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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Reimagining the PhD Blog

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

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. 

Panelists: 

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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By Adrian Kane-Galbraith

Upon opening my student evaluations from this past autumn, I found that, once again, my pedagogical emphasis on small independent discussion groups had generated polarized responses. As a teaching assistant in the UW Department of History, my main job is facilitating quiz sections attached to large lecture courses. Every Friday, I meet for an hour with groups of twenty-five students to analyze historical documents assigned by the lead instructor, drawing on the content covered in that week’s lectures. From my perspective, small-group dialogue is chief among the manifold delights of historical investigation. Learning to raise evidence-based challenges to colleagues’ interpretations of documents goes hand-in-hand with learning to challenge the authority of historical authors. But while many students profess to love small discussion groups—“because I was able to hear multiple good thoughts at once,” as one survey respondent put it—others feel deprived of sufficient exposure to course content that, ultimately, they will be asked to reproduce in their essays and final exams.

On the one hand, the persistence of this division in my students’ comments demonstrates that, as every instructor knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. However, after a fascinating autumn quarter spent exploring questions of critical pedagogy with mentors at Seattle Central College, I recognize that it also reflects a core methodological challenge I face as a graduate-level assistant teacher interested in implementing critical practices in my classroom. Critical pedagogy, as theorized by educators and philosophers such as Paolo Freire and bell hooks, aims to disrupt the traditional hierarchical relationship between instructor and student—purveyor and recipient of knowledge—as a way of encouraging students to use their studies to dismantle wider systems of oppression. As my mentor Anna Hackman put it during a recent professional development workshop organized by Seattle Central’s Critical Pedagogy Institute, it involves “teaching your students, not the material,” while reckoning with both students’ social positionality and your own. While I lacked the vocabulary to theorize my teaching practice in this way prior to my Mellon fellowship, my tendency to emphasize critical tools over “content” in quiz sections stems from a similar ethical orientation.

Observing classes at Seattle Central has given me a more concrete sense of how this kind of student-centered pedagogy can work in practice, particularly under space and time constraints that closely resemble those of the quiz sections I teach. Prof. Gregory Hinckley’s introductory sociology course, for instance, is designed around learning communities—structured groups in which each member has a designated role—and founded on the principle of “community...

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A Look at the Simpson Center’s Next Generation Humanities PhD Special Initiative

By Rachel Arteaga

*You can also read this story over on Medium.*

In 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced a new program directed at change in doctoral education. The projects to be funded by Next Generation Humanities PhD grants would bring humanities PhD programs into alignment with a true diversity of possible career outcomes for their graduates, integrate the humanities more purposefully into the public sphere, and ultimately “transform what it means to be a humanities scholar.”

The program was, in part, a response to widely-circulated reports from major professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (2014). Indeed, “No More Plan B,” (2011), the American Historical Association’s summary statement on the academic job market for historians, had gained currency in the vocabulary of the academic humanities. When Next Generation Humanities PhD appeared, the profession was already in a moment of intense self-reflection, its focus cohering around a single question: what was the meaning and value of the humanities PhD?

The NEH announcement offered an opportunity to rigorously pursue that line of inquiry and sparked an exciting possibility for us at the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Usually, our mandate is to support crossdisciplinary research and inquiry in the humanities, meaning that the vast majority of the projects we support involve faculty from multiple departments. But doctoral education is almost always defined primarily by cultures within departments, not across them. So we took an unusual approach, resolving to directly support degree-granting departments in imagining the futures of their disciplines on their own terms. In February of 2016, we announced our own Next Generation Humanities PhD special initiative, inspired by the visionary leadership of then-NEH Chairman William “Bro” Adams.

From 2016 to 2019, this special initiative supported eight projects involving ten doctoral degree granting departments and programs at UW, among them English, History, and Philosophy. Doctoral education in the humanities is unique in its capacity to prepare students to undertake projects of...

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By Denise Grollmus

For most doctoral candidates and recent PhDs, summer is often dedicated to preparing for the fall job market. In addition to drafting dissertation chapters and finally getting to those languishing revise and resubmits (alongside often precarious forms of summer employment), future job seekers are busy requesting letters of recommendation, polishing CVs, and wrestling descriptions of their teaching, research, and service into cover letters, teaching portfolios, and research statements that will, hopefully, land them a job.

But what kind of job?

In the face of a highly competitive job market, most candidates find themselves applying for a wide range of positions, from tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships at research universities to more teaching-intensive tenure-track positions at liberal arts and community colleges. Unfortunately, one set of job materials seldom works for all of the above. Still, job seekers tend to focus all their energy on and receive the most support for crafting materials for research-focused jobs, only to hastily copy and paste together materials for teaching-focused positions at the eleventh hour.

But as those in attendance at a recent University of Washington workshop on preparing community college job materials learned, that’s a sure way to land yourself in the rejection pile. The workshop was part of the Simpson Center for the Humanities’ Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics program, a Mellon-funded initiative focused on transforming doctoral education, in part by familiarizing Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics in the Humanities with the community college context. As community college positions become increasingly competitive—a single job easily draws 200 applications—it’s important for job seekers to understand the differences, both big and small, not only between institutions but also between the materials they’re crafting for research jobs and the ones they’ll be submitting for teaching-focused positions.

Here are a few tips on how to impress the community college search committee:

1.       Read the job description carefully. This may seem obvious, but Jim Jewell (English, North Seattle College), who recently sat on the search committee for a tenure-track position in his department that drew over 170 applications, says it’s striking how often candidates don’t submit every item requested. “Make sure you know exactly what the requirements are,” he says. He also advises using the job description as a guide for organizing your cover letter.

And don’t forget to fill out the application form in its entirety. While the CV you submitted...

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