Reimagining the PhD Blog

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

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 standard tools with which I’ve become both equipped and encumbered.

As we moved back into the theatre to discuss their projects, students sat in the spectator’s area and Shelley stood on the stage. The space is an intimate black box with seating on risers that essentially share the performance space, with the barest separation of an open curtain. It feels very much like a television...

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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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