Reflections on the Humanities PhD: Innovative Dissertations and Adaptable Careers

A look at the Simpson Center’s Next Generation Humanities PhD Special Initiative

By Rachel Arteaga

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In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced a new program directed at change in doctoral education. The projects to be funded by Next Generation Humanities PhD grants would bring humanities PhD programs into alignment with a true diversity of possible career outcomes for their graduates, integrate the humanities more purposefully into the public sphere, and ultimately “transform what it means to be a humanities scholar.”

The program was, in part, a response to widely-circulated reports from major professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014). Indeed, “No More Plan B,” (2011), the American Historical Association’s summary statement on the academic job market for historians, had gained currency in the vocabulary of the academic humanities. When Next Generation Humanities PhD appeared, the profession was already in a moment of intense self-reflection, its focus cohering around a single question: what was the meaning and value of the humanities PhD?

The NEH announcement offered an opportunity to rigorously pursue that line of inquiry and sparked an exciting possibility for us at the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Usually, our mandate is to support crossdisciplinary research and inquiry in the humanities, meaning that the vast majority of the projects we support involve faculty from multiple departments. But doctoral education is almost always defined primarily by cultures within departments, not across them. So we took an unusual approach, resolving to directly support degree-granting departments in imagining the futures of their disciplines on their own terms. In February of 2016, we announced our own Next Generation Humanities PhD special initiative, inspired by the visionary leadership of then-NEH Chairman William “Bro” Adams.

From 2016 to 2019, this special initiative supported eight projects involving ten doctoral degree granting departments and programs at UW, among them English, History, and Philosophy. Doctoral education in the humanities is unique in its capacity to prepare students to undertake projects of intricate complexity. By comparison, the questions we hoped to explore seemed simple: what conversations did departments want to have about their current practices? What dynamic and creative ideas would they develop — for cultural change, curricular change, and professional possibilities — within their disciplines and for their students?

In what follows, we look at this three-year special initiative and reflect on some of their answers.

Transforming the Doctoral Dissertation

For Sidonie Smith, the word “change” is not strong enough to describe what should happen to doctoral education in the humanities. For the Lorna G. Goodison Distinguished University Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, it must be nothing less than transformed. Her 2015 open-access book, Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times, elaborates on this theme. It was this book, and its urgent call to action, that made Smith a perfect fit for the role of visiting speaker and consultant for the Next Generation Humanities PhD project in the UW’s English department in the winter of 2017.

While her presentation focused on the full transformation of scholarship in the humanities, it specifically identified doctoral programs as key sites for promising new research practices. Because PhD programs shape the future of research in the disciplines, changes that are made to them will be carried forward throughout the careers of their students, many of whom will go on to faculty positions and will conduct research as part of their core professional responsibilities. Her call for change was grounded in years of national-level engagement in rethinking doctoral education and the time she spent as President of the Modern Language Association in 2010, when she also advocated strongly for scholars to think beyond the traditional monograph as the only possible format for the dissertation.

For Smith, the dissertation itself is central, the pivot upon which new research in the humanities turns. For doctoral students who pursue academic positions, the first scholarly book is often a revised version of the dissertation project. So a significant proportion of newly published research in the humanities ties back to the author’s graduate-level work. This means that if the next generation of humanities scholars are to produce dissertations and subsequent research in formats that depart from tradition, their training has to change. Smith’s recommendations range from a reconceptualization of humanities research as a highly collaborative enterprise to an embrace of digital platforms and networks.

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Jukhee Kwon, Being, 2011

For such a dynamic shift in scholarly practices to be possible, however, departmental cultures would need to change too. For example, cultures change when departments make explicit commitments to support and give recognition to emerging forms of research. But departments can renew their past commitments at the same time: importantly, Smith argues that, amidst all of this transformation, much that has been valued in the past can and should be sustained going forward. In Manifesto for the Humanities, Smith writes, “doctoral education must maintain its commitment to the scholarly and pedagogical values of the humanities. It must advance what produces and enhances value in the work of the humanities — nuanced and provocative readings, sophisticated interpretations, pleasure in language.”

As we learned through the many projects supported by the Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative, discussions of how to balance change and continuity in doctoral studies can only be fully taken up by faculty in departments, where the authority to grant the PhD degree rests.

And this kind of balance can be achieved. Take, for example, the UW’s English department. In May of 2017, the English Department adopted a description of the dissertation to be added to its outline of the program of study, an important document that is circulated to prospective and incoming doctoral students. This document is a statement of departmental and disciplinary values, and evinces both transformation and tradition, change and continuity. According to these guidelines, “the dissertation is the defining feature of doctoral education” and “may take many forms, including (but not limited to) a scholarly edition of a literary work, a digital research archive, a suite of essays on a common theme, a scholarly bibliography of a major work or critical movement, a lengthy translation, a monograph-length critical study, or a public humanities project.” But while the form of the dissertation has broadened, its level of complexity remains the same. As the guidelines state, “any dissertation project must demonstrate command of the scholarly field in which it is situated. It must entail theoretical and critical reflection. It will be held to the most rigorous intellectual and scholarly standards.”

It is worth noting that, in 2011, the MLA distributed a short survey to over 700 doctoral programs in the modern languages and literature in North America. 195 responded. 46% stated that they had no written description for students about the dissertation. Almost 70% said that they had not had recent discussions about the doctoral program and the dissertation. Since that time, many programs may have, like UW, taken steps toward correcting for this oversight. To begin to make change, discussion among faculty and the development of agreed upon language about values and goals is a good place to start. After all, it’s hard to reimagine current practices until you’ve reached a shared understanding of what they are.

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Illustration by Michael Kirkham

Preparing for Diverse Professional Trajectories

Because PhD programs have often historically kept track only of students who go on to tenure-track professorships, our understanding of how a humanities PhD does and can professionally serve students beyond teaching and research — as well as how to connect current students with those opportunities — has remained elusive and incomplete. Correcting this lack of engagement has taken incredible effort on the part of dedicated faculty leaders committed to finding and reconnecting with PhDs who had gone on to a variety of careers.

In the final year of the initiative, the English department did just that. Professor Juliet Shields, who, at that time, was also the Director of Graduate Studies for the department, developed a 1-credit career exploration workshop, open to doctoral students not just in English, but also across all departments in the humanities and social sciences. The course included two panel presentations: one with five alumni who were working in fields beyond the university — nonprofit, tech, secondary education, and publishing — and the other, which included five alumni who were working at the University of Washington in non-faculty positions, mostly doing various forms of instructional design and program administration.

To find presenters for these panels, Shields had embarked upon an exploration of her own. By searching online, she was able to locate a majority of recent English PhD alumni, many of whom were working in the Seattle area in positions beyond academia. This initial information showed Shields that PhD networks were not beyond reach at all, and that, to her surprise, alums were more than happy to make time to connect with current students. They just needed to be asked. Reflecting on the project as a whole, Shields noted that “one of the real pleasures of doing this work was engaging with the alumni who had gone on to different kinds of careers — they were so gracious and open.”

One of them was Wei Zuo, an Instructional Consultant at the University of Washington’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Zuo completed her PhD in English at UW in 2015. She was “amazed by the questions students asked during the panel, and also the diversity and openness of answers from all panelists.”

“To be honest,” she remarked, “I wish there had been courses and panels like this when I was still a PhD student. But it is never too late for such good things to start. I would encourage our graduate students to reach out to alumni, to connect, to ask questions, to reflect and to set their goals accordingly.”

Zuo felt that the panel not only gave current students an opportunity to see what might be possible across an array of professional positions, but also to think about how the humanities PhD can prepare students to be highly adaptable. “The panel really showed a picture of how one’s academic education can be utilized in different settings and fields, in various roles and responsibilities. There were common themes among all our remarks: the ability to communicate with others effectively, and the ability to transfer your knowledge to real jobs, no matter what you go on to do,” she said.

But beyond showing PhD students the variety of work they could do with their degrees, the panels also allowed them to consider what kind of lives they might want once they’ve completed their programs of study. “These informal networks help students to see that there are people living happy, fulfilling lives after graduate school,” Shields reflected. “And this brings them back to the fundamental question: what do I really want from my post-degree life? I think that was a question that went unasked in graduate programs for so long.”

Ultimately, Shields says that the best thing faculty can do toward reimagining professional development for their doctoral students is reconnecting with PhD alumni. “The piece of advice I have received over and over again, at MLA and elsewhere in working on this project, is that your PhD alumni are your best resources,” she said. “And it’s true. They are.”

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Shields says that the best thing faculty can do toward reimagining professional development for their doctoral students is reconnecting with PhD alumni.

It is often the case that PhD alumni have already reimagined what the humanities PhD means in terms of professional outcomes. Take, for example, History. When we think about History PhDs, like many other humanities PhDs, the figure of a tenured professor at the front of a classroom comes readily to mind. But a project led by Purnima Dhavan, Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington, was motivated by the little-known fact that the federal government is the largest employer of History PhDs in the United States. Historians work in research-focused roles in archives, museums, and congressional offices. In fact, the number is so significant that there is a professional society dedicated to their work: The Society of History in the Federal Government (SHFG). Dhavan worked with SHFG to create an internship for a doctoral student in History at UW, broadening both the professional networks of the department and its conception of possible careers for its students. Rachel Lanier Taylor, PhD Candidate in History, was selected for the opportunity. She worked with the organization to develop points of connection for current doctoral students seeking information about employment opportunities in the federal government and to demystify the hiring process at key federal agencies.

In Philosophy, Associate Professor Sara Goering also led an effort to reconnect with alumni who had gone on to pursue careers outside of academia. Like Shields, Goering invited them to the UW campus for a panel — a seemingly small, but crucial step to help reintegrate alumni into the professional networks of a department. But Goering also did something that to our knowledge was completely new: she sent current Philosophy PhD students into “micro-immersion” professional experiences, where students spent either a full or half workday shadowing alums, who were positioned in organizations ranging from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to local elementary schools, in order to better understand the daily work, culture, and norms in positions outside the University.

It came as no surprise that many Next Generation Humanities PhD projects at the University of Washington focused on career trajectories. The same was the case for those projects that received NEH grants of the same name, including a fact-finding consortium for the 28 national-level grant awardees led by the Council of Graduate Schools. In collaboration with one another, these grant programs produced impressive findings, including two important reports that detail actionable recommendations for anyone interested in professional development for humanities PhDs. Like our own initiative, these reports and the many projects that inform them dispel the notion that a tenure-track professorship is the only successful career outcome for doctoral students.

Still, that mistaken idea — that there is only one narrow path to success — is a broken conceptual framework that continues to dominate graduate education in the humanities. But that’s not all. As our work on redefining the form of the dissertation also showed, assumptions about the aspirations and professional possibilities of doctoral students also need to be reconsidered. One of them is the idea that the intellectual ambitions of doctoral students are bound by the parameters of scholarly journals and monographs. In fact, we know that many doctoral students, especially women and people of color, narrate their professional goals expansively and with references to publics and communities beyond academia.

C. R. Grimmer, who completed the PhD in English at UW in 2019, puts it this way: “my dissertation’s primary task, ironically, was to critique exclusively reading and writing text-based, theoretical arguments on praxis-oriented arguments for multimodal activist poetics — a critique well-developed from the 1989 Black Feminist movement up through contemporary critics, such as Grace K. Hong. What I quickly learned was that making this argument in an academic monograph limited not only knowledge form and impact, but also an integration of lived theoretical and artistic interventions already being built in community and by arts activists.”

When the very form of the research — in Grimmer’s example, the dissertation-as-monograph — forecloses important possibilities for humanistic inquiry, it’s time to experiment with form. Especially when so much is at stake.

“I realized the form itself was replicating the historical violence and exclusion it critiqued,” they said. “In response to the contradiction, I began a community-engaged, audiovisual project: The Poetry Vlog (TPV). It’s a YouTube Channel and Podcast dedicated to building social justice coalitions through discussions with artists, scholars, and poets on cultural studies race, gender, sexuality, and disability topics. When I added this teaching-focused dimension to the more traditional dissertation, I was able to not just practice new modes of scholarship relevant to more diverse audiences and students, but to actively center and learn from coalitional, living knowledges that are already transforming critical reader bases and activist movements.”

Grimmer’s work exemplifies the complexity and possibility inherent in the practice of public scholarship, an area of humanities research in which the Simpson Center has historically been deeply involved.

Reaching New Publics

When we announced our Next Generation Humanities PhD special initiative, we were also, with the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in the early stages of building a program called Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics. In the spirit of conversations happening nationally, the program’s goals were to reconsider what the PhD might look like and make possible, and to reorient doctoral education to include public audiences and, more broadly, the public good as key points of reference. The program invested in the creation of new graduate seminars with public-facing components, and offered resources to public scholarship projects designed and led by doctoral students. That work has continued, and will continue through 2021, for a full six years of fellowships and programming spanning the humanities and humanistic social sciences at the University of Washington.

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“One of our ambitions,” says Kathleen Woodward, director of the Simpson Center and of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics,” is to create an open-access archive of the syllabi that have been developed by our faculty for graduate seminars with public-facing components. I completely agree with Sid Smith that the dissertation is the pivot linking research at the graduate level with research by faculty in the humanities in institutions of higher education, in particular, research 1 institutions, creating a constricting feedback loop whereby the dissertation as proto-book has become the only possible choice, providing the point of departure toward promotion and tenure. But graduate seminars provide the foundation for that research. Our grad students need to see their faculty modeling research for publics beyond the academic humanities, including working with community partners (museums, K-14 schools and colleges, people behind bars), publishing in online public-facing sites (Public Books, Signs’Ask a Feminist” interview series), creating digital archives, and incorporating advocacy and activism in their scholarly work. Such courses, I believe, have the potential to inspire them to imagine their dissertations otherwise, differently — as, I hope, public goods that truly have a public dimension.”

“We need to think more expansively in terms of scholarly communication,” she added, “not scholarly publication.”

And scholarly communication differs across disciplines and fields. In the current phase of Reimagining the PhD, The Mellon Foundation is supporting a focus on three departments: English, History, and Philosophy. The rationale for engaging these core humanities disciplines echoes the ideals of the Next Generation Humanities PhD special initiative: changes in doctoral education and the forms of research it produces can only be made from within degree-granting departments, can only be truly led and developed by research faculty positioned within those departments, and can only be sustained by forward-looking departmental cultures.

Though the special initiative has ended, momentum for reimagining doctoral education has only intensified, both at the University of Washington and around the country. This year, the Simpson Center is supporting a graduate research cluster led by humanities doctoral students titled “Reimagining the Dissertation in the 21st Century.” These students are considering an array of potential audiences for their dissertation research, developing strategies to reach those audiences through experimental forms, and documenting their work in a road map for future dissertation writers. They are reaching forward, breaking new ground for themselves, and working together for the benefit of the next generation of humanities scholars.

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The Simpson Center for the Humanities fosters intellectual discovery across boundaries at the University of Washington and beyond.

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