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.