Beyond Faculty Careers

Can the NEH change the orientation of doctoral programs in the humanities?

October 21, 2015
William (Bro) Adams, NEH chair

Critics have long complained about doctoral education in the humanities, saying that it takes too long and no longer reflects the realities of graduates’ employment prospects. In other words, graduate humanities programs are still largely training students to become professors at major research universities, when the vast majority won’t, given the weak tenure-track job market.

And in recent years criticism has yielded possible fixes from various colleges, universities and academic groups: reduce time to degree, fund graduate students year-round, increase training on how to teach well, reduce subject matter coverage requirements -- the list goes on. Now the National Endowment for the Humanities is tossing its hat in the ring, offering major grants to programs that better prepare students for nonfaculty careers.

“We know that the traditional career track in the humanities, in term of numbers of available positions, is diminished -- that scenario has changed quite dramatically over time,” William D. Adams, NEH chairman, said in an interview. “So we’re reacting to that in trying to assist institutions in providing a wider aperture for their students to think about careers beyond [academe].”

The NEH’s Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. grants program, announced today, seeks to bring together faculty members, graduate students, administrators and other key players in doctoral education to identify ways to transform doctoral-level humanities preparation. Like the NEH’s other challenge-oriented grants, funds must be matched by the applicant institution.

There are two kinds of grants. Planning grants run up to $25,000 for as long as 12 months, for a maximum total grant of $50,000. Possible themes include strategies to secure faculty support for Ph.D. reforms, efforts to increase students’ exposure to multiple career paths or ways to encourage collaboration with other departments or nonacademic institutions.

Implementation grants may be up to $350,000 for as long as 36 months, for a maximum total grant of $700,000. Possible ideas include changes to Ph.D. programs that alter the dissertation format or requirement, graduate student funding for activities other than teaching, or the development of a postdoctoral career tracker for all graduates.

Those grant sizes may not seem large for those in the sciences, but for curricular reform of humanities doctoral programs, these funds amount to real money -- and could possibly lead to real change.

The NEH hasn’t set a limit for the number of grants it will award. Planning grant proposals are due in February.

Adams said the organization was open to any number of proposals, and he said they’ll probably vary widely by department and institution. But he guessed that most proposals would have some impact on the curriculum, “and that’s the deeper and more interesting prospect here.”

Adams added, “We do believe that the doctorate in the humanities has utility beyond the traditional career path of teaching, and that those highly educated in the humanities can contribute to society as a whole and use their knowledge and their training very productively.”

The NEH has long supported humanities doctoral education, but this is the first time it’s so boldly stepping into the reform debate. Other groups and commentators said they applauded the NEH’s move.

“The NEH leadership is showing that they see which way the wind is blowing, and now they’re adding their own breath to it,” said Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University who’s criticized traditional doctoral education in the humanities, including in his recent book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. The book includes some example proposals from NEH, such as alternative dissertation formats and collaboration with nonacademic institutions.

“There's a long history of Ph.D.s taking their degrees outside the professoriate, but even if there weren’t, this the best way for graduate education to start reforming its own irrational workplace,” Cassuto said. “We need more Ph.D.s in public life who want to be there -- both graduate school and society at large will benefit.”

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said the Next Generation grants seems “very much in concert” with MLA discussions over the last five years about how to reform doctoral education. In 2010, she said, the MLA began looking at how the dissertation might become something other than a “protomonograph,” an idea that was expanded upon in a 2014 MLA task force report on rethinking humanities Ph.D. programs. Among other things, the report recommended better preparation for alternative academic careers and shorter time to degree.

MLA this year launched Connected Academics to bring those ideas to life, including on several test campuses: Arizona State University, Georgetown University and the University of California Humanities Research Institute headquartered at the Irvine campus. The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, runs through 2019.

“The kind of challenge grants that the NEH is planning to offer will be of enormous use in making important transformations,” Feal said -- that is, if faculty members support students in developing a wide range of scholarly practices and exploring a range of careers.

“If faculty members communicate that the primary measure of students' success is landing a tenure-track job in a research institution, then students will be reluctant to pursue other paths overtly,” she said, noting that graduate student interest in Connected Academics so far indicates they, at least, are on board.

Russell A. Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University and past president of the MLA, chaired the MLA report calling for reduced time to degree and other doctoral education reforms -- some of which Stanford already had adopted. It introduced a five-year timeline for humanities Ph.D.s several years ago, for example. More recently, this month it also debuted a Ph.D. career tracker for all graduates -- one of NEH’s example proposals.

Berman called the NEH grant initiative a “significant step forward in the growing recognition that the humanities Ph.D. is not exclusively for academic careers.” Like Feal, he deemed the initiative consistent with MLA’s recommendations for reform.

“Our society can only benefit from a wide distribution of humanistic intelligence and values -- that should not be confined to higher education,” he said. “The NEH deserves applause.”

Some proposals for doctoral reform have called for more training on how to be an effective teacher, not less, given that many graduates now work in teaching- and not research-intensive positions. The Graduate Center at the City University of New York, for example, recently was awarded a $3.15 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to enable Ph.D. candidates to teach humanities courses at LaGuardia Community College using methodologies that have been proven especially beneficial to disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities. The goal is to increase retention and graduate rates for community college students and open pathways for them to pursue advanced degrees, but Ph.D. students also will get a leg up in terms of teaching experience. In a tight academic job market, that could help them stand out from their peers. (The grant also will fund educational technology and scholarly communication research and development.)

Luke Waltzer, director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Graduate Center, said the institution takes seriously “opportunities to produce graduates who are not only experienced and talented teachers, but who are also well prepared for alternative academic careers that make it possible to do humanities research and pedagogical work in new and exciting ways.”

Even though the NEH initiative is decidedly different from the Graduate Center’s, he said, it should still be “lauded” for promoting reform. Waltzer added, “These are mutually reinforcing pursuits, and doctoral training in the humanities should make ample space to explore research, teaching and the connections between them.”

Asked if reform proposals should actively promote pedagogical training -- as the NEH initiative on its face does not -- Berman said the issue is complex.

“Where universities need teaching staff, they should hire faculty,” he said. But of teaching experience as career training more generally, he said, “Teaching and learning occur in all workplaces, not only traditional classrooms. Teaching preparation ought to be considered part of professional development for all careers, inside and outside the academy.”

Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University, and a critic of alternative academic career programs for their potential to ignore larger structural problems in higher education, had a somewhat different reaction to the NEH plan. On the one hand, he said, “Nobody, including me, objects to any form of assistance for Ph.D. students and graduates. Nor does anyone object to facilitating more influence for the humanities in the U.S. public sphere.”

But grants that support training for nonfaculty positions employing humanities in the public sphere “bypass the actual core issue in academic employment: the relentless conversion of teaching-intensive faculty jobs to part-time and nontenurable work,” he said. So while the NEH grant promotes alternative careers, he said, it should be acknowledged that the most common alt-ac career by far is working as an adjunct. And it’s adjuncts who need the most help, according to Bousquet, since Ph.D.s working outside academe are the least unemployed workers in the economy.

“For many students, alt-ac positions are an individual palliative decision: If I can't find a research-intensive job, and teaching-intensive jobs are too poorly paid or degrading, what else can I do with my many skills?” Bousquet said via email. “Our institutions and professional obligations have the responsibility to seek a cure, not institutionalize a palliative.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association disagrees. His 2011 essay, “No More Plan B,” co-authored with AHA president Anthony Grafton and often cited as a launching pad for much of the current debate, called for offering graduate students “education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.”  The AHA, like the MLA, has “challenged both the ethics and educational implications of the adjunctification of higher education faculty,” Grossman said. But they also believe that doctorates "offer scholars unique qualifications for a wide variety of jobs, and this NEH initiative will help graduate departments to broaden the employment opportunities and horizons of both students and faculty.”



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