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Turning Up the Volume on Graduate Education Reform

Masumi will eat you[This is a guest post by Katina Rogers, senior research specialist with the Scholarly Communication Institute. You can find out more about Katina at her website or by following her on Twitter at @katinalynn.--@JBJ]

The final weeks of the year, always a time for reflection and renewal, are doubly so for humanities scholars because of the timing of the MLA and AHA annual conventions (and for some, the academic interviews and ensuing anxiety that accompany them). Recently, a number of conversations discussing new models for graduate education have taken place, giving the encouraging impression that we are in a moment when long-standing issues in higher education, including employment rates for PhD holders, may be receiving renewed attention that will transform into action on a broader scale. At the same time, some of the conversations have generated heated criticism.

In a single week, a number of high-profile articles came to public view:

While any one of these items would have garnered a good deal of discussion, the concentration of all of them appearing in such a short period of time seriously turned up the volume on discussions about graduate education reform. The topics of time to degree, job prospects, curricular reform, and career training are not only highly complex; they’re also intensely emotional. It’s not unexpected, then, that the articles and reports of the past week would generate strong opinions, both of support and critique.

Some of the criticisms that I saw last week expressed concern that the voices of graduate students were being excluded from the conversation; others worried that without the buy-in of senior faculty, changes would not get off the ground. Both are true, though more voices are represented in these conversations than is immediately apparent in the press coverage. Another, more complex critique is that the movement to shorten time-to-degree or to increase preparation for alternative academic careers merely legitimizes the problems of a flooded job market and the casualization of academic labor. These are major concerns, and I don’t think anybody knows for sure whether the long-term effects of the proposed changes will make a dent in the root of the problems. At the same time, something has to be done, and I think it’s incredibly positive that we’re at a point of action—and that at least some of that action is being initiated at high levels.

Last week’s articles bring public attention to work that has been ongoing for some time, and it’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of research and discussion that is less newsworthy but that is a crucial aspect of the movement toward change. One locus of conversation about the state of graduate training occurred at the Scholarly Communication Institute’s recent meeting, Rethinking Graduate Education. The first of three meetings on the topic, the workshop featured wide-ranging conversation and pragmatic implementation discussions. While concrete pilot programs will be developed in subsequent meetings in this series, already a number of innovative concepts have been proposed, including establishing a form of short-term rotations to increase graduate students’ exposure to other academic and cultural heritage institutions in their community.

Following that meeting, Fiona Barnett, a participant at the SCI workshop and director of the HASTAC Scholars Program, broadened the conversation by introducing a HASTAC forum on the same topic. While the size of SCI’s meeting was limited in order to foster deeper engagement among participants, the HASTAC forum opens up the dialogue to include many more voices from graduate students and others who wish to contribute. The forum has seen a high level of activity and a range of thoughtful ideas, including developing something akin to a studio class, where students would develop and present their own projects and engage in peer critique.

It’s also important to note that while the Stanford proposal and the issues that Bérubé presented are examples of top-down recommendations, some of the best examples of change are already happening in small pockets and from the ground up. In order to call more attention to them and to help find the patterns among strong programs, SCI is currently developing a loose consortium of programs—called the Praxis Network—that provide innovative methodological training and research support. More information about the network will be available in early 2013. While innovative programs may still feel more like the exception than the norm, there are some outstanding examples that can serve as models for programs that are considering making curricular changes or developing new initiatives. By showcasing existing programs that are rethinking the ways they train their students, we hope that their successes and challenges will enable other programs and departments to enact changes that make sense for their own institution and students.

Much of the conversation about graduate training focuses on career readiness—regardless of whether that career is professorial in nature. As readers of this space already know, over the past several months, SCI has conducted a study on career preparation among humanities scholars in alternative academic positions. An early report from the study is now available, with a fuller report to come in 2013. The upshot is that there’s much room for improvement in helping to equip graduate students to succeed in whatever career path they choose to pursue. Skills like project management and collaboration are useful to all grad students, whether they plan to pursue a professorship or another career; the same holds true for transparent discussion about the job market and more systematic teaching about the changing ecosystem of scholarly publishing. The data from the study will provide a much more solid base than mere anecdote where institutional structures are concerned.

There are numerous other examples of where conversations of this nature are happening, such as the MLA’s Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature (which has organized this session in Boston), and the Chronicle’s contest to design a new higher education system from the ground up (finalists are here). With so much ferment, we may be at a moment when real, broad-reaching reform will begin to take hold.

Photo “Masumi will eat you by Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski / Creative Commons licensed BY-SA-2.0

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