Conference recap – Graduate Education at Work in the World
On February 18-19, 2021, I had the great pleasure of jointly convening Graduate Education at Work in the World, a one-of-a-kind virtual conference cosponsored by the Futures Initiative and the PublicsLab. Co-organizers Cihan Tekay, Justin Beauchamp, Stacy Hartman, and I had been developing plans for this conference for a solid two years, since COVID forced us to cancel our original in-person plans.
The premise of the conference was closely connected to ideas from my book, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: namely, that talking about career pathways is important, but it will never be more than a band-aid unless it is embedded in a broader discussion of academic structures, values, and power.
This was a timely conversation. With the COVID pandemic, systemic matters have become even more urgent. People are struggling, but not all in the same ways. Over the past year, we’ve seen the unequal effects of the pandemic in painful clarity—the disproportionate impact on already-vulnerable communities in terms of illness, job loss, isolation, and more. This crisis goes well beyond matters of health and epidemiology.
More than ever, we need people with deep training in the humanities and social sciences engaged in every sector of society—people who understand the historical and social antecedents that created the conditions for where we are today. This is one of the reasons that publicly engaged research matters. I believe we can reform graduate education to support such work in structural ways. But unless we collectively address fundamental concerns like the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, or the academy’s deeply rooted gender bias and racism, deep and lasting change in other areas will be extremely difficult.
The good news is that because colleges and universities are in a state of upheaval right now, we have a unique opportunity to truly reimagine how educational structures function. Now is the time to redesign the higher education system so that it better serves all students—and, by extension, the public.
It took time for us to wrap our minds around how to use an online environment to foster the kinds of discussions we were hoping to have, given that the cues of warmth and welcome that we wanted to provide—meals, coffee, specific room set-ups, etc—were much harder to signal on zoom. In the end, we focused on how we wanted to use our time, including realistic estimates of our planning bandwidth and everyone’s zoom fatigue. We offered suggestions of best practices to all presenters and discussion leaders, and made sure that we had technical support for every session.
All of this planning really paid off; the conference went beautifully from a logistical standpoint, which in turn enabled participants to focus on the content and ideas. I hoped that the conference would exemplify openness, generosity and flexibility—not just in content but in structure. We were not afraid to let the seams show, and we asked for patience and grace when things went awry, as they inevitably did. I think this built community. The responses to our post-conference questionnaire summarize well the depth and warmth of all sessions:
- “The thoughtfulness of the conference organizers was very evident. I particularly appreciated the collaborative note-taking and the focus on restoration and joy”
- “It was lovely and inspiring. It gave me a sense of solidarity/coalition”
- “I felt hopeful and inspired”
- “Excellent. I enjoyed the format, the open engagement, and the lengthy/robust Q&A time”
- “Such a friendly and useful space for brainstorming and networking”
- “My overall experience can be summed up into one word. Motivating. This is quite the opposite of most of my experiences on Zoom as I tend to end up drained or exhausted.”
- “The thoughtfulness of the conference organizers was very evident. I particularly appreciated the collaborative notetaking and the focus on restoration and joy.”
- “Phenomenal! First conference of 2021 and first encounter with the Futures Initiative and I’m so excited to learn more about this wonderful community!”
- “Wonderful! Really thoughtfully organized and structured, with a warm and friendly attendee-facing presentation.”
- “I felt intellectually rejuvenated!
Through the two days of the conference, participants came together to think not only about where we are, but what we can imagine. For me, when I think about the future of higher ed, I want to find a way to train my vision 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.
Following the discussions, some of the patterns I came away thinking about included:
- Scope of changes. Some interventions are small—using a scheduling tool to mitigate burnout, changing one thing about a class you teach. Others are large and structural. Maintaining a balance ensures that there’s always some momentum
- Resources. Some things can be done on a shoestring, but that doesn’t negate the need for money. How can we advocate for public reinvestment in higher ed, and for greater transparency/accountability in budgeting decisions?
- Allies. How can we solidify the network of support that is so apparent in this conference?
- Power. Who has it in what contexts? When might we have more than we realize? How can we leverage our influence in different spaces to bring about change?
Overall, the conference briefly transformed our screens into a space of joy, possibility, generosity, and critical engagement with the challenges and opportunities we face in higher ed today. Participants expressed the hope that the conversation would continue; I hope so, too. We welcome ideas on ways to continue to build community and transform our institutional structures, together.
For further reading:
- See this collaborative resource document from the conference for resources, project examples, and more
- Recap by Cihan Tekay: Creating Space within Constraints: A Reflection on Conference Planning in a Pandemic
- Recap by Kashema Hutchinson: When the Leaders Lead