October 7 Event Recap: Graduate Education for the Public Good at UVa Scholars’ Lab
On Wednesday, October 7th, Katina Rogers and I gave a virtual talk at the University of Virginia, organized by Scholars’ Lab and co-sponsored by UVa’s PhD+ initiative. It was followed the next day by a more intimate discussion with graduate students and staff at Scholars’ Lab, during which we had the opportunity to learn more about their scholarship and activism. While Katina had previously worked with Scholars’ Lab, it was my first time meeting the community around this innovative project, which brings together experimental scholarship, digital technology and cultural heritage.
The original event had been booked for March, in anticipation of the release of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work during the summer. As we reorganized our talk to take place virtually, we followed the collaborative format that we often use for FI events, where short speeches are followed by think-pair-share activities in small groups, followed by a discussion that brings everyone together. We were quite happy with the results, as the format allowed us to keep our audience engaged during this 1.5 hour-long virtual event.
Katina began by stressing the importance of graduate and humanities education in the current moment, as we face uncertain futures and grapple with massive changes to our daily lives. She shared her own career trajectory while reminding our audience that, as coherent as it may seem in retrospect, it did not feel so linear while she was pursuing her PhD and the positions that followed. Summarizing what we do at FI, she emphasized the role of graduate students as teachers and learners, a point that resonated with our UVa audience. For more on Katina’s trajectory and thoughts on careers, see this blog post and her recently published book.
I followed Katina by contextualizing my own career as a junior scholar: I started a research career because I had questions about how the world works, and how to change it. In particular, I wanted to understand the root causes of inequality in my home country (Turkey) as well as in the world at large. I earned my BA at Hampshire College, where I had a full scholarship to learn critical thinking unencumbered by disciplinary boundaries or grades, and designed my own concentration and original research project. Although I felt quite young and foreign, the experience gave me an appreciation for experimental higher education institutions and student-led learning.
I returned to Istanbul for my MA in Sociology, investigating questions of gender inequality and labor under capitalism. While doing research with women factory workers in one of Turkey’s special economic zones, I also helped construct a community garden at my university, prompting further questions about how we use the world’s resources. At the same time, I began writing for public audiences on a variety of topics from activist art to dam construction, and I volunteered as an interpreter for conferences organized by Kurdish social and political movements. All this activity fed and shaped my thinking as a young scholar in ways I am only beginning to understand in retrospect.
A few years later I enrolled in arguably the most unique anthropology PhD program in the US, where I was actively encouraged to work on an interdisciplinary, inter-regional historical and anthropological project exploring the politics of energy and global capitalism. I had not received full funding, however, and spent several years competing for internal and external grants and fellowships, and teaching as an adjunct in a severely underfunded public university system. It was challenging to fulfill departmental requirements under these circumstances, but like many in the CUNY system, I persevered and gained hands-on experience at the bottom of the academic labor structure. I also gained a window on different aspects of the university: working in classrooms, offices, writing centers, teaching and learning centers, and finally, in program administration at FI. Though it was a side effect of chasing funding, I was actually curious about many of these areas – in addition, I volunteered to serve on the doctoral students’ council and in my program’s committees.
After conducting research in Europe and Turkey, I applied for a fellowship at FI, where I felt an instant sense of community. It now feels like my winding paths at the university have finally come together in one place. Being mentored by Katina, I’ve had the opportunity to help run higher education reform programs where we test new approaches to learning by putting them in action. We are working towards a program that can run itself – one which grows and evolves with the graduate fellows taking up the work as they prepare for the next steps in their own careers. I have loved doing this a junior scholar, especially because I would like to start an institute someday.
After discussing our career trajectories, we asked our UVa audience:
What were your intentions in going to grad school?
What are your goals where you are at now?
They answered (in sum):
Learning more about the world and doing something
Wanting to join the social life of people who want to discuss ideas
Commitment to teaching and desire to teach
Enjoying what we study, rather than a vocation
Public scholarship – sharing ideas with the world
These answers led into a conversation about why we do what we do as teachers and scholars, and the public value of graduate education and humanistic inquiry, especially during this period of political and social challenges. Katina explained that scholarship as a public good runs into structures built on prestige, exposing the conflicting value systems at the heart of the university. She argued there is mutual benefit of emphasizing the impact of graduate education, and that supporting creative, applied research is connected to access, inclusion and equity in higher education. Katina challenged the audience, asking:
Who sees a future for themselves in the academy?
How can research be applied in meaningful ways?
Do people feel a program brings them closer toward their goals and commitments, or does it alienate them?
I complemented Katina’s points by sharing my experience in collective work to change the status quo. For me, it has helped to be part of a community of scholars sharing common goals. In addition to kindred spirits from CUNY, this has been the editors’ team at Jadaliyya: a public scholarship forum where I served as editor, peer reviewer, team member, and writer. Here I learned by example from scholars who are unapologetically political, working across various disciplines and dealing with the challenges of producing knowledge about the Middle East.
FI is another place where I have been engaged in collective, mutually supportive work. In the past year I co-organized a conference for the first time, together with colleagues from PublicsLab, only to postpone it in the face of the pandemic. We are currently working on reorganizing it as a virtual conference for February 18 & 19. The conference, as it was originally planned, focuses on graduate education and what comes after from the perspectives of students, faculty, admin, and others. It now feels more important than ever to create a space for these discussions.
What’s next for me? Eventually, I want my institute of interdisciplinary studies, rooted in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, creating a secular space for inter-regional exchange, disrupting the American knowledge production about the region and fostering multilingualism. It will take me some time to get there. In the meantime, I’m trying to gather the skills, knowledge, experience, and connections I will need. There might be more than one pathway to get there, including a faculty career or something I cannot yet imagine.
Katina led us to our final discussion at UVa: How can we move toward a framing that emphasizes abundance and joy? Noting how people have stepped in to support one another during the current pandemic, she asked: What might it look like to design a system with those values at the core? She discussed moving towards joy in her own scholarship, and in the ways she develops programs and advises others. She argued that this work requires understanding relevant systems of power and knowing when to work within and against them: “Real reform requires looking not just at the blossoms, but at the roots and stems that create the systems of graduate education.”
We finished by asking our audience:
How would you want to see universities change?
What’s one step you can take from where you are right now?
Share resources, redistribute resources in the university world
Expand the network of “peer institutions” that frequently trade students, resources and faculty
Change what knowledge production looks like; make what we are producing more equitable and more public
Change our pedagogical approaches to be more equitable and accessible to students
Design better reward structures to recognize unequal burdens of labor
Redesign the dissertation to serve students’ aspirations and career plans
Our conversations at the UVa were incredibly rich. We hope these thoughts about change, redistribution, equity and public good will continue reaching wider audiences in the university and beyond.