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It Starts on Day One

Scared Witless[This is a guest post by Bethany Nowviskie, the Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute. She has written at ProfHacker before on "The #alt-ac track: Negotiating Your 'Alternative' Academic Appointment." You can follow her on Twitter at @nowviskie.--@jbj]

Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

What do these critters need to grow up? The same thing our colleges and universities so desperately need: a generation of faculty and alternative-academic scholar-practitioners who have been trained to work in interdisciplinary contexts and who can not only take advantage of computational approaches to their own research, but who have been instilled with enough of a can-do, maker’s ethos that they feel empowered to build and re-build the systems in which they and future students will operate.

Although a small number of extra-curricular experiments (like our Praxis Program at UVa Library’s Scholars’ Lab) and curricular interventions (like Michigan State’s Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool) offer new and concrete models for emulation, there’s little hope for wholesale, bottom-up, grass-roots reform of methodological training in the humanities. With vanishingly few exceptions, required first-year graduate methods courses are dinosaurs and weeds. Some are an abbreviated introduction to journals databases and the mysteries of inter-library loan. Others have little to do with research and production “methodologies” at all, and are instead a crash course in academic jargon and en-vogue theories. The intra-institutional level of coordination in developing and teaching these courses, even among closely-allied humanities departments, hovers around zero. Within single departments, they are catch-as-catch-can, shaped almost wholly by the individual faculty who teach them (often as they themselves were taught a generation or two before) and sometimes vacillating wildly in content from year to year as instructors rotate to make more equitable the “burden” of a course that is generally construed as service. Is it any wonder they’re a mess?

And is it any wonder that we continue to produce graduate students unready to engage with new technologies and opportunities for interdisciplinary and computational work — baffled and frustrated at the conditions of the academic job market and its underpinnings in a dying scholarly publishing industry — and under-prepared for or uneducated about hybrid and non-traditional academic careers?

Here comes the asteroid we require. (And in offering a trajectory for it, I want to acknowledge my debt to conversations with Scholarly Communication Institute participants, with Scholars’ Lab faculty, staff, and graduate students. These conversations will continue with the support of the Mellon Foundation over the course of the next 20 months.)

Funding agencies, both private and public — like Mellon, Sloan, and (in the US) the NEH and NSF — should be approached by a respected humanities organization that itself possesses a mandate for and a track record of inter-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. I think here of groups like CHCI, the international Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes — especially in partnership with centerNet, its digital counterpart — or the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The organization should offer, given sufficient funding, to serve as a broker for a prestigious and competitive RFP (request for proposals). The RFP would be targeted at universities with core strengths in the humanities, adequate support for digital scholarship, and a desire — able to be expressed at the institutional level — to create broad-scale curricular change in the way graduate students are inducted into and trained for 21st-century humanities. Probably no more than 3 or 4 schools would win funding, which would be contingent on this:

  • the planned, top-down, apocalyptic wiping-out — one academic year from delivery of the award — of existing graduate methods courses in (say) four to six core humanities departments;
  • the formation of a small but representative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary team charged with creating the year-long common methods course that will replace them;
  • a commitment by participating academic departments, in the light of the new common course, to re-think the training that they consider to be absolutely unique to their disciplines and to offer a fresh avenue (short courses? discussion groups? new approaches to departmental teaching or to comps and orals requirements?) for students to acquire it;
  • and a rigorous plan for assessing and publicizing the successes, failures, and overall impact of the experiment, so that lessons may be learned and new programs inspired.

The common methods course would be required of all incoming graduate students in participating departments. Grant funding could support staffing of curriculum design and assessment phases, offer incentives (including course release or professional development) for faculty participation, or pay for teaching assistants. The program would be designed and team-taught by its planning group, which should include faculty from relevant departments, representatives of the offices of deans and provosts, and — importantly — local #alt-ac professionals, trained in the humanities, but working as scholar-practitioners in R&D or academic support roles in libraries, labs, publishing units, and centers. It should also engage faculty from departments like CS and Architecture, whose students may not participate directly in the program, but whose faculty would have important lessons to share about research methods and collaborative practices.

As its primary focus, the course must cover current humanities research skills, corpora, and trends — both digital and archival or material. But it should also address issues like: intellectual property and open access; the intersection of scholarship with the public humanities; publishing, preservation, and scholarly communication; funding and material support for research and teaching; interdisciplinary collaboration; matters of credentialing and assessment (that is, of peer review, tenure and promotion), faculty self-governance; and the range of under-interrogated policies and procedures that cover and shape the humanities in the modern college and university.

This is a tall order — but we can no longer afford to produce humanities PhDs who have only a foggy notion of how universities work, and how they are impacted by external technological and social forces. The first time a humanities scholar encounters a budget spreadsheet or performs a calculation should not be when he or she becomes department chair. And no new member of the professoriate should feel utterly out of depth in decision-making processes that impact the teaching, research, and service mission of his or her institution. Likewise, the health of the humanities depends on our production of graduate students who do not simply replicate the faculty of yesteryear, but who are prepared to take uncharted paths in and around the academy, working together to ask new research questions and to fashion new systems or adapt the ones we treasure to altered conditions.

Graduate training in the humanities starts anew every year, on Day One. How, at a moment when we feel much is at stake, can we allow it to remain so purposeless?

This post is reprinted (lightly edited, by her) from Bethany’s blog, in order to circulate its ideas more widely.–@jbj

Photo “Scared Witless” by Flickr user EgoAnt / Creative Commons licensed

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