Reimagining the PhD Blog

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

Annie Dwyer

By Annie Dwyer

“If I had to sum up what I do in the classroom,” said Cris Borges, History faculty member at North Seattle College, “I would simply say that I help students see under the hood of my discipline.”

During a February 2018 critical pedagogy workshop for the Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics, a program that matches UW doctoral students with community college faculty mentors, we invited Borges and two additional faculty mentors in the program—Jim Jewell (English, North Seattle College) and Phebe Jewell (English, Central Seattle College)—to share insights about lesson planning, classroom pedagogy, and issues of power and difference in the classroom. To riff on Borges’s statement, the Mellon mentors helped us “see under the hood” of the classroom, which most faculty and graduate instructors drive every day, but often without adequate awareness or attention to how the engine of effective teaching works—or what to do in the face of the flat tires and dead batteries that inevitably waylay even the most thoughtfully engineered discussions and assignment sequences.

During the workshop, Mellon faculty mentors presented lesson plans that they had developed through a series of “Lesson Plan Lightning Talks.” Phebe Jewell presented a classroom activity in which students are asked to identify the narrator’s gender in a number of passages excerpted from short stories and novels; she then discussed how she uses students’ various responses to this activity to structure a sophisticated conversation about the construction of gender through language. Jim Jewell reviewed a paper prompt that requires students to make an argument for a particular system of grading (traditional, random, or egalitarian)—in a paper that is then graded according to students’ chosen system!

Across the board, the lessons shared by the Mellon faculty mentors were characterized by the careful cultivation of students’ meta-cognitive awareness, an attention to the development of skills as well as the delivery of content. They were also marked by flexible design, allowing both responsiveness to students’ incoming knowledge and  active participation of students in new knowledge-making.

It is a truism to say that community college faculty are often talented and innovative teachers. I knew this before the workshop. But during our conversation, I found myself not simply nodding in affirmation of sound pedagogy, but frantically scribbling down notes and questions. It was not, “Ah yes, this is good teaching,” but, “Oh my! This is good teaching!” And … “How did you do that? How might I do that?” Though I have been a college-level instructor for more than a decade—and I’ve cared and thought a lot about my pedagogy during this time—during the workshop, I was humbled by the sense that I was learning from experts in the field of teaching and learning. And I found myself assuming the posture of learning: I was renewed in my curiosity about what happens...

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This series features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences shadowing faculty at two-year colleges as part of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to develop innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

Zhenzhen He-Weatherford

By Zhenzhen He-Weatherford

As a Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics in the Humanities, I’m compelled to ask who the “new publics” are what it means to “reach” them in concrete ways. This question stems from my skepticism about any self-proclaimed social justice-oriented, institutionally initiated events or programs. As a woman of color, a first-generation college student, and an international graduate student in the US, I frequently come across scenarios in which diversity is superficially celebrated, cultural or communal differences are fetishized, and the disenfranchised are further marginaliz

My immersive experience at Seattle Central is shaping my answer to this question—and helping me realize that there are educational contexts and possibilities that might exceed the superficial celebration and continued marginalization of minoritized populations. As I walk through the two campus spaces, a community college and a prestigious research university, I see some obvious differences: the small urban campus space of Central stands in marked contrast with the larger UW campus next to the waterfront. There is a noticeably higher ratio of students of color at Central. There are fewer appearances of shiny MacBooks in the classroom at Central. Topics that many students and instructors at UW shy away from come up very naturally during a class discussion at Central: “I don’t understand why I am followed every time in a grocery store. It’s frustrating that I have to go there with a senior like my father.”

Different student demographics often lead to different pedagogical concerns and allocation of institutional resources. What is often theoretically examined and has to be intentionally brought to attention at UW campus are the lived, everyday realities of most students at Central. How can these two educational contexts help inform each other?

Interacting with my mentor Phebe Jewell (English, Seattle Central College) is a thought-provoking beginning answer to this question. As a responsive teacher and active member of the Seattle Central community, Jewell is very invested in nurturing and advocating for students who are historically marginalized (i.e. international students, first generation college students, students of color, queer and transgender students, veterans, students who have been incarcerated or had dealings with the criminal justice system, students who have...

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This series features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences shadowing faculty at two-year colleges as part of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to develop innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

KublerBy Kyle Kubler 

As a Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics in the Humanities, I have a goal this year to help develop better resources for community college students looking to transfer to the University of Washington. This work has led me to the online transfer resources of both UW and South Seattle College. As with many higher education websites, navigation can be quite challenging: one finds outdated course listings, broken links, and complicated drop-down menus. Compared to other academic feats that community college students achieve, such as getting an associate’s degree or being accepted to a four-year institution, navigating a transfer webpage should be easy. However, sometimes this “easy” step proves to be discouraging and prohibitive. Fixing this issue goes beyond simply updating a course catalogue or avoiding broken-page errors; it also involves recognizing the significance of these steps in students’ educational pathways.

Accessing transfer documents, figuring out which courses count for what types of credit, finding (and remembering!) deadlines, aren’t always students’ main concern when they begin community college. These are rarely acknowledged as difficult academic tasks on par with writing papers. However, submitting a document on time or figuring out who to email can almost feel as hard as passing an exam. One of the many reasons for this has to do with our conception of higher education. For many, thinking about the university conjures up visions of an ivory tower: a space and time in one’s life where one can simply think without distractions. In reality, this is rarely the case. The ability to approximate that ivory tower experience is determined not only by institutional location, but also the intersecting lines of race, class, and gender that traverse the divide between the community college and the university. Students are told to study for class, not to study the directories of different site administrators. Recognizing that this supposedly easy work can be time-consuming and frustrating is a key first step to improving the transfer process.

Navigating bureaucratic online spaces is work. In fact, many college administrators and IT support specialists make their living understanding how to work with and use these sites. By equating these tasks with more formal academic tasks, we can gain a better idea of what role these tasks play and how best...

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This series features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences shadowing faculty at two-year colleges as part of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to develop innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

alma khasawnihBy alma khasawnih

I am not a fan of formal education. When I was in first grade, I begged my mother every day not to send me to school. And every day she had to convince me to go. How else would I fill my day? How would I make friends? Every day, I went to school reluctantly. This continued until I finished high school. But it changed when I began my higher education at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida. Community college was the perfect place to begin my educational journey. The college was small enough that I quickly learned where things were and what resources were available. The professors cared about my learning and encouraged me to try harder and explore new things. The student body was so diverse that my group of friends included people from Kathmandu, South Carolina, Nova Scotia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Montana, and elsewhere. While at Santa Fe, I watched Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990), a fourteen-part film series about the Civil Rights movement; I listened to all of Malcolm X's speeches; I took ceramics-making and poetry-writing classes. To me, my community college experience was positive, formative, eye-opening, and grounding.

As a Mellon fellow for Reaching New Publics, I am working with and mentored by Gender and Women's Studies instructor Dr. Karen Stuhldreher at North Seattle College. We have taken on the project of ensuring that North Seattle College students who take Gender and Women's Studies courses get as many general and specialized credits transferred to the University of Washington Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies as possible. This process, as one expects, is multifold and involves different departments and offices on both campuses. Some observations I have made thus far about this process: 1. Students transferring credit lose some of their credits because UW finds them either inadequate in level or the materials covered is not comparable. 2. This is important work to be done because 22 percent of UW freshmen are transfer students, and 86 percent of these come from Washington two-year colleges. It is important for these students to be treated equitably the moment they begin their engagement with UW. 3. Faculty on both campuses have to do a lot of work communicating with each other to make sure their departments’ syllabi are comparable for specific credit, e.g., that Gender and Women’s Studies 211 at North transfers as Gender, Women &...

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This series features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences shadowing faculty at two-year colleges as part of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to develop innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

Brendan McElmeelBy Brendan McElmeel

My initial goal during my year as a Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics was to better acquaint myself with the community college system as a potential career path after graduation. This remains the basic organizing principle behind my shadowing of a community college mentor and our planned collaboration on curricular development. In working with Cristóbal Borges at North Seattle Community College, I have also been thinking more about his main goals for the year: finding new and creative ways to reverse the dropping interest in history that we see not only in class enrollments, but also in attendance at museums and public history events. How can we leverage the access to students’ attention that we have in the classroom to inspire a deeper interest in history outside of it? This seems to be an excellent way for community college professors to act as true public scholars: using the wide range of students they encounter to shape perceptions and engagement with humanities.

My first undertaking as a Mellon fellow has been to observe Cristóbal’s teaching, and I could immediately see how he was using his classroom time with students to encourage critical engagement with history. Each week he asked students to explore central historical questions such as primary source analysis or questions of causation in small groups. He grounded these topics with concrete tasks such as identifying the significance of a primary source or explaining the causes and consequences of a specific major event. I recognized the student-centered methods from language teaching, but had not seen it work so effectively in the history classroom. The students could articulate their thoughts in low-stakes peer conversations before moving to a large discussion. Group members and Borges asked pointed questions to push students to explain and justify their points. Whether discussing the causes and consequences of King Phillip’s War or the complexities of suffragist debates in the 19th century, students were not reluctant to share their thoughts or to try to make connections to larger themes in the course. Quieter students may have shared less with the whole class, but they had the chance to take notes and engage in small group discussion. The class time seemed to fly by, and by the end of it, the whole class had spent much of it not simply listening to a lecture, but thinking...

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This series features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences shadowing faculty at two-year colleges as part of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to develop innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

By Guillaume TourniaireGuillaume Tourniaire

My mentor, Shelley Douma (Drama, Central Seattle College), teaches her Drama 101 course in a theatre space.

While this may seem perfectly normal, it is surprisingly rare. In the experience of my undergraduate and graduate studies, most of my classes on the study of drama as a subject—from theatre history to script analysis—have taken place in classrooms. Only the practical aspects of theatrical production (acting and directing, for instance) have taken place in theaters.

And yet, if it is available, why not use a performance space all the time?

Or, at the very least, for an introductory course? Shouldn’t a theatre intro class take place in a theatre?

Many of Shelley’s students are being exposed to dramatic text and theatrical performance for the first time. They read scripts, perform scenes, and bring in ideas for design in the form of drawings and dioramas. Shelley literally threw them into the deep end with Milcha Sanchez-Scott’s one act play The Cuban Swimmer, in which the 19-year-old competitive swimmer Margarita Suarez is swimming from Long Beach to Catalina Island. Beside her, her Cuban-American family follows along in a boat.

While the play centers on issues of cultural identity and definitions of selfhood, it also poses a challenge for the theatrical imagination. As mentioned in the play’s overview, there are many “complicated, almost cinematic elements” that the design team of a theatrical production must contend with:

  • The main character is “swimming” the entire time. How would you, as a director, portray this action on stage?
  • Margarita’s family putts along on a boat. How would you convey this? With a set? Pantomime?
  • Helicopters and news commentators “interfere” with the characters. In what ways could sound effects enhance or sully the play?

Because so many of the students in this class are new to theatre, they don’t have the preconceived notions that can both help and limit people with more experience. As I moved through the lobby of the theatre, where groups of students were discussing their ideas, I was struck by the originality of their concepts, and how effectively they would work on the stage. I had approached the “problems” of the play by reaching back to what I knew and remembered from productions I’ve seen, whereas these students were thinking entirely outside the box of...

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Rachel ArteagaBy Rachel Arteaga

When I was in graduate school studying American literature, a popular way to respond to questions about dense seminar texts was to say, “I think that what we are really looking at here is a both/and scenario. The two interpretive claims that we have been discussing are not contradictory, and the text offers substantial evidence for each of them.”

Even now, dissertation filed and doctorate in hand, I still use this phrase in my daily life. I have found it to be particularly useful when I would like both a first and a second glass of red wine, or when I need to extract myself from an offensive oversimplification I’ve stumbled into in conversation with an acquaintance. “Of course, it is entirely possible to be both a dog and a cat person – in fact, I love collies, personally.”

The phrase “both/and” allows us to reside with others, and learn from them, in the space between stark contrasts. It counters the notion that there is only one right answer to any given question. It takes the edge off of any tendency to believe that we are absolutely right, or righteous, in our views.

“Both/and” has been the basis of more than one well-received seminar paper – this genre of writing being a staple of doctoral education in the humanities for a century and counting. Yet we often struggle to imagine our professional lives in these same terms. “No,” we insist, “there is only one legitimate career path once we complete our PhDs. We will publish specialized articles and monographs in our fields as researchers, positioned as tenure-track professors in a university much like the one in which we are being instructed.”    

To draw further upon the vocabulary of the humanities graduate student, I would argue that this view is highly problematic. We would never accept the narrowness of thinking in our intellectual work that we so often display in our professional aspirations. For a new generation of doctoral students to imagine their future trajectories as including both scholarly practices and something else—some other, significant contribution or role within society—the training that they receive in their programs must change. Graduate seminars, the building blocks of PhD programs, are a great place to start.

At the University of Washington, faculty have been convening each summer at the Simpson Center as Mellon Summer Fellows for New Graduate Seminars in the Humanities. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, they develop new graduate seminars in scholarly practices that are both academically grounded and publicly relevant. Their work to date has been groundbreaking. Each course they have developed has a significant public scholarship component,...

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Annie Dwyer

By Annie Dwyer

“Teaching at the community college is itself an act of social justice.” Veronica Barrera-Kolb, a faculty member at Seattle Central College, made this claim during the fall 2017 convening of the Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics program, and I’ve been considering it ever since.

The fellowship program is part of the Simpson Center initiative Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the program’s three key components is a partnership with the three community colleges in the Seattle district. Six doctoral students are paired with six community college faculty mentors, and throughout the year they learn what it’s like to work at a community college. Look out for fellows’ posts about their experiences in the upcoming weeks and months.

Barrera-Kolb joined Tish Lopez, and Cristóbal Borges—all former faculty mentors in the program—as panelists at our fall workshop. As Assistant Program Director, I asked them to speak about social justice work and publicly-engaged teaching in community colleges. I imagined they might talk about supporting student activism in the face of Trumpism, or moving beyond the physical classroom to incorporate community engagement into their curriculum. And yes, these faculty have a strong track record of such work. But what they discussed was the classroom and the campus itself—not the great beyond of the “wider public” that is so often fetishized (within the public humanities, anyway). Instead of scaling the walls of the academy to demonstrate, proclaim, or plead (as the case may be) for the relevance of the humanities, these faculty find plenty of impactful work within the community college. What’s more, their words lacked that note of doubt that so often sounds beneath paeans to the public humanities: “Is my work really relevant in itself? Maybe if I learn to code?”

Such questions did not seem to haunt Cristóbal’s discussion of a class that situated the current political climate within a longer history of immigration exclusion. They were absent from Tish’s description of the important role an entry-level composition class plays in equipping students with the basic rhetorical awareness they’ll need for the social genre of the college classroom. These faculty reminded us that the classroom itself is a public. It holds the potential to become a powerful counter-public, particularly in the community college, given the racial and economic diversity and relative accessibility of these institutions.

When I began this position last summer, I tended to think about the Reaching New Publics program primarily in terms of professional development. The program does indeed prepare graduate students to pursue careers in teaching-intensive institutions. However, more and more, I see...

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