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

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

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

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

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

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

How to create the most successful intellectual project . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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