University of Iowa
NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD Planning Grant Proposal
The Newly Composed PhD: Writing Across Careers
Abstract and Overview
Humanities graduate students and their mentors confront new research technologies and fast-changing career tracks, developments that fuel both hope and anxiety. To proponents of the digital humanities, the traditional dissertation is a quaint traveler, lugging his carpetbag of paper appurtenances—unlinked annotations, citations, appendices—into the dazzling light of new media forms. On the other hand, to defenders of traditional graduate training, the digital humanist is a confidence man, flaunting his ephemeral attractions—blog entries, tweets, online exhibitions—at a remove from established disciplinary standards. “Alt-Ac” advocates, who seek to prepare PhD recipients for jobs outside the academy, similarly meet with skepticism from those who fear that “alternative” means not only different but also less rigorous. Although everyone believes they have the best interests of graduate students at heart, proponents of different approaches to graduate education sometimes antagonize each other, as when a speaker at the recent Big Ten Colloquium on Graduate Study in the Humanities compared digital humanities tools to Play-Doh and crayons. Even well-intentioned graduate student advocates have difficulty identifying, and coalescing around, a common cause.
We believe that a productive response to the pitting of traditional against digital scholarship, or of Alt-Ac against conventional training, lies in the reframing of these binaries as “yes, and” opportunities. We will avoid emotional tripwires by using the Next Generation Humanities PhD Planning Grant to focus on long and short forms of scholarly writing—forms that span the rhetorical arc from dissertation to tweet. Scholars across disciplines are interested in cultivating broader audiences for their work, but they also express concerns about how writing for a larger public may result in the compromising of disciplinary standards. What some view as a crisis in the humanities is inseparable from a writing crisis—or, in our view, a writing opportunity. At a moment when traditional forms of scholarly presentation seem inadequate for communicating knowledge in a world of second-by-second news cycles, we propose a planning process in which attention to matters of form will make it possible for people with varied intellectual commitments to jointly imagine how to transform graduate student education.
At the core of our planning group will be scholars and graduate students from the departments of English, History, Classics, and Rhetoric, as well as from the Division of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. These areas of study are being transformed by modes of quantitative analysis and data visualization long associated with the sciences. A command of new research applications, many of which are used both within and beyond the academy, will equip graduate students to work in increasingly technology-enhanced occupations (e.g., as data journalists, social media coordinators, political pollsters, or test assessors). If their technological skills are coupled with flexible rhetorical skills, our students will also be credible candidates for occupations that have not yet come into clear focus, since these jobs will meet not-yet-defined needs and requirements. Our PhDs will be ready—and will think of themselves as ready—to thrive in positions that did not exist when they entered graduate school.
Graduate student training in the humanities has long been wedded to the most concretized of long forms—a dissertation of approximately 250 pages in which the aspiring PhD candidate surveys scholarship and carries out close readings of literary or historical evidence as a way of contributing to ongoing scholarly conversations. The looming pressure of the long-form dissertation distracts from the many short forms that graduate students are expected to master, often without explicit training: the conference paper proposal, the CV or resume, the elevator pitch. These short forms are unconsciously conceptualized as add-ons to the dissertation rather than as formative components of larger intellectual projects. Short forms, which have always played a crucial (and under-emphasized) role in the academic career trajectory, take on even greater importance at a moment when new publishing platforms reward brevity and wit. Graduate students who can tweet their research findings to a broad audience, or who can visualize their data sets so as to encourage others’ engagement, will be able to transfer these rhetorical and technical skills to many kinds of work. At a moment when workers often see their job responsibilities rapidly evolve, we will help graduate students think of themselves from day one as having the flexibility of a Swiss Army knife. We also anticipate (and hope) that transforming graduate training will make the PhD more accessible to students who lack the requisite financial security to view the degree as a credential for a single tenuous career path.
The principal activities for our planning process will be a series of symposia organized around rhetorical forms ranging from the dissertation to the tweet. Each symposium will include a public lecture combined with a workshop in which working group members will explore how a particular form could serve entrepreneurial graduate students in a variety of career settings. The project director will design and teach (in the spring of 2017) a pilot cross-disciplinary graduate methods class organized around scholarly forms, a class that will also provide training in entry-level, open-source digital humanities platforms (such as Scalar and Mapbox). The expected results of the planning year will include a series of reports on the symposia events (including next-action proposals circulated by email, blog posts, and tweets). The final symposium will consolidate the findings of the prior gatherings, bringing together planning committee members and graduate students—especially those enrolled in the pilot class—to imagine how this class could be revised in future iterations. Four of the departments centrally involved in the planning process (English, History, Classics, and World Languages) admit a combined PhD class of approximately 30 students each year. The fifth department (Rhetoric) employs approximately 75 graduate student teachers, as well as 18 lecturers, many of whom have only recently attained their PhDs. We will work from this disciplinary core with an eye toward expanding the career options of graduate students across all humanities departments.
We write at a moment when concerned scholars are proposing new paths forward for graduate education. We will launch the grant period by having our planning committee members read and discuss excerpts from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and “What’s the Point? The Dissertation as a Process and Not a Product,” a discussion of innovative dissertations by Alexandrina Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon (among others). These discussions will forge collegial alliances among a diverse coterie of planning committee members, so that we can move into the planning year with a shared sense of purpose.
We will bring together a broad range of knowledge makers (tenured faculty, lecturers, graduate students, alumni, library staff, non-UI professionals) to discuss doctoral preparation in the humanities by means of attention to formal concerns. Instead of plunging into a discussion of how the PhD dissertation should be altered, we will, instead, analyze how that long form serves (or fails to serve) the knowledge acquisition and dissemination goals of particular disciplines. We anticipate that this shift in focus will realign and de-familiarize the dissertation, so that it doesn’t stand in all its monumental gravity like an over-sized candelabrum that prevents dinner-party guests from seeing each other. We will consider the more process-oriented new media work of Amanda Visconti (whose dissertation includes the InfiniteUlysses platform for social reading and annotation) and her dissertation advisor Matthew Kirschenbaum, whose monograph, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, was proceeded into print by blog postings that welcomed reader feedback and pushback.
The University of Iowa, home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Nonfiction Writing Program, and the International Writing Program, has long been a leader in writing pedagogy. The UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies encourages publicly engaged scholarship and teaching through its yearly Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy. With recent investments in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, the Iowa Informatics Initiative, and the Public Digital Humanities Certificate, the UI has fashioned the infrastructure necessary for digital research and teaching experiments. Because of its longstanding and forward-looking embrace of creative and scholarly innovation, the University of Iowa is uniquely poised to transform what it means to be a humanities scholar and to catapult humanities research and teaching into the public sphere.
We will be able to draw on a deep backbench of creative knowledge makers who are experimenting with new media forms. History Professor Keisha Blain, who (in collaboration with Dr. Chad Williams of Brandeis University) created the Charleston syllabus (#Charlestonsyllabus) as a means of understanding the horrific church shootings of June 17, 2015. This fleet-footed and nimble public scholarship initiative exemplifies how social media platforms such as Twitter can link university professors to larger social concerns. University of Iowa Classics professor Sarah Bond uses her blog site to disseminate her research on Roman history, posting on palindromes and sea monsters for a broad audience. In carrying out this form of public scholarship, she is joined by her Classics colleagues, Assistant Professors Robert Cargill and Paul Dilley, both members of the UI’s Public Humanities in a Digital World faculty cluster. The Rhetoric Department is home to the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning (IDEAL) Initiative, where instructors devise digital classroom projects that allow students to engage with communities beyond the classroom, and to create work that endures beyond the semester. The History Department’s History Corps is a graduate-student-led digital repository for oral history projects. UI Next Generation planners will strive to consolidate these many forward-looking ventures into specific interventions that will hone PhD students’ rhetorical and technological skills so as to meet the needs of varied professions. The planning committee will be assisted by the UI’s Office of Graduate Student Success, whose staff members help students anticipate and prepare for new career options.
We plan to bring together expert practitioners of both long and short forms—successful book authors and publishers, Twitterati, entrepreneurs, bloggers, 3D-modelers—to spark conversations about the tasks these forms carry out and the work skills these forms help their practitioners develop. Rather than pitting long form against short form (traditional scholarship against digital humanities scholarship, conventional disciplinary training against alternative career preparation), we will imagine ways in which a broad array of rhetorical modes can be deployed by graduate students from the beginning of their training so that they can communicate artfully across a variety of different platforms. In a world of flickering publishing ventures, we hope to produce PhD recipients who are acutely aware of the rhetorical choices that help consolidate readership and that underpin new forms of public scholarship. The planning committee members will contribute to blog and Twitter postings that will connect their actions to parallel efforts across the country and the world. In so doing, they will cultivate some of the same skills we hope to foster in graduate students. The UI’s strong involvement with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) will reinforce these networking efforts.
Even as academic hiring trends point to reductions in tenure-track positions, transformations in research and publication technology are generating new job opportunities. By becoming expert at both short- and long-form composition, and by becoming comfortable with mapping and network analysis applications, students can develop skills that will serve them well in a variety of venues, including government offices and human resource departments. In recent years Iowa humanities PhDs have found work in settings that might best be described as expansions of, rather than alternatives to, the academy. An Iowa English PhD has taken over the directorship of the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio (DSPS). The DSPS has also hired a humanities PhD as a mapping specialist who collaborates with faculty and students on digital projects.
The planning process will bring together graduate students, faculty, and library staff who work under the umbrella of the humanities; Graduate College staff tasked with scanning the job horizon across all disciplines; and faculty from Iowa’s Tippie School of Business, which has particular strengths in teaching business writing and organizational management. We also plan to enlist UI alumni who have followed non-traditional career paths, and who can help integrate students into community networks from the beginning of their graduate training. The core participating programs (English, History, Classics, Rhetoric, and the Division of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures) are at the fore of UI digital humanities work at both the undergraduate and graduate level. And taken collectively, these departments constitute a significant percentage of UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences graduate student employment (18% of CLAS graduate employment as a whole, with most humanities graduate students doing a teaching stint in the Rhetoric department). Those planning committee participants who are drawn from non-humanities departments, from beyond the University of Iowa, and from the larger business world will provide new perspectives on alternative professions.
We are constructing our planning committee in three tiers as a way of drawing as many people as possible into the planning process, while also ensuring a working group at its center which is small enough to avoid logistic problems (scheduling logjams) and more consequential ones (diffusion of focus, muffling of less-empowered participants). The overall planning committee consists of:
1) A small core group whose members will participate in all the planning activities and will collaborate on the final white paper. This group is composed of a graduate student, two tenured faculty members, a lecturer, a librarian, and an alumna, most of whom are actively involved with digital humanities projects. The core group also includes an expert in entrepreneurialism.
2) Working groups which take particular rhetorical forms as their intellectual focus. Members include the directors of UI centers, deans in charge of graduate education, chairs of departments most centrally involved in the planning process, graduate students, and library staff. Each of these satellite working groups will run one symposium. One core group member will participate in (and report back from) each of the working groups.
3) A visiting group of experts from beyond the University of Iowa, who will be invited to co-lead (with UI faculty, staff, and graduate students) individual symposia.
Planning activities and themes:
The planning activities revolve around a series of symposia described in detail on the timeline below. At each symposium, a pair of working group members, often joined by a visiting expert, will give a presentation that will be open to the public at large; they will also lead a smaller work session. Both events will be dedicated to eliciting wide-ranging and action-oriented discussions of how a particular form enables or impedes the establishment and dissemination of knowledge both within and beyond the academy. The symposia are organized around rhetorical forms, and they work to address and advance the following initiatives:
1) Enabling graduate students to integrate discipline-specific work, digital humanities literacy, and flexible career preparation from their first year of graduate school
2) Stimulating collaboration among UI programs, departments, and schools so that graduate students across disciplines can call on professional resources across the entire university, and so that faculty will come to mentor students outside their areas of expertise. One of the ways we will achieve this goal is through the development of an interdisciplinary graduate introductory methods class which will be a collaborative effort involving faculty and students from a wide range of humanities departments.
3) Helping students develop rhetorical skills that will enable them to write for a number of different audiences, and connecting students to a web of allies and career consultants who can match PhD skill sets to varied jobs
4) Modeling community-building and knowledge dissemination by circulating the planning process outcomes through a wide range of social media.
Each workshop will engage working group members in a particular task. In order to circulate ideas as widely as possible, and to elicit feedback from both within and beyond the University of Iowa community, the participants will publish the outcome of the workshop sessions in issues papers, blog postings, and Twitter blasts. The symposia will be preceded by a collegial discussion of new writings on graduate student education, and will contribute to the development of a pilot interdisciplinary graduate methods class (spring 2017) organized around the symposia topics.
Timeline of Activities
Preliminary Discussion Group (August 2016)
Planning committee members will read and discuss excerpts from Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities and also Alexandrina Agloro, Johanna Taylor, and Elyse Gordon’s “What’s the Point? The Dissertation as a Process and Not a Product.”
Symposium 1: The Dissertation (September 2016)
Participants will look at traditional dissertations across humanities disciplines and also examine an array of new digital dissertation projects that take new forms (e.g., online exhibitions, maps, graphic format) and/or take advantage of new publishing platforms.
Symposium 2: The Footnote (October 2016)
Participants will look at the many creative roles the lowly footnote serves, both in the documentation of sources and in the expansion of thought. Participants will think about the work accomplished by this most traditional of citation forms, as they consider how new forms of digital scholarship (such as digital mapping and 3-D modeling) inspire new ways of crediting sources and directing readers to ancillary knowledge bases. The open annotation movement, with its ambition to build an open annotation layer over web content and to allow for non-hierarchical peer evaluation, will provide a key impetus for discussion. This symposium will provide an opportunity to think about collaboration and teamwork more generally as participants consider how the skills required for successful scholarly citation (attention to detail, generous acknowledgment of others’ work, comprehensiveness) are transferrable to other occupational settings.
Symposium 3: The Tweet (November 2016)
The speed of Twitter communication presents an opportunity and a challenge. As they compose 140-character missives, tweeters can try out different identities, throw out fishing lines, and sharpen lures. On the other hand, an ill-considered comment can have an alarming permanence as it rockets across the Twitter-verse. This symposium will attend to how graduate students can craft professional personae online, with particular attention to voice and tone. The symposium will consider how the same rhetorical skills that allow Twitter-users to disseminate scholarship can be marshaled to mount advertising campaigns in the business world or to build political coalitions.
Symposium 4: The Blog (December 2017)
In its status as an intermediary form of writing—more spontaneous than the vetted article or book, but still pitched to a public audience—the blog posting allows for a call and response between writer and readers, enabling the writer to seed or gauge interest in her projects. For this reason, it has the potential to ease the isolation of the dissertation-writing process, but also to allow the dissertator to add her voice to a broader public conversation. The focus of this symposium will be on taking scholarship public, and on the issues raised by communicating research process in addition to research outcome. We will address aspects of prose style that contribute to building an audience for multiple forms of information dissemination, and we will discuss how graduate students can compile a portfolio of writing samples that will help them credential themselves for a variety of careers (e.g., grant writer, ad copy writer, corporate communication specialist).
Symposium 5: The CV and the Resume (January 2017)
Both the CV and the resume stand as miniature autobiographies that distill life experience, but they are not interchangeable. This symposia will consider the opposed values of comprehensiveness and compression as they relate to the CV- and resume-writing process. Participants will consider how students might be encouraged from the beginning of their graduate school education to craft different forms of self-representation for different kinds of professional opportunities. We will think about the resume as a form of narrative that allows the writer to highlight those features of her scholarly experience that are most relevant to particular job demands. We will also look at how online presentations of professional experience differ from traditional formats, and explore how PhD students can find time for internships and other forms of work experience.
Symposium 6: The Elevator Pitch (February 2016)
Participants will concentrate on how to teach graduate students to talk about their work in concise and audience-friendly ways. UI Rhetoric department faculty have served as coaches for the 3-Minute Thesis competition, through which UI PhD candidates have gained self-presentation skills. We will build on their efforts.
Symposium 7: Imagining an interdisciplinary graduate methods class (March 2017)
This symposium will be a culmination of the planning work that has been carried out in previous symposia. Participants will imagine an introductory course that would enable students to cultivate rhetorical and technological skills with an eye toward both academic and alternative professional pursuits. The project director will be teaching a pilot version of this methods class during the spring of 2017. The final symposium will provide an opportunity to explore how this class could be revised and adopted for ongoing use.