If we think about the PhD as a process . . .

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Erica Damman, an artist and researcher in the UI Interdisciplinary PhD program, studies Environmental Humanities. Erica Damman’s work explores artists and creative practices that intersect with environmental questions. Erica was an Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy Fellow, and she also participated in the Humanities Without Walls Program.

Erica Damman: The exciting part of a nontraditional PhD is for me best illustrated by a quick story, told to me some years ago. A woman was finishing her PhD and reflecting on the work she had completed as she began applying for jobs. She had, she surmised, completed over 40 dives in various locations to study a specific coral and fish relationship. With each dive, she began to understand more about the nuanced relationship between the two and the ways in which they were situated in their wider environment. Now, is she extremely knowledgeable about that specific coral and fish? No doubt she might be titled an expert in that topic. But she’s also an experienced diver. One could even say that the skills required for diving are more relevant to her future as a scholar/human inside or outside the academy.

If we think about the PhD as a process, as a project for honing a skill like diving (while also sharpening skills like analysis, observation, critique, etc.), then the nontraditional PhD for me has been an opportunity to more consciously determine what set of skills I want to cultivate. I wanted to maintain a visual arts practice that offers participatory events outside the academy and I wanted such a practice to take up contemporary issues that resonated with me, in this case human and nonhuman vulnerability in the age of climate change. To this end, I am producing three artist games, playing them with various publics, and situating them in art historical, environmental, and game play research. The most exciting aspect of this process has been the ways that my creative practice has informed my writing and vice versa. In studying theories about games and play, what better way to give my writing depth than to actually experience many of the aspects to making games? The back-end processual knowledge I’ve gained changes the way I approach, analyze, and apply theories of play and games to my project and those like mine.

Doing this kind of work is not without its challenges however. Identifying a faculty committee that recognizes different sorts of scholarly output is a first order issue. And even when said committee acknowledges your creative process and attendant products as part of the dissertation, coming to an understanding of how much that process and those products count for – that is, if you research, prototype, test, and create three games, is that worth as much as, or more, or less than a chapter or two in a traditional dissertation? – is an issue that should be zealously patrolled. The continued newness of alternative dissertation projects means that the project is still compared to a 250-page monograph, and the danger is that the graduate student ends up doing an and, and project. For example, it’s great that you want to make this creative, visual work for your project but you’ll do that and you’ll complete the normal amount of written work. Other difficulties include the real work of having to be your own advocate – defending not just your project’s content or conceptual framing but the structure as well, not having a lot of people or examples to look to, and finally, balancing time for creative and written output.

Looking for innovative, consequential dissertations

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Dancers, University of Iowa, 1928

At the September 13 core planning group meeting, we celebrated the news that Amanda Visconti, creator of Infinite Ulysses (an award-winning dissertation project which encourages readers from all walks of life to read James Joyce’s masterwork and to participate in the annotation of its elusive twists and turns), will be participating in our symposium on the dissertation. We discussed what will likely become the basic structure for each of our Newly Composed PhD symposia: a lunch discussion at which the guest will talk to graduate students, a larger conversational gathering at which the guest’s innovative contribution will be (swiftly) showcased before we (the entire Next Gen PhD planning committee, along with members of the larger community, especially Directors of Graduate Studies, current graduate students, and members of the Humanities Advisory Committee) zero in on issues related to transforming graduate education so that graduate students are better prepared for future careers both within and beyond the academy. After each of our symposia, a Next Gen working group will create a document in which they list the best strategies broached by the symposium participants, and brainstorm about how they might be implemented, this as a rough draft contribution to the action plan we plan to write at the end of the planning year.

One of our graduate student committee members mentioned that she entered her PhD program knowing that she is not interested in a career as a college professor—she looks forward to working in a library, and is excited about using mapping tools both as means to visualize arguments and to reveal patterns in data. Another graduate student visitor to our planning meeting, a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s Interdisciplinary PhD program (a student about which we will say more in a future posting), is developing a game as part of her dissertation work.

We also made tentative plans to curate a list of innovative, consequential dissertations to serve as inspirational models. Nominations? (leave a comment or send suggestions to judith-pascoe@uiowa.edu)

“Faculty who are resistant to change sometimes have a hard time imagining the purpose of the PhD as being anything other than what they’ve done themselves.”

Farmers_at_Constitution_Hall_listening_to_address_by_Secretary_of_Agriculture_Henry_Wallace_Washington_DC_May_14_1935(1)     Farmers listening to address by Henry Wallace (Iowa Digital Library)

The Next Generation Humanities PhD core planning group met, and discussed change implementation-related issues both institutional (the ability of faculty members to imagine varied futures for their students) and practical (the names of people we might want to have participate in our planned symposia (see grant proposal).

To that end, and looking toward our first symposium on the dissertation, we’ve started identifying PhD students (both on our own campus and elsewhere) who are creating non-traditional dissertations. Please let us know (you can email judith-pascoe@uiowa.edu) if you have suggestions.

We also began to brainstorm about the types of people who might best contribute to our second symposium focusing on citation. These might include editors of digital journals and data wranglers outside of academe.

We agreed that we want our gatherings to be discussion/working group-oriented, so, rather than ask visitors to give lectures, we might have a committee member introduce a visitor’s work (with specific mention of the aspects most relevant to our planning process) and then broach the key issues we want to discuss.

We welcome input on the symposia guests and format, the latter of which will be flexible enough for the symposia planning groups to shape in different ways.

If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated . . .

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A Medievalist and a Management specialist were both drawn to Sidonie Smith’s phrase “intellectually nimble” during the third preliminary meeting of UI’s NEH Next Generation PhD planning committee. (Committee members, Directors of Graduate Studies, and Humanities Advisory Board members were invited to discuss excerpts from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and also Alexandria Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon’s showcasing of innovative dissertations in “What’s the Point: The Dissertation as Process and Not Product.”) “If there’s a way we can indoctrinate people not to be indoctrinated,” that would be optimal, suggested one participant.

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A Chemist pointed to the way in which graduate students in the sciences sometimes spend their first year doing short stints in a wide variety of labs, a practice that, if it could be adapted for the humanities, might ease the isolation humanities graduate students sometimes feel, as well as introducing them to a wider range of methodologies at an early point in their training. A specialist in graduate development noted that when students feel anxious and depressed they get more rigid and so are less able to see a wide range of paths forward.

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Several people were interested in Smith’s suggestion that a dissertation might take the form of a “suite” of writings, possibly of different lengths and/or pitched at different audiences. A Historian, who had had a previous career in a foreign policy think tank, thought that completing a suite of different kinds of writing would beautifully prepare students for this kind of alternate career.  A research center director noted that the UI Rhetoric department has offered a course in which students are asked to write in different modes each week (e.g., spending one week writing cover letters). A participant from the School of Business noted another model could be found in Economics, where students produced a “bundling of meaningful products that could be meaningfully applied.”

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The group circled back several times to talking about Nick Sousanis’s innovative comic book dissertation, published by Harvard University Press. Threaded into this discussion were considerations of teaching (a Rhetoric Lecturer mentioned Cathy Davidson’s advocacy of a radically democratic classroom), of comprehensive exams (a French professor asked whether the ways in which reading lists are composed make the traditional dissertation a foregone conclusion), and of graduate student mentoring (a Librarian/game developer emphasized the importance of having mentors from alternative career paths).

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Participants wrote some of their ideas, priorities, and questions on index cards, some of which are included in this post.

People nestle in like ticks to discuss the subjunctive . . .

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If this second of three discussion sessions had an organizing concern, it had to do with speed versus slowness in the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. A Classics professor noted the pleasure specialists take in lingering over the fine points of grammar (“people nestle in like ticks to discuss the subjunctive”), while an American Studies specialist noted that the long form of the dissertation is linked to long forms of attention, expressing a worry that the latter might be lost when there is a push to make things more easily digested. A Musicologist, noting time-to-degree pressures, suggested that graduate students are increasingly reluctant to delve into areas of specialization that require facility in a foreign language.

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The group, which also included a poet and two historians, saw the value in short-form and swiftly-published modes of writing like the blog and the tweet, recognizing how they can get students writing about their intellectual projects sooner and more regularly (“writing is a muscle; you need to be writing every single day,” noted a scholar/blogger), and how they make work accessible to a broader public (in a “turn toward public history and public writing”). One participant noted how an ability to write for different audiences will serve students interested in careers as diplomats and grants administrators, many if not most of whom have PhDs. Another person noted that a recent history PhD built a large network of people interested in her work by means of blogging and tweeting research in progress.

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The group also discussed how university hiring practices might serve students making the transition from graduate school to the job market. Participants speculated about whether the UI could forge relationships with other institutions so that, for example, rather than developing post-docs for our PhDs, we developed post-doc relationships with other universities. In this way, our recent graduates could be exposed to new ideas and ways of doing things at other institutions, and those institutions’ recent PhDs could do the same at the UI. A similar relationship might be imagined for alt-ac internships.

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Some of the participants’ personal priorities are communicated on the index cards included in this post.

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How to create the most successful intellectual project . . .

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Our first (of three) Next Gen Humanities PhD planning meetings brought together two department chairs, a PhD student, a librarian/English PhD, a university administrator/humanities prof, and a lecturer/teaching initiative innovator. We began by discussing an excerpt from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and also Alexandria Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon’s showcasing of innovative dissertations in “What’s the Point: The Dissertation as Process and Not Product.”

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One participant raised the issue of whether we want to encourage students to take a “both/and” approach—that is, to write a traditional dissertation and create more innovation manifestations of research findings. This contributor went on to note that her department had success in placing students in academic jobs at places that required a traditional dissertation. Another person expressed concern about a possible “thinning” of traditional disciplinary training, even as she conveyed enthusiasm for students developing facility with new digital tools and platforms.

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Another person broached the question of whether we are open to NOT requiring a “both/and” approach, which led to several people inquiring about the purpose of the PhD. “What do you need it to be a record of?” one person asked, going on to say, “A thesis is not a record of everything someone has done—there are other ways to assess students’ abilities as teachers, organizers, et al.” We should be thinking about what creates the most successful intellectual project, another suggested, going on to say that choosing the right platform should be part of the intellectual project.

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One participant noted the inflationary tendencies in dissertation requirements—humanities dissertations were no always as long as they are today. Another noted that it would be possible to highlight the abilities one develops while writing a dissertation: e.g. developing an argument, making connections to others’ arguments.

Several people were intrigued by Sidonie Smith’s suggestion that students might complete a “suite” of essays, perhaps pitched to different audiences. One person wondered if the comps level would be the place to start something like this; another expressed an interest in getting students to write for different audiences (and at different lengths) from the first year of grad school. One person suggested a seminar “paper” that could have linked references and outlinks to digital artifacts.

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Another participant, noting that employers request project management skills, expressed the view that a graduate student who had developed a large-scale instructional project, requiring her undergraduate students to work together and publish an online project, would be able to demonstrate the project management skills she used as she designed and orchestrated a complicated classroom effort with many moving parts.

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As the discussion went on, structural and systemic issues arose, for example, issues related to graduate student funding (now based almost entirely on teaching assistantships), and to a rise in the number of contingent faculty. “Who is going to teach the new skills we think our graduate students will need?” one person queried. Another expressed this concern: “Will students who want to pursue alternate careers feel they have the support of their faculty mentors?”

Touching back on our grant proposal’s attention to social media platforms, such as Twitter, we talked about how communities of scholars living in far-flung places have new opportunities to talk about their common interests. We discussed how graduate students, even as they begin their training might tap into diverse online communities, and begin to develop scholarly identities.

Before we dispersed, participants wrote down some preliminary concerns and priorities on index cards.

And we’re off!

womenBasketball1931The University of Iowa NEH Next Generation PhD Planning committee members will be meeting for the first time this week.  Participants will be discussing the grant proposal and related readings.  As will be the case with nearly all the Next Gen events, all are welcome to attend.  We especially welcome graduate students to our gatherings.