The Next Steps for A New Generation Of PhDs

Sarah Bond

Sarah Bond, Assistant Professor in Classics, reports on the Next Gen PhD planning meeting. Participants were making plans and identifying challenges in advance of the January 30 Next Gen Directors meeting in Washington, D.C. Sarah, whose twitter handle is @SarahEBond, writes the History From Below blog and also writes for Forbes.

Mention the term “alt-ac” in a room full of graduate students, and you are likely to get a few interested looks, a number of quizzical expressions, and perhaps a grimace or two. For many graduate students driven toward traditional positions as professors in institutions of higher learning, the idea of taking an “alternative academic” position is often viewed as a route that is not only alternative to their aims, but also one that is ambiguous. However, this meeting of the Next Generation PhD committee came together over lunch in order to address how we have begun to recast “alt-ac” over the past year and to focus on the redefinition of the term not as an alternative path, but as a set of methodologies that provide a means to strengthen the research, pedagogy, and writing capabilities of any PhD candidate.

Tom Keegan, Judith Pascoe, Stephen Voyce, and Russ Ganim discuss the future steps for the Next Generation PhD Program at the University of Iowa on January 27, 2017.
  1. Incorporating More People: Encouraging the involvement of alumni, professionals, and non-faculty in the process of reforming and recasting the PhD is pivotal to its success. Involving individuals with experience within positions beyond the walls of the university setting (e.g. in public radio or at local museums) is a key way of illustrating the application of digital humanities skillsets outside of faculty positions. It is also a means for creating networks on a local, regional, and national level that can be of service to our students.
  1. Not An Alternative, But An Enhancement: Visualizing the reformation of PhD training as a means of galvanizing, strengthening, and ultimately enhancing the degree is integral to removing the stigma currently attached to the word “alt-ac” and the mystery that often shrouds the digital humanities. The group discussed the necessity of reaching out to graduate councils in each academic department in order to encourage participation not only through fliers and posted information, but particularly through word of mouth. This has the effect of making the Next Gen lectures, workshops, and panels more socially acceptable, known, and interacted with on an interpersonal level. Within these events, graduate students should then be encouraged to think about the benefits to their research, their teaching, and their writing that comes from acquiring digital skills such as GIS or network analysis. Understanding of these methods can diversify their portfolio in terms of employment abilities, no doubt, but they are also a way of elevating their teaching approaches and ability to communicate an argument effectively.
Mary Wise, Stephanie Blalock, Christine Getz, Katie Walden, Ann Ricketts, Sarah Larsen, John Keller, Sarah Bond, and Tom Keegan identify challenges for the Next Gen planning process.
  1. Looking To Other Models And Mentors: A pivotal part of this meeting was the consideration of alternative academic models, particularly within the sciences. It means asking what the humanities can learn from other disciplines in respect to the sharing and overseeing of research. What can scientific models of lab mentorship and the sharing of experimental data in weekly gatherings teach us about how humanities PhDs should be mentored in the future? What can they teach us about the import of sharing our findings more frequently within large groups that can perhaps provide feedback and alternative approaches? In addition to encouraging more group feedback, members noted that while having an internal, departmental mentor is certainly integral to the success of all PhD candidates, so is having a digital mentor that helps oversee any multi-modal dissertation project. A structure of support, guidance, and mentorship will be an integral part of implementing the next generation PhD plan in the future.
  1. Vertical Support Networks: Promoting graduate student participation in workshops, lectures, and classes focused on digital approaches will be most successful with the support of not only faculty, but also DGSs, DEOs, and academic administrators. Supporting students that engage in digital work will allow for broader success of the program, but the broader acceptance of digital work in tenure and promotion cases will, in turn, similarly demonstrate to our graduate students that such approaches are accepted as valid forms of academic work.

As the meeting illustrated to all participants, a key product of this grant has been to lay a sturdy foundation for the creation of social and administrative networks at the University of Iowa that will function within the institution and outside of it. These networks have allowed for the freer flow of information about digital methods—to students, to departments, to the administration, and to the local community—and will provide an easier transition for those who wish to pursue employment outside of the academy. As the meeting stressed, transparency and accountability must still be maintained in the process of implementing and growing these new networks. However, it is already apparent that we are not building an altogether different “alt-ac” route for the Next Generation of UI PhDs to travel upon, so much as repaving the current road system so that our students can better communicate with their students and with the public.

The Next Gen PhD from a Faculty Perspective

 

Russ Ganim

In this second of three posts in which members of the UI Next Gen Core Planning Committee take stock at mid-year, Russell Ganim, Director of the Division of World Languages, weighs in. Russ is also the Co-Director of the UI Humanities Advisory Board.

The most exciting part of the grant is the high level of communication and collaboration between groups who previously had little to no interaction. Graduate students from various disciplines in the humanities—English, History, Classics, World Languages, and others—are going to presentations, attending workshops, and talking to each other. Many of these discussions focus on how graduate students can take a more entrepreneurial approach both to planning their individual programs of study and their professional futures.

The grant has brought students and departmental directors of graduate studies in closer contact with career initiatives sponsored by the Graduate College, as well as with resources offered by the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio. Conversations about creativity and partnerships are now—finally—starting to command equal time with those concerning distribution requirements, exam schedules, and time-to-degree pressures.

This grant generates a buzz that has helped unite a number of graduate students, faculty, and administrators around a common purpose grounded in the humanities. Challenges remain—writing across different forms and across different audiences needs more emphasis, and new courses related to the objectives of the grant need to be developed. Still, the grant has piqued strong interest in influential circles and has shown that the humanities are a hot topic on campus.

Survival Bias

Amy Chen

The first of a series of three posts in which Next Gen Committee members assess our work at mid-year.

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Serving as a member of the Steering Committee for the University of Iowa’s “The Newly Composed PhD” Next Gen planning project under the direction of Judith Pascoe has been a welcome opportunity. As a recent graduate—I received my PhD in English in 2013—I am deeply invested in the future of doctoral education. My memories of graduate school and the difficulties of the job market are fresh, which helps me sympathize with those still in the middle of the process. The provocation I present here  emerges from these memories. I feel that we unintentionally perpetuate survival bias by focusing on people who survived the academic job market, and I propose that we correct for this tendency in the spring.

Over the past semester, our planning group brought in three speakers to discuss different rhetorical forms that graduate students must master: the dissertation, the footnote, and the tweet. In previous blog posts, I wrote about our first speaker, Amanda Visconti, mentioning the significance of her master’s degree in Information and her generous advisors. My purpose in those posts was not to diminish Visconti’s strength as a digital humanities practitioner: her vision, aptitude, and success are an important case study for our students at Iowa.

But what I outlined in those posts is how Visconti is exceptional. She learned technical skills which are usually taught outside the framework of humanities departments, and then applied those skills to her literary studies. Furthermore, she benefited from mentors who took extra time to help her navigate the often steep learning curves presented by interdisciplinary doctoral research.

Most graduate students are not thinking about how their work could be enhanced by the acquisition of additional degrees, nor should they be.  Universities are organized by discipline and hierarchy. Once one has committed to a field, it can take a long time to realize how one might learn from other fields. Interdisciplinary methods are only beginning to be accepted at traditional humanities journals and presses. As our speakers this past semester have attested, the shift is taking place, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a long way to go. And if students do not have mentors who will take the extra time necessary to help them (perhaps because that extra time commitment is not rewarded in tenure evaluations), they will suffer. It is hard for students to feel empowered enough to demand extra time and effort from those on whom they depend for recommendations.

In the absence of critical attention, survival bias can come to seem “normal” or “just the way things are.” Our Next Generation PhD guests thus far have been people who succeeded by conventional standards. They have had uplifting stories to tell: unconventional methods met with conventional (read: tenure-track) success. That’s the story we want to hear. The stories that haven’t so far been showcased—which, I might add, is not a failure of the grant or of Pascoe’s leadership, but of a cognitive bias we all share—are ones that don’t end so well. We need to hear more from people who attempted new methodologies or approaches, but were not rewarded with Harvard publishing contracts. We need to highlight PhD recipients who attained jobs that were not professorships.

Getting hired in alternative positions counts as success, particularly if these positions satisfy the objectives of the PhDs who seek them. You define your own success. After all, I’m very happy at Iowa in my non-tenure-track job as a Special Collections Instruction Librarian and the interim English and American Literature Librarian. But the way we have presented success this fall has tended to fit a particular narrative, one that hasn’t extended even to my genre of success. In the future, I would like us to think more broadly. Graduate students who master the different rhetorical forms we have discussed during Next Generation PhD events are powerful. Doing so will help these doctoral candidates achieve success. However, we must do a better job of emphasizing that success can take a variety of forms, with exciting outcomes possible both within and beyond the academy.

I suggest we take some time to address failure. Success makes a nice story. Success is inspirational. But I learn more from my failures. I learn when to change my methodology, when to change how I approach problems, when even to change my career. We can’t entirely avoid survival bias because we will continue to invite speakers who can suggest how students might emulate their successes. What we can do, however, is compensate for survival bias by being careful about how we frame exceptional stories, by discussing how (or if) we can duplicate particular features of success narratives here at Iowa, and by emphasizing, over and over, how failure is a critical part of what it means to survive.

A Method to the Method

Katie Walden

Katherine Walden is a PhD Candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate. Her research explores race/ethnicity and gender in representations of baseball in American popular culture, with a particular focus on baseball and music intersections. She also teaches a self-designed Rhetoric of Sport curriculum in UIowa’s Rhetoric Department. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.

In most humanities PhD programs, at some point in the first year of graduate coursework, students take a theory and methods course. At the University of Iowa, graduate students in English take “Introduction to Graduate Study” in the first year, and the History Department offers the “First Year Graduate Colloquium” and a class entitled “History Research Methods.” Students pursuing the Public Digital Humanities Certificate take “Digital Humanities Theory and Practice,” in which a mix of Library Science and humanities PhD students were enrolled when I took it in Fall 2015. In my home department of American Studies, we take two iterations of “Interdisciplinary Research in American Studies” (formerly “Theory and Practice of American Studies”), taught each fall by rotating faculty. I’ve also spent this fall semester taking Journalism and Mass Communication’s (JMC) “Approaches to Media Communication,” a required course for incoming JMC masters and doctoral students.

Having been through now four versions of a humanities-oriented theory and methods course, I offer a few observations:

#1. Theory and methods courses make a whole lot more sense in Year 3 of a PhD than they do in Year 1. I appreciate the American Studies Department’s model of having conversations about theory, method, and practice be ongoing and embedded throughout the curriculum. Discussions that began during my first semester in the program have threaded through many of the other courses I’ve taken in the Department. The same kind of ongoing conversation has enriched my Digital Humanities (DH) Certificate coursework.

#2. Conversations about method and modes of scholarly production aren’t typical in graduate student training. With the exception of my DH coursework and this semester’s “Approaches” course, few foundational courses challenged me to think about the relationship between method and form, or to envision alternate modes of scholarly production. I don’t want to be overly-critical of traditional theory and methods courses—they exist to familiarize and ground scholars-in-training with a discipline’s history, contours, and debates. Within graduate education’s highly-disciplinary structure, these courses serve a vital and significant purpose. [Disclaimer: While doing research for this post, I found out that the Spring 2017 “History Research Methods” course has a digital history focus. Three cheers for Public Humanities in a Digital World cluster hires!]

#3. We can all learn from triathletes. My experience suggests that foundational courses rarely push graduate students to explore “big picture” questions about what type of career they want to approach by means of PhD training. Triathletes who swim in open water races have to balance making forward progress with checking to be sure they’re going in the right direction. It’s a technique called “sighting”—as the swimmer continues to move forward in the water, she also looks up periodically to “sight” a buoy, shore, boat, or some type of visual marker in the distance, and course corrects if needed. Sighting isn’t easy—it requires seeing beyond the choppy water conditions, the relentless drive to keep making forward progress, and all the other swimmers in the water. However, taking the time and energy to see a horizon beyond the immediate situation and proactively move toward it is a vital way to successfully manage a race.

The semester I spent in “DH Theory and Practice” was a crash course in all the different forms scholarship can take, a semester-long experiment in “sighting” that revealed multiple paths through the course of graduate school, a range of skill sets I wanted to develop, and multiple horizons I could pursue with a PhD. On an individual level, it was the Next Gen PhD project before there was a Next Gen PhD project.

#4. Graduate students should be prepared to ask questions and push boundaries. Emboldened by my growing DH facility, I’ve walked into PhD seminars unafraid to ask the Amanda Visconti-esque question “Can I do this?” (the “this” being something that bears little resemblance to a standard seminar paper). I’ve found the answer most often is yes. I’m curious to see how this kind of conversation changes as I move toward proposing a born-digital dissertation. One-off projects can be a useful way to build a portfolio of work, but building robust, scalable projects (particularly in DH) requires early collaboration, technical expertise, and institutional support. My prediction is that alternative dissertations will also likely be highly collaborative dissertations.

#5. All hail the interdisciplinary methods course! I’ve spent the fall semester in Meenakshi Gigi Durham’s “Approaches to Media Communication” course. The description, from the University Catalog:

“In this graduate seminar, students will explore the range of theoretical and methodological perspectives and techniques that allow us to study, interpret, and criticize various forms of media. We will examine the ways the media intersect with political, economic, and social shifts through analyzing key scholarly works in media communication research. The goal of the class will be to provide students with an understanding of how to pose original, exciting, and clear research questions that lead to rigorous and useful research in media communication.”

I might rewrite the description to read “Some of the things I wish someone had talked about when I started graduate school” (see observation #1). The course delved into everything from critical theory, method frameworks, and research design to journal publishing, academic writing, and the job market. Never underestimate the power of dissecting and evaluating academic writing at the sentence level. [Graduate students, if you haven’t checked out Booth’s The Craft of Research, do so now.]

As I started to brainstorm a topic for the final proposal, I was also in an Archives & Media course, working on a DH project much larger than what I could accomplish in one semester. I started to envision my Archives & Media prototype as a digital dissertation, and Professor Durham was fully supportive when I asked if a proposal that talked about databases, maps, and visualizations would be acceptable. Articulating a dissertation project a full year before I actually defend a prospectus has forced me to grapple early on with the challenges, logistics, and justifications for a non-traditional project, much in the same way that Ben Miele’s 3MT experience shaped his dissertation’s developmental arc. My range of methods courses have grounded me in critical theory and American Studies frameworks, and have also provided a space for me to explore what my path through a Next Gen PhD might look like.

Graduate students! Like the idea of a methods course that incorporates alternate scholarly approaches, multi-modal projects, and digital humanities? Check out Judith Pascoe’s spring 2017 course on alternative scholarly approaches.

Shaping the Message, Using the Medium

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Dan Reed

Daniel Reed is Vice President for Research and Economic Development and University Computational Science and Bioinformatics Chair at the University of Iowa, and a frequent government advisor on science and technology policy. He is a former director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Contact him at dan-reed@uiowa.edu or read his other musings at www.hpcdan.org.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “The medium is the message,” has taken on new poignancy in a world of tweet storms, Snapchat imagery, cellphone videos, 24-hour cable news, and ubiquitous digital communication. Within this dizzying cacophony, Paul Simon’s prescient lyrics from The Sound of Silence, which found a new audience in Disturbed’s recent cover, ring ever more true:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

How does one gain mindshare and precipitate reflective analysis when Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame seems so quaint, a Q rating window both languorous and prolix? If you have braved my prose to this point, you have already followed a cognitive causal chain that spans five decades of cultural referents, something increasingly rare as attention spans in our hyperkinetic echo chamber asymptotically approach the de minimis.

Thus, it is no surprise that by today’s standard of truncated discourse, the long-form, reasoned, and buttressed scholarship of a Ph.D. dissertation may seem an anachronism, an obsession that Cap’n Ahab would recognize as his own. All too often the dissertation is an embodied variant of Melville’s classic book, praised but not read. This “write only” attribute is one of the biggest challenges we face in academia. Increasingly, we are writing only to one another, and all too often, to almost no one, using a vernacular and style both learned and discipline-idiosyncratic.

Let’s begin with the fundamental question. As scholars, why do we write? We seek to preserve the insights from our scholarship and add a new tile to the great mosaic of human knowledge, an entirely secular but consecrated goal whose motivations can be traced to the birth of writing itself. Equally importantly, we seek to energize others with the power of our ideas, shaping and reshaping social and intellectual discourse. Simply put, we want to be remembered, and we want to make a difference.

Laid bare, these laudable, twin goals of knowledge preservation and transmission need not be pursued via the same media or mechanisms. In this sense, McLuhan was absolutely right; the medium and the message are inextricably intertwined, mutually shaped by evolving culture and technology. We ignore these shifts at our peril, as the demise of many daily newspapers and news magazines has shown.

Let me be clear; I am not suggesting we abandon the long-form dissertation. (See my comments in an earlier blog post on reflective communication.) Rather, I am positing that we remember our elemental objectives and disaggregate the historically convolved elements of academic scholarship: chronicling and archiving (dissertation writing); provenance and attribution (dissertation committee approval); and dissemination and engagement (publication and communication).

A book-length dissertation has long been the permanent chronicle of the new scholar’s research. However, this is mere tradition, derived from 19th-century German academic practice. Like the man’s legs in Abraham Lincoln’s story, a dissertation needs to be only long enough to reach the ground (i.e., cogently encapsulate the research), and it can—and should—take whatever form and length are most appropriate to the task. Choose a medium appropriate to the message.

Likewise, writing a dissertation should not be a consensual and extended, sadomasochistic partnership between advisor and advisee. The goal is not to solve one of life’s or nature’s most vexing problems nor to include a reference to every possible prior insight. Rather, it is to demonstrate competence to conduct independent scholarship and record sufficient evidence of having done so. It should not be a decade-long, soul-enervating experience.

The key role of a dissertation committee is assuring the originality and sufficient intellectual contribution of an aspiring scholar’s work. This certification of provenance and attribution is the committee’s affirmation of scholarly worthiness, as documented in the dissertation.

Finally, successful scholarship gains currency in the marketplace of ideas. As academics, we teach and prize artful and effective communication, yet all too often we fail to practice what we preach. Yes, plumbing the depths of a novel idea often requires extended and subtle explication, but that is not the place to start. It begins with engagement and meeting others on their literal, intellectual, and emotional territory, not our own. Why might the idea matter to others? How can it advantage them? What is the attraction and the excitement? How to we reach an audience, both in academia and in the broader society?

The Three-Minute Thesis competition captures the essence of this idea, as do public speeches and popular articles. In this light, a tweet isn’t such a bad idea after all. All of these modes of communication serve to spark conversations, rather than to transmit extended colloquies. In the spirit of an aphorism attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Make some noise; use all the available media; rise above the cacophony; make a difference.

Risk, Creativity, and Careers

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Jen Teitle

Guest post by Jennifer Teitle, Assistant Dean for Graduate Development and Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Iowa. Dr. Teitle’s 2012 dissertation, completed in the UI Department of Teaching and Learning, focused on the decline in the number of youth “hangout” spaces. Her cartoon blog post juxtaposes Nick Sousanis‘ Next Gen PhD presentation with Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award acceptance speech. Jen’s twitter handle is: @jteitle. (You can click on the image for a larger version.)

The comic below, “3 Talks on Risk, Creativity, and Careers,” uses dialogism—the notion that all statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate responses—to explore narratives about graduate school and careers. The three juxtaposed narratives in the comic happened on the same day, October 19, 2016, here at the University of Iowa. Nick Sousanis came to speak on our campus as part of the NEH funded #nextgenPhD project. His talk was inspiring, full of the same unapologetic creativity that characterizes his comic book dissertation, Unflattening. Sousanis was candid about his job search, which was challenging despite that fact that his award-winning dissertation was being published by Harvard University Press. Kevin Birmingham’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Truman Capote Award must have been astonishing to witness, but I read it later that night after my sleepy children were put in bed. Birmingham’s parrhesia is an icy splash in the face, an important contribution to conversations about PhD “placement,” and it should be shared widely. Finally, I wanted to include a nod to the narratives I hear most frequently: those of graduating PhDs and MFAs. Today’s graduate students are struggling to find their scholarly voices at a moment when if one deviates from the expected scholarly norm, one may put at risk the dream of a tenure-track position.

I wanted these three voices to anticipate, and respond to, each other, as well as to add dimension to the complex decisions at play in graduate education. How are we to be transparent with students about their work and prospects? Do we understand what is at stake when we encourage students to take risks or to play it safe? Where is the line between student ambition and faculty intervention?
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by Jen Teitle

 

 

The Dissertation as a Tool for Thinking and Knowing

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Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown, Associate Professor in the Department of English and the UI Center for the Book, teaches classes on book studies and early American literature. He is the author of the The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), and the editor of the UI Press series Impressions: Studies in the Art, Culture, and Future of Books. Matt’s twitter handle is @mpbrown.

On Friday, October 21, the NEH-funded Next Gen Ph.D. team brought comics artist and historian of ideas Nick Sousanis to campus to discuss his unique dissertation: a meditation through images and words on ways of knowing and seeing, a dissertation using graphic design to enact its very subject. If you have not seen it, hie thee now to Unflattening, available from Harvard University Press. There were a series of wonderful insights in Sousanis’s flipped lecture, wherein a seven-minute positioning of the visitor’s work by host Judith Pascoe was followed by an extended—and extraordinarily generous—hour with Prof. Sousanis answering questions.

I was struck most by a question floated between interlocutor and speaker (there was such good rapport and fertile inquiry, I can’t remember where the answers left off and the questions began): why is the standard dissertation the best tool for thinking and knowing? Sousanis had been making the case for drawing as a way of thinking: it is “a conversation with yourself . . . the mark you make is one you then have a dialogue with.” Here Sousanis observes the close connection between the work of the mind and the work of the hand.

Prof. Sousanis turned the question on us, asking the audience what a representation of their thoughts would look like, what their material image would be. We proffered music, video, a thought balloon (I mean, I thought that last one). Sousanis then showed a flow-chart diagram of his ideas for Unflattening (it is reproduced on the end-pages of the published version), one stage of preparation for his dissertation. In reference to the diagram, he returned to his point about mark-making by saying “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking.” Prof. Sousanis noted that it may sound mystical to put it this way. My reaction, though, was that it was actually very much of the world. This is the labor of thinking, given a material shape. Intellectual projects—standard and non-standard dissertations—emerge from this kind of toil. I recall copying long passages from obscure devotional manuals when writing my conventional dissertation and commenting on them after transcription—two levels of mark-making and a kind of immersive act then seeded connections much as the diagram generates thought for Sousanis.

There are many differences of course, not least his hard-won skills as an artist, between the conventional dissertation and what Sousanis has achieved. But most germane perhaps for a rethinking of the dissertation format is how Sousanis foregrounds the role of tools in activities of thinking and knowing. Pen, sketchpad, lay-out, and the book format: a continuum of tools and platforms announce themselves in tandem with the dissertation’s heady content as we read and view Unflattening.

For the next generation of humanists, one matter that distinguishes their practices from my version of rote copying and critical reflection is the bevy of digital tools and mediating platforms available to scholars. With the dissertation itself a tool for thinking and knowing, how can we nurture digital technologies and new media interfaces as places of critical reflection? How do modes of mark-making with these tools and platforms arrive at the point where we say “this isn’t a picture of my thinking. This is my thinking”? How do mentors sustain new scholars in this work, such that the tools serve a larger project that is the dissertation-as-tool? As someone committed to long-form argument, I would finally hope that graduate training is mindful of criteria from the world of the standard dissertation, the criteria of knowing one’s field and offering a minor or major contribution to its scholarly conversation. Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening is an inspiring model, wherein the tools and platforms result in a powerful new view of viewing itself.

On Winning the 3-Minute Thesis Competition

 

Miele~Benjamin
Miele~Benjamin

Ben Miele, Assistant Professor of English at University of the Incarnate Word, won the University of Iowa 3-Minute Thesis competition in 2015. Ben will be a guest participant in the UI Next Gen PhD Elevator Pitch/3-Minute Thesis symposium (Nov. 18, 12-1, Main Library 2032).  He allowed us to republish a blog post he wrote just after he completed his PhD in English last year. Ben’s twitter handle is @HarpocratesJr.

I am using this opportunity not only to brag about finishing grad school but also to brag about winning the University of Iowa’s inaugural 3MT®Competition. What is it? According to Iowa’s website for the competition, 3MT is “an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland, Australia. In this competition students share their dissertation research with a general audience in an oral presentation lasting at most … three minutes. Begun in 2008, the competition has grown to include more than 125 universities worldwide, including 45 in the United States.”

Distilling a dissertation down to three minutes is challenging but doable—and valuable. The emphasis is on clarity and concision, cornerstones of those ever-important communication skills, and so it helps students in any discipline, primarily because they can practice explaining an involved and arcane research project to an audience that is not in the field. But even those “in the field” are not experts on the particular topic of each and every dissertation. My dissertation was about surveillance and reading, and few researchers of early modern English literature are experts on Renaissance surveillance practices. So the 3MT can help with the thesis defense, the elevator pitch, and the job interview—as well as with the justification of the English PhD to inquisitorial relatives at Thanksgiving.

If students start planning to do it early enough, the 3MT can even help them hone their arguments at the prospectus stage. The 3MT asks students to explain how they arrived at their research, what new discoveries they made, and why it matters—all in just three minutes. Prospectuses, ideally, also aim to situate one’s research in a larger conversation, explain one’s unique contribution, and show why a research finding is important. I think the 3MT model could even help in the creation of a prospectus.

Going through the 3MT process can make one more competitive when applying for scholarships, fellowships, and grants. It encourages students to think about how to appeal to a broader audience—something that, unfortunately, is often not considered until late in the writing process. if preparation for the competition is started early enough, the 3MT can make the thesis better. In any event, or as in my case, it can make the explanation of the thesis better. And if the competition takes place at an amazing place like the University of Iowa, one can get a short, user-friendly video about one’s research, great for showcasing on one’s web site.

Check out my three-minute presentation, which garnered me a first-place prize and a People’s Choice award—not thePeople’s Choice©, ®, , etc. award, but an award nonetheless.

Twitter and the Academy: Reflections of a Job Candidate on Her Use of Social Media

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Jennifer Janechek

Jennifer Janechek, a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, is completing a dissertation that reveals how Victorian and modernist writers engaged with telephonic technologies.

If George Eliot were living today and her sense of determinism shifted from ethical to technological, she might modify her famous line in Adam Bede to read, “Our tweets determine us, as much as we determine our tweets.” Such a sentence captures my anxiety as a social media user who is currently on the academic job market: we make the initial decision to tweet, but then our tweets can get decontextualized, misappropriated, and plagiarized. Or they can encounter audiences we didn’t anticipate, and take on lives of their own.

In his conversation about Twitter communication with the UI Next Gen PhD community, Professor Ivan Kreilkamp addressed both the opportunities and the risks associated with social media. The session reframed the way I conceive of Twitter (and social media in general) as an academic, and gave me new impetus to integrate this platform into my daily writing practice. Below are three of Kreilkamp’s points that I found particularly generative:

  1. Twitter is highly effective at facilitating “soft” networking.

Kreilkamp pointed out that Twitter gives graduate students access to contexts we might not have imagined possible. If someone with a large Twitter following retweets us, our tweets can reach audiences otherwise unthinkable (hence the need to be mindful of our postings—see point three below). Also, we can “attend” conferences virtually if there are actively tweeting participants and a conference hashtag (I’m following #NAVSA2016 as we speak!). In addition, Twitter connects us with scholars we might not have had the opportunity to meet under other circumstances, and it enables us to continue conversations with people we meet at conferences or other events. Whereas I would never send a professor whom I’ve never met a friend request on Facebook, nor would I feel comfortable sending him or her an unsolicited email, I have unabashedly followed numerous scholars on Twitter. Because Twitter provides a less “personal” setting for the exchange of ideas, I am able to engage in conversations with academics to whom I might not otherwise have access—giving me greater visibility, sure, but also enabling me to participate in timely discussions with faculty and graduate students around the world. Indeed, Twitter has given me a better sense of the state of my discipline and its subfields, since I have been able to follow trending topics and watch major debates unfold.

  1. Create lists in Twitter to start conversations of which you want to be a part.

I identified with students in the audience who spoke of concerns about sounding smart enough or professional enough on Twitter, a particular challenge when one is constrained to a 140-character limit. But Kreilkamp encouraged graduate students to converse with other scholars, emphasizing that Twitter is a “social” medium rather than an archive of self-promotional tweets. Those tweets do have their place, to be sure—after all, Twitter is a great way to publicize one’s work—but they should not dominate one’s Twitter feed. I was particularly struck by Kreilkamp’s idea of using “lists” to tailor Twitter feeds to specific research and/or teaching interests, in this way taking an active role in creating and maintaining scholarly conversations. As Kreilkamp emphasized, Twitter discussions can fuel work aimed at both academic and broader audiences, triggering ideas for different kinds of writing.

  1. Be mindful that tweeting can carry very real implications.

Both Kreilkamp and the audience referenced Twitter scandals and instances of public shaming that have resulted from ill-advised or misconstrued tweets. We discussed the possibility of having two accounts—one personal (and potentially pseudonymous) and one professional. However, there is still a risk, if you choose the former option, that someone will discover your private account. I approach Twitter as a space for intellectual exchange and social activism, reserving my more personal stories or ideas for Facebook—all the more so now that I am on the job market and have to consider how each tweet contributes to my digital identity. But the question and answer session caused me to scrutinize my pedagogical use of Twitter. Although I have been cautious in having students use Twitter, making this use optional, recommending that students adopt pseudonyms for their Twitter handles, and reminding them of the various audiences (e.g., potential employers) who might read their tweet history, I left Kreilkamp’s talk with a renewed sense of the need to be mindful of how my students use social media. I think Twitter provides a great place for students to share reactions to readings in real time and to extend large-group discussions beyond the classroom, but because I teach courses that often address contentious topics, it’s especially important for me to emphasize to my classes the public (and permanent) nature of social media.

I have always had an on-again, off-again relationship with Twitter, never knowing quite how best to use it. The question and answer session with Dr. Kreilkamp gave me concrete ideas for how to make (careful) use of the unique writing and networking space it offers. See you in the #twitterverse—tweet to me @jjanechek!

PhDs in the Library

Dr. Amy Chen

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Looking over Dr. Amanda Visconti’s CV before her talk at the University of Iowa a few weeks ago, I realized that part of her success as a tenure-track Digital Humanities (DH) Assistant Professor and DH Specialist Librarian derives from her background. Dr. Visconti received an MS degree in Information prior to obtaining her PhD degree in Literature/Digital Humanities.

So does it matter that Dr. Visconti has both the MS and the PhD degrees? The truth is that obtaining an information science degree may not be necessary in every case for future digital humanities faculty and/or librarians, but it does allow candidates more flexibility on the job market.

I believe Dr. Visconti’s MS degree helped her in four ways:

  1. It highlighted her commitment to a professional orientation beyond a tenure-track job in a literature department. While Dr. Visconti does not have one of the most common library degrees, the Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) or the Master of Library Science (MLS), her Information MS can perform the same role as these degrees do by formally expanding her identity.
  2. It added value to her Literature/Digital Humanities PhD. The Information MS degree is for students who might wish to work in a variety of settings, including the technology industry. As Visconti went on to have her PhD cross-listed in Literature and the Digital Humanities (DH), she was able to take the broader understanding of technology she acquired from her master’s degree and apply it to the research she was doing for her PhD, increasing her academic exposure to digital methods.
  3. It allowed her to be a more sophisticated doctoral student in Literature. With her first degree behind her, Visconti was better informed when she needed to research graduate schools and choose a mentor. This savviness also allowed her to be better positioned to reshape the paradigm of what the dissertation looked like, and to be able to advocate for her work.
  4. It gave her better timing on the job market. Dr. Visconti got her “additional” certification first. For doctoral students interested in library or DH careers, contemplating—while taking coursework, studying for exams, or writing dissertations—the pursuit of an additional degree can be overwhelming. But waiting until after graduating to consider this possibility can be even worse: at some point, a newly-minted PhD needs to earn a living wage, establish a family, settle down geographically, or simply leave her student days behind. Rather than finding a master’s program to professionalize her doctorate credential, Visconti carried her professional orientation into her PhD research, empowering her literary analysis while also giving her more options on the job market.

Writing this as an academic librarian—I am currently the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa—without an additional master’s degree, I can’t approach Visconti as a model of how to pursue a career in libraries because she is relatively exceptional.

It’s not just that she holds two degrees, but that the order in which she obtained them is important. Acquiring additional credentials so as to move into a different career track after graduating with a doctorate is a much more complicated undertaking, although certainly not impossible, as my career proves. To acknowledge this reality is not to make Visconti’s new role at Purdue seem any less exciting, or to suggest that her research is any less avant-garde, but it does concede that her experience is difficult for many students currently enrolled in PhD programs to emulate.