Humanities Graduate Education for the World’s Work Symposium: Reflection & Summary

Authors: Ashley Cheyemi McNeil and Torie Burns

With generous funding from the Mellon Foundation, the Obermann Center’s Humanities for the Public Good (HPG) program hosted “Humanities Graduate Education for the World’s Work,” a two-day symposium in Iowa City. Guided by a central inquiry of what it means to be a humanist in and for the 21st century, the HPG program aims to cultivate an ecosystem of academic and public sector collaborators to create practice-based, cross-disciplinary opportunities for humanities graduate students interested in diverse careers.

Attendees came from 8 states and Washington D.C.

On September 13 – 14th, with support from the Mellon Foundation and the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Vice President for Research, the symposium brought together scholars and higher education advocates from across the nation, including speakers from seven institutions and two national associations representing eight states. As our second convening on graduate education in the humanities (our first event was held March 2019), this gathering focused on career diversity and public scholarship—critical topics that were deftly and enthusiastically explored by a range of humanities practitioners including graduate students, directors of humanities centers and associations, researchers, and teachers.

Our first panelists, Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, and Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, discussed how scholarly associations can aid in diversifying career planning in the humanities. Krebs reminded us that while change is often slow, it is something the humanities—and English departments in particular—have always already been doing. The authors and texts taught in PhD literature seminars 30 years ago, for example, are only a small portion of today’s expanded canon. Indeed, Krebs called on professors and departments to think about career diversity even on the course assignment level: just as the canon of literature has expanded, so too should the skills we teach in coursework. “Because we believe that a PhD in humanities prepares people for a range of careers, from high school teaching to directing state humanities councils to policy research, we have to keep expanding the ways we help graduate programs make connections to those careers,” Krebs explains in her thought piece.

Grossman described the research the AHA has conducted in recent years on the job outcomes for History PhDs and noted that a laudable percentage of graduates were already forging their own path into meaningful careers outside of the academy. Due in part to this reality, Grossman argued that the very vocabulary used to describe PhD programs and student success needs revision because the current, dominant vocabulary renders students as passive participants in their education. “Our PhD programs not only prepare the next generation of researchers of historical knowledge, they also prepare the next generation of disseminators of historical knowledge, whether in the classroom or elsewhere,” Grossman articulates in his thought piece, qualifying the high stakes of the cultural change that is needed in academe. Closing out their panel, both Krebs and Grossman emphasized the strengths and limits of scholarly associations. The MLA and the AHA yield two important tools: the power to convene and the power to legitimate. Thus it is imperative for members to be active and vocal in articulating their needs and desires from the associations. 

The second panel, “Humanities and Wicked Problems: Project-based Graduate Education,” featured Sally Kitch, director of the Humanities Lab at Arizona State University and Brennan Collins, associate director of the Center of Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Georgia State University. Kitch explained how ASU’s Humanities Lab is a place of coordinated, collaborative, and culminating activity that is structured through problem-based inquiry. Each course offered through the Humanities Lab addresses a critical humanistic challenge, and faculty and students come together to address this challenge through team-based methodologies. As she notes in her thought piece, “rethinking graduate education in the humanities requires rethinking the value and utility of the humanities to students, faculty, and the world at large.” Students probe deeply to understand the language and historical contexts of the challenge and identify the sources of the problem that must be addressed in the solution. Collins offered his perspective as a creator of programs fighting to integrate the humanities at an institution that struggles to prioritize humanistic inquiry amongst its rapid expansion efforts. Collins created the Student Innovation Fellowship (SIF) program and the EPIC (Experiential, Project-based and Interdisciplinary Curriculum) program, two project-based programs that bring together undergrads, graduate students, staff, faculty, and community partners over long-term collaborations. Both the SIF and EPIC programs focus on a central question of extension: How can students work on a project for multiple semesters or even years (to mimic the real world) and with multiple outside organizations to engage the greater Atlanta communities in meaningful ways? Ultimately, Collins argued that all public institutions, especially at the level of humanities departments, have a responsibility to provide students opportunities to work on long-term projects, through interdisciplinary teams, with local communities. Collins’ programmatic ambitions are reflective of the clarion call in his thought piece: “Let’s give [the world] Humanities students armed with the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and, hopefully, change the system.”

Members of the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship led our third panel on “Humanities and Engaged Practice.” Associate Professor Matthew Countryman and Joe Cialdella, Manager of Programs in Public Scholarship explained how their program is used for projects and workshops that enable collaborative co-learning between and amongst cohorts of faculty and graduate students. Cialdella further describes the importance of collaboration in his recent article in Inside Higher Ed, noting that “From brief transactional exchanges to deeply partnering with communities to advance shared interests and social change, the variety of ways we can choose to work with one another makes collaboration more than a skill of a competency –– it’s a necessity.” Countryman and Cialdella detailed how they privilege skills in the development of projects, and argued that we should not think of grad school as merely “learning knowledge,” but rather as skill building that is useful for everyone both in and beyond academe. As Countryman put it, “You don’t just know things” through graduate school, but “you actually know how to do things.” Vivian Truong, PhD candidate at UMich and Rackham Public Scholarship fellow, provided an exciting example of applied research through her dissertation work. Truong worked with CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) to create an archive of their historical materials, which she uses as her principal primary source reserve for her dissertation. She also created a timeline of CAAAV’s history and social context, to be displayed in the organization’s center, and she directed a puppet show for the children in the center to imaginatively interpret and present that history. Truong has received tremendous support from the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship to support her important and compelling work, but she is also supported by faculty outside the program. As Countryman and Cialdella noted, some of the most interesting changes at UMich are happening with faculty members. Faculty are realizing that grad students want to make their research participatory and engaged with their communities; although they themselves often do not have the experience to help guide a student in that facet of research, faculty direct their students to the Rackham school, thereby endorsing both public scholarship and the program. 

The final panel of the first day, “Mellon Humanities for the Public Good Interns and Community Partners,” energized and inspired all attendees in long-lasting ways. The panel featured the graduate students who participated in the HPG Summer Internship program with local Iowa community organizations in June and July 2019. One of the goals of the HPG initiative is to offer graduate students the opportunity to explore how their academic training might translate into a variety of professions and workplaces. The inaugural cohort of interns included: Andrew Boge (Communication Studies), partnered with the African American Museum of Iowa; Hannah Bonner and Alex Denison (Cinematic Studies), partnered with The Englert Theatre; Marie Culpepper (French & Italian Studies), Kathleen Shaughnessy (English) and Paul Schmitt (English), partnered with the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development; Michael Davis (Journalism & Mass Communication) and Mark Rheaume (School of Music), partnered with Hancher Auditorium. The grad interns explained their collaborative projects and reflected on how their internship helped them perceive their own PhD education–and, by extension, the work that PhDs do in the world–in terms of impact and engagement. 

On Saturday, we kicked things off with Paula Krebs and Rachel Arteaga, assistant director for the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities. They discussed the frequently overlooked value in community college partnerships, in particular because two-year programs are seeing growth, in contrast to declining numbers in the humanities at four-year research institutions. As Krebs sees it, partnerships with community colleges could provide unparalleled opportunities to do life-changing work with non-traditional students, although it would require rethinking coursework and training offered at four-year institutions. Arteaga extended these observations, noting that the University of Washington views community colleges as “a prized form of community scholarship.” The University of Washington facilitates fellowships through which doctoral students partner with faculty members at community colleges, observe and learn from them, and eventually guest teach at the colleges. As Arteaga puts it, “We are not transforming doctoral students. They are being transformed by their experiences,” a revelation that aligns with her thought piece call for PhD programs to fully integrate theory and practice with public scholarship.*

For Saturday’s second and final panel, we first heard from Javier Duran, professor and director of the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry at the University of Arizona, and Confluencenter Research Coordinator Christian Ruvalcaba. During this Applied Graduate Humanities panel, Duran and Ruvalcaba highlighted the University of Arizona’s graduate fellows program, through which participants directly engage with the public in meaningful ways. In his thought piece, Duran notes how the program “not only validates/recognizes these interests and ideas, it helps to nurture this cross-disciplinary, collaborative spirit, it allows students to grow professionally, to communicate with multiple audiences, and to navigate an increasingly complex world.” Ruvalcaba shared the Language Capital Project, an interactive map that enables users to identify non-residential spaces where speakers of non-national languages (languages other than English in the U.S.) gather and work. The map, a group effort between undergraduate, graduate, and community researchers, offers a fascinating glimpse into Tucson’s linguistic diversity. Finally, Raymond Haberski, Jr., gave us a peek into the American Studies “Applied” PhD program at the University of Indiana–Purdue University Indianapolis. The program is unique, as community partners fund graduate students’ stipends in a manner that, as Haberski notes in his thought piece, works to “close the distance between academia and the world that surrounds it.” Haberski has observed that students are drawn to the program not only for the chance to develop a theoretical and ethical understanding, but also for practical experience that will directly carry over into their post-graduate work. Haberski concluded with the observation that the PhD equips students with theoretical training to figure out both how to research questions and to ask the right questions in the first place.

After the two panels, Humanities for the Public Good Principal Investigator Teresa Mangum closed out the symposium by asking attendees: “What would you do if nothing was limited?” In response, people called for adopting vertical structures to establish productive and reciprocal relationships across all levels of institutions; out-of-classroom synergistic experiences; integrated sites of teaching and learning; and meaningful engagement with libraries, museums, and nonprofits.

*If any University of Iowa doctoral students are interested in co-teaching a course with a mentor at Kirkwood Community College, Jennifer Teitle, assistant dean for graduate development and postdoctoral affairs, can assist with funding for similar opportunities.