Thought Pieces

Rachel Arteaga:

What would advanced training in the humanities look like if it were designed to prepare doctoral students to contribute directly to the public good? First, we would need to think about mentoring and advising in much more expansive ways. In addition to the faculty advisor at the degree-granting institution, who is best positioned to guide students through PhD program requirements, from coursework to exams to the dissertation, mentorship roles of varying levels of formality could be developed to offer students guidance from a number of different perspectives from day one of their training. Incoming doctoral students might be connected with networks of faculty at teaching-intensive institutions (in any given community, this may include high school teachers, instructors at two-year colleges, and others) as well as wider professional circles pertaining to teaching, learning, and research (this may include state-level education policymakers, leaders of organizations committed to prison higher education, and public humanities programming specialists at state humanities councils, museums, and heritage organizations). The goal would be for students to complete their programs of study with a genuinely system-level view of the humanities as well as scholarly expertise in their chosen field.

Furthermore, to lay the groundwork for a revitalized future for the academic humanities in the United States, PhD programs must be redesigned to fully integrate, rather than merely optionally add, theory and practice related to public scholarship. Especially in terms of research project outcomes, this would—and should—take different forms across departments and disciplines (in the modern languages, for example, we have seen the curation and planning of film festivals emerge as an area of expertise informed by both scholarship and feedback from public audiences). To make this possible, graduate seminar syllabi would be revised or rewritten to prepare students to undertake publicly-engaged research. Exams would not be considered truly comprehensive without citations of exemplary public-facing research in the field. Dissertations would be understood to have achieved their fullest culmination when the original work they demonstrate is legibly shared beyond academia. And so on. In combination with robust pedagogical training and the development of deep competencies in teaching in diverse classrooms, a publicly-oriented research degree in the humanities would prepare students to go on to any number of professional positions. First among them, in terms of the scale of impact, would be a faculty position in an access-oriented institution—exemplified in the United States by the community college—where classrooms serve to convene the most diverse and democratic publics in our system of higher education.

Joseph Cialdella (with Matthew Countryman):

I am submitting a short excerpt from a piece I published in Inside Higher Ed on August 26, 2019 as my thought piece. To read the full article (and to link to useful resources), vist:

. . . . “As collaboration continues to evolve as a way of operating for graduate programs and employers, you should think carefully about how you can work with others and consider the values around collaboration that you might bring to your career. Collaborative work takes on many different forms, depending on your field, organization and position. 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 or a competency — it’s a necessity.

Your approach to collaboration can also be a distinct value you bring to an evolving job market. Previous posts for “Carpe Careers” have illustrated how important it is to seek out opportunities to do collaborative work, especially in the humanities, as a way to broaden your career options. You should be able to discuss how you approach collaboration with your future employers and partners. It is also worth asking yourself, “What kind of collaboration am I interested in doing? And what is my approach to collaboration?” Whether you have had positive, negative or neutral experiences working with others in the past, thinking intentionally about collaboration during your time in graduate school and beyond can help you articulate how you will go about making contributions to projects that are larger than yourself.

At the Rackham Graduate School, where I work, we briefly describe collaboration as the intentional process of working effectively with others toward shared objectives. Alongside this working definition, we are also fortunate to have a professional development program in public scholarship that, through experiential learning opportunities, helps graduate students think more intentionally and deeply about their collaborative practices as a part of their research and careers. From this work, several principles have emerged as useful framing for talking about collaboration as a part of a professional skill set.” Read More

Brennan Collins

Let’s take the offensive. What if we worried a little less about the forces of Neo-Liberalism corrupting the University and instead hatched plans for taking over business and government? I want the CEOs of corporations to be History PhDs so they have the ability to see beyond the stupidity of short-term goals. I want the heads of the financial industry to be PhDs in Philosophy so they can think about the ethical implications of their actions so our next recession won’t be as devastating as the last one. I want my President to be an English major. For years, Chambers of Commerce have been asking for workers with “soft skills.” Let’s give them Humanities students armed with the ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and, hopefully, change the system.

We all know the problems we face—lack of diversity in the professorship, too few tenure-track jobs, issues with career diversity for our grad students, the rise in student debt, the shrinking number of undergrads in the humanities. I worry that we sometimes try to take these on one at a time, coming up with modest fixes instead of asking more difficult questions about why we are where we are. This means dramatically questioning how we value the work we do and who this work is for. I am excited to join a community focused on Humanities for the Public Good.

Javier Duran (with Christian Ruvalcaba):

As an interdisciplinary research center, the Confluencenter has gravitated towards programs that reposition and re-imagine the purpose and value of graduate work, while offering graduate students opportunities to diversify their skill set. These project-based programs bridge students’ community ties or activism with institutional support, academic community, and professional development. As participants in complex social systems where history, culture, language, and performance intersect, students can advance from actors to agents of change through collaboration and interdisciplinary activities that broaden their intellectual breadth. Interdisciplinary arts and humanities projects emerge naturally from the students’ experiences, the challenges they face, and injustices they encounter in their communities. These challenges encourage graduate students to work collaboratively with both colleagues from other fields and community members as they explore solutions. Institutional support for student-led projects, such as Confluencenter’s Graduate Fellowship 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.

Focusing on social justice issues in one’s community centralizes topics that are relevant to diverse populations. At our campus, the Border Lab initiative is another example of this cross-pollination. One of the goals of the initiative aims to create curricula that provides investigative and exploratory tools for students while leveraging their own community and cultural experience. In other words, by centralizing these fields of study, these programs allow students to build on existing forms of social and cultural capital: knowledge of and access to local community, knowledge of community traditions, knowledge of community languages & language varieties etc. As land-grant, public, research intensive, Hispanic Serving Institution, the programs align with the institutional mission, while recognizing the value and contributions of underrepresented communities.

Jim Grossman

AHA Career Diversity for Historians has evolved from an initial exploration of actual and potential history PhD career paths to broad cultural and curricular change. Our comprehensive data demonstrate that career paths leading to employment beyond the professoriate are not only viable, they’re valuable.  Having history PhDs in the overall workforce is a public good. That’s why Career Diversity is more than a response to a collapsing academic job market. It emphasizes the public utility of historical thinking in many contexts. Our postgraduates bring to the private, nonprofit, and public sectors values and orientations that are different from those of their colleagues.

We have also extended our work beyond our original focus on careers outside the professoriate. 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.

The starting point for change should be departmental articulation of the purpose its PhD program. Our participants are paying increasing attention to the relationship between what their students learn and where they take that knowledge. At the heart of these transformations are culture and identity: How can a PhD program, for example, help students envision a historian as someone who is primarily a teacher? Or as someone using their preparation for work that is not primarily historical on the face of it?

Raymond Haberski, Jr.

Humanities doctoral students are part of a long and honorable tradition of thought and research that, because of a myriad of factors not of their own making, has also ensnared them in unrealistic expectations for careers as university professors. The problem is not merely the imbalance between available tenure-track positions and the glut of Ph.D. students but also the perceived differences in how other disciplines, especially the sciences, address large social issues. Popular perception is that the humanities provide the context for social problems while the sciences actually solve them. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) wants to reconsider these perceptions as something more than a “crisis” or “decline in the humanities.”  What if we expect humanities Ph.D. students not merely to produce scholarship about significant social issues but to be prepared to enter organizations that actively work toward their resolution? What specific skills might they need to bring the humanities to industries that have long been considered outside of purview of those with a humanities degree? In The Heart of the Matter, a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences arguing for the significance of the humanities, a group of American leaders declared: “The public valuation of the humanities will be strengthened by every step that takes this knowledge out of academic self-enclosure and connects it to the world. As scholars in these fields seek bigger and more varied audiences, so, too, should they seek a new range of intellectual partners.”[1] Yet, traditional doctoral programs in the humanities are not deliberately designed to place students in positions that will enable them to tackle contemporary problems. While traditional Ph.D. programs undoubtedly inspire students to study the world, it is time to design not merely an alternative career track in such programs but engage with alternative education models that develop new kinds of humanities doctoral graduates.

It is time for a much stronger and conscientious effort to move beyond academic positions and alternative-academic rhetoric to consider broader career opportunities. Michael Bérubé of Penn State University recently pinpointed what is often missing from the discussion of doctoral training: “We need to remake our programs from the ground up to produce teachers and researchers and something elses, but since it is not clear what those something elses might be, we haven’t begun to rethink the graduate curriculum accordingly.”[2] Transforming doctoral education requires building new models that actively develop leadership potential beyond the academy with the same motivation and intentionality that, in the past, cultivated future faculty. 

IUPUI firmly believes the way forward is to build an interdisciplinary program from the ground up through a series of mixed methods courses, specialized doctoral minors, and an internship-centered dissertation model. The home for this integrated program will be the university’s American Studies program because of the field’s track record of drawing on the social sciences as well as the humanities and because at IUPUI, the American Studies program has, since the 1970s, a legacy of bringing departments together. Recently, faculty within IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts voted unanimously to restructure the American Studies program, rather than offer alternative tracks within traditional departments, as a way to develop a new model for doctoral education. Thus, IUPUI’s American Studies doctoral program is a collaborative effort among faculty and research centers in the School of Liberal Arts with Ph.D. minors located in schools across the campus. The curriculum from the program combines methods courses from humanities departments with those in both the social sciences (for quantitative and qualitative analysis of big data) and visual media (for digital design and production as well as video and audio editing). In addition to coursework in mixed methods, students choose a doctoral minor in an applied field that might include but is not limited to Philanthropic Studies, Public History, Public Health, Informatics, and Urban Education Studies. A key innovation of this curriculum, though, is the deliberate connection to a doctoral internship.

IUPUI intends to instantiate an internship-centered model that will enable students to consider extra-academic positions in fields including but not limited to philanthropy, urban planning, community development, cultural consulting, and religious leadership with the same rigorousness of pedagogy previously devoted to tenure-track jobs.  Through extensive engagement with strategic partners, the program intends to elevate the humanities beyond faculty-driven education and into community-driven learning where humanities students contribute to the public good as leaders. Through these collaborations, IUPUI will demonstrate with consistent and measurable success how the humanities can work for a wide variety of organizations, agencies, and companies that are not explicitly humanistic in their identification.

Thus the Ph.D. program in American Studies at IUPUI does not tweak traditional the Ph.D. model, but rather builds an infrastructure for a collaborative graduate school experience by leveraging the rich diversity of academic disciplines to close the distance between academia and the world that surrounds it. Internships will serve as the centerpiece of the program. They are not merely sites for students to conduct research for dissertations and as learning opportunities in fields for potential employment, but directors at these sites will also assist in determining the coursework and skills students need for careers beyond their academic training. Because humanities-trained interns will demonstrate how they can apply their knowledge and expertise to sectors outside of academia, they will contribute to building of a public market willing to support academic research relevant to communities that reflect the diversity of American society. 

[1] See: Humanities Commission, The Heart of the Matter,, 43.

[2] Michael Berube, “Humanities Unraveled,” Chronicle of Higher Education (February 18, 2013), See also, Sidonie Smith, Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (; and Leonard Cassuto, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

Sally Kitch:

Many contributors of “thought pieces” at previous Iowa seminars discuss humanities graduate programs or concentrations that encourage students to engage with community groups or marginalized populations or to explore a variety of career options through research projects or internships. These are worthy approaches that inspire me as I work toward interdisciplinary degree options for humanities graduate students at ASU.  Beneath my interest in various models, however, is a particular perspective on the humanities.  That is, I start from the premise that rethinking graduate education in the humanities requires rethinking the value and utility of the humanities to students, faculty, and the world at large. 

ASU’s Humanities Lab, which I direct, offers one model for that rethinking process.  The Lab offers students ways to do humanities, thereby defining the humanities as a generative social and academic collective asset for addressing grand social challenges, such as immigration, sexual violence, climate change, mass murder, and racism.  So, instead of offering classes whose ultimate outcomes may stop with exploring, considering, discussing, examining, studying, comparing, and analyzing texts, ideas, theories, historical periods, or literature, Labs ask students and faculty teams to reconceptualize the contents and methods of humanities fields as tools.  Such tools–historical, philosophical, textual, linguistic, and cultural-analytic—are mobilized in Labs for tackling, addressing, answering, explaining, re-envisioning, re-narrating, and ultimately solving complex social challenges. The concept of doing humanities also emphasizes the humanities’ role in moving social actors from considering what could be done (often the province of the sciences) to recommending what should be done.  Indeed, the method that humanists call criticism can translate to discernment when decisions must be made.

Doing the Humanities further connotes mobilizing for social action the humanities content that resides in every human being.  At the core of social challenges, even those that seem technical or scientific, are the language systems, cultural and religious beliefs, values, shared and distinct histories, and emotional attachments and passions that are also at the core of human identity and experience.  In addition, even seemingly technical social challenges entail the power struggles and cultural priorities that constitute much of human life. Although conventional disciplinary labels and constraints may obscure the humanities’ connections with those social realities, humanities fields, whatever their names, engage deeply with such realities in a variety of forms.  Given that correlation, it makes sense to prioritize and actuate the humanities in tackling grand social challenges, all of which are human problems first and foremost.

Paula Krebs:

The role of scholarly societies in relation to graduate education has changed as the job market in higher education has changed. When the number of PhDs was much closer to matching the number of tenure-track job openings in language and literature, the MLA could be the matchmaker between departments and candidates, through our Job Information List and hosting interviews at the national convention. Now, however, the job market has changed, and we are playing a different role in relation to graduate programs. Since even before the 2014 Report on the Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, we have been advocating for graduate programs to be more responsible to their students: to track graduates’ placement, to expand opportunities to prepare for careers outside the tenure track, to provide fair employment conditions for graduate employees. We are focusing currently on how to improve the advising process in graduate programs.

Scholarly associations cannot change conditions on the ground at institutions, but they can speak for their fields in making recommendations and setting standards. Learned societies have an obligation to their members and their future members to include teaching, learning, and research in their remits, and not simply to focus on research. And the MLA wants to expand that further to include the professional practice of the humanities in all settings. 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 as well as expanding the ways we make our scholarly association relevant for those who, after the PhD, move into roles beyond academic departments.

Vivian Truong:

Developing a public history project has been a central, rather than secondary, part of my doctoral education. As a historian writing on a topic—Asian American movements against police violence—that has been sparsely documented in institutional archives, my dissertation research required simultaneously building an archive and conducting research in it. My community engagement and academic work have gone hand in hand: the public history project, which has included training youth organizers to conduct oral histories of older women activists and digitizing and preserving materials including flyers, photographs, and VHS tapes, provided the basis for the narrative I wanted to write. For me, and for many other scholars who write on communities at the margins of the historical record, public scholarship is not a side project but a necessity. I’ve been fortunate to have had the support of my committee and the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship in the development of both my research and public history projects, and my hope is that graduate programs, and the profession as a whole, move toward valuing engaged scholarship as they do more traditional forms of academic work.