Reimagining Graduate Education in the Humanities through the SIF Program

Last Friday, a panel of SIF fellows presented at the CIE Conference on Pedagogy. Due to some issues with time management on our panel, my remarks ended up being abbreviated considerably. So, I thought I’d throw them up here:

“Reimagining Graduate Education in the Humanities through the SIF Program”

A few weeks ago, I was attending a meeting of the GSU/GPC consolidation implementation committee. These meetings are usually nose-to-the-grindstone affairs, so I was surprised when the topic of innovation in higher education turned into a major part of the discussion. Among the participants in the little mini-debate that broke out on that topic was President Becker who made the comment that technology itself was not innovation. To illustrate this, he pointed to the strides GSU has made in lowering its number of drop outs and in helping students get their degrees in a shorter period of time. This progress was based in part on software that allowed GSU to track and identify students who were falling behind and in need of intervention from advising. But, as Becker pointed out, other universities who had purchased the same software had not seen the results from it that GSU had. As Becker put it, this is because innovation is the “marriage of process and technology.” He credited GSU’s success less with the software – important as that was — than with building a process to use the technology in efficient ways.

Now, President Becker knows more about higher ed than I ever will. But, I would like to amend his statement just a little, to emphasize that hidden inside the idea of “process” is the idea of labor. So, I would expand Becker’s definition just a bit and emphasis that technology + process + skilled human labor = innovation. That term – labor – is an important one, not least because of the importance universities themselves place on their societal role as the creators of skilled laborers. And this brings me around to the SIF and to the point I would like to make today, which is that at least potentially the biggest contribution the SIF program might offer to pedagogy at GSU is not at the level of undergraduate education, but at the level of graduate education where the SIF program’s model of collaborative work between professors, academic professionals and graduate students could facilitate a broader transformation of graduate education in the humanities at GSU that would make our PhD and MA students more capable of performing the kinds of labor that are emerging, for better or worse, at the forefront of what the work of an “academic” will look like in the future.

It is no secret that graduate education in the humanities is in a deep labor crisis caused by structural transformations of higher education. From the perspective of a graduate student are an overproduction of PhD’s and a steep decline in the number of jobs available to them. These are big socio-economic issues associated with the neo-liberalization of the university that unfortunately I have time only to mention in passing, but they in part they are also pedagogical problems because graduate education in the humanities – certainly in my discipline of history – remains configured around producing graduates who will be competitive for tenure-track faculty jobs, even though in the decade between 1998-2009 (and thus right at the beginning of a number of terrible years on the job market) just 51% of history PhD’s were able to find tenure-track appointments. For a university like GSU, which is still very much building its national reputation, the numbers are even worse.

Yet, it is tenure-track work, and especially tenure-track work at research oriented universities, that dominates the professional training of humanists. In the last few years, as the late recession made trend-lines impossible to ignore, there has been a vigorous conversation in history departments, at the MLA, across the pages of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, about the need to reimagine graduate training to better reflect the changing nature of academic work, which is increasingly likely to value those who can combine content knowledge with technical abilities. Faculty and professional organizations are well aware of the urgent need to redesign PhD programs – the MLA and AHA have both issued main reports to that effect within the last couple of years. Some of the basic goals of such a reimagining are clear. They include a greater emphasis on teaching, a core skill that is not always emphasized in graduate training, and the development of curricula oriented towards non-academic jobs (in history these might include jobs in the government or at think tanks or “public history” jobs at museums or historical societies) or so-called “alt-ac” jobs within the academy. Crucially, many of these kinds of jobs call for technological chops not conventionally offered as part of the graduate curriculum – even teaching, I would suggest, is increasingly a skill that demands technical as well as pedagogical skillsets. At the national level, concrete efforts to figure out how to integrate these new types of skills into doctoral programs have been spotty at best, and are just beginning to make their way into graduate education at the level of program design and pedagogy.

GSU ought to be in a good position to lead on these issues. For one thing, we already have a student body that is ready, even eager, to receive training for “non-traditional” jobs. A 2014 survey by the GSA found that 41% of GSU grad student respondents (most of whom were PhD students) intended to pursue non-academic careers after graduation. Moreover, GSU’s modest national reputation gives us a certain advantage: we have less of an investment in the old-model of training and thus less to lose by engaging the shifting nature of academic labor. While GSU humanities departments already emphasize teaching to a considerable degree, and the CII and CIE help provide teacher training workshops across the university on the whole, the curriculum in the humanities looks similar to that at most PhD granting institutions in that it remains oriented towards the tenure-track work that relatively few of its graduates will be able to secure. Perhaps for this reason only 20% of grad students in the GSA survey believed their department was providing adequate resources to prepare them for careers outside the academy, so it is clear that much work remains to be done.

Some of the roadblocks to deeper reform of the curriculum are laudable commitments to the deep content mastery that is at the core of PhD work. Some are less principled, including concerns among faculty who might lose students or courses in a new curriculum, and to a kind of guild-like commitment to doing things the way they’ve always been done. One of the SIF’s advantages is that it exists outside the departmental structure, and thus can side-step some of these fights. Another advantage of the SIF is that it draws on a unique configuration of talents and perspectives and can help fill a knowledge gap that I think suggests that departments are not necessarily the best place for implementing the kinds of strategic rethinkings that seems called for. Many departments, the history department at GSU, for instance, have few faculty with experience in computer programming, GIS, data visualization, or content module creation and thus little ability to transmit those skills or to help graduate students envision or evaluate work drawing on them. Moreover, because the humanities –perhaps especially history- are less oriented towards collaborative work than other disciplines – grad students often have little chance to gain exposure to administrative, budgeting, and supervisory skills.

My point is that the structure of departments in the humanities – combined with their relatively low visibility in the university – can make it difficult for them to generate the funding, staffing, and program building architecture to implement meaningful projects of appropriate depth for graduate work. In contrast, these are all things the SIF program excels at and ultimately where it’s most far reaching implications may lie. The SIF represents in embryo, exactly the kind of pedagogical program that graduate education in the humanities desperately needs because it provides a model for developing skilled labor at the intersection of technology and content knowledge. Already, it has brought together two dozen grad students from across GSU from disciplines ranging from computer science, the fine arts, religious studies, history, anthropology, the business college, English, and computer science. Some SIF fellows came to the program with technical skills that have been developed through engagement with faculty research and exposure to the demands of undergraduate teaching, others – such as myself – came with more traditional academic skills that have been stretched and developed by having to reimagine classroom instruction as a hybrid event, the enlightenment as a subject of film and visual media, and primary source work and textual interpretation as crowd-sourced phenomenon. All of us have worked in interdisciplinary teams and on projects that demanded that we approach research and pedagogical problems from new, sometimes uncomfortable perspectives.

The work we are doing can serve as a platform through which the meaning of graduate pedagogy can be rethought because it sits at the intersection of technology + process + labor to produce innovation. As I see it, the promise of the SIF is that it could mature into a pedagogical makerspace, a development vehicle for innovation in instruction and a training-center that counted among its core “products” a cadre of graduate students trained in making large scale pedagogical projects possible. This benefits the university on a number of levels. First, SIF fellows provide the labor that is fueling several dozen projects across the university, many of which would literally not exist without the labor SIF fellows provide. Second, by providing a framework in which we can learn to perform this labor, the SIF is producing graduate students with very specialized skillsets that will equip them to succeed in a higher-education ecosystem that is increasingly oriented towards those who can combine content mastery with technical dexterity.

By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest a couple of ways in which this vision of the SIF program might become a reality. First, the SIF program should open an official dialog with DGS’s about pedagogical issues in graduate education and about the role the SIF program could play in addressing them. One immediate fruit of these conversations would be better identification and recruitment of SIF’s as DGS’s could help identify students mostly like to benefit from, and benefit the SIF program. It is also possible that with more coordination, departments might be able to help fund the SIF program by allowing some GTA/GRA stipends to be used to support SIF work. For example, the current project to create an online version of the US History survey could easily be assigned a TA or two out of the available pool to contribute to the work. Lines of conversation with individual departments might also help departments and the SIF coordinate on broader issues of curriculum and disciplinary training.

Second, the SIF could better orient itself towards providing its fellows with the philosophical and educational background to talk about their work in other than technical terms. For example, those of us working on classroom based projects would benefit from a structured forum and common reading list designed to allow us to translate our experiences as SIF’s into teaching philosophy statements and would also benefit from the assignment of “research” time designed to allow us to pursue background knowledge relevant to our projects. This might be accomplished by ramping up the SIF blog and by assigning one or more SIF’s to schedule events and organize reading groups and administrate the educational side of the program. Finally, and this is perhaps another task that SIF fellows could help accomplish, the SIF program should develop the ability to track its graduates, both to demonstrate its success as a labor program and as a way of exploring and fine-tuning its project work.

2 responses

  1. Dylan – Thank you for publishing this post. I was excited to hear your take on the SIF program at the conference, so now I get to read it over and over. I’m happy that you have a couple of discussions about what innovation means – I’m currently writing an article about how we talk about and use the word ‘innovation’ in the field of rhetoric and composition and I think you are exactly right. Innovation cannot work without some kind of economic push behind it in order to implement developments in a meaningful way. Skilled labor is the key here.

    Your suggestions for SIF improvement/expansion are also right on, in my opinion. While I have learned a lot of great software and a little coding from my fellow SIFs, a makerspace environment where we teach each other skill-sets as a natural way of working would be – a dream come true, really. I come into the Exchange at least 2 days a week, a lot because I need to work with a particular computer, but also because I love seeing my co-workers, and asking someone a face-to-face question rather than sending an email. Someone can easily show me how to complete a task when I’m stuck.

    One issue I see with your suggestion to identify and recruit SIFs is that many students don’t know yet what they want to do or could be good at. The general fear of tech is still rampant in the academy, especially in the Humanities, as I’m sure you know. When I got to GSU 4 years ago, I didn’t have a dropbox and I was kind of afraid of the cloud in general. Now I’m writing my dissertation on cloud-based writing software. It was a complete turn-around, and it happened because I decided to try things I was afraid of. How do we find those individuals who would excel in these areas, but don’t yet know it?

    And last – I gave my digital portfolio workshop this semester, which I believe you came to – and I’d REALLY love to help lead a project that helps other SIFs, not only create their own portfolio, but learn how to talk and write in ways that make them more marketable in the workforce. If you want to pursue anything related to that over the summer, or next semester, consider me on board.

    Well done here –

  2. Hi Valerie,
    I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I think you’re exactly right to point towards fear and risk-aversion in the humanities as an obstacle (I lived your story about the cloud, too!) There has been a little discussion about developing the graduate pedagogical aspects of the program more next year, so hopefully we’ll both get the chance to work on this issue. I like you idea about portfolios/philosophies very much and would love to work on that with you. I’m not yet sure if I’ll be SIFing in the summer (I may take it off to concentrate on the dissertation), but either then or in the fall we should sit down and talk!

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