In Episode 2, host Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann talked to Dr. Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) and Dr. Leonard Cassuto (Fordham University) about the diverse challenges facing higher education in the United States today.
Dr. Teresa Mangum
Teresa Mangum is a professor in the departments of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and English and Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. She is leading a Mellon-funded project, Humanities for the Public Good, to design an interdisciplinary, experiential PhD in the humanities for people interested in careers other than the professoriate.
Teresa is the PI for Humanities for the Public Good at the University of Iowa, an innovative new PhD program that includes collaboration and public engagement through graduate programming, which you can read more about here.
Dr. Leonard Cassuto
Leonard Cassuto is the author or editor of nine books on American literature and culture, most The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. He is the author of “The Graduate Adviser,” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Other recent books include The Cambridge History of the American Novel (General Editor, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011), winner of the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sports Historians.
His Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by The Los Angeles Times. Cassuto is also an award-winning journalist who writes on subjects ranging from science to sports, in venues from The New York Times to salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.
Jason Mierek (intro): 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.
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann (intro): Hello, everyone, and welcome to PhD Futures Now. I’m your podcast co-host, Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, and on today’s episode, we discuss some of the problems and challenges facing PhD programming in higher education. To help us unpack the history, values, and larger systemic forces impacting current trends in the academy, we’ve invited two leading scholars working on reforming graduate training. We’re joined by Dr. Teresa Mangum, professor in the Departments of English and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. Teresa is the director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, where she’s leading an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project, Humanities for the Public Good, to design an interdisciplinary, experiential PhD in the humanities for people interested in careers other than the professoriate. Dr. Leonard Cassuto, professor of English and American Studies at at Fordham University, and co author of the recently published The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, joins us for the first of a two part series with Len and his co author Robert Weissbuch to discuss The New PhD, which advocates for student centered public facing and diverse career paths for students in the arts and sciences. Bob will be joining us on our next episode for a full conversation about their new book, and about pathways forward and reforming PhD programming across the academy. So you won’t want to miss that episode. Before we begin, we want to thank all of you, our listening audience, for joining us subscribing to the podcast, and for becoming a part of this community we’re trying to build here with PhD Futures Now. And now, we welcome to Teresa Mangum and Len Cassuto to the podcast.
MNH: As I mentioned, we are calling this episode The Crisis in Higher Education. But we’re really wondering, is it a singular crisis stemming from one overarching issue? Or are the crises we faced multi-pronged, requiring many different approaches and solutions? So this is kind of our first question, what are the crises we face in academia today, as you see it, from your perspectives at Fordham or at the University of Iowa?
Teresa Mangum: You want to start Len?
Leonard Cassuto: Well, okay, sure. Let’s see. The word “crisis” is something that I think we should be careful about overusing because it has a sense of immediacy, house on fire, kind of aspect to it. And there is a way that the problems that are facing higher education right now are … if they represent fires, they’ve been burning for a long time. I’ve been looking at academia closely for a while and graduate education in particular. And it seems to me that one of the ways in which we are out of step – you can can call it a crisis if you want but I would call it instead of fundamental problem – is the loss of a collective sense of higher education as a public good, rather than as a personal investment. I think that people who have come of age in the last 40 years or so has the experience of thinking about higher education starting with colleges, should I do this for me? Is it worth the investment of money that I and or my parents are going to make? And certainly American higher education has a long history of being that kind of personal investment that has that has a reward in the form of a credential that can lead to people’s economic betterment, but higher education in the United States has for much longer and always been more than that. Higher education is something that’s good for everybody. As K-12, public education is paid is paid for by property taxes. People don’t don’t say, “Oh, I don’t have children. I’m not going to pay my property taxes. Because I don’t, because I don’t have any children to get public education.” Because there’s a general recognition that an educated population is good for everybody that educating the children of today, even if they’re not my children, benefits me, as a member of society. So too, with higher education. And in the last, particularly 40 years or so, starting with the Reagan years, there’s been an erosion of the idea that higher education is and ought to be a public goods that benefits us all, and should be a source of public investment for that reason. And we have a long track record in American history of higher education, proving that out, that is, when higher education has been viewed as public good, we have all benefited, particularly for example, in the post World War Two era.
"And if we have a mission as educators, and people who support higher education, it would be I think, to try to reinforce the nonpartisan character of higher education, because it is, as we've been saying, something that all of… Click To Tweet
TM: And I’ll jump in, I would second everything that Len just said. And I’m also someone who’s a bit leery of the “crisis” rhetoric, for very similar reasons, that this has been a long, slow roll out of a set of problems, not a sudden avalanche, even though it feels like an avalanche on a daily basis sometimes. I was reading a great piece this morning in Inside Higher Ed by Stephen Mintz, who is a historian and the former director of the Institute for transformational learning at UT Texas, Austin, and so appreciated the way he was calling us all back to think about the relationship between liberal arts broad based deep learning, and vocation and careers. And we tend to go in one direction or the other. And, when we think of education as only a public good if it leads directly to a job ,and then we start to shift away from thinking about a broader kind of learning that prepares us all for any kind of life experience and career as a first stage, we just give away so much. And so I just want us to think about going forward, how we think with the public, how we think with our students and their families about.. and how we think with our university administrators, about looking at the values that we want to support in education, and then thinking about budget, and the reverse is the way we tend to have conversations these days. And that really could change fairly quickly with with great leadership.
MNH: So one of the things as you were both talking that I started to think about, and just so you both know, I’m a historian by training story in a philanthropic foundations, especially during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States. And so one of the questions I have is, as I’m listening to both of you, is to think about, and to think through what shifts historically led to this movement away in education, that perhaps, and maybe I’m wrong by suggesting this, but this movement away from that idea of education as a public good. You know… what happened?
LC: I’m sure we’re both gonna have plenty to say about this. But Teresa, by your leave, I’ll take the first whack at it. In in the period following World War Two, the government started investing heavily in higher education as its research and development lab, as a way of dealing with the tech the arms technology and space races with the Soviet Union. And it transformed this higher education in a way that is never been seen before. It’s more and more people who could never consider higher education before could now go to college and beyond. Because the good thing is government investment expanded the sector, and also government investment included legislation like the GI Bill, the National Defense Education Act, and later the guaranteed student loan program, all post war programs that expanded access to college. It was a time when the higher education sector not only grew but democratized and fulfilled in some sense, its vision, and the period following World War Two, the attitudes shifted. exponentially, it was a very good thing for the country, economically and socially. And it started, when resources became scarce, the access to college began to constrict, and it is continued to do so. But the reasons for this and the reasons for the growing conflict between higher education and society at large, they’re very complicated. And many of them, many of them can be rooted in the conflicts that roiled the nation in the 1960s, over race, and Vietnam. Universities became a locus for some of those conflicts, and higher education became during that period, and for the first time, partisan. And if we have a mission as educators, and people who support higher education, it would be I think, to try to reinforce the nonpartisan character of higher education, because it is, as we’ve been saying, something that all of society is invested in.
TM: And for sanity sake, the way, I tend to approach questions like this is to think large scale and then small scale, what can I do about it. And so large scale, in addition to the great overview that Len just offered of historical effects, I think we’re all experiencing what happens when national income bifurcates the way it has in the last 20 or 30 years, so that the middle class is hollowed out. And it has become more and more difficult for people to be in the middle in terms of income, where they live, all of those things, we tend to think about aspirationally I suppose there’s a lot less meta motivation to to walk the path of education toward that kind of life fulfillment, because it just feels more and more hopeless. And so I think that’s a heartbreaking part of where we are.
MNH:I think that’s a really a great place to transition to another question that Deepthi and I worked on as we were preparing for the the podcast interview today. Teresa, you mentioned to us in our in our preparation materials that there are certain values by which higher education in the US is designed. What do you think are some of those values that undergird our system of higher education? What do you think some of those values are? In what ways have those values maybe contributed unintentionally, to some of the problems that we face currently?
TM: Oh, another wonderful, wonderfully complicated questions. So even in the time of my career, so a few decades, I’ve really seen markedly each decade, the way there has been a slide away. And this is an economic frame this with the realization of state budgets dropping etc., for education. But I’ve watched the slide from the way we tended to do business is we had a good idea, it would benefit scholarly knowledge and it would benefit our students. If I came into a dean’s office or our provost office with a really good idea for experimentation, the first comment was, let’s figure out how to do it, or a version of it. And that kept us all in an enterprise of learning and excitement about ideas that just spilled over into all sorts of other parts of academic life, when I walk into an office now, before I can get my first sentence out, I’m being told, we don’t have budget, there’s no money for that. And so I’m getting really creative, as are many of my colleagues, at what you can do with very limited budgets, or relying too heavily on goodwill. As part of that budgetary definition. We made the decision to also change some of our formations, like shrink the tenure track faculty and create all of these different kinds of positions for short term faculty from part time teaching one class to longer period appointment. But we’ve now created a system in which it is very difficult for for the full faculty to cooperate to work together effectively to share in the work of the university because it is so tiered. It’s so tiered in terms of commitment of the institution to individuals, financial differences in what we get paid. And so our balance, you know, budget, plays out your values. And try to respect the fact that if there’s less money, we have to learn how to live with that with those budgetary constraints. But you feel like the choices we’ve made, have made it more and more difficult to be a place of learning and discovery. And a place that really fosters creativity and collaboration.
MNH: You know, as you were talking, it made me think about a little bit about PhD students who feel really frustrated, as they’re writing their dissertations, and thinking through this lack of tenure track jobs, and then thinking and that is my work of value, if there is no clear job outcome? And so I think coming back to that first premise of what is our value, that we do have value in the things that we study, is something that, you know, I keep trying to reinforce with my colleagues at Marquette University to who are kind of going through that similar kind of crisis of faith in terms of the value of their scholarship, PhD training, is such a provides such a transferable skill set
LC: A lot of the problem here, and a lot of the alienation that we as educators are creating is not so much that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, academic jobs that don’t exist right now, although there is that and, our system does need reform. It is also that we are teaching them to want those jobs above all others, and to feel that they are failures, when they don’t get those jobs. When a teacher teaches students to want something that’s not out there that they can’t supply, then we’re teaching our students to be unhappy. And there is practically no worse thing that a teacher can do than that. And it’s a measure of the problems that plague PhD education right now that we are socializing our students to feel and believe this way, and set them up to be unhappy, bitter, despairing. It’s a it’s a thoroughly avoidable human tragedy.
TM: And Len’s book is going to hit and and Bob’s book is going to have such an impact in offering alternatives to that model. Most people here also know Katina Rogers’ book, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom. Her book has just changed the way a lot of our faculty are thinking now and grad students, because it does go right to where Len just went, which is thinking about the whole person as, rather than a degree or a body of knowledge alone. One of the things that we’re talking about is part of the humanities for the public good design… One of our working groups is is thinking about what might it mean to have comps [exams] be a semester long collaboration among students, with faculty, thinking about what do I need to know to do a project? Or to imagine different ways I could work in the world? Instead of what do I need to know about a field only? What do I need to know that we’ve put together the field based knowledge with skills or understanding how careers were, or interviewing people? And I’m so excited to see what they come up with, because it’s such a different notion of thinking about the comps, again, as a sort of whole person experience that integrates the knowledge with sets of possibilities. I just want to echo what Len said, that I think that we as faculty really need to take some responsibility for setting students up for that disappointment and that grief, because we don’t have to do it. There are ways to use the humanities in multiple settings. There are ways we could adapt, and exactly the way you’re describing Maggie [producer’s note: this conversation refers to an issue discussed by host earlier in the episode that did not make the final cut], by getting to know people in different sectors and bringing that into the classroom with us and normalizing what in fact, we’re learning through programs like our internship program, are places to work that bring people incredible experience and fulfillment. So I just want to second what Len said about the role we as faculty can play in this."I think that we as faculty really need to take some responsibility for setting students up for that disappointment and that grief, because we don't have to do it. There are ways to use the humanities in multiple settings."– Teresa… Click To Tweet
"Well, something that many graduate programs have taken to doing, and this is highly commendable, is to invite alumni back to campus who are engaged in careers outside of the academy to talk about their lives. And that's great, and… Click To Tweet
LC: So you mentioned Maggie, the growing number of history PhDs are thinking about careers in the nonprofit. So I have not surveyed them, obviously. But I guarantee you that a percentage that we can find disturbing, are afraid to tell their advisors, that that is that their career goals have led them that way. And it’s a measure of the dysfunction of academic culture, that that remains the case. And so we don’t, when when we as faculty are not going to always know the kinds of discussions that are happening in any given profit or nonprofit sector that our students are considering entering. But we should be inviting to the table, the advising table, people who have that knowledge, so that we can all, but especially our students, learn from this, is part of what in Bob and I are both causes called “student centered graduate education,” the idea that we should be proceeding from what it is that our students want and need. And if that seems obvious, the history of graduate education runs the other way. It’s against the grain. Historically, graduate education is an outgrowth of faculty research, because graduate education takes place at research universities, which privilege research, were we in the academy and possibly people outside are aware that there is an enormous body of scholarship on undergraduate teaching and learning. People make careers out of studying undergraduate teaching and learning. But if you want to look at the scholarship of graduate teaching, there is very, very little. But graduate students are learners too–why does nobody worry about how to teach them? Because graduate teaching is historically not its own thing. Graduate teaching, historically, simply proceeds out of faculty research. And that’s why particularly in the humanities, you have seminar offerings that are esoterically connected to whatever sub-sub-specialty a faculty member may be working on at the time. Because the the the ethos that underlies this is, students will just work along with me on this subject of interest to me, and they’ll learn whatever they need to learn in order to do their own work. I don’t think that that has ever been the case. But it’s a particularly unsound model now.
TM: Well, and in a way, this loops back to a topic that’s come up several times in our conversation, which is about the the effect of bifurcation of people one group and making assumptions about another group and and that stalling out possibilities for working together. I was interested in the last few years that are often have heard the sentiment expressed that the work of career diversity training might be done better by people other than faculty, because it isn’t what most faculty members know, they know their own career and not others. I want to say that it’s our responsibility as faculty members, just to start learning about other careers. And Maggie, I know you have had wonderful success in this at Marquette. And I have been fascinated when I brought together faculty, a few faculty members, with owners of businesses and directors of nonprofits, to think about how graduate students could do have internships in that environment or how they could work together. And those conversations start with each group assuming things about each other, that would stall out any collaboration. And then we have to do what you would do in a classroom. We have to start stitching together. You know, tell us about what you do. Tell us about what you know, what happens in your classes, like what do you, what is the value of teaching literature, and through the conversation, people start to be surprised by each other and what the humanities graduate students could bring into the workplace and what the workplace can tell the faculty members about in their own language, as you suggested earlier Maggie, in their own language, how they would take advantage of the training of humanities graduate students. And just as a really concrete example, we have a great African American Museum and Cedar Rapids, just up the road, and one of our grad students worked there for an internship who’s in Communication Studies. And they had been using an exercise, one of those experiential exercises in which students imagine they were slaves, with kids. And the graduate student is studying critical race theory, etc. He very compassionately thoughtfully brought to them the research. And he was surprised to find out the research was more split than he imagined. But he talked through the museum staff, why he would like to design a different kind of experiential learning. Everybody who was in that conversation came away feeling like they had learned important, not just ideas, but ways of thinking about the world, and thinking about education, and thinking about other human beings. And those things can’t happen nearly as easily until we as faculty take the time to get to know colleagues in these other sectors where our students could work.
LC: So I want to piggyback on what Teresa is saying, to add a couple of things. First, that we haven’t mentioned the pandemic, which is interesting and instructive, in its own way. The pandemic, as is obvious, is terribly destructive of the higher ed sector, along with many other sectors in the American economy in ways that we can only focus or only guess at the full extent of because we’re still in the middle of it, at the time that we’re having this conversation. I think one of the reasons it hasn’t come up yet, is because the effect of the of the COVID pandemic has been simply to emphasize, accentuate, and deepen the issues that were already there. And if there’s anything good about it, you know, they say every crisis is an opportunity. And I would, I would as soon do without these kinds of opportunities. But if, if every crisis is an opportunity, in this case, we can see more clearly what the problems are, because so much of our support has been blown away by what’s happening over the past year. But on a on a very basic level, a lot of this is about people. And because education is fundamentally a personal and public activity, as Teresa mentioned, the idea of people gathering around the table to talk about graduate student education, and bringing assumptions that are so fundamentally at odds that they can prevent collaboration in many cases. Well, something that many graduate programs have taken to doing, and this is highly commendable, is to invite alumni back to campus who are engaged in careers outside of the academy to talk about their lives. And that’s great, and it should continue. But something that I would like to suggest here is that faculty attend these meetings, instead faculty saying, “Oh, it’s, this is happening, you graduate students go and have a good old time, and you’ll learn some things and that’ll be good.” If faculty show up, that’s a way of honoring the choices that graduate students already have before them. The choices the graduate students already face, the world that graduate students are already having to reckon with. Graduate students don’t all believe in every case that their faculty advisors are behind them. But if faculty take their bodies and put them in front of those speakers, that’s a way of showing graduate students that we’re all in this together, and we are collaborating in ways that Teresa is talking about.
"I think that we can agree that reform is necessary. But reform has to be number one, student centered, because it has to meet the needs of students and so it needs to be reverse engineered from the concerns that students face–not… Click To Tweet
MNH: If you had to suggest only two reforms to tackle the academic problems we’ve been discussing, what would they be? Or to think of it in another way: If there are multiple crises or problems facing the academy, what is the most important one according to you to tackle?
LC: So for me, I will say that there are two concepts that need to underwrite any reform–reform will vary from discipline to discipline and campus to campus. And I think that we can agree that reform is necessary. But reform has to be number one, student centered, because it has to meet the needs of students and so it needs to be reverse engineered from the concerns that students face–not faculty members. And second, if I have to pick, I’m going to say it needs to be public facing. Because we started out the our time here talking about that how one of the really dire problems that higher education faces right now is a communications breakdown with society at large. We’re not understanding each other, and in particular society at large is not understanding what it is that we are doing in this workplace, that is so important for the fate of society at large. And if we face the public, if we interact with the public in ways that are more generous, more productive, we can hope that we can start to mend mend those those fences, fill those gaps, and fight and find common mission, which higher education needs more than anything.
"What if we had administrative assistantships? What if we had a whole variety of ways of applying what we're learning that gave students introduced in one year to, or a couple of years, what it means to teach in different settings.… Click To Tweet
TM: I would completely completely agree with both of those. Those options are orientations. And I guess another another change that I see beginning, but I think what further help the movements that that Len just described, would be to take really seriously the call to social justice that we’ve all been hearing more clearly than ever this summer, which is partly about COVID, partly the Black Lives Matter movement, and attendant movements around social inequity, as well as the income bifurcation that we were talking about earlier. I think if we really took on as a university and as disciplines, what does it mean, to reorient the way we’re teaching, to address some of this–use what we do to address some of these compelling problems in the world. I would love to see how that shifted how we teach, what we teach, what’s on a syllabus in a Victorian Lit class in my area. And again, I’m seeing people ask those questions. But I would say that we’re not going to have a planet if we don’t start taking the environmental questions seriously as like a leading front leading issue. And that takes us right to the public facing. And then back down to the ground. I’d like to see us think about funding for graduate education differently. This is a very modest change that we could make, instead of imagining all graduate support should be in the form of teaching assistantships, or the majority… What if we had administrative assistantships? What if we had a whole variety of ways of applying what we’re learning that gave students introduced in one year to, or a couple of years, what it means to teach in different settings. But in another year or two, what is it like to do research in the provost office, or to be that educator in the hospital that you just described so beautifully, Maggie [producer’s note: this is in reference to an anecdote from the host earlier in the conversation that did not make the final cut], and endorsing our graduate students, various forms of connecting their education with job opportunities in that way, and articulating the two would just be transformative overnight.
LC: And I will add only one thing that I agree entirely with everything Teresa just said. And to follow from the idea that if we don’t pay attention to issues like climate change, we won’t have a planet. If we don’t pay attention to diversity issues, we should not have a university, you are higher education should look like America. And over the last, particularly 20 to 30 years, the democratization that occurred in the post war era has been eroded. and higher education is increasingly riven by the kinds of inequality that are not only unjust, but unproductive. We need to reopen the sector, on both the undergraduate and the graduate level, in ways that are going to make higher education into a true social enterprise for all of society."…if we don't pay attention to issues like climate change, we won't have a planet. If we don't pay attention to diversity issues, we should not have a university, you are higher education should look like America."– Leonard Cassuto Click To Tweet
TM: And where as so many of the changes that we contemplate, would be incredibly expensive, and will demand a complete overhaul of our economic system, that call to that kind of work to being serious about training for diverse democracy, training for a commitment to being part of solving huge problems, that’s free. That’s what we could be doing even in individual classes in departmental curricula, so that we can do!
MNH: That’s a great place to end our conversation today. Thank you, Len and Teresa for joining us. To all of you folks listening, we will see you in three weeks, with Len and Bob Weissbuch to talk about their new book, The New PhD until then, I and the whole team at HWW and PhD Futures Now, wish you continued health and well being. As always, if you’re a graduate student looking for resources to help build your future career, or ways to help bring some of these reforms to your campus, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Deepthi Murali (outro): PhD futures now is produced by Humanities Without Walls consortium. Our producer is Deepthi Murali, and our co host for this episode is Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. If you would like to know more about this podcast or about HWW, please visit our website at www.PhDfuturesnow.org or contact us at our social media handle @PhDfuturesnow. Special thanks to our guests for this episode Dr. Teresa Mangum and Dr. Leonard Cassuto. See you back in three weeks!
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, HWW Associate Director of Career Diversity
PhD Futures Now! is produced by the Humanities Without Walls Consortium with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.