Reimagining the PhD Blog

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

By Jennifer Smith

As I move through my final quarter as a Mellow Fellow and share my experiences with colleagues who are interested in applying for next year’s cohort, I want to take some time to reflect on some of the challenges I see facing both PhD students and community colleges. I believe we need to speak candidly about the harsh realities of the academic job market that affect community college positions as much as jobs at research institutions, while simultaneously drawing attention to the failure of academic departments and advisors to prepare or encourage their students to feel confident pursuing careers and opportunities beyond the research track.

On April 16, 2019, students, staff, and faculty from South, North, and Central Seattle colleges walked out to draw attention to the lack of funding and resources available to community colleges throughout the state of Washington. Cast by one instructor as the “forgotten children of higher education,” community colleges are often lauded for being affordable and accessible alternatives or gateways to four-year institutions. However, as a recent Seattle Times article explains, the last time that community college faculty in Washington received a raise commensurable to the cost of living was in 2008, and community college faculty statewide are paid about 12% less than faculty in peer states. As the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) observed in their 2018 data snapshot, nearly 70% of faculty at two-year institutions are part time instructors, while at R1 institutions—like the University of Washington—the percentage of part-time instructors is below 20%. Moreover, recent survey results suggest many local community college faculty—both full and part-time—rely on a second income and/or have considered leaving their current institution in search of increased stability or salary.

In short, community colleges are not exempt from the budget shortfalls and casualization of academic labor that plague research institutions, thus they will not be the saving grace of newly minted PhD’s unable to secure a tenure track position at a university. Instead, they are institutions struggling with limited resources to do their best for staff, students, and faculty—many of whom are adjunct instructors. As a testament to this, during a recent conversation I had with a colleague about the academic job market, they shared how the difficulty of piecing together full-time employment at local community colleges forced their partner out of teaching and onto a different career path altogether. During my time as a Mellon Fellow, I have observed first-hand how institutional struggles related to lack of money and resources contribute to job insecurity among part-time community college faculty, who—in some...

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By Céline Maillard

“Speaking up: Building Bridges, Building Community” was the title of a class co-taught by Marian Lyles, my mentor, during the fall of 2018. She and her co-instructors—Erin Steinke (English), Sharon Spence-Wilcox (Information Resources), and Krysta Walia (College Success)—were contacted by the Learning Communities Committee at Seattle Central College to teach to the theme of “Speaking Up” in the fall of 2017. Team-taught courses—also known as Coordinated Studies courses—are part of the Learning Communities project to encourage creative and critical thinking by engaging academic content through the lens of students’ life experiences. The courses bear 10 credits in either History, Humanities, English, or Composition, and they give students an opportunity to explore an interdisciplinary topic in depth. As they provide an incredibly rich and innovative model, I want to highlight how Coordinates Studies courses can impact college students, their instructors, and the wider community, looking in particular at the example of the pilot run of “Speaking Up.”

The target audience for this course was students who had just finished high school. The team used various advertising strategies to solicit enrollment: posting flyers throughout the college and on Canvas, contacting college advisers and counselors, and presenting at new students orientations and in other classrooms. “If students can see your face, they know who you are,” said Marian. The team-taught pilot project went above and beyond everyone’s expectations. The course format and content allowed a unique and particularly supportive learning community to emerge, to some degree because the instructors bonded and developed a learning community amongst themselves. This allowed them to collaboratively design curriculum “that would allow students to feel comfortable to speak up for social change,” according to Marian. When I asked her what helped to create this environment for students, she cited the format: a 170-minute class, four days a week. Of course, the carefully scaffolded content also allowed students to feel more and more comfortable with each other and to open up slowly about their sense of identity and community. After beginning with 1-2 minute oral presentations on “Where I’m From” at the start of the quarter, students eventually built up their confidence to deliver 3-5 minute presentations on “My World View” mid-quarter. Eventually, they prepared group presentations on subjects such as prison conditions in the U.S. or human trafficking. Marian noted that students “felt more comfortable sharing” not only their intellectual contributions but also their lives and problems outside of class. Students also demonstrated remarkable support for one another. During one student’s “My World View” presentation, an exercise that...

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By Paul Tubig

My interest in and involvement with the Reaching New Publics program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, stems from my own past experiences as a low-income student of color at a small community college in Mira Mesa, California. San Diego Miramar College not only fostered my love for philosophy and my aspiration to pursue advanced studies beyond the A.A., but also afforded me the opportunity to transfer to UC San Diego to further my philosophical studies and obtain a B.A., through its established relationship with the University of California (UC) system.

But the common experience among students who transfer from community college to four-year institutions is “transfer shock.” Jennifer Smith, another Mellon Fellow, has discussed this phenomenon in a previous post. Transfer shock refers to the difficult transition period that students experience when acclimating to a new academic context. Transfer students not only encounter unfamiliar faculty, campus, and peers, but also new norms and expectations around academic excellence and new cultures of prestige. In my first quarter at UC San Diego, I was enrolled in a philosophy writing course. After introducing myself to the class as a transfer student, my philosophy professor remarked that he typically finds the writing quality of transfer students to be unsatisfactory. In his opinion, transfer students were ill-prepared to write decent philosophy papers at the university level. These types of incidences exacerbated the feeling that I was an ‘outlier’ who did not belong in the department.

Unlike elite colleges that espouse the ethos of exclusion, weeding out “underprepared” or “underqualified” students, the ideal of community college is to prepare all their students from any background to meet the expectations attached to their academic or occupational calling. While this commitment to access and opportunity is commendable, since many community college students aspire to transfer to a four-year institution, community colleges also have a responsibility to help students develop the requisite skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their next academic endeavor.

During my time as a Mellon Fellow, I have met a number of community college professors who have assumed the responsibility of equipping their students with the requisite skills and knowledge to thrive in subsequent academic settings. Last February, I attended a major philosophy conference in Denver, Colorado that hosted “teaching hubs,” or interactive workshops and presentations on teaching philosophy. My mentor, Anthony Ferrucci, who teaches philosophy at South Seattle College and Green River College, presented an assignment designed for his Introduction to Philosophy course. The aim of the assignment was to facilitate students’ understanding of ethical theories by connecting them to...

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The Simpson Center for the Humanities announces a new two-year program—Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics: Catalyzing Collaboration—starting in September 2019, thanks to a generous $650,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program, which builds on the work of a prior grant award from The Mellon Foundation, will continue to pursue change in doctoral education in the humanities with the goal of reaching beyond academic professional spheres to new publics. The program will also emphasize collaboration as a cross-institutional educational good and a scholarly and pedagogical practice that is transferable to other sectors.

Three departments key to the humanities will be involved—English, History, and Philosophy—and the program will offer support for joint fellowships and collaborative projects across all components of the program instead of single awards to individuals. The program extends our current partnership with North Seattle College, South Seattle College, and Seattle Central College.

“The opportunity that this program offers graduate students to immerse themselves in an educational ecosystem as spectators and participants promises to provide new and valuable insights into the relationship between two- and four-year institutions,” says English Professor Juliet Shields. “Furthermore, Catalyzing Collaboration situates collaboration at the center of our work in the humanities, creating intellectual partnerships on small and large scales--among graduate students, between graduate students and faculty, and between two- and four-year institutions.” 

Joint fellowships will support doctoral students to shadow two-year college faculty in their disciplines and will culminate in a week-long pedagogy institute, where two-year college faculty, UW faculty, and doctoral students will co-design courses that resonate at both of their institutions. Summer fellowships will also support doctoral students to undertake public-facing projects with strong collaborative dimensions, as well as UW faculty to collaborate on designing graduate seminars with significant public components or public-facing projects.

Jennifer Smith, a Mellon Fellow and PhD student in History, says of her experience: “Taking part in the Reimagining the Humanities PhD program through the Simpson Center allowed me to develop a better understanding of the variety of career pathways available with a PhD that aren’t dependent upon a professorship at an R1 University like UW, but that can be equally as valuable and rewarding.”

The conviction that animates Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics: Catalyzing Collaboration is that doctoral education, especially at a public...

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By Julian Barr

In most of my previous teaching but also in my experiences as a student, knowledge-sharing took the form of lectures. When I was an undergraduate in history, whether courses were survey-based or topic-driven, we’d proceed in a linear fashion, as though we were moving along a timeline. However, what if that mold were rethought? What if we also looked at how history is generated and communicated?

During fall quarter of 2018, I had the privilege to observe “History of Latin America,” a course taught by Cristóbal Borges at North Seattle Community College. This survey course aims to get students to discuss the Indigenous, European, and African foundations of Latin America, to discuss the development of Latin American countries from colonial periods to the current moment, and to push students to discuss social, economic, cultural, and political developments within the region. As an undergrad in history, I took a class with similar objectives. I received the knowledge I gained primarily through lectures. The pedagogies I experienced were linear models that started with A and ended with Z.

Dr. Borges has a different approach. He advances these course objectives by pushing students to learn the history of Latin America through its representation in film. He still provides students with a timeline that allows them to trace the history of the present moment. However, the films are seldom from the time period they represent, and this disrupts linear historiography in new and interesting ways. Not only are students learning the histories of events and people but also they get a glimpse of the interpretations and mythologies around them. For example, when discussing colonialism the students watched the film Quilombo, a 1984 experimental drama looking at the history of Quilombo dos Palmares, an escaped slave encampment that resisted colonial powers in Brazil in the early 1600s. The film tells an important story about slavery, colonialism, and resistance in Brazil; however, it was also released at the end of the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1980s. This was major piece of art coming out in Brazil after years of artistic oppression, and the film gained international recognition at Cannes. So this film shows the story of resistance in the 1600s, but it also captures a moment in the 1980s in which Brazilian films began to tell stories previously suppressed. Borges’s pedagogical approach thus underscores how history is told at a particular moment of time.

In my observation of group discussions, I also noticed that students are highly engaged. The ability to talk about film clearly helps students connect with the history. Perhaps this stems from the ability of film to tap into different learning styles, but arguably, visual media often...

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By Marcus J. Johnson

As a kid living in South Seattle and the Central District, my first encounter with North Seattle was through my years at Green Lake Elementary and Hamilton Middle School. The bus would arrive at the crack of dawn, honk (if I wasn’t outside), and then transport me from my low-income community to the upper-middle class neighborhoods of Green Lake and Wallingford. In many of these instances, it seemed like I was being transported to a different world altogether. The houses were nice and the streets were newly paved. No liquor stores littered the corners and police officers weren’t looking for black men to stop and frisk. After completing elementary school and middle school, I was sent back to South Seattle, where I attended Cleveland High School. Each day, I was reminded of the stark difference between schools in North Seattle and the underfunded schools in the Central District and South Seattle.

My years in high school were tumultuous, to say the least. I struggled to excel academically, and my personal life presented challenges as well. Given some poor decision-making combined with a lack of resources to help me, I began to fall behind and it appeared I wasn’t going to graduate. During my junior and senior years, though, I was introduced to specialized programs that helped me gain some stability academically. The first program was a vocational/trade school in Georgetown, Seattle, that allowed me to study electrical engineering in place of one class and with the commitment of additional time after school. I participated in this program for most of my junior year, and my academic standing began to improve. During my senior year, I was introduced to a similar program at North Seattle Community College (now North Seattle College). Under the supervision of Chef Ross, “at-risk” youth could learn how to create various dishes and to prepare food for the college campus while earning high school credits.

After a year in this program I was able to graduate from high school in 1998, and I earned a certificate of completion from the culinary arts program, as well. My time at North Seattle College transformed my thinking and motivated me to consider attending college. College was no longer a distant dream or the big bad wolf, but a reality. I enrolled at North Seattle College with plans of focusing on international business; however, after being faced with more family issues, I decided to put my college career on hold in 2001. It would be almost a decade before I returned. Upon deciding to return to college, I enrolled at Cascadia Community College.

I eventually transferred to the University of Washington, Bothell, where I completed my B.A. in Global Studies and my M.A. in Cultural Studies. Today I’m in my third year of my doctoral training in Communication at the University of Washington, Seattle. As a current Mellon Fellow...

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By Rachel Arteaga, Simpson Center Assistant Director

The term “alt-ac” was coined by Bethany Nowviskie in 2011 and has circulated since then in conversations about doctoral education and career diversity. It began as a way to describe and honor the often marginalized work of humanities ABDs and PhDs positioned within higher education but outside of the tenure track. It now tends to be used as a catch-all for “anything other than tenure-track professorship” career trajectories across all sectors of the economy. And, as its descriptive capacity has expanded, so too has interest on university campuses in the many kinds of work that people with advanced training in the humanities are doing in the world.

When I started working on the Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics grant program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as the Assistant Program Director in the summer of 2015, debates about doctoral education in the humanities largely took place in two separate spheres. In one, faculty discussed potential changes that could be made to the requirements for the degree with an eye to the overall professionalization experience it offered. These discussions had culminating moments in formal reports and recommendations and were usually produced by professional organizations. In the other, graduate students who were attempting to navigate PhD programs talked amongst themselves. These side conversations, as I experienced them, took place in the hallways of campus buildings, in dive bars on “the Ave,” and on Twitter.

The two conversations about the meaning and value of a humanities PhD had something important in common: the specter of “placement.” Where would students go after defending their dissertations? What would we do after leaving the program? The answer too often was a vague gesture toward the name of an advisee or an acquaintance who had landed a tenure-track job in the recent past. As a graduate student, I listened to Nowviskie’s remarks on the expansive potential of alternative academic careers at the 2012 MLA convention in Seattle, and her remarks inspired me to continue in my doctoral program when I was considering leaving it to pursue other options. I found the conversations unfolding around me unnecessarily limiting: given that there seemed to be many possibilities for exciting work in the humanities outside of the ivory tower, I wondered why our faculty only seemed to only know where...

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By Jennifer Smith

 As a former community college transfer and non-traditional student, the transition to university life proved jarring. While not all students at community colleges aspire to transfer to a four-year institution, others who do transfer must negotiate what some describe as “transfer shock”—feeling isolated, insecure, and overwhelmed, which can in turn impede success.

In his 2017 Op-ed in the Washington Post, president emeritus of Michigan State University, Peter McPherson, pointedly asked: our college students are changing—so why aren’t we? McPherson estimates that only half of students fit the traditional model, yet most universities fail to—or are woefully unequipped to—provide the resources necessary to help “non-traditional” students thrive. Focusing specifically on low-income and first-generation college students, McPherson advocates for proactive advising to mitigate the shocking effects of transitioning to university life. However, he neglects any discussion of how educators can assist in making non-traditional students feel more welcomed to the university environment. This is where looking to community colleges—particularly the talented instructors and professors there—can provide valuable insights. What can university faculty learn from community college faculty about creating a climate that fosters inclusivity for students who don’t fit into the traditional mold?

In my experience, community college faculty and instructors understand that in order to be successful, the “traditional” student model needs to be rejected in favor of a more inclusive vision that seriously considers the challenges faced by “non-traditional” students. As my mentor at Seattle Central College, Jaime Cárdenas, explains, instructors and professors at the community college level are tasked with meeting the unique needs of multiple students who are often at different stages in both their lives and academic development. During a visit to Jaime’s classroom, I encountered a diverse group of learners working together to achieve a common goal of better understanding the origins of multiculturalism in the United States. Rather than spending the entirety of the class period lecturing, Jaime segmented the session into lecturing for a short period of time, answering questions, and assembling students in small groups to work through complex readings. This thoughtful approach reached different learning styles, allowed more confident students to ask questions, and through group work, gave quieter students the opportunity to engage with the material in ways that felt comfortable to them. By catering to the needs of their students, community college faculty and instructors show that they recognize that their diverse students are often pursuing equally diverse educational goals.

At the four-year university, too, the onus for assisting...

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Portrait of Paul Tubig

By Paul Tubig

What kind of academic should I be? This is one of the central questions that is shaping my early experiences as a 2018-2019 Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics. For the past two months, I have been visiting South Seattle College and Green River College, a community college in Auburn, Washington. My faculty mentor, Anthony Ferrucci—a philosophy professor at Green River College and South Seattle College—is acquainting me with the community college context by introducing me to its professors, pedagogies, students as well as the democratic ideals embodied in its institutional practices.

The community college setting does not feel all that unfamiliar. I started out in community college. I was a student at San Diego Miramar College for three years before transferring to a four-year institution. However, it is interesting to reenter this context in the capacity of an aspiring professor.

As a Ph.D. candidate progressing towards completion, I am haunted by the specter of the academic job market. But right now, my stress stems not necessarily from the scarcity of positions (though that is certainly worth stressing about!), but from my realization that some academic positions are granted greater esteem than others.

Community college, to my mind, has a dignified place in our educational landscape. It offers the real possibility of social mobility and empowerment to many underprivileged members of society who are ambitious and determined but face serious disadvantages. Cathy Davidson rightly notes that community colleges rank higher than elite four-year institutions in terms of their social mobility index, which measures the difference between the income level of college graduates and the income level of their families of origin. Further, community colleges are credited for interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by allowing formerly incarcerated individuals to achieve a college education. Due to their accessibility, community colleges are a place where disadvantaged members of society, such as minorities, immigrants, and women, can get a college degree and gain access to social networks and valuable opportunities.

Despite the concrete benefits they afford to the least advantaged members in our society, community colleges are demeaned as “lesser institutions” in many graduate training programs. This idea is implicitly and explicitly expressed and reinforced in innumerable ways at both the interpersonal level and the institutional level of departments and organizations. One graduate student in another department once told me that when she shared her aspiration to teach at a community college with her advisor, she was advised not to admit that out loud.             

Professional norms that put community colleges at the bottom are operationalized in how we present or decide what academic positions are worth considering, which has...

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By Annie Dwyer

Cultural change in academia often happens at a glacial rate, even as the evisceration of supports for higher education seems to proceed apace. But at the outset of the fourth year of the Mellon initiative, I’ve had a number of encounters that give me hope that the devaluation of community college teaching often overheard in humanities PhD programs is changing. And fast.  

Last week, I met with an incoming Director of Graduate Study to talk about doctoral training in her department. Our conversation veered—without my steering it, I might add—to the community college, and relatedly, graduate students’ requests for more preparation for teaching-intensive careers. It didn’t surprise me to learn that graduate students were asking for more opportunities to learn about community college teaching—especially as last year’s cohort included a voluble, enthusiastic fellow from this particular department. But it was remarkable to see an incoming DGS soliciting and listening to this request, and then actively imagining ways to meet it.

Two weeks ago, I went to Seattle Central Community College to have coffee and some pretty delicious pecan pie. Present were a department chair at UW, an associate dean at Seattle Central, and a handful of community college faculty and UW staff. For an hour, we sat around the table and brainstormed ways that we might support students as they transfer from SCC to interdisciplinary and justice-oriented programs at UW. This conversation was not part of Mellon programming, but four of the six people present—Kate Krieg (Associate Dean, Humanities and Social Sciences), Jaime Cárdenas (Faculty, History), Vero Barrera-Kolb (Faculty, Humanities), and myself—were participants in the Reaching New Publics program in some capacity. Indeed, this meeting, and the shenanigans that will eventuate from it (peer mentoring, co-sponsored events, etc.), wouldn’t have happened without the relationships built by the Mellon program.

Three weeks ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Humanities Alliance at CUNY, “Community Colleges and the Future of the Humanities.” I met a number of people who are leading similar Mellon initiatives across the country, what have become known as Community College Research University partnerships. The frenetic energy of New York seemed amplified by the excitement among participants about community colleges and these emerging institutional relationships. I led a session together with former doctoral student fellow Zhenzhen He-Weatherford—who recently landed a tenure-track job at Bellevue Community College—and former community college faculty mentor Asha Tran. Instead of delivering a series of talks, our session prompted...

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