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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Reimagining the PhD Blog

A forum on new approaches to graduate education, teaching, and scholarship.

Angled window ceiling as a backdrop to a close up of Rebecca Taylor smiling at the camera. She has red-brown long hair and bangs.

by Rebecca Taylor

Apr. 12, 2021

Every transfer story is different.

Heather Simpson, for example, always knew she would transfer to the University of Washington to major in English. That journey began in Oklahoma, routed through Highline College, and took nearly a decade. Ewan Cameron, on the other hand, knew within his first quarter at Gonzaga University in Spokane that he wanted to transfer to UW as a sophomore. Trevor Little, to take another instance, weighed the options of transferring while attending a college in South Dakota, where they began to imagine Seattle as offering an environment that would be more liberal and inclusive and allow them to discover a sense of belonging: “I started to lean into the feeling deep inside myself that I was going to transfer.”

Choosing to transfer along whatever pathway, though, appears to be the easiest part of transferring to the University of Washington. Indeed, all of the transfer students I interviewed reported some degree of confusion about at least one aspect of the transfer process. From wondering about housing options to navigating the advising process to completely missing information about financial aid and scholarships, each of these students expressed a sense of being adrift at some point during the transfer process. This perceived lack of support is concerning, especially in light of a report put out by the UW Office of Educational Assessment (OEA) nearly a decade ago. This 2014 report explores undergraduate retention rates via a survey asking students about reasons they had left UW. The report found that nearly 50% of the transfer students who left did so before they completed their first year. When asked what would have helped them choose to remain at UW, the majority answered, “high quality, consistent advising.”

Many of the issues identified in this 2014 report continue to affect transfer students; most of the students with whom I spoke echoed this same desire for advising support. In looking back at the process of transferring, Ewan Cameron said that he “would have really liked to have had an academic or departmental advisor.” Heather Simpson explained that when she transferred to campus, she had to find an advisor herself. “That was pretty much up to me,” she says. “I sought out the department and got a little sheet of paper with all the English courses that were needed to graduate, and that was about it.” Trevor Little echoed this need to be proactive about seeking information, identifying a major difference between advising at their previous university and UW. “I had to seek her out,” they say. “I wasn't quite used to that because I always just had a general advisor who I could go to for everything.”

Humanities Academic Services Associate Director Nancy Sisko explains that there are orientation days...

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Author photo of Joe Wilson. He is close up smiling at the camera and has short blonde hair.

by Joe Wilson

Mar. 24, 2021

For many graduate students in the humanities, teaching is the primary way to secure funding and gain valuable experience for the competitive academic job market. The pedagogical training graduate students receive varies widely, but at the University of Washington, I’ve benefitted from the robust instructor training offered by the Expository Writing Program, which prepares incoming graduate students to teach the department’s bread-and-butter courses, i.e., first-year composition. Even so, the first message many new graduate students receive about their funding and teaching appointments generally includes a clause like this one (drawn from orientation materials provided by my former institution, a large research university in the American Southeast):

Permission of the Director of Graduate Studies is required for any employment, whether in the university or outside it, beyond the duties of the associateship.”

In the vast majority of cases, this permission is not granted. The underlying assumption here is that graduate students should be focused on research and teaching at their own institution—work that  amounts to (and often exceeds) the labor of a full-time job. This message was actually deemed so critical by my former institution that it was the only clause delineated twice in the handbook, highlighted in bold at each iteration to ensure that incoming teaching assistants would recognize the seriousness of their contractional obligations to the department. Yet these same graduate students are still encouraged to join professional organizations on campus, to serve on graduate student committees, to apply for research grants, and the like: they just cannot receive compensation. My current department recommends rather than enforces such regulations, but it has become standard practice in humanities graduate programs across the country to circumscribe the extra-institutional labor of graduate teaching assistants.

To examine the pool of adjunct labor for community college humanities programs—particularly those in areas geographically close to larger public or research institutions— is to understand that the target of such policies is community college teaching. Indeed, community college teaching on the part of graduate students is a common practice, understood to serve under-resourced institutions dependent on adjunct labor to account for budgetary constraints. Graduate instructors, for their part, cite inadequate graduate stipends and the need to make ends meet as their underlying motivation for taking on the herculean task of teaching upwards of 80 students across multiple campuses while pursuing graduate study.

As part of my research for the Mellon Collaborative Fellowship for Reaching New Publics in the Community Colleges, I’ve interviewed multiple community college instructors and found the story to be more complicated. Almost every instructor recalls...

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Adrien Kane Close-Up Author Photo on the Left. Jorge Bayona Close-Up Author Photo on the Right.

by Jorge Bayona and Adrian Kane-Galbraith

Mar. 2, 2021

The University of Washington’s Department of History, like the majority of History departments across the country, trains its graduate students as specialists in specific geographically-defined fields. For instance, we were admitted to the program not so much as “History” students but as an historian of Britain and the British Empire (Adrian) and as an historian of Southeast Asia and Latin America (Jorge). As transnational historians, we embarked on our Reaching New Publics fellowship with the thought that, on reaching the end of our program, we might apply to community colleges as specialists in world history and other non-U.S. regional courses. One of our main goals, then, was to learn more about the landscape of world history teaching in access-based institutions.

However, as we met with mentors in the history and humanities departments of Seattle Central, North Seattle, and Centralia Colleges during autumn 2019 and winter 2020, we quickly learned that historians at these colleges are asked to teach U.S. history much more frequently than they teach histories of other regions. Several professors with whom we spoke surmised that this trend was influenced in part by the Running Start program—a system through which Washington State high school students can dual-enroll in community college courses for both high school and 4-year transfer credit—which encourages students to take U.S. history courses rather than world and non-U.S. regional histories. Given that the total number of Running Start students has increased by 56% in the last decade and continues to grow, this regionalizing effect may become even more pronounced.[1]

We wondered, however, to what extent these perceptions reflect the reality across Washington state, as evidenced by the data on the number and regional focus of history courses offered at access-based institutions. We also wanted to draw more informed conclusions about how History departments are, or are not, preparing their graduate students for the reality of teaching outside 4-year research institutions. To answer these questions, we collected information from the 34 community and technical colleges in Washington state, taking note of both the courses that appear in their catalogues and the classes that were offered during the 2019-2020 academic year.[2] We then grouped these courses into two geographic categories: U.S. history and non-U.S. history.[3] We omitted methodological classes and classes with a geographic scope that could not be determined. While the move to online classes in the spring and summer may have skewed data in...

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By Kaelie Giffel and Caitlin Postal

In the midst of a global pandemic, it can be tempting to forget that the oft-hailed return to “normal,” as Francis Eanes and Eleni Schirmer argue in their recent essay, would mean, in the context of higher education, the resumption of “all kinds of harms: spiking debt, precarious work, and social protections that fall somewhere between elusive and imaginary.” This is true for the full ecology of workers on college campuses: adjunct and assistant professors; graduate students; undergraduate student employees; and facilities, maintenance, and food service workers—in sum, all who make life on college campuses function. Every aspect of working life has been transformed by this moment. And we must reckon with the reality that the university is not organized for the benefit of the vast majority of people who move through and adjacent to it. 

In this post, we explore an emerging structure of feeling amid COVID-19 around university power structures that has been insufficiently examined. Let us be frank: the structure of feeling which we term “crisis pedagogy” begins with anger, exhaustion, and helplessness, and it predates COVID-19. Yet the inequities which undergird neoliberal education have produced, as Simon Torracinta describes it, “a genuine, albeit incipient militancy, and even a tentative sense of solidarity, across the ranks of academia.” The feelings which we embody, as graduate students, and which we discuss in extensive conversation with others, register the damage enacted by individualist paradigms prevalent in our culture—in academia, in particular. We see (or at least hope) that workers within the university are motivated by these feelings to act in our collective, rather than individual, interests. Different forms of mutual aid and support are emerging between teachers and students, advisors and advisees, which indicate a sense of collective responsibility. In our view, the return to normal—per usual prizing of individual research above all, back to banking models of education, lack of accountability to local communities—would be a return to the harms that we believe are better left behind.

We do not want to seem overly sanguine. On the one hand, the rapid shift to online learning has foreclosed a slow consideration of how technology can (or should) be integrated into our classrooms. If we are to learn to use digital tools quickly, how can we question them? This elision of critical thinking around the adaptation of technology is exacerbated in certain institutional positions—that of graduate student workers, for instance. We have had to swiftly adapt to the conditions of our employment in crafting remote classes and developing online versions of community workshops....

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This webinar—originally held on May 22, 2020—is geared towards doctoral students who are interested in applying for jobs at community colleges or other teaching-intensive institutions. Washington state community college faculty share their knowledge and expertise, communicating job search strategies gleaned from their own experience and responding to moderated questions from participants across the country. Organized by Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics: Catalyzing Collaboration. 


Originally from Puerto Rico, Dr. Cristóbal A. Borges earned his Bachelor of Communications and International Studies from the University of Washington (1999), Master of Science degree in Radio, Television and Film from the University of North Texas (2003), and doctorate in History from the University of Texas at El Paso (2014). While pursuing his degree, Cristóbal worked with the Oral History Institute at UTEP in the Bracero Archive Program and on the H-Borderlands website and listserv. This is Cristóbal's third year as a mentor in the Mellon Reaching New Publics program at the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Cristóbal is a tenured faculty member in the History Department at North Seattle College where he teaches US, Latin American, and Pacific Northwest history. 

Kate Krieg is currently the Executive Director of Pathways Initiatives at Seattle Central College. Having started at Seattle Central College in 2010 as a part-time faculty member in the Anthropology department, she became Associate Dean in the Division for Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Seattle Central College in 2014, and has played a central role in strengthening the partnership between Seattle Central College and the University of Washington through the Mellon program. Her path in education started with her...

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By Sofia Huerter 

In applying to the Mellon fellowship, which places teams of doctoral students in the humanities in mentoring relationships with community college faculty, the central question on my mind had to do with democratic values—how they can either be fostered or hindered by institutions of higher education. To answer this question, though, requires a deeper understanding of democratic values themselves. Historically, such ideals as liberty, equality, and public-spiritedness have been heralded as key democratic values. But all of this invites a simpler, more rudimentary question: What is democracy, anyway?

The most straightforward definition, “rule by the people,” leaves something to be desired: Who are the people? What does it mean for them to rule? And what is the role of educators in facilitating that rule? Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of this fellowship has been exploring these questions alongside community college instructors, and coming to appreciate why they, by virtue of their occupational position, might have useful insights for someone like myself, who until this point have solely worked in the context of a four-year university.

In any society, the ruling class holds the majority power to influence the conditions of shared life that constitute a community. Democracy thus requires, in Noam Chomsky’s words, that everyone has “a meaningful way of developing and articulating their own ideas and putting them forward in the political arena and controlling decisions.”[1] More than that, however, a healthy democracy requires collaboration across social differences in order to achieve goals that are conceived cooperatively, rather than unilaterally imposed. Supposing that the necessary skills for participating in and preserving democracy are not entirely inborn, one obvious objective for instructors would be to inculcate these skills in our students, and to impart, as Bertrand Russell put it, “a sense of the value of things other than domination,” such as mutual empathy, trust, and compromise.[2]In this sense, education becomes indispensable to the transformative mission of democracy: the alteration of oppressive conditions and imagining future alternatives.

During a visit to South Seattle College, for example, I observed one instructor, Larry Cushnie, fighting the good fight for democracy in a lesson on COINTELPRO, the FBI counterintelligence program aimed at infiltrating, surveilling, and (ultimately) discrediting political organizations such as the Black Panthers. Cushnie’s lesson was democratic in content because it contextualized learning around civic ends, like fighting the erasure of institutional racism from our collective historical consciousness. However, the lesson was also democratic in instruction because it gave students firsthand, participatory...

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By Jorge Bayona 

When I first encountered the concept of Guided Pathways in the community college context, it seemed familiar. As it was explained to me, Guided Pathways is a reform that aims to place students on a “pathway” of predetermined courses, instead of letting students choose their own classes in a manner often described as somewhat haphazard. This pathway aims to increase students’ likelihood of graduation and to support their transfer to the university and major of their choice. This idea was familiar to me, as this is precisely the kind of educational system that has prevailed in Peru. Considering that freedom of course selection is precisely the feature of the U.S. educational system that I, as a Peruvian, find the most alluring, I was intrigued to discover that the hot new trend in American higher education policy is to limit that choice. Why would American institutions of higher education willingly abdicate what seemed to me to be their greatest strength?

The touchstone text of the Guided Pathways movement, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success, was written by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. In broad strokes, it presents a very ambitious package of reforms to boost graduation rates. They argue that the wide array of courses and majors offered by “cafeteria-style colleges” can overwhelm students—especially first-generation college students and minorities. With a dazzlingly wide selection of courses, the argument goes, and sometimes arcane graduation and transfer requirements—even to advisers and faculty!—students become frustrated and drop out. In order to address this situation, they propose the “Guided Pathways” model, in which students would be required to pick a “pathway” shortly after enrollment (or even upon enrollment) that would determine which classes they would take, and the order they would take them in. The restructuring around pathways is the single most important reform, but it is accompanied by several others, such as emphasizing completion rather than simply access, focusing on programs instead of individual courses, and tracking students’ academic performance so that advisers might intervene early and effectively. Guided Pathways also affects hiring practices—placing greater emphasis on candidates’ attentiveness to student retention—and faculty development activities.

To be fair, Bailey et al. make a compelling, evidence-based case. There is certainly much of value in the book, and a community college that implements their suggestions may very well see positive results. Nevertheless, in my time at Seattle Colleges, I have noticed significant skepticism. While there are faculty...

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By Justin Lawson

South Seattle Community College (SSC) sits just north of the Riverside neighborhood in West Seattle. As a new Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics in Community Colleges, I rode my bike to SSC to attend Larry Cushnie’s American Government class last fall, and realized I’d been there before. SSC also abuts the West Seattle Greenbelt, one of Seattle’s largest and wildest greenbelts spanning over four miles from north to south along the west bank of the Duwamish River. The summer prior, I’d scoped out a faint and overgrown trail that winds along much of its length. Two things struck me then. There are very few (that is, there are no) trails traversing the width of the greenbelt—from the hilltop to the river—and in particular, there is no trail connecting the Duwamish cultural center to the greenbelt that bears the tribe’s name.

When Sofia Huerter and I applied for a Mellon collaborative fellowship, one of our central goals was to explore what it meant to be an “access-oriented” institution. We were particularly interested in thinking about community colleges as access points for political participation, practiced through democratic deliberation in the classroom. But as I considered the location of South Seattle Community College, I became interested in a much more tangible kind of access—physical, pedestrian access to the campus and to neighboring landmarks such as the Duwamish Cultural Center—or the lack thereof. Some research into the history and politics of place reveals how democratic participation and geographic location can be deeply imbricated. 

In 1855 Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, which (at least in the eyes of the U.S. government) ceded the tribe’s ancestral land—now the City of Seattle—to the U.S. The Duwamish were never given a reservation, and, in part because of this, have never been granted federal recognition. For 150 years, the tribe has fought for a sense of cultural cohesion against the current of an indifferent and hostile settler government. The Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center occupies less than an acre of city land. It was purchased by the tribe in the mid-90s with some help from the city and a local philanthropist. The cultural center lies on the west bank of the Duwamish River—near the historic location of an ancestral village that has since been heavily polluted and is now a designated Superfund site. Inside the building, exhibits display the tribe’s continued connection with the land and the species that sustain their way of life, in stark juxtaposition to the straightened, concretized, and polluted stretches of the Duwamish just outside.  

This last fact sheds light on the lack of east-west trails through the greenbelt. For most of the 20th...

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Image from a Storytellers for Change Event

By Kaelie Giffel

Jillian Aylward never thought she would publicly tell the story of her father’s suicide—or her own attempts. When she took the stage in 2018 at North Seattle College’s theater, she found relief from the silence. “I was surprised to get a real sense of ownership over the story I chose to tell,” she told me. “Not just because I spent the quarter working on it and practicing it over and over again. After I performed my piece, so many people came up to me to both console me and tell me they’d had a similar experience.”

Aylward was one of a small cohort that participated in the #UseYourWords public performance course developed by Jim Jewell, full-time English faculty at North. Conceived in the wake of the closing of North’s theater department, the quarter-long performance-intensive course asks students to write a story from their own experience and deliver it on the stage. The students collaborate, give one another feedback, and organize the performance. The hashtag serves to publicize the important work that students do through social media. As Jewell argues, the course is meant to “treat storytelling as real knowledge.” Treating storytelling as knowledge itself further authorizes students from a variety of backgrounds to feel at home in a college setting and to claim a stake in shaping that home. Diversity is about welcoming the worlds that individuals come from—but also those that they hope to build.

The connection between storytelling and inclusion was clear in my conversation with Aylward, who said that she benefited from #UseYourWords because it “gave students a place to come, to gather and tell their stories.” North Seattle College is a smaller campus—and as an access-oriented institution, building a sense of belonging through programs like #UseYourWords is vital to student retention and success. Now a psychology major at UW, Aylward feels that the campus is larger, colder. “I am so curious about the stories of all these people that walk by me every day, how they got here to UW and their majors, what their lives are like.” She added that for her, fostering diversity on campus means valuing “the depth of others, their stories and what shapes them, all those tiny things or big things that we don’t think about until it’s time to tell our story.”

#UseYourWords builds off the Storytellers for Change work done by Luis Ortega, and the resonance is clear from the organization’s “Our Approach” page: “We are committed to practicing radical empathy, inspiring through storytelling, training the next generation of storytellers for change, and building an empathetic, inclusive, and equitable...

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The author speaking on her panel at Geek Girl Con. Photo by Xandre Chateaubriand

By Caitlin Postal

In 2019, I spoke on a panel about representations of teaching and pedagogy in genre media. I and my fellow panelists, which included organizer Lauren Karp, along with presenters Elin Rummel and Evan Peterson, offered perspectives on pop culture’s representations of pedagogy—perspectives rooted in our own experiences as both educators and fans. I shared a pointed critique on the teaching practices at Hogwarts, while closely examining Chidi Anagonye’s student-centered philosophy lessons on NBC’s The Good Place. The room was packed with people of all ages and backgrounds, from tenured faculty to tweens and their parents.

Despite the pedagogy-focused conversation and the number of people this panel reached, I cannot include this presentation—like those I’ve given at the International Congress on Medieval Studies—on my CV under “Conference Presentations” or “Invited Lectures.” Instead, I must shuffle it, like an afterthought, into a seemingly lesser category: “Other Presentations.” That’s because I presented at Geek Girl Con—an inclusive gathering that does not exclude academic research, but rather stretches knowledge production well beyond its traditional bounds into conversation with popular culture and fandom.

In many ways, events like Geek Girl Con brought me to an academic study of literature. I started attending pop culture conventions in 2005 when I was a middle schooler obsessed with Pokemon and Sailor Moon. One year later, I started making and wearing costumes to cons as part of the “cosplay” community. Cosplay, for me, is both a cornerstone of such gatherings and an opportunity for critical analysis. Which is why, by 2015, I started moderating and presenting panels on costuming, while considering academic approaches to pop culture. These panels, on which I still present, encompass everything from costuming advice and photoshoot collaboration to pop culture analysis and cosplay as a textual experience. The pop culture panels that I organize and moderate are similar to roundtable sessions at academic conferences. Except our question and answer sessions easily extend to an hour of engaged conversation in which everyone is invited to participate.

So then why doesn’t this work “count?” At a time when graduate students are increasingly encouraged to engage in public scholarship, why is it the case that such work is still undervalued by the academy? Why are we forced to relegate it to the category of “Other” on CVs? For me, panels at pop culture conventions extend a crucial opportunity to build a more capacious community around my interests and thereby a deeper understanding of and investment in them. In my experience, there are more attendees in the room during...

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