Episode 11 | Faculty Perspectives on Graduate Education in the Humanities

In this episode, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Catherine Becker, and Marquette University’s Harry G. John Professor of History and Director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach, Robert S. Smith, discuss faculty perspectives on humanities and potential for graduate education reforms.


Dr. Catherine Becker

Catherine Becker is an associate professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Department of Art History and affiliated faculty in Global Asian Studies. Her research interests include visual storytelling methods in the Buddhist art of South Asia and reinterpretations of India’s past in contemporary visual culture. Her first book, Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh (Oxford, 2015), examines the role of relief sculpture in creating sacred space and forging communities of devotees. Recent research has explored the artistic links between Buddhist communities in South India and Sri Lanka during the early centuries of the Common Era. She is presently working on a book project that analyzes how India’s spectacular sound-and-light shows—including early versions with twinkling lights and booming voice-over narration alongside more recent shows using brilliant and psychedelic projection-mapping technology—illuminate historic monuments with new narratives that frame India’s cultural heritage in profound and perplexing ways.

Dr. Robert S. Smith

Dr. Robert S. Smith is the Director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach and Harry G. John Professor of History at Marquette University. His research and teaching interests include African American history, civil rights history, and exploring the intersections of race and law. Rob is the author of Black Liberation from Reconstruction to Black Lives Matter in the Debating American History Series, and Race, Labor & Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. Rob also serves on the Board of Curators for the Wisconsin Historical Society, is the Resident Historian for America’s Black Holocaust Museum, and is Chair of the Milwaukee County Human Rights Commission. For more info please click here.


Jason Mierek (Podcast Intro)  00:04

This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity in graduate education in the Humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a 16 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.

Benjamin Linzy (Episode Intro)  00:33

Hello, and welcome to today’s episode of PhD Futures Now. My name is Benjamin Linzy. I am the program coordinator for Humanities Without Walls, and I will be the co-host on today’s episode. It is my esteemed pleasure to introduce Dr. Robert S. Smith, who is the Harry G. John Professor of History and Director of the Center for Urban research, teaching and outreach at Marquette University. His research and teaching interests include African American history, civil rights history and exploring intersections of race and law. His current project actually looks at the connection between human rights while you’re from the US helping fight apartheid in South Africa. Welcome, Dr. Smith.

Robert Smith  01:11

Good afternoon, Ben. It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you for having me.

Deepthi Murali  01:15

And I’m Deepthi Murali, the producer of PhD Futures Now. I usually don’t make myself heard much in this episode, but I wanted to take the privilege of introducing our next guest, Dr. Catherine Becker, because she was my advisor for my PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Catherine Becker is Associate Professor and Chair [at the time of recording] in the Department of Art History and affiliated faculty in global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include visual storytelling methods in the Buddhist art of South and Southeast Asia, and contemporary artistic reinterpretations of the past, specifically how the remnants of the past have been pressed into the service of present ideologies. Her first book Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh, consider sites of artistic production in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana from the first century of the Common Era to the present in order to examine the use of sculpture, narratives, and visual culture in creating sacred space, forging communities of devotees, mediating between the past and present, and articulating, transnational Buddhist identities. We are here today to talk about careers and supporting PhD students through job precarity. Welcome, Catherine.

Catherine Becker  02:34

Thank you so much. Thank you for inviting me. It’s wonderful to be here today.

Benjamin Linzy 02:37

As Deepthi said we really want to talk about the importance of supporting graduate students, especially in these times of job precarity. And so I wanted to open up with this question, given the current educational climate of the United States, what do you consider the most pressing concern facing graduate education?

Robert Smith 02:55

Sure, you know, it’s hard to determine what determine one press the most pressing issue there, I think that there’s a convergence of issues that we are grappling with, I think we have to just back up a little bit. And be very honest about the hostile political climate directed at higher education. I think that that fuels what has become a set of concerns that have been dumped in the laps of universities and departments across the country. And I think that the last, certainly a year, probably the last decade has emphasized more and more how significant the humanities and social sciences are to our country in particular, not only the research that emanates from folks who are doing doing that kind of work, but then also the overwhelming social importance of us having very candid, informed conversations about the realities of race, gender, and the full scope of identities that fall under those umbrellas. And I think in in we are, we are called upon more and more to call that out. Because if we fail to do so, we will continue to chase a set of ideas and arguments that are oftentimes false, that are oftentimes articulated to the detriment of the broader institution of education, higher ed through high school and down to elementary. So we have a responsibility, I think, to begin this conversation with the fundamental reality that there has been an overwhelmingly politicized movement to undermine the significance of higher education.

Catherine Becker  04:49

Yeah, that’s a wonderful point. And if I could add to it, something maybe similar or related, might be the the kind of instrumentalisation of of Higher Education are the sort of, you know, insistence that, you know, immediately a career should open up after, after finishing, finishing college. And, of course, we want all of our graduates to get jobs and good jobs. But I remember, actually, even Barack Obama, who took aim at art historians in a speech, this is some time ago, and he, you know, stepped it back. But the idea that, you know, that the humanities might not lead to jobs, I think, is just a fallacy, but it’s one that we kind of, continually have to unpack and, you know, provide evidence to the contrary. But as you were just saying, this idea that the, the kind of crises of our times need humanists to help us understand them, to explain them, to debate them in a way that is productive and fruitful, is something that we really have to we have to continue to articulate, I think. Yeah,

Benjamin Linzy  06:02

Yes, thank you both. Those were great comments. And they really lead me to think especially the comment about jobs after education, because I still think a lot of the job model for Humanities PhDs is directed towards tenure, tenure track jobs. And with the low number of tenure track jobs available, and the seemingly ever decreasing amount of investment into department funding for graduate studies, particularly in the humanities, is it still, in your opinion, worth pursuing a PhD? Is that still a good idea?

Catherine Becker  06:35

Well, I kind of have to say yes, but, but it’s a kind of cautious Yes. And I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a job, or a track that comes with some uncertainty, accept that there’s a certain amount of risk involved, but also, sort of be open minded about the path post PhD. A few years ago, I organized a career class for my department. And we spoke to the executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, and it was just incredibly inspirational, because he has a PhD in horticulture. And so because it’s a garden, you know, that is kind of that was his in. But in fact, he got the job, because shortly after he completed his PhD, which I believe was focused on orchids, he worked as a temp, he learned sort of management skills in a couple of different contexts. And, you know, he was able to bring these all together, I mean, now he manages, you know, sort of the gardens, but also the performances that happen at the Millennium Park here in Chicago. So, you know, the idea that that’s like a single line, you know, directly through, you know, undergraduate, even like high school undergraduate to the PhD, I think, is a little bit of a disservice, but rather, that we can, you know, collect experiences along the way that can then support a range of possibilities after, after the PhD. So, I mean, everybody should think long and hard before starting a PhD program, of course, and, but I think, you know, it’s maybe also about shifting some expectations, as well.

Robert Smith 08:15

And, you know, to, to extend on that the, the world of the doctoral student and or doctoral granting departments in our institutions is not static. You know, there’s this undercurrent that suggests the, the PhD is a relic, almost, or that or that is sits in a particular place. And that’s just where it is. It doesn’t the current discourse, doesn’t allow for the dynamic dynamism that the [Dr. Becker] just just highlighted, that there’s so much learned along the way, in this public conversation about the PhD does doesn’t at all, embrace or not embrace enough the fundamental skills that it takes to move through a graduate program, and to complete the doctoral studies in whatever version of a dissertation, you know, any any number of disciplines might require. And so that the conversation we have is so immature about the full collection of skills that come with the process of doctoral studies, and then the completion of this this rich body of research.

Benjamin Linzy  09:41

I think that that summation of skills, and all the alternative paths that you both mentioned are very important. How do we get our departments to recognize this because I do think that there is still a sense among some departments, and some faculty in the replication of the tenure track position and replicating themselves at [scholars]?

Robert Smith  10:03

You know, the, my experience has been that individual students bring unique skills to the table that make them marketable for any number of jobs tenure line or otherwise in ways that we don’t always highlight. And so I do think that we have a responsibility on the part of those currently in the academy to begin thinking, continue thinking about all the various ways that our doctoral students could then potentially be employable both through the traditional tenure track process, but into any number of emerging arenas or emerging capacities that we can’t even see yet.

Catherine Becker 10:50

Yeah, to add to that, I think those are wonderful points. And, you know, I, my own PhD program departments PhD program is relatively new. And one of the things though, that has been very interesting is to try to reconnect with some of our alums. You know, we have faculty who, you know, although our program is relatively new, we have faculty who don’t know, some of the alums, because of retirements, things like this. And so to see the trajectory that they have taken, I think it’s actually very convincing to see that people who have tenure track jobs, often, you know, isn’t even a sort of, I don’t want to say like standard or normative, like, they have other expertise as well, that was actually also important for getting the tenure track job. So this sense that you’re developing students, and I really certainly also understand, you know, the institutional impulse is to finish efficiently, right, you know, we want to get people out so they can be in the world to doing research, you know, and so I certainly understand that institutions want that kind of increasing specialization, that sort of focus, keep writing, keep getting it done. That is the impulse, but sort of along the way, developing a secondary set of skills, picking up a certificate in another discipline, teaching in another discipline, all of these things are really important. And they not only support alternate career paths, they actually support getting those few tenure track jobs that are available. So there’s a it’s a feels almost like these kind of warring impulses, the one to finish that dissertation, have that specialized contribution, and then the other to be, you know, sort of broad and enthusiastic and excited about the world all around you. And that’s what I think leads to, you know, I think more interesting scholarship as well, but, but also leads to kind of broader possibilities for careers.

Benjamin Linzy  12:51

Yeah, I think that’s an excellent point. Because there kind of is that push to not only finish efficiently, but also do all these other things to make you more marketable in various ways. And in some ways, you know, that goes back to the fact that the problems facing academia are not new. In an earlier episode, from this season, we talked to Dr. Robert Weisbuch and Dr. Leonard Cassuto. And they discuss how this lack of tenure track jobs has been a reality since the 1960s anyway. But with the added pressures caused by the pandemic that we are still living through and working through, how can or should faculty or departments support their PhD students? Do you have thoughts on that?

Robert Smith 13:34

At the risk of sounding a bit contradictory. We do have to think, make sure doctoral level projects and the students at the helm of those projects finished those projects, you know, because there is something about the process that I don’t think we’ve articulated as clearly and as effectively or, you know, we haven’t heralded that process loud enough, you know, from ideation to defense, is a whole set of experiences, professional developmental opportunities and experiences, new ideas form along the way. I don’t know one doctoral student who wasn’t working on a project who didn’t then say, Ooh, I got the next project, you know, collaborative opportunities that you know that the dissertation process itself just opens up room for exploring a whole range of we can call it skills we can think about it as, you know, professional capabilities, proficiency is whatever whatever the terms that we’ve used along the way, all of that is built into, in many cases, just that dissertation process. And that’s, that’s after we’ve, we’ve gone through this remarkable set of courses that, you know, again, I don’t I don’t know, many folks who have gone through that exercise, or who even have gone through four years as a bachelor’s degree seeking student who hasn’t really missed the opportunity to explore ideas in depth. You know I often say to classes, once you leave the university, you’d be hard pressed to find a very reasoned, informed conversation, or debate or argument in its purest form. It’s tough to find that outside of the halls of higher education, you can do so in some rich community spaces, you know, but you got to you got to look for them, you got to find those and so many ways, but the university still has a very, plays a very important role in our society. And there are many, there are many roles and responsibilities in a lot of ways. And one of those is to, umbrate and discuss and consider some of these very difficult topics and social issues that if we, if we don’t continue to do so, we’ve seen what the last year alone year and a half has caused us, the price we pay for not having a richer understanding of the human condition.

Catherine Becker  16:41

Yeah, I can only agree with that. I mean, that’s, I think, and the work of, of articulating that is, is continues to be lacking. But I would also just add some practical things, maybe alongside that, which is that, in my own institution, our primary source of funding for our PhD students is teaching positions. And that’s hugely important, you know, it gives students the opportunity to have a range of up, be really tried to make sure they have a chance to TA for a survey, develop their own class at some point along the way. But it would also be great if universities had a little bit more flexibility like that we had, like if we could fully fund a student who is doing doing an internship off campus, like we have a few options like that, but those are a little bit harder to work out, I mean, at the go to is always to fund students through teaching. And that that is important. And I don’t wouldn’t want to, you know, diminish that in any way. But, you know, some of our PhD students are actually sometimes also teaching at multiple institutions. So I would also like us to, I would like us to pay our grad students more. So they are gaining experience being compensated for in such a way that they don’t need to take on a second teaching position off campus, I would also love to see our PhD students finish their programs without debt, because I think that would make if there’s a period of uncertainty after grad school, not having a huge student loan burden can only be for the good. And so I think those are some I mean, these are just sort of practical stuff that I would love to see. But I, you know, in my department, I don’t we don’t have the power to do this. Right. This requires real institutional change. And in some ways, I think it’s actually really connected to that conversation about the importance of the PhD. Like as if we can articulate the importance of that process of gaining a PhD, maybe we’d be in a better position within the kind of institution within higher ed, in general to make a case for paying PhD students a little a little more to as they make their way through the program.

Deepthi Murali  18:58

Ben can I just button for a quick second?

Benjamin Linzy  19:00

Of course.

Deepthi Murali  19:01

So I have two kind of related questions that came up from your conversation. One is I’m going to push a little bit here about we all know, a tenure track faculty or a tenured faculty member who would say, you know, those jobs or jobs are going to come back. Or, you know, this is just a cycle. When there is report after report that says the tenure track jobs aren’t coming back, or at least they’re not going to come back in the way, you know, we need to to employ every one of the PhDs that come out of these universities and other sort of research institutions. What how would you sort of think about convincing those kinds of faculty to support the PhD students, even if they don’t believe in a non tenure track non academic position or role for a PhD. And that that that a PhD, a person with a PhD should be employed within academia only… How would you? How would you talk to, or convince a faculty member who has that sort of a philosophy?

Robert Smith  20:13

Deepthi you just figures you’re gonna ask the easy question now huh. [Laughter]

Catherine Becker 20:19

Thinking like, university is a place for debate, but it’s often not a place for convincing people. You know, and, you know, so maybe it’s just continuing to have the debates. And I think maybe also, to your point, maybe we also have to take a really hard look at admissions. Right, you know, we need to want to admit a certain cohort, so students have people to work with and that they, you get to know your cohort in grad school is so important. And so we definitely want to have you know, you know, a group of students coming in every year, but, you know, maybe an another way to think about this is to just be careful within each institution, that we’re able to fully commit to support our students, you know, for the for the long haul, but yeah, I don’t know, Deepthi, I feel like that’s such a loaded question. Perhaps you have an answer in your mind?

Robert Smith 21:14

You know, and Deepthi before you tell us the answer to that question, let me add this, we also might want to parcel out some of the important funding, distinguishing funding factors between private and public institutions, you know, because my, my opening comments slash tirade stems from my long standing experience at public universities, in the ways those schools get caught in those political crosshairs. That’s not to say that private institutions don’t experience some of that as well. But there there are some differences that I think are important.

Robert Smith  21:51

To the to the first portion of your question, whether those whether that’s support or funding is returning. It, I think, is always the safest fatalistic approach to say that that’s not ever going to happen. But we all just also just saw a summer where 25 million people took to the streets to reform the police. You know, and if somebody had to tell if someone had asked me if somebody who studied this stuff that that would have happened in 2020, I don’t know that I would have said that it would happen, especially not in that volume. If someone had said that, we would have a public national conversation around white supremacy. I don’t know that I would have agreed that that was going to happen anytime soon. And so this past year with all of its challenges, with all of its loss, and all of its pain, and suffering, is also a year that has left me extraordinarily hopeful about the future, because our young people, once again took control, you know, and our young people said, you know, this is not what this country is supposed to be about is not the future we want. They then forced a conversation around political representation that we had not really experienced in almost a half century. And so I’m actually somewhat hopeful that we will have continued an even more robust conversation not only about the importance of graduate education and higher education, but we have to begin this conversation also in our K-12 world, you know, there will be an increased an ongoing conversation about racial disparities in education. Anything is possible. Any kind of change, incremental as it might be, is possible. So I’m more hopeful that in the answering of that question today than I would have been before.

Deepthi Murali  24:05

Thank you for entertaining my side questions. Ben take it over!

Benjamin Linzy  24:13

When we think about the barriers that faculty and programs face in providing the support that you have identified, the graduate students need, what do you think some of the biggest obstacles are? You both mentioned funding in various ways and the the need to find ways to perhaps find things outside of the department, fellowships or things of that nature for them to work in? What do you see some of these barriers are to providing the support to graduate students?

Robert Smith 24:45

That’s tough, you know, what I think one barrier is the limitations imposed by the the, the sort of the the traditional nature of the craft, you know. We have to also let go a little bit. And I think we’re seeing some of that letting go, we have to continue to think about ways for more ways to continually welcome creativity into a traditional canon in some way or another. I mean that, you know, the, the importance of learning, archival research is going to always be central to the the historians craft, you know, and how do we then add some, lets add to that? What does that mean? Two decades from now? What how do we, how do we do more of something or add more of something to what we are already doing? And I think that that comes from recognizing the importance of learning some of those basic skills central to our various disciplines, and then also opening the door for more of some other stuff to get get brought into the mix.

Catherine Becker 26:16

Yeah, I would add to that, that sort of mindset of this is how I made it through. So this is how everybody should make it through really trying to, yeah, set that aside and think about a full range of ways to, to have a grad school experience. And, of course, always that would be helpful, if there were more funding, you know, but But nevertheless, I think it’s also one of those barriers is just, you know, kind of challenge to rethink the your own experience, I think you kind of go back to your own experience as a as a model. And there are, as you said, there’s good reasons for that, right, there’s a traditional way of that learning happens, and there are skills that, you know, are going to be consistent across decades. But you’re rethinking that path, I think is really important. Re-thinking, you know, especially I think even when I was in grad school, there were some women who didn’t want to have kids during grad school. And you know, yet I hope we’ve really rethought that, but we still have a long ways to go. And really supporting students with families and supporting international students. You know, this is I mean, this is almost like a US government issue, but like certain types of visas make it really difficult for our international students to, you know, to get support that they need. So, yeah, there’s lots of levels of rethinking that could happen.

Benjamin Linzy 27:47

Well, I want to thank both of you for your time, I have one final question for you. And that is kind of looking forward. This is, in many ways, the podcasts about supporting not only current PhD students, but the future generation of PhD students. So as people who have advised PhDs to through their process to completion, what advice or what do you think a student who is considering applying to a PhD program in 2021, should know before they sign that dotted line?

Catherine Becker 28:22

Well, I would encourage them to really get to know the faculty at the institutions to which they’re applying, not just faculty, but also students, relevant administrators, if possible, and alums, if possible, as well, your take the time to, you know, talk to people and see, you know, make sure the institution that you’re going to, is a good fit, you know, for you both intellectually, and professionally. Even I would say, you know, based on your personality, to some extent, I mean, you don’t want to be somewhere, everybody’s like minded, and there’s no university that’s like that. So there’s really no risk of that, I think, but, you know, I think it’s worth taking the time to figure out, you know, really getting to know, getting to know an institution, and getting to know, to some extent, what you want from a PhD, it doesn’t mean that you know, what you want your career to be doesn’t mean that you know, your dissertation topic, but a sense that you know, because I think a PhD is taking on a certain amount of risk and uncertainty, thinking about your your tolerance for that and kind of what you what you hope for from from the experience, I think is also helpful. I know I entered a Ph. D program, maybe maybe not so certain about those things, and I think that’s okay. Again, I don’t want to stress you don’t you don’t need to know, you know, it’s uh, your institutions are looking for potential they’re not looking for people who are, you know, got the answers. But, but one thing I did enter a PhD program was was a desire to solve more, you know, a kind of willingness to be uncertain and to be uncomfortable, and you know, you are going to be uncomfortable periodically, in a PhD program. So I think, you know, sort of thinking about those things in advance. That would be some of my advice.

Robert Smith 30:18

Yeah. And you know, I want to pick up right there, because maybe this isn’t the right advice in this moment. And I want to just be honest about that. But I pursued the PhD, because of my own curiosity. And I didn’t weigh that I didn’t weigh employability. You know, I knew that I liked school. And I knew that the PhD. was a was an intellectual challenge that I wanted to embark upon. And I knew that there was some really amazing books that I read from some folks. And I wanted to learn how to research and write like them. It, I didn’t, I didn’t know the challenges, I would face with finding a job, what the salary ranges would be. And so I just have to have to share that because I know that you all want this to be meaningful for graduate students. And as I say, that I didn’t want to add to it. You know, a lot of folks have written some pretty powerful stuff. And I don’t know that I’ve really thought much about where, where they went to school, whether or not they were doctoral students, or any of that, you know. And so I think that if, if the goal is to expand one’s own intellectual horizons, and to use the skills of that craft in a particular way, that those guideposts might be enough, understanding what the terrain is, of course, and we live in a world now where there are some avenues beyond higher education that weren’t there before. And so much of that is related to how information is shared with such speed and such broad reach through various digital mechanisms and new media and new technologies. You know, just, it is almost, I am almost incapable of saying to someone, if you’re curious about something, and you have the drive, and you want to do this, don’t do it. You can? I don’t know. I don’t know how to say that to somebody. But But yeah, you want to keep all those things that are the challenges in mind. But there there still has to be room for creative thinkers, brilliant thinkers, who are also moms, you know, who, who are also in full disagreement with everything that they’ve read.

Robert Smith  33:29

Go get a PhD if for no other reason, then everything you read absolutely pisses you off. Something sometimes that’s enough.

Benjamin Linzy (Outro) 33:40

Thank you both for these great answers. You’ve given us a lot of insight and things to wrestle with going away from this podcast. And I do appreciate both Dr. Becker and Dr. Smith for their time and I would also like to give a shout out to Dr. Deepthi Murali who is behind the scenes as the producer for this podcast and thank you for listening to PhD Futures Now.