asked everyone, “What is one key take-away from the book that you can/will/plan to use this academic year?” After the first response or two, Rogers kindly broke the silence and suggested that after sharing, each person pick someone new to go next. With each participant passing the baton on to the next person, eventually everyone shared their key take-away. All I needed to do was keep track of who had already shared and who hadn’t so that I could make sure everyone participated.

Total participation is really important, as we know from ample research (the term comes from the American Psychological Association) and educators like Samuel Delany: it indicates to all participants that their voice matters, and it gives all participants practice contributing something, practice engaging in a community, practice in a democratic process. It is optimistic and ambitious but it is possible, and there are ways to do it well in a physical classroom and ways to do it better online, techniques I am quickly learning from colleagues who have more experience working in online platforms.

There’s something else really important about this moment that I want to highlight. Educational tips and tricks are things we learn together as a community. Raewyn Connell writes in The Good University (2019): “Like research, a great deal of teaching is collective labour. The public image may be a solo lecture by a star performer. The everyday reality is a team of technicians, administrative staff, tutors and lecturers moving in a ballet in which that lecture is only a passing moment. The know-how of all these workers, their day-to-day coordination over months and years, are what really make up mainstream university teaching” (48-9). This describes my reality at CUNY, and it’s an asset both in the academy and beyond, to speak to what Katina Rogers calls “translating” our teaching into something legible to a broader field of careers outside the academy.

This is the “university worth fighting for,” as we imagine it at the Futures Initiative: a community of scholar-teachers who share tips and tricks of the trade for the benefit of all learners (including among educators, for we too are learners). Moreover, this kind of openness to sharing–we might call it a fierce collegiality–is something we have to offer the workforce wherever we go (onsite or online) and on whatever teams we join (in or outside the academy).

I remain hopeful that this pandemic offers us an opportunity to create radical changes both in the academy and in our lives. After some months of grieving our pre-pandemic world, I stand ready to be surprised by what new possibilities arise from reimagining my career and life in a post-pandemic society. Despair is still lingering in the corners but I keep thinking about what Katina Rogers says in her book: “The world needs you” (127). I really believe that is true, that a humanities PhD is a tremendous asset even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. So, adjuncts: I hope you see the value in what you do, how you share what you learn and know, and what you have to offer the world. Keep passing it on, wherever you go.

Parts of this event recap were originally published on August 22, 2020 on my author website. Read the original post here.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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