Reimagining the PhD Blog

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

By Rachel Arteaga

The term “alt-ac” was coined by Bethanie 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 program 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 their students were if they had found their way onto the tenure track.

But as the professional...

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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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This post features UW doctoral students reflecting on their experiences in a publicly-engaged graduate seminar that was developed with the support of Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a program to create innovative forms of graduate scholarship and teaching.

By Naomi Bosch, Regina Yung Lee, KC Lynch, Abigail Mayhugh, and Anna Swan

Regina Yung Lee (Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies):

Where is the body online? How is it raced, classed, and gendered—and how do these signifiers intensify or fade? In the seminar “Feminist New Media Studies” (GWSS 590), I proposed that bodies online do not vanish: instead, their race, gender, class, and sexualities persist, have histories, and are marked by meaningful material and digital interrelations. In their digital-object creation project, a central part of the course, students engaged these concepts and their ramifications beyond academy walls.

This project had both pedagogical and public-facing roots. In summer of 2017, a cohort of Mellon fellows dreamed together about what graduate education could look like when profoundly integrated with public knowledge. Together with other faculty and graduate students, I worked through the logistical difficulties, safety concerns, and theoretical framing of the multi-part sequence of a digital-object creation project, dispersal, and analysis included within the seminar that became GWSS 590. The project was designed to highlight valid critical insights gained or theoretical irruptions observed through interaction with vast digital publics between and across a perceptual academic-public divide. In the course, students from four departments assembled to discuss, among other topics, whose voices were best amplified, and what aspects of non/academic voice translated best across media, platforms, and methodologies.

The students’ digital projects made online interventions into both scholarly self-fashioning and public perceptions of academic work, grounding and mediating students’ experiences of this part of the course. The project was completed over five weeks and divided into five sections: peer-reviewed proposal, creation, dispersal, analysis, and autoethnographic response. In the spirit of our course methodologies, I proposed this collective blog post. Below, students speak together, sequentially but simultaneously, about their experience of carrying their learning beyond the academy. Here is a portion of what they found.

Naomi Bosch (Education):

Creating a digital object—in my case, a webcomic—shifted my sense of what counts as “my discipline.” I had previously thought of digital art, and analysis of the sharing platforms it uses, as a peripheral interest or hobby that I was occasionally able to bring to bear on my primary academic focus of outdoor...

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Mother holds the hands of her two children as they walk in Queens

Students in Leigh Mercer’s graduate seminar “Organizing Film Festivals as Public Scholarship” recently curated a film festival at Seattle’s Chief Sealth International High School, screening films from Mexico, Chile, Spain, and Colombia under the theme of “Outsider Heroes.”

Some two hundred students at Seattle’s most diverse high school turned out for the May 4-5 event. They watched Entre Nos (2009), about a Colombian emigrant and her children struggling to forge a life in Queens, New York. They watched Rara (2016), about a 13-year-old Chilean girl navigating school, friendship, and her mother’s new life with another woman. Through guided discussions and workshops, the high-school students considered the power of film to engage questions of cultural representation and identity.

The UW graduate students, in turn, gained a sense of the potential of film festivals as a way to bring their scholarship to new public audiences. That was the intent of the winter 2018 seminar taught by Mercer, Associate Professor of Spanish & Portuguese Studies. Mercer, like other faculty in area studies and literature and language departments, has repeatedly been asked to organize film series as the popularity of such festivals grows internationally. Sensing an opportunity, she developed the new seminar, using fellowship support from the Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics program of the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

In the seminar, doctoral students across disciplines considered the critical implications of festival organization, gaining a historical understanding of the film festival phenomenon, while also examining what it means to translate their area of expertise for new publics.

They also gained practical experience as curators. Their preparation for the “Outsider Heroes” festival included viewing and discussing films, meeting with other curators, and hosting Chief Sealth teachers to better understand their students. Mercer’s students also faced challenges particular to a high-school setting, including Seattle Public Schools film guidelines against nudity, sex, or swearing.

“I am very accustomed to watching films for pleasure,” doctoral student Rigoberto Gutiérrez Piñón told ...

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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.

Kyle KublerBy Kyle Kubler

One of the biggest reform movements involving community colleges today is Guided Pathways, a set of programs attempting to solve three problems facing many community college students: excessive credit loads, low and slow degree completion rates, and confusing transfer systems. These programs implement multiple organizational changes within community colleges, including requiring students to pick a major or area of study (sometimes referred to as a meta-major) when they first enroll, creating clearer roadmaps for transfer to four-year institutions, and providing more frequent academic counseling to keep students on track with their stated goals. Guided Pathways efforts have been championed by the Community College Research Center (CCRC), the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

As with all organizational changes, measuring efficacy difficult but necessary. While various models of Guided Pathways have been around for more than a decade, the push for broader implementation has mostly occurred over the last 5 years, which puts a limit on how much we know about the success of these programs. Research on how Guided Pathway programs are implemented is limited, but there are notable case studies. Studies from CUNY’s ASAP program as well as Queensborough and Guttman Community College (all within the CUNY system) have demonstrated higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and fewer “unnecessary” credits. These impressive results were achieved by requiring students to pick a major, or general area of study (meta-major), as soon as they enrolled, and by providing students with an academic advisor to help them choose an appropriate course of study. However, these test programs included only full-time students, which limits the applicability of these studies to one part of the community college demographic. And in the ASAP study, not only were the students all full-time, but their average age was 21.5 years old. Most of these students lived with their parents, and they were provided with free books, transit...

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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.

PilzBy Kristina Pilz

My mentor, Jim Jewell, is a successful writer and faculty member in the English department at North Seattle College. I am a doctoral student in Germanics with an interest in Afro-German contemporary literature and foreign language pedagogy. Despite these differences, our common pedagogical approach made it easy to find a focus for my year as a Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics in the Humanities. Although we are trained in different disciplines, our investment in understanding the needs of our multilingual students and the use of performance as a teaching and learning tool provides us with much common ground.

During our first meetings, Jim and I talked extensively about our multilingual classrooms. In the current moment, I have  a high number of international students in my foreign language classrooms. At North Seattle, I’m finding the classrooms are also diverse with regards to nationality, socioeconomic background, and English language proficiency levels. Jim teaches two English classes, ENGL 101 and ENGL 099/101. The latter is specifically designed for international students with bilingual or multilingual backgrounds. Being a non-native English speaker myself, we had much to consider and quickly began discussing the importance of awareness and empathy.

Observing Jim’s ENGL 099/101 has prompted me to think in more nuanced ways about the multilingual classroom. When teaching writing to a group of students who share English as their first language, one can expect a set of common mistakes. But when teaching writing to a set of students with vastly different first languages, there is no pool of common mistakes. Jim’s students generally communicate well in English, but when they make mistakes, they are quite different from their classmate’s mistakes. For educators, then, the multilingual classroom demands much more patience and time commitment—we can’t predict a single set of struggles. Working in a multilingual classroom also means working with students from multiple cultural backgrounds. These backgrounds influence learning styles significantly.

Instructors in higher education need the ability to incorporate adaptable teaching and learning tools. Thus, our work during my year as a Mellon Fellow will focus on developing a set of protocols for incorporating performance into both a large variety of courses in the humanities, arts, and social sciences as well as within business and professional/...

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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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