Essay on how to end student complaints on grades

You are the best teacher in the world and you’ve just turned in your grades for the best class you’ve ever taught. If you are a college professor you know what comes next: the barrage of complaints about the low grade, the litany of excuses for why this or that missed assignment was due to health reasons, the pleading that the B+ be raised to an A- or medical school plans will be foiled and a life ruined, the thinly veiled threat that changing a grade is easier than dealing with a student judiciary complaint (or an irate parent). It's the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.  

And here’s the paradox: If our students weren’t all tireless grade-grinders, we educators would have failed them. Yes, you read that right. They were well-taught and learned well the lesson implicit in our society that what matters is not the process or the learning but the end result, the grade. A typical college freshman today has been through 10 years of No Child Left Behind educational philosophy where "success" has been reduced to a score on a test given at the end of the course. For a decade, they have had the message that a good teacher is someone whose students succeed on those end-of-grade standardized tests. Teacher salaries can be docked in some states, whole schools can be closed or privatized in others, if students score too poorly.  The message we're giving our students today is all that really counts is the final score. No wonder they fight for a good one!

Conversely, for all that colleges say about not being solely concerned with test scores, almost all boast their average score, and that score helps colleges with their own rankings in U.S. News & World Report and more serious collegiate ranking and accreditation systems. And, to go one step higher, aggregated scores on those tests are what make the world educational rankings in the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- you know, the ones where our students humiliate us each year by coming in 14th in reading, 17th in sciences, and 25th in math.  

It's not like an examiner is standing there really probing to see what each child in the world does or does not know, what they remember, or how well they apply their knowledge. All those rankings reduce all the skills and content one learns in a subject to how well one does on a standardized test that research shows might actually cover about 20 percent of the actual content of a course, demotivates actual learning, and can be "scammed" either through intensive cram sessions, pre-testing tutoring in the form of the test, or enormous amounts of class time dedicated to "teaching to the test." None of those are good educational philosophy, but in a world where the final score is what counts, those methods get the end result you want — not of more learning but of a higher score that opens doorways.

So don’t blame the next 18-year-old who calls, knocks on your door, or e-mails to boost that B- to an A-.  He's been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success. Why should he be able to forget that lesson just because it's a seminar and the grades are based on essays requiring eloquence, persuasive rhetoric, critical thinking, and analytical skills? If he has absorbed the educational philosophy of our nation that grade achievement constitutes educational success, then whining for an A- makes him ... what? Well, eloquent, rhetorically persuasive, and a final critical and analytic thinker. Right? Doesn’t he now have the grade on his transcript to prove it?

I wish I were being simply ironic and flippant here, but I think this is very serious. I know just how serious when I talk to corporate recruiters about the current crop of students and they tell me that, whereas it used to take six months for a great student to become a great coworker, it now takes a good year to two years. This generation of students is still waiting for the final grade, for the test score that shows they've aced a subject, not for some demonstrable achievement of mastery or — the most crucial workplace skill — an ability to survey one’s skills and knowledge, understand where one might be lacking, and then find someone to fill in that gap through a collaborative effort or to find some way, typically online, to learn the skill one needs in order to make up for previous educational losses.  

It takes nearly two years because they’ve been educated in a system where the grade is all but have to live adult lives in a world where self-awareness, diagnosis of a problem, an ability to solve a problem by applying previous knowledge, and collaborative skills all count — along with eloquence, persuasive skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills.

Here’s the punch line for college profs out there: We will not eliminate the grade-grubbing until we change our current educational system. Until then, we will need to be putting up with a lot of whining by students who have mastered the system that educators and policy makers have created for them. 

Here's the punch line for college students out there: Until you educate yourself beyond the assumptions of the system we’ve foisted off on you, you’ll be depriving yourself of the real skills and knowledge that constitute the only educational test worth anything:  the test of how well your formal education prepares you for success in everything else. Cherish the great seminar teacher, even if she gives you a B-. It’s what went on inside that classroom — not the grade at the end of it — that truly constitutes achievement in the world beyond school.   


As an editorial postscript, I should mention that I almost never have grade-grabbing and whining, but, for over a decade, I've been using peer-grading, contract grading, and other forms of participatory learning (such as the class writing its own standards and constitution at the beginning). I write about a lot of that in Now You See It.

And, if you never have a chance to take a class with a truly inspiring seminar teacher, you'd do worse than to master the "rules for students and teachers" offered by the great avant garde composer John Cage. You'll notice he never says anything about test scores, grades, teaching to the test, or OECD rankings. The test he wants you to pass is the big one: success in the rest of our life.

And one final bit of wisdom for today, Gandhi's "rules for an ethical life" -- great rules for teaching and learning, too.

Cathy Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) and co-director of the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University. This essay first appeared on her HASTAC blog.

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Essay on issues of fatherhood and an academic career

When a father is the one balancing work and family duties, not everyone in academe is supportive or even understands, writes Matt Fotis.

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Essay on the importance of understanding the history of the humanities

The first distinguished speaker at the recent forum on "Justifying the Humanities" followed a recent trend by asserting that the humanities were invented in the American university of the 1930s as an organizational convenience. The second distinguished speaker explained that in their current "somewhat dated" form the humanities are a product of the Cold War, developed in the 1950s through courses in the Great Books and Western Civilization. By the time the final distinguished speaker began his remarks I feared that we would be told the humanities were invented yesterday in sudden meta-post-Postmodernist fabrication.

First, the good news. It is true that the familiar triadic American curricular structure of liberal education (natural science, social science and the humanities) is relatively recent. Hence, the form of humanistic studies is not chiseled in ancient marble, but has changed and can and should continue to change in response to new circumstances.   

The bad news is that recent history is only a small part of the story. The foreshortening perspective on the humanities comes at a price. It’s not just that it overlooks a tradition that reaches back to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, Cicero in ancient Rome, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy and the amazing scholars of the Renaissance. Nor is it just that we deprive ourselves of the benefits of breakthroughs in contemporary scholarship. It’s that we risk losing sight of what motivated the great era of humanism.

Renaissance humanists, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger, Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo Valla, applied immense energy and learning to establishing reliable texts of ancient authors, commenting on them, making them accessible through translations, and teaching them in a way that created an understanding of human beings and moral agency not restricted by the dictates of medieval theology. Philosophy, literature, history and the visual arts were transformed by such humanism. Soon universities were transformed as well.  

When I asked Paul Grendler, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on education in the Renaissance, about this transition, he reminded me that this change was revolutionary. "A group of 15th-century Italian scholars decided that the best way to train men (and a few women) to be learned, eloquent, and morally responsible leaders of society was to introduce them to the great authors and texts of ancient Greece and Rome.… They coined the phrase studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) for this new, revolutionary school curriculum." This transformative sense of purpose accounts, I believe, for the energy and enduring excitement of their work.   

At the university level great changes began around 1425 when humanists began teaching in Italian universities such as Bologna, Florence and Padua. They taught rhetoric, poetry and what they sometimes called humanitas, meaning more or less what Cicero had meant by it, "the knowledge of how to live as a cultivated, educated member of society," as Grendler phrase it. In general these humanists connected this goal to the stadium humanitatis – we would say classical studies broadly conceived. That terminology spread from Italy to the British Isles where, for example, the Scotstarvit chair of humanity was established at the University of St. Andrews in 1620.  By 1800 literae humaniores were part of examinations at Oxford. The pattern was revised in the mid-19th century into the famous "Greats" program, which later provided the model for "Modern Greats," that is, Oxford’s degree program Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Humanism, it turns out, is not only adaptable to modern circumstances; it can be infectious.

The term "humanities" did not, then, drop out of the sky into the unknowing laps of American academic bureaucrats. Leaders of colleges and universities in the early 20th century consciously and deliberately evoked the tradition of Renaissance humanism in an effort to develop some equivalent amid mass education in the modern world. We may argue about how successful they were, but they saw the challenge.  

It's still the challenge today, almost a century later. In responding to it, we can still learn from those Renaissance scholars. If we neglect them, we overlook an important part of the background to contemporary humanistic studies, but we also we risk replicating, validating, and promulgating one of the gravest failings of the humanities as currently practiced – "presentism," that is, an exclusionary focus on the most highly modernized societies of the contemporary  world, and the uncritical judging of the past by today’s interests and standards. In so doing one severs contact with what so motivated and energized these great humanist scholars and with the perspective on human life and conduct that they opened up.

If this root of the humanities is severed by ignorance, neglect or hostility, it will not be surprising if humane learning begins to look a little withered, and if students find what they have learned soon wilts and leaves them without the perspective and depth of understanding that a rigorous and wide-ranging education in the humanities should provide.  

W. Robert Connor is senior advisor at the Teagle Foundation.

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Essay on need for boundaries in job interviews and departmental discussions

Tyro Tracts

Academics ask all kinds of questions and make all kinds of judgments about parts of colleagues' or potential colleagues' lives that are irrelevant to their jobs, writes Nate Kreuter. He says it's time to stop.

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Professor's tirade against students who skip class draws attention

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Historian in Britain tries to remind students why they shouldn't skip his classes.

Essay on scholarly 'social editions' of texts in the humanities

A scholar committed to the digital humanities once summed up his long-term strategy for winning their acceptance with a terse, sardonic comment. “We will advance,” he said, “funeral by funeral.” It's the kind of sentiment that's often felt, but seldom so well expressed -- or so brutally.

But assuming that time is on digital culture’s side also tempts fate. The humanities include bodies of knowledge that have developed over periods ranging from a decade to a couple of millennia and more. Digital technologies can emerge and eclipse one another in the time it takes to write a single monograph. The wisdom of reorganizing one around the other is at least questionable.

A paper in the December issue of Literary & Linguistic Computing called “Toward Modeling the Social Edition: An Approach to Understanding the Electronic Scholarly Edition in the Context of New and Emerging Social Media” manages to be forward-looking but not triumphalistic. It also poses the interesting question of whether the turnover in the stock of digital tools might actually have a productive relationship with long-established ways that scholarly communities engage with their primary sources.

The list of its authors is headed up by Ray Siemens and Meagan Timney, both of the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. It includes, as appendices, a couple of substantial bibliographical essays that were posted online a couple of months before the paper itself was published. Siemens et al. have been venturing the concept of the “social edition” for at least a couple of years. At this point, it still refers to something potential or emergent, rather than fully realized: a speculation more than a blueprint.

But the paper offers a logical extrapolation from existing trends -- a plausible glimpse of the shape of things to come. Siemens and his colleagues point out that there is a gap between how electronic editions of texts are prepared, on the one hand, and how scholars use the available technology, on the other. “The types of electronic scholarly editions we see prominently today,” they write, “were largely developed before the ubiquity of the web that we now enjoy and do not accurately reflect the full range of useful possibilities present for academic engagement and interaction around the textual materials that are our focus.”

The lag is inevitable, for at least a couple of reasons. Some of the most prominent electronic editions of primary texts were conceived at the dawn of digital-humanistic history. This year will mark the 20th anniversaries of the beginning of work on "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War" and “The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Archive,” both hosted at the University of Virginia – projects that were completed only in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Being a pioneer involves a long learning curve, among other challenges.

At the same time, gaining legitimacy for electronic editions has for a long time meant adhering fairly closely to established formats for definitive editions of texts. Siemens and his coauthors sketch a typology that begins with material prepared more or less along the lines of a scholarly edition in print, with its features made available in slightly different form. The reader of such a “dynamic text” could click around to find annotations, variant readings, cross-references, and so on.

Subsequent formats for scholarly e-texts incorporated links to pertinent primary and secondary sources -- whether as part of the edition itself or elsewhere online. This meant, in effect, grafting a good research library onto the text. The edition would reflect the state of the existing scholarship – or the state of the editors’ scholarship while preparing it, in any event.

Just when the later species of “hypertextual” and “dynamic” scholarly e-editions arrived on the scene is not indicated, but probably not much later than the early ’00s, to go by the authors’ descriptions. In the meantime we’ve had the arrival, for good and for ill, of social media, which have insinuated themselves into academic communication so extensively that it’s easy to overlook their ubiquity.

Hence the emerging potential for the “social edition” -- which, if I’m following the argument correctly, is not some newfangled travesty of established protocols for preparing important texts. It doesn’t mean tweeting Being and Time, though someone is bound to do so, sooner or later.

Rather, the social edition would offer the same features available from earlier scholarly editions of e-texts (glosses, links to appropriate material, etc.) while also acknowledging the ongoing nature of serious engagement with the material so preserved and annotated. The participants in preparing a social edition would generate commentary and analysis; help compile and update the bibliography; and create “folksonomic” tags (as when you use Delicious to store and categorize the link for an article you want to cite later).

“The initial, primary editor,” Siemens and company write, would serve “as facilitator, rather than progenitor, of textual knowledge creation…. Relying on dynamic knowledge building and privileging process over end result, [the social edition’s] expansive structure offers new scholarly workflows and hermeneutical methods that build, well, on what we already do.”

That last point is particularly significant. For one thing, scholars are already using social media – group bookmarks, blogs, etc. -- to share references and ideas. (The paper and its appendices identify an enormous array of them.) But more importantly, such tools are increasingly experienced by those using them “as natural extensions of the way in which they had always carried out their work.”

Novelty, then, is not the issue. “The core of activities traditionally involved in humanities scholarship,” the authors say, “have altered very little since the professionalization of academic study during the nineteenth century.” And those basic activities (finding texts, comparing and analyzing them, circulating them, etc.) are finally collaborative, or at least dialogical. A social edition will presumably foreground that reality, assuming one wriggles up on shore sometime soon, breathing air and able to find funding.

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Essay on interviews at teaching-oriented colleges

It's time to set your research aside and to think about the undergraduate classroom, writes John Fea.

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U. of Rhode Island president issues new statement about controversial professor

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U. of Rhode Island president, criticized for his first statement about a professor's controversial tweet about an NRA leader, issues another statement.

Essay on questions one might be asked in MLA interviews

Katherine Ellison and Cheryl Ball share questions you can expect to hear at an MLA interview.

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Problems and potential solutions in humanities doctoral education (essay)

The recent conversations on the future of the humanities degree -- most prominently at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association by its then-president, Russell Berman -- are encouraging steps in addressing the challenges. The position paper that Berman helped write outlines some meaningful first steps to address the time-to-degree issue, for example, that will need to be a driver for change. The recent article “The 5-Year Humanities Ph.D.” on Inside Higher Ed reiterates Stanford’s desire to continue fostering the debate with an emphasis on shortening time to degree for humanities Ph.D.s.

The current contribution seeks to expand the conversation and offer some concrete ideas for desirable changes beyond the time-to-degree issue. In particular, some funding changes -- coupled with restructuring programs so that the summers are utilized better and students have an expectation of an impactful year-around engagement -- need to take place. In addition, in order to open more avenues for employment, we may have to provide a similar co-curriculum as we do on the undergraduate level, one that produces T-shaped Ph.D.s aware and confident not only of their disciplinary depth, but also of their broader transferable skill set.

Given the public’s preoccupation with STEM disciplines and the less-than-stellar reputation of the humanities in the larger public, coupled with changes in student loan deferment during graduate school, and the challenging job market, these conversations are urgent.

What Is the Proper Size of Arts and Humanities Graduate Programs?

Although some universities including ours have addressed the issue of proper program size for a decade or so already, seen in context with the lingering overproduction issue, the choice seems fairly clear.  In this national context, graduate programs in the humanities need to come to terms with the often painful lesson that bigger is not always better. Administrators and faculty need to have realistic views on what a “right-sized cohort” is for the given discipline, the institutional profile, and, in some instances, the geographic location.

What Is Meant by Right-Sized?

By right-sized, I mean a frame of reference based on quantitative and qualitative factors like the following: 

  • the demand in the field
  • the placement rate of the unit
  • the number of applications to the program
  • their “fit” for the institutional mission
  • the level of active faculty engagement required by quality graduate education, including timely and targeted intervention when student progress is imperiled.

It is advantageous for graduate programs to focus on their distinctiveness within their larger institutional and national context -- and not strive to be everything to everybody.

With good planning and a lot of good will, the more technical aspects and issues surrounding graduate education can and should be addressed. The bigger and more contentious issue will be the disciplinary reframing that has to be part of this discussion:

  • How much coursework is enough?
  • What kind of coursework?
  • What should the comprehensive exam look like?
  • How does the coursework, the comprehensive exam, the dissertation prospectus integrate in the most efficient ways.
  • Will there be a distinctive niche for the program?

Faculty in every humanities department offering the Ph.D. should be discussing these questions.

Graduate Education in More Differentiated Higher Education Environments?

The distinction among institutions could offer some welcome differentiation in the higher education environment. Creating a particular focus as a distinctive niche in each program, where more resources go into certain subfields, is a productive move to avoid duplication and to carve out an attractive competitive position. Examples from our own institution, Michigan State University, include: a focus on biomedical and environmental ethics in our philosophy program; additional training in how to deliver first-rate general education courses in addition to disciplinary courses in our English department; a focus on digital humanities and educational technology in the German Ph.D. program and several other humanities programs; a focus on “Writing in Digital Environments” and cultural rhetorics in our writing program.

In our case, MSU’s strong science and engineering programs and its highly developed tradition as a global university allow the College of Arts and Letters to also integrate a strong sense of global awareness, and a focus on educational technology, digital humanities and media, and writing in digital environments for our graduate students. At other places, it might be a leading medical school that drives the campus climate that could provide many unique opportunities for humanities Ph.D.s. Yet others may have a strong policy and diplomacy focus or distinctive advanced institutes that may provide a compelling niche or added value dimension to humanities Ph.D.s.

Time to Degree

Then there are practical issues of how to foster a more deliberate and rapid move through the program, and the composition of its various elements; the avoidance of drift by shifting the culture of the programs to provide more hands-on mentoring; the avoidance of “unproductive lines of inquiry” (as David Damrosch described it in this article); more targeted support (including summer support) suggested in the same article, all of which would be helpful measures to enhance most programs.

What is somewhat lacking in the national discussion is a level of specificity and concrete ideas, such as how to better-integrate coursework, comprehensive exams and dissertation research to avoid unproductive breaks between these various pieces in graduate education. One looks forward to a discussion on this issue at the Modern Language Association Meeting in January 2013. Our time to degree overall across the humanities at Michigan State is already around six years and even shorter where this integration has already happened, and nowhere near the nine-year Ph.D. assumed in the recent article coming out of Stanford with its call for proposals for a five-year degree. The five-year Ph.D. is certainly within reach with a few modifications and more targeted financial support.

Better Utilization of the Summer

The productive and funded use of the summers will be crucial to make significant progress in course work and dissertation writing. We should not kid ourselves and assume that this is a trivial task  —if the level of funding remains the same with no significant increases, the cohort might very well have to shrink. Even more significant is the fact that the way faculty work during the summers has to undergo significant changes. There obviously will need to be a number of courses offered and hands-on mentoring, possibly in research groups or cohorts will have to be conducted, with possibly negative consequence for faculty research productivity. As an alternative, a robust and well-designed digital environment for student-student and student-faculty exchanges could be conceived of to keep students on task, on track and connected to faculty mentors. Faculty-led reading groups in preparation for the comprehensives could be part of summer offerings or be part of year-round workshops.

Beyond Shortening Time-to-Degree

To enhance preparation of our students for a variety of institutions, our programs at Michigan State University have added important features to assure realistic and defensible notions of quality graduate education. Most have integrated scholarship and pedagogy into the curriculum, and some provide job-shadowing opportunities at liberal arts colleges. We have added internships where possible and desirable. The philosophy program offers internships in a regional hospital for their bioethics students; language internships are available at MSU’s Community Language School (a language school for pre-K to middle school students from the greater Lansing area). Students from English and professional writing gain internship experience with journals and leadership experience working on co-curricular initiatives in project-based learning (leadership roles in our Creativity Exploratory, an interdisciplinary project-based space and concept to foster team work, design process thinking, and project management).

We consider advanced preparation in educational technology to be essential in today’s market regardless of field. In collaboration with our graduate school, we have created two distinct certificates that emphasize the pedagogy associated with humanities teaching and learning (one of a general nature, one with a focus on foreign language teaching). We are working on certificates in digital humanities and educational technology for graduate students to enhance their capacities as researchers and teachers. Furthermore, we encourage our graduate students to avail themselves of opportunities to learn what it takes to educate the whole student (informal shadowing in career services, study abroad, alumni relations, etc.) to further prepare themselves for a variety of institutions.

More Radical Solutions….

The voices that call for nonacademic career paths that would make students more suitable for the broader, nonacademic job market are becoming louder. This suggestion is often coupled with the time-to-degree issue. Making graduate education shorter and, thus, cheaper, might lead to the possibility of a larger and more diverse cohort (Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas, New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).  With less time invested and less expense associated with the Ph.D., graduates might be more inclined to see the Ph.D. more like a professional degree and to pursue career paths outside of academia.

The elephant in the room is of course this “world outside of academia,” the “broader job market” that is alluded to in these kinds of discussions. It is generally less clear in the pertinent discussions what these “other career areas” are. It is not clear that a more narrow disciplinary preparation coupled with the shorter tighter time-to-degree timeline — although very laudable — is in itself ultimately successful in broadening job prospects beyond the academy.

Possible Solutions

As we know from our undergraduate placement in the humanities, humanities majors indeed find employment, but they have to be more proactive and more entrepreneurial in looking for and preparing for jobs. A lesson for the broader graduate market could be learned from that.

The other insight from undergraduate placements is the criticism by employers that undergraduate professional students don’t display sufficient big-picture thinking, the ethical maturity, the global perspective, the critical and analytical skills, the written and verbal communication skills, and the overall goal orientation that employers seek and many jobs demand. Given the increasing complexity of tasks in certain areas of the not-for-profit and the for-profit sector, maybe it is not that undergraduates and professional majors are not as well-prepared as they should be, but that expectations are too high.

With mandates for social innovation, technology-enhanced work habits, global awareness, and a generally broad education as key assets, work environments such as academic administration, the editing and publishing industry, translation and international diplomacy opportunities, entrepreneurial contexts, cultural organizations, think tanks, private and public sectors, government and nongovernmental organizations, research foundations, and local and regional public policy centers, might well be better-served by hiring employees with advanced degrees with their much stronger research, critical thinking, and communication skills.

Ph.D.-holders already display, by the nature of their work, some advanced transferable skills. They are able to

  • define a research question or a problem
  • research the topic
  • identify what is relevant, and distinguish it from what is not
  • synthesize the work of others
  • integrate information.

Further, Ph.Ds. are able to

  • offer independent and critical analysis of data
  • self-manage an area of inquiry
  • bring a complex project to completion
  • display significant experience in writing with precision
  • offer creative reconstruction of information
  • formulate new approaches
  • deal with constantly changing fields.

While these skills were honed in field-specific contexts, they transfer well. Making these skills more visible to both graduate students themselves and potential employers can be fostered through additional leadership training in a series of linked activities. A significant informative public relations and advocacy effort will need to take place to get this message across.

T-Shaped Graduate Education?

Humanities Ph.D.s could be both broadly and narrowly trained in the ideal T-structure consisting of their disciplinary field for depth on the one hand; and leadership skills, time and project management abilities, technology skills, an ability to analyze data, and the pedagogical understanding to convey information in appropriate ways and the most useful medium for breadth on the other. This is a very attractive combination of skill sets for a variety of employment contexts. Furthermore, Ph.D.s embody the essence of innovation and creativity as they are used to formulating original research questions. A research degree coupled with excellent technology skills, leadership skills, a solid grasp of data analysis, and self-efficacy seems to be a promising combination of transferable skills. 

Becoming a T-shaped professional is not only desirable for undergraduates, but will make graduate students more competitive as well. Even if students seek academic jobs, these skills will be extremely useful for future faculty because they will be able to adjust to the ever-changing landscape of higher education and understand and appreciate the bigger picture. They will be more nimble in whatever context they enter. Humanities Ph.D.s could and should make highly attractive job candidates for a range of sectors.

After all, before the wicked problems of our present and future can be solved, historically informed complex analyses of the underlying issues and questions will need to be framed, the ethical dimensions considered, collaborative relationships formed, and effective forms of multimodal communication for the issue at hand created. Without understanding the respective cultural underpinnings of global competitiveness or conflict, technological solutions may miss the mark. 

Similarly, the ability to understand global forces and local diversity, ethical issues, and complex environments through interdisciplinary projects that combine creativity, research, critical analysis, and technology furthermore could make humanities Ph.D.s compelling employees.

These are but a few examples of how to add value to graduate education through more focus in the discipline while adding breadth to the experience beyond the discipline. If the conversation on the future of the humanities Ph.D. is to go beyond general statements of intent, it will be important to share best practices; to collect data and evidence; to work not only among humanities faculties but to involve graduate deans, deans and other relevant administrators; to engage national organizations like the MLA, the Humanities Centers, and the foundations that support humanities scholarship and education.

It is also clear that graduate students will need to receive additional training beyond their research focus, in a more thoughtful co-curriculum, and will need to be more creative and flexible in exploring options.

Additional Training and Who Should Provide It

The other lesson from undergraduate education is that, in general, university career-service professionals tend to be more helpful and knowledgeable than faculty advisers in assisting students to think about what transferable skills they have. Likewise, if we were to use the analogy for the graduate level, we may have similar issues in that faculty for the most part are not well-versed in the nonprofit, government, and business world. The other emergent area of entrepreneurship, that many undergraduates and potentially graduate students are interested in, is also not necessarily on the radar of faculty advisers.

The notion that humanities faculty could directly train Ph.D.s for jobs outside the academy seems implausible as very few of them have extensive experience beyond higher education. Working with alumni who have made the successful transition into business or government, etc., is one important facet that can provide inspiration and contacts. However, it will not suffice to rely on this informal network.

In order to maximize impact, it will be important to offer internships with potential employers not only to learn whether the desired career path is suitable but to understand early on what kind of additional skills will be important. I see a similar move proposed by the BiblioTech concept at Stanford which “includes trying to change the mindset of academics and nonacademics alike… and garnering the trust of industry leaders.” 

Furthermore, it seems clear that a discipline-based humanities program will have to offer additional training to make inroads into business and the technology fields with specific intervention and additional training in the technology area and in leadership skills. One would also expect a need for internship developers, career services professionals and other support professionals, just as there are on the undergraduate level, to assist with planning and organizing these additional features of graduate education for positions outside of the academy. This career segment — especially in the more supervisory functions -- could, incidentally, be a valuable career path in itself for Ph.D.s. 

The recent initiatives to collect hard data on nonacademic placements conducted by the Scholarly Communications Institute and a database titled “Who We Are” by Katina Rogers is welcome news and long overdue. Efforts at further quantitative analysis will help us map the possibilities better than anecdotes can.  Universities themselves need to keep fairly differentiated data on their graduate students to learn how in their particular environment their students move through their programs, what the hurdles and bottlenecks are, and how and where they place.

Given the complexity of issues in all sectors of our current environment, it seems that humanities Ph.D.s with additional training in technology, data analysis, and leadership skills are an underappreciated and underutilized resource. Some of our attention in graduate education needs to go into further serious exploration of the possibilities and whether or not they are attractive to employers and Ph.D.s.

I think there are exciting opportunities ahead. The big question is whether humanities Ph.D.s themselves will embrace these options as desirable, which, of course depends on what motivated them to select the humanities Ph.D. path in the first place. Their voice is conspicuously absent in these conversations and it is, after all, their future that is at stake. A more robust conversation with these most important stakeholders should be one of the first steps.

Early indications from conversations with our graduate students indicate that there is a mix of motivations; many are still very interested in academic positions, others are open to a broader set of possibilities. The most ambitious students are quite interested in leadership skills such as effective communication, time management, resilience, self-efficacy, conflict resolution, etc., which they see as broadly applicable for effective career advancement in any field.  As our graduate students accept, and even embrace, a world of wider vocational choices, I am confident that enough of our faculty change leaders will rise to the occasion to reshape graduate education in the humanities in the ways suggested above, many possible ways not addressed here, and some that are yet to be imagined in the current social, cultural, political and economic environment.

Given the mounting complexity and accelerated change, our Ph.D.s need to have a new mindset fostered by additional skills that allows them to act with greater agility and creativity to changing environments. On the most fundamental level, Ph.D.s assemble and organize existing knowledge, create new knowledge, and are trained experts in how to convey knowledge in a variety of contexts.

Which sector could not use this kind of sophisticated expertise?

Karin A. Wurst is professor and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University.

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