Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Book Launch Video and Q&A


Screenshot of Katina Rogers giving a talk with participants visible as thumbnails
 Click to watch the full conversation

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Dr. Teresa Mangum at the University of Iowa to celebrate the launch of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work. Following a generous introduction by Dr. Cathy Davidson, Teresa and I had an invigorating conversation about the nature of graduate education, the challenges of navigating tacit knowledge, and the value of the humanities in a moment of great unrest. The discussion moved along so briskly that we didn’t have time for a thorough Q&A with the audience, but many people added thoughtful questions in the chat and I’m happy to be able to address them here. I have included attribution when possible, and have lightly edited for clarity in some cases.

On Models and Resources

A number of participants shared questions related to the need for more visible models of innovative programs. Several also shared their own reflections, or pointed toward exemplary programs.

Question: I just got out of a committee meeting in my department to allow for alternative dissertation formats—it helped that I was able to provide models for my colleagues to see beyond what the traditional monograph is. Are there models for what you are talking about—do we know of programs in universities that are reframing their grad programs toward the public good? And could Teresa talk about the excellent work of the Obermann center? Is the Obermann Center, Duke UP, or Katina collecting such resources? Such a list of resources would be tremendous for all of us. —Jennifer Ho

Observation: In addition to communicating openness, there’s a desperate need for established paths forward into non-academic careers that departments know and communicate to students. Alumni networks, internship programs, community partnerships, awards/ fellowships that reward community or industry work or projects, industry partnerships– all of this is deeply needed and has to be accomplished on a departmental level. I’m not sure how much the former helps without the latter. —Krithika Vachali

  Yes! There are a number of strong models to look to, including of course the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, and Humanities for the Public Good at the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center. In my opinion, the best compilation and examination of innovative graduate programs can be found in the work of the Council of Graduate Schools, specifically through the NextGen PhD consortium that was initially funded by the NEH. The resources and outcomes from this work—including Promising Practices in Humanities PhD Professional Development and Review of Prior Work in Humanities PhD Professional Development, as well as this collection of resources—are invaluable to anyone looking to make programmatic changes. In addition, scholarly societies such as the Modern Language Association have done excellent work to share models as well as strategies for fostering change, for instance through the Doctoral Student Career Planning toolkit.

As an example of a more home-grown initiative, during my time at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab I helped to collate a number of programs the Praxis Network website (which has now been sunsetted). These included UVa’s Praxis Program, the PhD Lab at Duke University, and several others. It was not intended to be a comprehensive listing, but rather a deeper dive into a few interesting and differently-structured programs. What I liked about the Praxis Network website was the way it presented various “slices” of the selected programs, with interview-based considerations of mission, funding, challenges, and more. To me, this was a way of recognizing that each program is deeply rooted in its particular institutional culture, opportunities, and constraints; the programs can serve to inspire others, but cannot easily be replicated.

Here are a few other examples shared in the chat by participants:

Example: I’d be happy to share information about a new interdisciplinary graduate experience called Solutions for Social Impact at Arizona State University [ed: I think it’s the Social Impact Measurement and Management program?]. Students from all disciplines participate, but it especially accommodates humanities students looking to enhance their skills for impactful interdisciplinary work on social challenges. There is a different challenge each year, and for 20-21 it’s Impacting Inequality. —Sally Kitch

Example: What we are working on at SWGS at Rice is providing opportunities for translation before going out on the market. We are trying to offer paid fellowships where students take up those “translational skills”: project management, strategic planning, event planning, data collection and representation. Research is a keystone of all of these things. I think we all need to talk about changing the university in some of the ways Katina suggests, but as job placement officer in my dept I am so in the moment with the realities grad students are facing right now. —Helena Michie

  On Double Work

Participants shared concerns with the risk of putting too much of a burden on students to prepare for multiple kinds of pathways simultaneously. This is a concern I hear frequently and I’m glad to have a chance to address it.

Question: I think we need to also watch out for the “both/and” problem. As a graduate student I experience a heavy pressure to prepare BOTH for a traditional career in academics and publishing things like monographs AND to be good at digital humanities and making public facing deliverables, teaching AND getting diverse experiences to create non-academic resumes. Can you speak to the idea of a hybrid graduate experience that somehow does not place two different sets of objectives on students? —Wendy Fall

  Absolutely. We’re in a period of transition right now that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on graduate students, and I think a great deal of this has to do with sticky value systems. Even while programs say on one hand that they value collaborative, public-oriented, innovative work, in most cases the requirements for degrees and tenure still reflect a model based on prestige and individual research. This is one reason that I think it is so important to look not only at the programming that an institution offers, but at the ways that values are tacitly reinforced.

I love the advice that Kathleen Fitzpatrick has given to students: “Do the risky thing. Make sure that someone’s got your back, but do the risky thing.” I appreciate this because it honors and celebrates the creative ideas that students have regarding their own projects, while also acknowledging the reality of power dynamics. Students, until there is a broader shift in values and structures, make sure someone has your back. It may not be your dissertation adviser, and that’s ok. Faculty and administrators, be this person if you can, helping students to advance their work and navigate institutional constraints that don’t necessarily serve the research.

To take a longer-term view, my hope is to see more and more programs like Iowa’s Humanities for the Public Good—programs that connect deeply with communities and local partners, that celebrate collaborative work that has a public impact, that builds from students’ interest and also sparks unexpected curiosities. That, to me, can set a new structure in motion by starting from a new system of values.

On “Rigor”

Question: Often we encounter resistance housed in narratives of “rigor” that is, seeing curriculum, training, projects and dissertations that incorporate training for diverse careers or move away from traditional monographs as being less rigorous when really they just require new models of assessment. What are great ways to move discussions beyond or push against these narratives of what is or is not seen as rigorous? —Nicole Reiz

  Great question. “Rigor” is such a loaded term that I can barely use it without quotation marks. I think one good starting point is to examine assumptions of neutrality, things that seem like they can’t be changed, and ask why that is. A good example of this is quantified metrics such as the GRE (and other standardized testing) or college rankings. Standardized tests have been demonstrated to show more about a student’s zip code and family income than about their likelihood to succeed in college or graduate school, so we know it’s a faulty measure (see for instance Lani Guinier’s The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America). And yet, such scores are still commonly used as shorthand for intelligence or aptitude.

Given what we know, what else might be a false indicator of knowledge or skill? Perhaps we can look to comprehensive exams, which vary widely but rarely change much over time within a department. Why does one program’s exam have to look a certain way, when other programs assess knowledge completely differently? I think questioning these assumptions is an essential first step.

In particular, Teresa Mangum recommends checking out HuMetricsHSS, which describes itself as “an initiative that creates and supports values-enacted frameworks for understanding and evaluating all aspects of the scholarly life well-lived and for promoting the nurturing of these values in scholarly practice.” This is also deeply connected with the questions below on reward structures. HuMetricsHSS has a number of tools and digital projects in the works to help scholars integrate their values into the decisions and structures that inform their work.

On Reward Structures

Question: I would like very much to hear your thoughts, Katina, about how to change the reward structure on a systemic level. I am inspired by and grateful for all the efforts to reorient grad education toward the public good at the CUNY Grad Center, Iowa, ASU, UW, NYU, and many other schools (many funded by Mellon) but I think you are talking about something bigger — a profession-wide shift of perspective and goals that transcends the silos of schools. Can we shift the reward structure (and the standards for grad recruiting, hiring, tenure, promotion, and prizes) without working department by department, school by school? —Joy Connolly

Observation: We just touched lightly on this, but there are many pleasures too for faculty in being able to move into the new types of teaching needed for these new possibilities. I’m loving teaching lab based humanities courses now. —Jane Desmond

  This is a huge question. Reward structures are deeply connected to value systems, and changing value systems is slow and difficult work.

At the same time, I include the observation from Jane Desmond alongside Joy Connolly’s question about reward structure because I do think that it can be easy to forget the pleasures of new ways of thinking and working.

But the pleasures are not enough; this is something that requires deep and lasting structural change. Certainly, organizations that transcend individual institutions—such as the ACLS—have a significant role to play in signaling normative changes. This can be one through the kinds of funding that is made available, the voices that are highlighted, and the strategic directions of the organizations. But many times the cultures and pressures of individual departments or fields remain stubbornly intact in spite of these measures. One hope that I have is that as universities are forced to reckon with massive changes due to the COVID pandemic, it may be an opportunity to rethink some of these values and make changes that may have seemed impossible a year ago. This is a question I’d love to think about in more depth.

On Dissertations

Do you write at all about the dissertation tropes like “A good dissertation is a done dissertation,” or “A dissertation is not a book”? Or push against those at all? —Tori Lane

  Not specifically, but I do present a wide range of creative dissertation projects that have demonstrated incredible depth of insight. I think it is important for the research questions (and student interests) to drive the format of the project, and sometimes that may look like a book and other times it may not. The very best advice I’ve heard on the differences between a dissertation and a book comes from my editor at Duke University Press, Ken Wissoker (see this 2018 talk, for instance).

If the question is also hinting at pressures around time to degree, I think that is another highly individual matter. Many CUNY doctoral students take a class at a time on top of full-time work and childcare responsibilities—so it takes longer to finish. I would like to see programs support students through their entire degree program. At the same time, I think there is a certain benefit and wisdom to recognizing the difference between a need for more time vs. feeling stuck and unable to move forward. In my experience, part of what an excellent advisor can do is help someone to see the distinctions, helping a student to navigate obstacles while also urging slow and thoughtful work where warranted.

On Labor Structures and Advocacy

Question: Katina, do you think the interests of faculty and contingent labor can ever be truly aligned? —Nigel Rothfels

Question: I decided to get a PhD because I couldn’t survive on adjunct teaching alone and was exhausted from working both as an adjunct instructor and in restaurants. Neither one of these jobs provided affordable health insurance. However when I got to the university, I became very disenchanted with the lack of teaching instruction university-wide, and with what seemed like a veritable inability for academics to live their politics due to the institutional power structures in higher ed, and particularly in R1 institutions. What advice would you give to a humanities student whom still isn’t sure they’ll stay in the academy but is still working to finish their degree? What steps did you take to become a scholar-activist? —Emma G

  I think the interests of full-time and contingent faculty have to be aligned if we want to see any meaningful progress in terms of labor structures in the academy. The impression that their interests are opposed is divisive and disguises the kind of austerity thinking that makes university instruction into a zero-sum scenario. This should not be a matter of taking money or resources or stability from one group and giving it to another; rather, it should be a matter of broadening the pool of support so that all can partake.

That doesn’t mean it’s always an easy allyship. At CUNY, full-time and adjunct faculty are represented by the same union in order to emphasize the ways in which our interests are interconnected. However, it sometimes leads to uneasy negotiations given that city and state budgets are so severely constrained. But ultimately, greater support for adjunct faculty—including full-time and longer-contract teaching lines, benefits, and living wages—would benefit all faculty by fostering commitment and investment in a larger number of faculty members. This could help spread the work of mentorship and service while also strengthening shared governance. For more on this, I recommend The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Truths by Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth.

As for Emma G’s question, I think that focusing on your own goals and values is crucial. Finishing your degree can be a compelling goal with or without a clear career objective in mind.

I don’t know that I would describe myself as a scholar-activist, though it is something I aspire to. But as for how my work and thinking has evolved, it has been a product of learning more about institutional structures and coming to see the places where I might have some influence. I like thinking about systems and structures, and it has been through that type of thinking that I have come to understand much more clearly the ways in which institutions can foster or inhibit meaningful and justice-oriented work.

Recognizing my professional role in administration (and embracing my appreciation of organization, like naming protocols and spreadsheets and annual planning documents) has given me confidence to find ways to make a difference within those spaces. Other people have different ways to use their strengths.

On Where to Begin:

Question: I’m excited about a lot of the bigger changes in our profession and in graduate study in particular that this conversation is addressing. I’m trying to identify, for my own graduate program, what small steps I can initiate now, in a time of economic pressure and amid a pandemic, when many of us are not on campus. I want to take small steps that I can build on in coming years. I think it’s important to show our graduate students that we are taking material, well considered steps to give them the opportunities and autonomy we’re discussing. —Victoria Smith

  I couldn’t agree more! Concrete steps are crucial, especially in moments of difficulty. In a recent joint talk with Adashima Oyo, HASTAC Scholars Director and PhD Candidate in Social Welfare, we discussed a few ways to get started. Some are immediate and low-stakes, such as making more space for reflection and discussion with students about their goals and values. Others are longer-term, such as revising course structures or curricular requirements to include a stronger emphasis on collaborative work that has a public impact.

But right now, with so many things up in the air, even those suggestions can feel like a heavy lift. I think that this is an important moment to simply show care and support, both emotional and material. If your university or department is offering any emergency assistance grants for students affected by COVID, make sure students know how to apply. Check in with international students and help them to find the resources they need. Advocate up the chain for extended timelines, increased support, and anything else that can offer students a cushion at a moment where it is urgently needed.

At the same time, it is a useful moment to work with senior administration to consider longer-term structural changes. Budgets are very much in flux right now, so it’s unlikely that many places can make significant commitments, but it is a time when things that seemed impossible to change have been swept aside more quickly than we might have imagined. If you have the institutional positioning through committee membership or anything else, now is the time to use your voice. When institutions are ready to rebuild, we have a chance to do things differently.

On Love and Work

Several people chimed in to share thoughts and resources regarding what I consider the risky conflation of love and work—the sense that teaching is a calling that people do because they love it, which can leave them vulnerable to exploitation.

Comment: Thank you re demystification. The exploitation of “love” and care work is very much at issue in nonprofits, which are often held out as alternative to academia. The pressure to work for very little (sometimes nothing) is, if anything, even worse in many nonprofits. Students have told me they came to academic to get away from a culture of forced vocation. —Helena Michie

  Jennifer New shared In the Name of Love by Miya Tokumitsu, an essay on work and love. Melissa Gregory noted that Fobazi Ettarh calls this “vocational awe”: “Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.”

Additional Resources

Finally, I’d like to share a few links to materials that I mentioned in the talk and that people included in the chat:

  Thank you!Cover of Putting the PhD to Work by Katina Rogers

Many thanks again to Teresa Mangum and everyone at the Obermann Center, as well as my team at the Graduate Center and co-sponsors at Duke University Press and Prairie Lights Bookstore. This conversation was a wonderful way to start sharing this book with the world, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Read the introduction for free and purchase your copy on the Duke University Press website. The code E20ROGRS will apply a 30% discount to your purchase.




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