In episode 1, we introduce to you the podcast and its philosophy. Deepthi Murali, producer of PhD Futures Now! talks to the core team of Humanities Without Walls Consortium (HWW) about graduate education and career diversity for Humanities PhDs in United States.
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer
Jason Mierek: This is PhD futures now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity, and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a sixteen-university consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In our first episode, we introduce you to the work of Humanities Without Walls and our philosophies on collaboration, graduate education, and career diversity for humanities PhDs in the 21st century. Welcome. We are glad you’re here!
Deepthi Murali: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the PhD Futures Now! podcast. I’m Deepthi Murali, the producer of PhD Futures Now!, and I’m here with the brilliant core team of people at Humanities Without Walls consortium, who made this podcast happen. Now the PhD Futures Now! podcast was born out of the need to bring to the fore those voices that are advocating for career diversity, for humanities PhDs, and to amplify the need to think more forcefully about the mini crisis that higher education faces today in the United States. And over the course of the first season of this podcast, you will hear from students, faculty and administrators who are working toward the goal of making humanities PhDs more accessible, more diverse, more equitable, and to help PhDs look at careers beyond the tenure track.
Some of our guests are veterans of the field, like Dr. Teresa Mangum, who runs the very successful diversified PhD training program, the Humanities for the Public Good, at the University of Iowa. We will also talk to PhD students like Lisa Betty, who’s an avid and forceful critic of the inequities in the US higher education system. But in our very first episode, today, we want to talk about Humanities Without Walls, HWW, for short. And to do that with me here today, I have the core team of HWW. And we are going to hear from them in just a minute. I want to tell you before we start that we are glad that you’re here. And we hope to build a community here through the PhD futures now podcast, and you can find more information about us on the podcast at www.PhDFuturesNow.org. So, let’s get started. Antoinette, would you like to introduce yourself and start us off?
Antoinette Burton: Hi, everybody. I’m Antoinette Burton. I’m a professor of History here at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. And I’m the PI, the principal investigator, for Humanities Without Walls, which as Deepti said, is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
JM: My name is Jason Mierek. I am the Director of Operations for Humanities Without Walls. I have been around more or less, if not from the inception of the consortium, then from its zygote stage, or its blastula stage maybe, when it was a bundle of cells. And so I try to keep tabs on all of our initiatives at various levels of valence. And, wow, I also find myself being a podcaster!
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann: Hi, everyone. My name is Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. I am the Associate Director of Humanities Without Walls and am based at Marquette University, where I am also a PhD candidate in the History Department, and I am currently the Director of the career diversity initiative at Marquette. I was a fellow in 2017, with HWW workshop as a member of the first national cohort, and since that time, I found HWW to kind of transform my professional life. And that’s just a little bit about how I got here.
DM: And Peggy.
Peggy Brennan: Hi, everyone. My name is Peggy Brennan. I am the Assistant Director of Operations on the HWW grant. I first joined HWW in 2017 as an RA, as I was working through my graduate program at the University of Illinois, and I’m now finishing up that PhD, and so these questions of the transition from academia to a job in administration, or a non-faculty job, are very at the forefront of my mind right now. So I’m grateful to be a part of this conversation!
DM: Okay, now that we have introduced the HWW core team, let’s get to the basics. Could you tell us about what Humanities Without Walls, or HWW, is?
AB: Humanities Without Walls is a grand experiment, an improvisational experiment in interdisciplinary collaboration across institutions. And of course, “without walls” in all directions, that is centered in a sixteen-member consortium, which is based here at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. For the last six years, we’ve been organizing and convening two different kinds of collaborative and “without walls” work. On the one side is the grand research challenge, where we have funded almost forty unique research projects that model this experiment in collaborative and interdisciplinary research. And, of course, more germane to today, the career diversity workshop idea, which we did for five consecutive years in the city of Chicago, initially, through the good partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival. Since 2019, on our own with the help of Maggie Nettesheim Hoffman. It’s really the grad students who serve as that link. It helps us to remember that although career diversity, and the research grand research challenge were kind of separate rooms, as we use sometimes refer to them–sides of the house–in fact, it’s the future of graduate education, and the future career and job pathways of graduate students that has really become the salient connector between the two.
DM: Jason, as someone who’s been there from the beginning, can you tell us a little bit about how HWW works on the day-to-day basis?
JM: Wow, on a day-to-day basis. So one thing that it does is it grows on a day to day basis, and it evolves on a day to day basis. When I began working with Humanities Without Walls, as I like to describe to folks, I began with a single manila folder that maybe had thirty-five sheets of paper in it. And in it was kind of the guiding ideas behind what Humanities Without Walls was to become. As Antoinette alluded to, it was these two primary initiatives, one of which was to fund collaborative research projects, the other was to explore what was then referred to as “alt ac,” which is a phrase I hope we’ll come back to in this conversation and explain why we don’t refer to those workshops as “alt ac” any longer. But from its inception, it was those two initiatives. Peggy, you were really, I think, central to that initiative, when we first tried to bring the graduate students into the research challenge as more substantial research partners rather than simply gofers, or kind of post hoc additions to the research.
PB: I was just going to add by giving a little history of that just really briefly, of what we called the grad lab practicum, which was meant to be a formalized collaboration of graduate students on the grand research challenge projects alongside faculty collaborators, and that actually came out of the first round of grand research challenge projects where PIs, faculty PIs really noticed that the grad students they brought on board to work on those projects ended up being crucial to the project moving forward—as organizers, as event planners, but also as intellectual partners.
AB: Peggy’s observation gives us the chance to say—and I know that Maggie will have a lot to say about this—that five years of doing this, it’s a long time. I think that the combination of the global pandemic with the political situation and Black Lives Matter coming more publicly to the fore, perhaps for the mainstream in the US than it had been, since 2014, since Ferguson. All of those things have converged to bring the questions at the heart of HWW: what kind of society do we want? How can humanist trained with PhDs contribute to that? And most importantly, what can PhDs in humanities actually learn from knowledge produced outside the academy, in order to move the needle forward? And all the things that I think we care about. HWW is kind of a barometer of those things, rather than a predictor, and I think it’s great that we’re breathlessly trying to keep up, because that’s really that shows that we are, we are experimental and improvisational.
MNH: We are now also recognizing that it’s one thing to train graduate students, but we also need to help train faculty and administrators to become educated advisors.
DM: Very Important.
MNH: Guiding their PhD students. Yeah. I know that when we’ve talked with fellowship alumni about recognizing that faculty administrators need that training as much as graduate students has been a big relief from them. Yes, thank you. We need advisors to help guide us in this work, too!
DM: Yeah, totally. What does HWW mean to you? You kind of mentioned your personal experience of HWW. But how does that kind of join in with, you know, working towards career diversity and diversity initiatives at HWW?
MNH: In 2017, when I applied for the fellowship workshop, I really thought it was going to be the journey, my journey: I would go to the workshop, and I would come back with some sort of sense of future career pathways or new knowledge about how to how to start a career, especially I think, for myself in the nonprofit sector, because I’m a historian of American philanthropic foundations and their development in the early 20th century. I had always thought that maybe the tenure track was not something that I wanted to do, but that I wanted to somehow apply my research in the construction of a professional career. Instead, when I spent those three weeks in Chicago, I recognized: Wow, I need to bring this back to my friends and colleagues at Marquette. Because at the time, the graduate school, which they’re wonderful, and so I’m not critiquing Marquette, or our faculty at all in this statement, but there wasn’t a lot of programming to help PhD students think about multiple career paths. And I had seen a number of very dear friends and brilliant scholars come in, you know, six months before graduation, and hit the realities of the job market and recognize, there’s no, there’s no kind of pathway for me to get a tenure track job. And at a school like Marquette, which is an R2, I think that we really feel the job market crisis acutely. So I really kind of came back with this sense that somehow we’ve got to build this programming at Marquette. So it was in that in building the programming at Marquette that I came back into conversation with Antoinette and Jason because we hosted a couple of career diversity symposium on campus. They came, you know, they invited me to come and work with them on the 2019, the 2019 workshop.
DM: In more ways than one, the career the pre-doctoral workshop that we did sort of solidified both my own objective of thinking more about diversifying my career options. Obviously, all of us there are already thinking about career diversity, otherwise, we wouldn’t opt to take part in it. But once we were there, I think it really did enable us with some skills, to consider it more seriously to do to gain some skills—or at least be cognizant of the skills that we need to gain in order to go out there and try to find a job that’s not a tenure track position within academia. So that’s just my shout out for the pre doctoral workshop, which is happening in summer 2021. But we’re going to have it again in a different location in 2022. So be on the lookout for the advertisements and follow HWW on Twitter!
AB: What we do hear from alums, like Deepthi and Maggie is how powerful that community experience was, in addition to all of the emotional and effective bonding that went on—so you realize that this is a structural issue that manifests itself locally, in all the ways in which it will locally, but that this is a larger–as I said–structural issue for higher education that everybody needs to be grappling with. If PhD education is to carry on in some form, and if the ongoing production of academic knowledge at the boundary—at the so called boundary of the so called world and the academy—is to really be one of the ways of thinking about how we move across, and how we move toward and away from each other at various moments in our lives. So I think that that community question has many dimensions, and it’s really wonderful for us now, having just signed on thirty more fellows for 2020, to be able to say that we now have, we will have almost 180 alums from HWW by the end of the summer of 2021. And that itself is a powerful critical mass, I think.
MNH: Yes, I’ve realized too from my work at Marquette that we need to think through designing what I think at Marquette, we are now referring to as practicums for PhD students in the humanities to get the experiences that, that employers really value when you’re going out into the job market. So I would encourage PhD students who might be listening to this podcast to really familiarize yourself with contemporary discourses and a number of different professional sectors.I would encourage PhD students who might be listening to this podcast to really familiarize yourself with contemporary discourses and a number of different professional sectors. — Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, Co-Host Click To Tweet
AB: One of the things that I’ve learned in the last six years, among many, because I really was, I really didn’t know very much about career diversity at all. And I had a little bit of a pain point reaction to the very thought of it, being raised as a pretty conventional humanist, is that the assumption sometimes is that humanists have so many amazing skills, we have research skills, we have organizational skills, we have pedagogical skills, we have the capacity to grasp large bodies of knowledge, make them representable, to digest them to, to, you know, we have project management skills. And that’s all true and we have those skills and habits of mind that are really valuable. But that is that is it’s not self-evident to simply take those skills and walk into an organization like a nonprofit, or anywhere that isn’t even academic adjacent, let’s just say outside the academy, totally. And imagine that you can simply slot into that, and it’s going to work for you. There, there is a set of vocabularies, there’s a kind of ethnography that you have to really be prepared to carry out in order to be able to not just pivot or adapt, but really imagine how it is what you are, can actually serve what is needed. You know, we’ve just been saying, these conversations have been going on for 10 years, 15 years, 30 years to some degree, but the the ways in which we’re trying to put them into practice, that’s actually quite new. And thanks to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has supported so many different versions of career diversity, both through direct awards to institutions of higher education, through its support of some of the amazing programs at the American Council of Learned Societies, for example, through its collaborations with the AHA and the MLA and other learned societies. The Mellon Foundation has really been at the forefront of helping people think about how to do this, I think in 2021, we’re starting to put the pedal to the metal in a way and really try to grind those gears, how are we going to actually make this happen.
DM: And that’s a great segue into our next section, which is sort of thinking about, we have a lot of challenges that’s facing humanities PhDs, and we can really say that we are in a crisis mode, we have been for a while, the pandemic has, I would say, not just exacerbated it, but like actually brought it to the, you know, sort of the top of the pile, the issues that we have in the humanities. So I want to go around the table, so to speak, the zoom table, and see what each of us think is the most significant challenge facing humanities PhDs or the higher ed it can be either or, or both.
JM: Oh, boy, um, I don’t know. I think honestly, the fact that finance has a huge interest in perpetuating the un-sustainability of higher ed the way that it is, I think, I think that, I think in the 1990s when there was a push to rightfully to bring more people into the academy, it was done in a way that did so for many people by at the same time giving them un-dischargeable debts. And so I think that there is a bit of the higher education system that is as complicit in this, as we would talk about a military industrial complex, I think that there is a higher ed financial complex, where I think that’s part of it is that we have to, in some way, figure out how to make education affordable for folks education, something that does not c****** them with non-dischargeable debt, and also something that we have to remove. I think like the financial speculative incentive for a lot of us a lot of aspects of contemporary higher ed, I think that those things have to be addressed as much as the delivery. And I think that there are serious questions about that aspect of structure of higher ed, that we have to address.There is a bit of the higher education system that is as complicit in this, as we would talk about a military industrial complex, I think that there is a higher ed financial complex, where I think that's part of it is that we have… Click To Tweet
AB: And you know, Jason, your, your remarks, I think, are spot on. We have a commitment to our institutions being social escalators, and of making the institution—which is not built for first and family, people of color, indigenous people—making the institutions more responsible, not just to that demographic, or to not simply to diversity, equity and access, although I think those are very important… What I’m what I think we’re at a tipping point at is, who is going to be the student of the university in the 21st century? And how do we recruit the students we want and need, so that they can with the different kinds of knowledge that they bring from all kinds of walks of life, from all social classes from all different kinds of racialized, underrepresented and subjugated and, and worse communities? How can the knowledge and the experiences they bring transform what we mean by higher education, that’s what I’m interested in. And that is a big, a big challenge that many, many people are trying to wrap their heads around.
MNH: When we talk about the job market crisis, or if you look at some of the notable figures—I won’t mention names—in the conversation who offer solutions, they might point to the overproduction of PhDs. And to get to the challenge of the job market crisis, and the decrease in the number of tenure track positions, that what we should do is just close down PhD programs, stop producing PhDs. And I worry, as someone from an R2, whose life has been enhanced by working on a PhD in the humanities, in history, in particular, and doing that type of research, and expanding my own knowledge, that we are we going to be limiting access to education for historically underserved populations. If we just say, you know, what we’re going to close down, we’ll just close down PhD programs in the humanities. And I think that the populations who will be impacted by that are BIPOC, and first generation, and women scholars. So I would suggest, and I hope that this is maybe something well, this is what I believe I don’t want to say it’s what HWW believes, but I oppose closing down PhD programs as a solution to the job market crisis.
DM: I wanted to ask this question specifically to Maggie and Peggy because you are still in the process of finishing off those PhDs. And so, and I just graduated last semester! So as people the current generation of PhDs who are at acutely facing this problem of off the job crisis within academia, what do you think are the challenges for specifically humanities PhDs coming out? Is it, is it that there are no tenure track jobs? Or is it that we are not really being trained for anything but tenure track jobs? Or is it that there is a denial within the university system of the actual problems that’s facing humanities PhDs? Your thoughts.
MNH: All of it, Deepthi. All of the above. I think one of the places perhaps where our PhD program in the humanities has gone astray is to really combine or link the job outcome with the training. And so I want to sort of upend that a little bit. Right, as opposed to thinking that the only career path one has available to them with a PhD in history is a tenure track, teaching position or research position: that’s obviously shifted in the 21st century. Not just because of necessity, but because we live in a world where there are so many different varieties of options and lifestyles and places to live. We don’t live in the 19th century German world, where we trained PhDs to become researchers and professors, that world doesn’t exist anymore. And so I think it’s very kind of arrogant to assume that someone who wants to earn a PhD or work on a PhD, automatically believes that they’re going to be, or want to be, a tenure track professor. And that if you somehow go against that grain, you are a failure, or that you are not really committed to being a true academic. So I want to, I would like to see us separate the job outcome from the actual education we receive as PhDs.
PB: I absolutely agree, I guess I think the first two that you brought up Deepthi are especially important. I think it’s important, though, to highlight that the job crisis for humanities PhDs isn’t new to 2020, you know. And so these, these questions are a lot more acute than they were, you know, a year ago, but they remain the same, in essence, and and it comes down to in terms of the training, you know, it comes down to advisor relationships, and what kind of programs are available over the course of the students’ graduate program.. I think what the beauty of HWW is, is that it gives a sense of individual agency where those sort of structural things aren’t necessarily in place in every PhD program, right? It gives students a toolkit to take advantage of whatever opportunities are around, on their own campus or across the country. Whether that’s informational interviews, or, you know, an internship over the summer, that kind of thing. So I think a lot of these questions aren’t necessarily new to the last year.I think what the beauty of HWW is, is that it gives a sense of individual agency where those sort of structural things aren't necessarily in place in every PhD program. — Peggy Brennan, Co-Host Click To Tweet
DM: Let’s talk a little bit about career diversity in itself, right? Like, what, what does career diversity really mean? Like, you know, I think we all, I think all of you touched upon different aspects of career diversity. And then Jason, at the beginning of the episode kind of really vociferously came out against the term, alt, ac. And I know that this is a bone that the HWW core team has to pick with the world. So Maggie,
MNH: Please don’t use the language of alt ac! Now, maybe we need a little bit of history on, on where “alt ac” came from as a discourse. And I believe that about 10 years ago, so right around the time of the recession, when we really hit the first kind of acute wave of job, you know, tenure track job market decreases. There were a group of, you know, PhD students who recognized you know, we really need to start encouraging PhD students to think about alternative careers. And so this is about 2008 2009. And I apologize that I don’t know the names of those scholars who really introduced that concept into the, into the academic conversation. And so at the time, it was it was a reform movement that, you know, really opened up this conversation and saying, we need to be intentional about how we train PhD students for their future careers. But over time, as HWW has also learned, that language really of like the plan A or versus Plan B, really continued to otherize additional career pathways. And so for me, we I personally embrace the language of career diversity, because it equalizes all career outcomes as equivalent to one another. So we often say during the workshop, that HWW is really career agnostic. We don’t care what type of career you go into, into the future, so long as it’s consistent with what you find meaningful about the work that you do in the world. That you find it valuable and consistent with your system of ethics. And so this workshop speaker who visualized this argument for, for us in 2017, really referred to it as a sprinkler. If you think about PhD training as kind of going through a pipeline is like it whether it’s water or electricity at the end. What do we attach to the end of that pipe? And it should be a sprinkler, right? So you have a variety of different streams of water that flow from that, that one singular pipeline, and they’re all equal, and they all do the same thing of nurturing our gardens when it’s dry, so, so I that’s why I personally reject the language of “alt ac.”Please don’t use the language of alt ac! — The Humanities Without Walls Consortium Click To Tweet
DM: I wanted to bring this back to the podcast, I know that I kind of basically jumped the gun with Antoinette and kind of went to her and, you know, said why not a podcast?! And I was very enthused, and I swear, I didn’t think Antoinette was going to take me seriously. But I genuinely believe that this is a great way of communicating what HWW does, but also to have interesting, engaging conversations about this topic and be able to share it with more than the consortium, or the core group, which is one of the missions of HWW. And so for me, the podcast really is a way to further these kinds of conversations and questions. Sometimes these questions are difficult, and sometimes it is necessary to have multiple, and differing, and dissenting opinions. But to have it out in the open, in a public forum, kind of helps further this question of what Antoinette earlier said, that it’s not just the talking, but how do you actually do it? And so we, for me, the podcast is sort of using the space to start having conversations about how we can do what we need to do to further you know, address, or the the actual issues of career diversity and the crisis in academia. So with that in mind, I want us to end by again, going around the table and sort of thinking about, what does the pod–or what do you hope the podcast does in the next, hopefully, many seasons?
JM: I hope that we blow up and become number one on Spotify and Apple. And I hope that it leads to us forming at HWW band with Professor Bill Hart-Davidson on bass, myself as lead vocalist…
PB: I can play the triangle!
JM: We need to find someone to play cowbell.
MNH: Gotta have more cowbell!
JM: You think I’m joking, Deepthi, but I’m not!
PB: I have a particular hope—I have a lot of other ones as well—but one that is maybe a little less expected is, I really hope that faculty tune in, you know, traditionally minded academic faculty who maybe are hoping to become better mentors in that role, for their students who are looking for non-traditional or non-faculty jobs, I would think that would be fabulous if we could really change the minds about the value of a PhD among those people who are currently doing that mentorship.
DM: Awesome. And Antoinette?
AB: I’m so grateful Deepthi, that you suggested this to me. I remember the exact moment in the 2019 workshop. I thought it was such a gift, because podcasting is something that I’ve been thinking, I understand it as a really important delivery system. It’s a way of leveraging HWW’s values and convictions—not as HWW’s necessarily, although obviously, I’m interested in HWW being more broadly known—but it’s one, one method that we have for convening people around these issues, which I think as you very rightly said, we don’t want to just be speaking to the choir, we want to be bringing dissenting voices, and we want to be making cogent and persuasive arguments about how this question is at the heart of higher education going forward. And I’m really invested in the university, public or private, taking a sharp turn in the next 10 years away from its way from the things that weigh it down, and toward the things that are going to allow it to be responsive and representative of the world that we want. And I think this podcast is one of many ways that HWW, and all other kinds of actors and players at this historical moment, can really contribute to that reorientation.
MNH: I think just one of the great things that I think we can bring out of this work, especially to the support of The Andrew Mellon Foundation, that we’re providing all these resources to graduate students for free. Not that I think that career consulting or that paying for that type of work is unimportant, but I think as much as possible, these types of resources that help graduate students think through their careers, and develop their careers, ought to be free, especially during a pandemic and a kind of a global market crisis.If there are graduate students listening, we are here to help you. — Deepthi Murali, Producer Click To Tweet
DM: Alright, with that, I think we should wrap up. But before we go, I wanted to say two things. One, if there are graduate students listening, we are here to help you. So if you need us to do sessions on skill shares, like informational interviews, please let us know so that we can include that in our future programming. Secondly, don’t miss our next episode, we are having Dr. Teresa Mangum and Dr. Leonard Cassuto, both of whom are veterans of the field in career diversity, and thinking about the future of PhDs, to talk to us about the crisis in higher education. So this is definitely an episode that you want to listen to! So with that, I say adieu for myself and for the whole team here at HWW. And we see you again in three weeks! Till then stay safe.