A process-focused graduate seminar

 

Victoria Burns

Victoria Burns is a PhD student in the English Department of the University of Iowa. She was a member of the Spring 2017 Next Gen PhD pilot class, and as a summer 2017 Next Gen intern, she is working on several writing projects. Her research interests include twentieth-century American literature, trauma, and visual studies.

When I enrolled in Judith Pascoe’s Romanticism class last semester, I had little idea of what to expect. The course, titled Romantic Literatures: Alternative Scholarly Approaches (Next Gen PhD), proposed a process-oriented structure. We would spend the first half of the semester engaging in the familiar graduate-level reading assignments and discussions while also participating in workshops led by Stephanie Blalock and Nikki White, staff members in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, and by Sarah Bond, Classics professor and mapping expert. In the second half of the semester, we were to focus on our independent research projects, which could take a wide variety of forms.

Rather than demanding a lengthy, polished paper characteristic of graduate seminars, Dr. Pascoe asked us to keep diligent notes about all of our literary and digital humanities research efforts, even if many of those notes would refer to eventual dead ends and failures. She would evaluate not only our final projects, but all of our work over the semester. This structure gave us the freedom to take ideas and run with them; to spend hours mastering new digital skills, even if we eventually chose not to incorporate the digital platforms into our final projects; to spend days and weeks researching topics of interest, even if our ultimate research areas diverged from our original focus.

At the semester’s end, I turned in an assortment of materials, including two (of four) attempts at an introduction to what I imagined would become a lengthy paper about Frankenstein and weather; an extensive bibliography of works ranging from weather-related documents from the 1750s to Mary Shelley’s letters to contemporary scholarly works; and a digital timeline using the Tiki-Toki platform. It was on the timeline that I merged much of my research—meteorological events, scientific discoveries, and moments from Mary Shelley’s life—in a visual manner. The tool’s visual nature also allowed me to fully appreciate the sheer extent of substantial scientific breakthroughs and remarkable meteorological events that occurred around the time Shelley penned the novel.

Because of the class’s format and the emphasis on process over product, I spent most of my time researching and reading, and I didn’t walk away with a polished piece of written scholarship. I can understand how people might see this as a limitation, especially those of us who need to submit a 15-page paper for qualifications. For me, though, this course was an opportunity to study Frankenstein in depth, even though I knew so many scholars had already studied it. The structure also kept me from feeling completely hopeless when I realized in early April that existing scholarship already covered essentially everything I found noteworthy about the novel’s dramatic weather scenes.

I don’t get the impression that process-oriented courses are intended to replace the conventional graduate seminars that require students to submit lengthy pieces of writing. However, I do believe that Dr. Pascoe’s Romanticism course and others like it can create valuable spaces in which students are encouraged to freely explore areas of interest without being overwhelmed by thoughts of a final final product. Furthermore, the writing assignments we completed in Dr. Pascoe’s course—ranging from three-minute thesis presentations to cover letters pitched at job opportunities outside of academe—allowed us to hone writing skills specific to shorter formats, formats often geared toward broad audiences.

Since I entered Iowa’s English PhD program expecting to pursue an alt-ac career path, I welcomed the opportunity to develop skills that I anticipate will be especially relevant for my future career. As the Next Generation PhD grant proposal notes, graduate programs often emphasize longer writing forms, including the dissertation and seminar papers, at the expense of shorter forms. I appreciated the chance to practice condensing and repurposing research findings to suit various formats and audiences, and I believe this practice will be useful for my future work.

As a grateful recipient of an NEH Next Generation PhD summer internship, I hope to use my summer funding to continue developing my writing skills, this time returning to the longer writing form typical of graduate work: the journal article. Though I initially considered finishing and polishing the paper I started in Dr. Pascoe’s class, I’ve instead chosen to focus my attention on a seminar-length paper I produced for another graduate course, one that better aligns with my interest in twentieth-century literature. That’s not to say that I am overlooking the skills I gained and the tools I discovered in the Romanticism course. I expect that I will regularly return to Joseph Williams’s Style (which was included in the class syllabus) as I heavily revise my seminar paper. Williams provides useful tools and exercises for producing stronger writing, and because he focuses on everything from sentence structure to overall organization, his lessons will be applicable to my writing in any form.

In my ideal scenario, I’ll walk away with a piece of scholarship of publishable quality by the end of the summer, but I hope to keep the Next Gen PhD’s process-oriented foundation in mind throughout my internship. Rather than concerning myself only with the pages I have to show at the summer’s conclusion, I hope to consciously cultivate new research and writing skills, acknowledging that these skills will be of value in a variety of future endeavors.

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.

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)

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.

day 3 no 2

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.”

day 3

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.