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

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

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 or read his other musings at

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

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?
by Jen Teitle



The Dissertation as a Tool for Thinking and Knowing

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.

What if we build a digital edition and invite everyone?

img_0942Auditorium in the beautiful new Visual Arts Building, site of Wednesday (Oct. 12, 3:30) Conversation with Dr. Amanda Visconti. Dr. Visconti’s dissertation  will serve as the impetus for a wide-ranging discussion of dissertation and citation practice. The title of this post comes from the white paper report on progress and process that Dr. Visconti wrote as part of her dissertation portfolio.

At the Next Gen planning meeting in advance of Amanda Visconti’s visit, we identified what we collectively see as the most important tasks that a dissertation in the humanities must accomplish.  We found that the assembled historian, librarian, and literary critics agreed that dissertations must:

Present a new argument or intervention in a field. (There was some disagreement about whether this intervention has to be a “major” one.)

Showcase the author’s fluency in the extant scholarship

Other priorities, not necessarily shared by all, included:

Convey a sustained written argument with clarity and style.

Carry a narrative arc through to completion.

Provide a stepping stone to publication, whether print or digital.

In a similar manner, we pondered the many tasks that the humble footnote has traditionally carried out, and our conversation extended to encompass such broad categories as ethics, collaboration, collegiality, etiquette, and community. “It’s a place to show that writing is not a solitary act, that you are not a ‘solitary singer,'” said a Whitman specialist. “It’s a way of showcasing a community of like-minded scholars,” added another participant. Although we are interested in thinking alongside Amanda Visconti about how citation practice is being altered and expanded in digital venues, we were impressed by the varied work the traditional footnote carries out, and by cultural differences in its deployment (in some countries, footnotes convey miniature essays packed with competing views on a given subject, in others, footnotes communicate only the bare details of attribution).  More than one person noted that footnotes, like a trail of bread crumbs, allow scholars to follow a researcher back to his or her origins, and so hold scholars accountable for their claims.

We look forward to talking with Dr. Visconti about research practices old and new, and about how these practices can be marshaled in the service of varied career pursuits.

September 22 planning meeting and how it flew

mock-airplane-mecca-dayMock airplane, University of Iowa, 1919

Our September 21 Core Planning Group meeting—which was attended by a lecturer, a recent English PhD, two librarians (both with recent PhDs), and two faculty members—settled into air traffic control mode. Most of the work we did during this meeting had to do with drafting the basic structure of future grant activities, most pressingly the upcoming visits (hurray!) of Amanda Visconti, creator of the innovative dissertation, and Nick Sousanis, creator of the comics dissertation Unflattening.

Although our original grant proposal described separate symposia organized around discussions of (among other topics) the dissertation (e.g., the tasks it performs, the way these tasks might serve as training for careers beyond the academy) and citation (e.g., new citational practices, Orcid IDs, impact metrics, etc.), we could see how the dissertation work of both Visconti and Sousanis would animate discussions in both areas, so we will keep all these topics in the air during both of their visits.

We also made plans to take an incremental approach to the final requested white paper by composing a draft action list after each symposium. This future-looking summary would showcase the most interesting ideas that came out of each symposium’s gatherings, and concretize how they might be turned into specific actions or ways of achieving the planning process goals (most importantly, the empowering of graduate students to pursue a variety of careers).

Finally, we discussed the welcome development that graduate students on campus, hearing about our planning process, are coming forward to talk about their in-process or imagined future dissertations. Thinking about the specific hopes and dreams of individual students who are just starting to imagine innovative dissertation formats, or who, like Erica Damman (see last post) are already enacting them, allowed us to talk about institutional structures that would encourage or impede such work.

Our next two meetings will bring together Core Planning Group members and members of the Dissertation and Citation working groups. As always, all interested parties, whether part of the planning committee or not, will be welcome to join us.

Looking for innovative, consequential dissertations


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

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


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.


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).


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

How to create the most successful intellectual project . . .

day 1 no 1

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.”

day 1 no 2

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.

day 1 no 3

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.

day 4 no 4

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.

day 1 no 5

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.

day 1 no 6

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.