The value of long-term projects

This is the latest in a series of posts on graduate education in the humanities and how the SIF program could facilitate efforts by GSU to apply some of its growing recognition for innovation in undergraduate education to problems to its graduate programs. For previous posts on the topic, click HERE.


This spring, the Mellon Foundation and American Historical Association launched a “Career Diversity and the History PhD” initiative. Four universities, Columbia, University of New Mexico, UCLA, and the University of Chicago, were awarded $1.6 million to train historians for work outside the academy, and develop diverse career options for graduates who face increasingly poor prospects in the overcrowded, adjunct-filled world of collegiate teaching. The selected schools and the programs they will be funding offer a glimpse into the state-of-the-field of graduate education reform in the humanities, and – ultimately- into how much work remains to be done.

The University of Chicago seems to be using the money largely to run training workshops. You can see the 2015-16 schedule of events here. In all honesty, the list of fall 2015 events is pretty uninspiring and seems overwhelmingly oriented towards traditional jobs: it includes workshops on CV’s, campus interviews, teaching statements, and job talks. Don’t get me wrong, these are all important things that departments should be doing, but it’s hard to see how this pushes the idea of “career diversity” very far.

The University of New Mexico is emphasizing interdisciplinary work. Its website describes partnerships with law, business, engineering, and the health sciences, and an internship program designed to put the writing and thinking skills of historians to work in nonacademic settings. They are also building a career services office for their grad students.

A career placement center is also important to UCLA’s plans for the money. UCLA will hire a Postdoctoral Graduate Career Officer” who will run workshops and otherwise help grad students get internships in museum’s, non-profits, and businesses while they are in school, and seek employment afterwards.

I’m probably being a bit unfair here (the real value of these projects is hard to glean from the short descriptions on their websites) but three of these boil down to workshops, counseling, and internships. This is good stuff and nice to see. The internships in particular could be very valuable and are, of course, hard to assess from a remove. But, the workshop model – particularly when it comes to skills in digital humanities – strike me as a skin-deep level reform for several reasons, not least that workshops tend to work best at the introductory level and seldom result in actual mastery of skills. Hour long or half-day trainings in GIS or data visualization are a good start, but they can’t actually teach you enough to claim competence or even familiarity with new technologies, let alone teach you how to use them to design and build projects that use them effectively.

More interesting to me is Columbia’s pilot project, which is using a portion of its money to fund innovative graduate student work, include oral histories, blogging, and the development of a historically-oriented app. The best part about Columbia’s projectis that is provides students with the opportunity to actually develop something tangible. But in the end, as cool as these projects are (and they are cool), and as useful as the work they produce is (and it is useful, it strikes me that they suffer from problems of scale. First, because the funds to produce the work are available only to 2-3 students each semester, which necessarily limits their impact, and second because they fund tiny projects – with budgets of a $1000-$2000 and timelines of a few month’s work performed by presumably 1 already busy grad student.

It’s a pity that GSU didn’t apply for funding under the initiative, because the SIF program seems to me to offer a way out of the non-work of workshops and the scale problems of Columbia’s efforts. It’s by no means there yet, but the SIF could serve as an important lynch-pin of efforts at GSU to revamp graduate education in the humanities. My utopic vision of a future-SIF is as a kind of collaborative makerspace for long-term projects, involving teams of grad students working with real budgets to engage in meaningful, perhaps transformative, work in the digital humanities and pedagogy. The SIF already funds a number of historically-minded programs, most of which would benefit from the involvement of actual historians, and could easily fund several more. Imagine if the history department were to contribute a few of its GRA funding lines to allow students to “intern” at the SIF program for a year, where they could be put to work adding metadata to historical photographs, building 3-D Atlanta, transcribing annotations from 18th century almanacs, or creating content modules for the Online U.S. History Survey. In this environment, and under the guidance of SIF fellows, they could gain deep skills as digital humanists, working with programmers, graphic designers, and videographers while slowly becoming one themselves. Ideally, work as a SIF would “count” within the departmental structure – whether as a replacement for course work (students working on the U.S. history survey might be able to use it as an assignment in 7050, the pedagogy seminar), to satisfy a language requirement, and perhaps in certain cases as components of dissertation work.

To the history department, the benefits would be tremendous, as the SIF has funding, staff, and technical know-how that the department simply lacks. This would allow the department to institute curriculum changes that it otherwise would struggle to support, and might perhaps clear a path towards new degree programs such as a MA or certificate program in digital history. Grad Students would gain valuable skills, and not just technical ones, as the SIF provides (or could provide) real professional experience in management and supervision, team-building and collaboration, budgeting, grant-writing, and project management on a large scale. These are highly transferable skills of value in all kinds of enterprises, and they are hard to gain in a discipline that still favors individual work.

As the SIF continues to develop, we need to be building bridges into departments and encouraging conversation about how the SIF could transform graduate education.

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