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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 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 Every Friday, I meet for an hour with groups of twenty-five students to analyze historical documents assigned by the lead instructor, drawing on the content covered in that week’s lectures.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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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 Jason Rhody in conversation with Bethany Nowviskie in 2009 and has circulated since then in discussions 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...

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