Peggy Brennan

Episode 3 | The New PhD

In this episode, host Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann talks to Dr. Leonard Cassuto and Dr. Robert Weisbuch about their book The New PhD (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) and ways of reforming graduate education in the United States. Len and Bob discuss the role faculty, senior university administrators and other entities within American higher education infrastructure can work toward meaningful actions and reform that can prepare PhD students for careers inside and outside the academy. Full audio transcript of this podcast is available below.

 We are also giving away a copy of the book The New PhD to one lucky listener. For a chance to win the book, please follow us on Twitter (@phdfuturesnow) and let us know what was your favorite part of this episode. Giveaway ends on June 02, 2021.


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 His website is

Dr. Robert Weisbuch

Robert Weisbuch is former President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University. Weisbuch received a B.A. from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. from Yale University. He spent 25 years at the University of Michigan, where he served as chair of the Department of English, associate vice president for research, associate dean for faculty programs, and interim dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. He then served as President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for seven years. In 2005, he became the eleventh President of Drew University.

Audio Transcript

Jason Mierek [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.

Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann [Episode Introduction]  00:36

Today on PhD Futures Now we are joined by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch co authors of a new book entitled The New PhD, how to build a better graduate education published earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University Press. Len is a professor of American literature at Fordham University, and writes the graduate advisor column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which focuses on contemporary issues in American doctoral training and advising. He is also the author of the graduate school mess published by Harvard University Press in 2015.

MNH  01:08

Bob is the former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and served as the president of Drew University from 2005 to 2012. Len and Bob, welcome to the Humanities Without Walls Consortium, and thank you for joining us today on HWW’s new podcast series PhD Futures Now,

Leonard Cassuto  01:26

great to be here.

Bob Weisbuch  01:28

It’s not only great to be here, but we’re so glad that you exist as an organization, it’s so important that you’re doing what you’re doing and promulgating a more public face. For the humanities that goes right along with what we talk about in our book concerning PHB. Education generally, you are heroes.

MNH  01:46

Oh, well, thank you so much. I know that means a lot to both Deepthi and I think we wanted to start the conversation really easily and ask why this book and why now?

LC  01:57

Why now? Well, this book could have come out in 1985. If people had been willing to read it, then… the issues that we are talking that we talk about in the new PhD or issues that have vexed graduate education for about 50 years, that’s five, zero 50 years. The the idea that we are training graduate students, for jobs that don’t exist, and even worse, training them to want those jobs above all others, that’s been going on for a really long time.

LC  02:30

But in 1985, 1990, 1995, the, the faculty and the administrators of graduate programs, they didn’t really want to hear what we had to say in this book. And they, and the students probably didn’t either. In 1997, Elaine Showalter during her turn as president of the MLA, the Modern Language Association, dedicated her term to what we would now call career diversity. And she met with enormous resistance and was attacked. And the issue again, went away for a long time.

LC  03:11

So we could say in this, if we look at this, historically, that the 2008 financial crash, though a disaster in so many ways, had at least one virtue, which is that it made it even more difficult to claim that things would be alright, if we were only willing to wait long enough for them to change back to the 1960s when for a brief period of time, there were more academic jobs, and there were PhDs to fill them. That was true only in the 1960s. But there’s been a there was a long lasting nostalgia for that time. Post 2008, that, that it became impossible to to look away from the fact that we were facing a new normal.

BW  04:04

And you know, there’s an origin story to our book, that’s probably worth telling. And that underlines some of what Len just said, By the way, I graduated with a PhD in 1972. And, and the job crisis so called, which is no crisis, because it’s been going on for 50 years had already begun then. And and we’ve had our blips up and our blips down, but it really has been essentially the same situation for what is now half a century. That’s enraging, frankly, when you think about the lack of decisive action in regard to the shortage of professorial positions.

BW  04:44

The story of our book begins with a report to the Mellon Foundation That is to say, about 2014 Earl Lewis, who was then the president of Mellon told me that we had worked together on PhD reform when I was the head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in the 90s and early 2000s. And Earl said, you know, Bob, I just met with a group of graduate Deans, my gosh, they’re talking about the same issues that we were treating 15 years ago. And it’s as if it’s as if nothing was moved, nothing’s changed, no lessons have been learned. Could you write a report on all of the reforms that took place between about 1990 and 2005, at which point the reform effort went quieter, basically? And I said, Sure, but it’s, it’s Len Cassuto, who knows what’s going on now. We do better doing this together in Earl was delighted by that. And we wrote the report, but his story, the idea that it’s the same issues over and over again, decade after decade. And and as one wag put it in, in a book that the title of which I don’t remember, everyone knows what’s wrong. The question is, whether there is a will to do something about it.

BW  06:06

The emphasis in our book, then, is not just on naming the problems, although we do try to amplify, bring them out, characterize them, investigate what’s what, what’s wrong at bottom. But but more our emphasis is on how are we going to fix this? How are we going to make this better in practical terms? What do we do next? And what we do next is decisively not talk and talk, but talk and then do, do in a timely fashion.

MNH  06:39

Wonderful, I think that that’s a good segue into our second question, and thinking through what are some of the things that might mark that things are changing. And I know Deepthi and I talked a little bit about this in the past, which is the role of faculty in all of this work. And in your book you discuss in a number of places that one of the primary barriers to reform is what we would call faculty resistance. Why do you think that’s the case? And what incentives do administrators and faculty have in leading these reforms on their campuses?

BW 07:14

I would, I would think about two aspects of human nature, shared by faculty, but not exclusive to them. One of them is habit, that we are all creatures of habit, I wake up in the morning, I take the dogs out for a walk, then I have my coffee, etc, etc. anything goes wrong with that, I am discombobulated. So we are creatures of habit. As Len says, academia is even an exaggeration of habit of tradition, of not falling for one or another giddy scheme as K 12, sometimes does. So that’s a virtue to some extent. But it also makes it just just innately conservative in its practices, and what I think really adds to the habitual nature of things, and the stoppage in a way of innovation, is that we all know as faculty, we’ve lived through this, that once you start something, it’s very hard to get rid of it. So if you feel like whatever you’re voting to start is going to exist long after you’re gone, you’re going to be very careful about what you agree to do.

BW  08:23

And so one of our emphases in the book is to say, we need to have sell by dates. That is to say, any innovation in doctoral education should not only be continuously considered, because you’re never going to get it all right from the start, you’re going to have to make adjustments along the way. But also, after a certain number of years, let’s say three or four, you’re really going to take a close look at what you’ve decided to do. And you’re either going to say, Hey, this is working great, let’s expand it. This is working well, let’s maintain it, or this really isn’t doing what we hoped it would do. We agree to stop it. And I think once faculty have the sense that you can pull the plug on something they might be more willing to plug in at the start.

BW  09:12

The second sort of human attribute that I think is a difficulty for us in doctoral reform, is that we all project out of our own experience, very natural thing to do. So faculty tend to say, you know, this has been my life and this can be your life, but it can’t be in reality. And and at the worst, it looks like a Ponzi scheme, almost. The number of people who are going to lead the same life as their professors after getting a PhD is very small. And the failure rate if that’s what you take to be a success is well over 80%.

BW  09:48

So we have to get faculty to understand that their experience is not normative. It’s it’s been extraordinary and that they were able to grab the brass ring that they are almost like the equivalent of Bernie’s 1%. Maybe it’s more like 10% or 20%. But it’s their experience is not what they should expect their students to enjoy. They have to get beyond themselves and not project their own experience.

So we have to get faculty to understand that their experience is not normative. It's been extraordinary and that they were able to grab the brass ring that they are almost like the equivalent of Bernie's 1%. Maybe it's more like 10%… Click To Tweet

LC  10:20

A phrase, a phrase that is in common common use in the last 10 years is alt-ac or alternative academic. We don’t much care for that phrase, because it implies that anything that is not an academic job is a second best alternative, a plan B. It also echoes Alt Right, which has its own problems. But the the fact that the fact is that if we were going for going to talk about what the “alt job” is, now, it’s academia, that if we look at the numbers for PhD graduates, the majority of them are doing are going to do things that are not academia.

A phrase that is in common use in the last 10 years is alt-ac or alternative academic. We don't much care for that phrase, because it implies that anything that is not an academic job is a second best alternative, a plan B. But the… Click To Tweet

LC  11:02

Our book has three headlines. Those three headlines are student centeredness, career diversity, and public and a public face for graduate education. To talk about student centeredness, is already an innovation. So I’m, I’m in interviewing some graduate students in Ireland right now. Because I’m investigating a program that University College Cork has been been put in place a few years ago, to help graduate students and postdocs, particularly in the sciences, make the transition from an academic way of thinking to a more career diverse way of thinking. And one of the one of the postdocs who I’ve been talking to, is particularly eloquent on this, I just want to read a couple of sentences that she from from a, something she told me recently. She said, one of one of the biggest takeaways from her change of mind, she said was, “I’m more than learning that I’m more than what my research defines me as. I guess I always thought my professional experience and value was predicated on the research that I had done. But [this Odyssey program that she had just gone through], helped to show me that there are values in doing a PhD and postdoc that go beyond what one researches in. It’s so easy to compartmentalize oneself in academia.” And she felt she said that “the Odyssey program at University College Cork, helped to open up the many opportunities that are out there to me.” So this isn’t the plug for the Odyssey program. The Odyssey program is breathtakingly simple. It’s a matter of giving graduate students a shot of reality, followed by a dose of hope.

LC  12:59

But it is that the idea that you’re more than the specific subfield, you’re more than this specific knowledge that you create, when graduate students believe that their that their research is the sum total of who they are, then it then it will make them hard, it will make it hard for them to look at the world as a place of opportunity, instead of becomes a place of threat.

BW  13:27

You know, we all I think we all have success stories. That is, in fact, the occasion of this book being published the new PhD, but many of my former PhD students to write to me, people, especially who had left academia for other other sectors, and and their stories are so similar in in a certain way, which is Yeah, I’m not. I’m not necessarily interpreting the poems of John Donne, in my job at the World Wildlife Federation at in this or that government agency and this or that philanthropy and this or that, pharmaceutical or whatever. But I can’t tell you how much everything I learned in graduate school comes into play every day, often, subtly, often not directly. You know, there was a study about 20 years ago, at Berkeley when Joe Cerny was the Graduate Dean and Maresi Nerad was the head researcher. She’s now at the University of Washington and one of the real heroes herself of of graduate reform. And basically, they took five different areas of PhD graduates. I think that in the Humanities, it was English. And they asked them not just at Berkeley, but all over the country. They asked a sampling of these students, you know, what they were doing now, what the degree of happiness was with what they were doing, whether they would get the PhD again, what were… two results were especially interesting.

BW  15:00

Those who had who were working outside of academia were slightly more pleased with their jobs than those who had stayed within the professoriate, who had remained in the professoriate. But secondly, those who had left academia by about a 90 to 10% count said that they would get the PhD again, that it had added either to their life to their career or both in such a way that they were glad they had done it, even if you factor in the, you know, the sense that people want to affirm their their lives in some ways past and present. That’s a remarkable result, and one that we should take as, as a kind of guide to what we should be doing in the future.

MNH  15:42

These are really interesting quote that Deepthi and I were particularly struck by as we were reading the book and talking about the questions we want to ask you today. So I wanted to read the quote, and then ask a couple of questions in relation to that, quote, as a follow up, so you say on page 124, “Let us put this in literally bold terms, we teach graduate students to want something that we know we can’t supply except to a very few. That means we’re teaching them to be unhappy. That’s a terrible thing for teachers to do that their students yet graduate school in the arts and sciences has institutionalized it. Above all, that is what we must change.” So one of our questions in relation to that is when you speak of reforming graduate education, how can such a reform movement be inclusive of the wide diversity of student interests and needs in the academy, as well as for jobs outside of it? And we are particularly concerned that this also extends to racial equity and social justice questions of which our society is really grappling with at the moment.

LC  16:47

So what one one half has to do with the larger ideas that you began with. And the other has to do with this specific case of the underrepresented groups. How can graduate school look like America? How about if I take that first, the first part, and Bob takes the second. What unites graduate students, PhD students across the spectrum, is that they are information experts, they are very, very sophisticated in dealing with information they can, they can synthesize it, they can, they can distill it, they can gather it, they can expand it, they can, they can analyze it, and most of all, they can teach it. But what if they don’t know they can do those things? This is a big issue, that, I talked to graduate students, at campuses all over the country. And there is a very low awareness of the that on the part of graduate students of the vastness and the depth of their skill sets. And this gives them an insecurity. How can I do anything but what I’m doing.

LC  17:59

And that’s and this is something that faculty, sad to say, the structure of the programs that we create for graduate students encourages this, it’s this idea of not simply of narrow specialization, but of belief in the narrowness of one’s skills. To use, to use an analogy here that we are teaching graduate students, that they are Lamborghinis, you know, high, high performance sports cars, that can only race on a racetrack. But what if there’s enormous traffic on the racetrack, and they can’t actually get anywhere. In fact, graduate students are all terrain vehicles, they don’t have to stay on the track. They can if they want, but they can go up. And they can have all kinds of adventures off the track because they’re equipped to do that. And when we are, when we teach graduate students, we need to teach them about that diversity of opportunities because there’s happiness, there’s pleasure, there’s fulfillment on on places other than the track.

To use an analogy here, we are teaching graduate students, that they are Lamborghinis, you know, high performance sports cars, that can only race on a racetrack. But what if there's enormous traffic on the racetrack, and they can't… Click To Tweet

BW  19:02

In terms of one of the other questions you raise, we say pretty bluntly in our book that the PhD overall is still too white and male. And, and that we lag many other social sectors actually in our attempts at diversity, which is especially odd in the sense that politically, most academics consider themselves to be generous, progressive, and so on in their attitudes. We perhaps unconsciously make the PhD feel alien to many people from underserved communities. And what we’ve learned in in survey after survey, report after report is the graduate students from those underserved communities and women as well have a greater desire than the overall average to bring their learning back to their communities to have their learning possess a social purpose. And so when we talk about a public facing PhD, when we talk about greater social engagement, greater sense of how the PhD can meet up with all of the urgencies of our time, we’re not talking about you know, the the tail wagging the dog, we’re talking about letting the dog out of its cage.

LC  20:20

And to to to bring it back again, the these ideas become both recruitment and retention tools for students from underrepresented groups. That because if you don’t recruit and retain, if you don’t devote devote resources, devote thought to both of those, then you get nowhere. And graduate school does not look like America. It’s difficult, more difficult to make graduate school in the arts and sciences look like America because your applicant pool is smaller than when you’re recruiting potential undergraduates. But it’s not impossible. It’s not it’s not impossible, by a longshot, by doing a lot of the of the, the things that we’re suggesting. Our book, our book contains examples of best practice, from all over graduate education from from admissions, through the through academic job market and non-academic job markets, and public-facing graduate education. In the, in the case of diversity, we we provide examples of how, of programs that are doing it right also, because we want, we want our book to be more than just hortatory call. We’re doing some of that here, obviously. But the book is a toolkit. And it contains a lot of instructions about how to use the tools.

LC  21:48

We spent a few a few pages in this book, which is to say a fair amount of time on the pipeline program at the City University of New York, which practices recruitment on an undergraduate to graduate level. That is, the the idea of diversity in graduate school, they recognize, starts with promoting it on the undergraduate level. But the the kind of the kinds of connections between the undergraduate and graduate level in the CUNY pipeline program, amount to a culture that they have created a a subculture within the larger culture of the CUNY Graduate Center that is devoted to first of all, giving students from underrepresented groups, a place to be, a place where they can talk to people who understand their concerns, where they’re coming from. This is not something that will necessarily work in the same way in every program. But the ethos of the pipeline program, we feel is exemplary, because it shows how you solve this problem of making a place to belong, using the resources that are present in your on your campus in your program.

BW  23:04

I think having such a kind of consortium at a university where where students from underrepresented groups can meet can talk together and so on is very important. But it also doesn’t in any way, excuse a department or a program from thinking about that programmatically with all of its people. And so one of our emphases in the book is on something that David Grant in the Social Profit Handbook calls mission time. There has to be mission time and a program. When I think of all the conversations that I’ve never heard over 50 years in higher education. I’ve never heard a bunch of faculty talk about what it means to be an advisor. I’ve never heard a bunch of faculty talk about whether we should be considering applications in a more generous way so that people don’t have to all pretend they want to be professors in order to get into the program in the first place. I haven’t heard and so on and so forth. I haven’t heard much talk about the teaching that we give to graduate students so that they’re not just teaching over and over and over the courses that faculty don’t want to teach, but rather have an opportunity to become educators progressively through a very carefully designed program of graduated responsibility in pedagogy. Don’t hear those conversations. The problem is that what’s most urgent is often at odds with what’s most important. So the budget may be due next week. But how our students our diverse students are interacting with the program doesn’t have that urgency until perhaps the students get so upset that they say something they shouldn’t have to it shouldn’t be that hard. This is a conversation that should be occurring all the time. It can’t occur unless we schedule in intentionally mission time to talk about the various issues facing us and to look ahead and say what might we do better or differently in the future.

And so one of our emphases in the book is on something that David Grant in the Social Profit Handbook calls mission time. There has to be mission time and a program.– Bob Weisbuch Click To Tweet When I think of all the conversations that I've never heard over 50 years in higher education. I've never heard a bunch of faculty talk about what it means to be an advisor. I've never heard a bunch of faculty talk about whether we… Click To Tweet

MNH  25:15

As we talk about graduate reform, it is also important to connect it to the job crisis and issues of career diversity writ large. On the one hand, the lack of tenure track jobs in academia is one of the most glaring problems for PhDs. So career diversity is the need of the hour as we have touched upon today. On the other hand, there are many universities that rely on graduate students to teach. So graduate labor is important to keep programs and departments running. We see this also as a problem. And how do we balance this problem against one another?

BW  25:51

I wish the employment problem within academia were more of a problem in the sense that we now have an army of underemployed underpaid adjuncts who can take the place of graduate students in any of the introductory courses the graduate students are often assigned to. And so to me, that sounds like a complaint from 30 years ago, or 40 years ago, rather than the present situation. Unfortunately, there are all too many people out out on the street, who are willing to come in and do the work of TA. And all that we need to do really is to perhaps say to two graduate students, this semester, this one semester, instead of doing a TA ship, we have some internships outside of campus to offer you that will develop some other abilities that you already possess, but that will allow you to apply them in a way that you’ll see for yourself. Secondly, you know what, it doesn’t cost any money if I’m teaching a course, and and, and give an essay assignment of some kind of graduate students to say and by the way, while you’re doing this, what you’re doing is you’re developing your ability to, let’s say, compare alternative views, which is something that will come in handy, regardless of whatever it is that you do. In other words, faculty can help students to identify the transferable capacities that they possess.

LC  27:11

So there’s, there’s no one solution to the problem. However, I think that what we can talk about here is how we frame the problem.

BW  27:22

There you go.

LC  27:22

What do our graduate students need? And if what our graduate students need is the kind of exposure to career diverse possibilities that, as you say, empowers them, makes them do better work, not only outside, but inside of the walls of the university, then we need to work from that and say, Okay, our students need this, how do we give it to them? And then how do we deal with the needs that have risen as a result?

BW  27:57

You know, while we’re talking about career diversity, we’re sort of skipping over a particular subject. We want to pay attention to the fact that most graduate students who do stay within academia and end up in professorial or teaching positions are not going to be at research ones, or selective small colleges, which may be what they’re most accustomed to. At one of the Woodrow Wilson meetings that we had many years ago, a president of an urban campus said, you know, your graduate students, when they come to work for me, they really don’t like the students that our place attracts. They don’t understand that our students often have to drive 30 miles to come to class, but they can only meet at night, that they’re holding another job. They tend to look down on those students. And so the ability to get even within academia, to give graduate students a sense of the full ecology, the full landscape of higher education in the United States, and their capacity to adjust themselves to work in different situations, right now is quite lacking. And again, we can fix this, we can fix it without the expenditure of a great deal of money. It takes something but not as much as people would imagine, to establish networks like that to give people this opportunity. And again, it’s a matter of really thinking about first, what do students need?

MNH  29:31

What would your advice be for those grad deans who want to be empowered and are leading reform efforts, but seem to not have the labor capacity in their grad schools to implement these types of reforms? Or other types of resources? In that question, I am specifically thinking about my grad dean, but I know that there are other grad deans across the country who are probably in similar positions.

LC  29:55

So when when you’re pointing to a, a structural problem of great import that we talked about in the book, that when the different deans in the liberal arts get together across and discuss their concerns across the table, you can tell which one is the grad dean because the grad dean is the one with the empty budget, and the cup that he or she is holding and going from one one or the other deans to the other, asking for contributions to fund his or her worthy initiatives. The idea that graduates graduate school deans are always the poor one at the table is something that we call for in the book as we it’s it’s, it’s a situation that we are calling for an end to. Now, how can you end it that will differ from institution to institution, culture to culture. But the but graduate Dean’s have to be very agile, and they have to be able to communicate the import of their, their penury, to not simply their fellow deans, but to those who would fund them. It’s not going to be an easy job. But if it’s going to start somewhere, it has to start with throwing a spotlight on the idea that graduate education is in many ways the intellectual heart of the of the of the university enterprise. And to to say that you’re the heart of the of the university enterprise, the intellectual heart, then and then to give give no support to it. Well, it’s it’s inconsistent yet, and it’s we encourage administrators at across the board to reconsider.

BW 31:43

Let me answer in the same vein but a little less and a little less friendly spirit. Who’s responsible for this situation? Derek Bok noted as president of Harvard that graduate education in the in the arts and sciences was the least well administered aspect of the university. And I think we would all agree with that. Having been an interim graduate Dean for a year I experienced what it was like to have inadequate resources in order to incentivize good practice. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And who is most responsible for the problems that we are describing? University presidents and provosts. Really, it’s time for those in charge of universities to take this on. From on high. They have the capacity to restructure administration in such a way that graduate deaning becomes a much more dynamic activity. One that has a lot of carrots and a few sticks to help departments and programs become all that they can be for their students. The Graduate Dean is the voice of the student, but you have to give that voice a microphone. They don’t have it now, in many, many cases. In the few cases where they do you see an extraordinary amount of enlightenment activity going on.

Having been an interim graduate Dean for a year I experienced what it was like to have inadequate resources in order to incentivize good practice. It's absolutely ridiculous. And who is most responsible for the problems that we are… Click To Tweet

Deepthi Murali [Concluding Comment]  33:11

If you can hear muffled thumping noises in Bob’s answer to our last question, that is Bob, passionately thumping hands on the desk as we were recording this episode. Bob’s and Len’s commitment to reforming graduate education in ways that will allow the university to adapt to the needs of its students now can be seen in their book The New PhD published by Johns Hopkins University Press. If you want to learn more about the history of reform of higher education in the US, and more importantly, what graduate education reform in the 21st century can look like, we invite all of you to take a look at their book. To celebrate the release of the third episode of this brand new podcast. We are doing a giveaway of the book The New PhD to enter the giveaway. Follow us on Twitter at our handle @phdfuturesnow and let us know what was your favorite part in this episode. For more details, please contact us on Twitter. Our handle once again is @phdfuturesnow.

DM [End Credits]  34:13

PhD Futures Now is produced by Humanities Without Walls Consortium. I’m the producer of this podcast Deepthi Murali and this particular episode was hosted by Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. In the next episode, HWW’s PI, Dr. Antoinette Burton will host a conversation on racial and social equity in higher ed with two of our alumni, Lisa Betty, PhD candidate at Fordham University, and Timothy Emmanuel Brown, postdoc at the University of Washington. Thank you for listening, and we will see you back here in three weeks for Episode Four.

Episode 4 | Racial and Social Equity in the Humanities and Higher Education

In this episode, Dr. Antoinette Burton talks to Lisa Betty (PhD student, Fordham University) and Dr. Timothy Emmanuel Brown (University of Washington) about racial and social equity in higher education and the path forward.


Lisa Betty

Lisa Betty is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Fordham University. She teaches on themes of labor, migration, and diaspora in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa. She has worked in the field of nonprofit advocacy serving in organizations that advocate for children, families, immigrants, and incarcerated people. Lisa leads antiracist teaching training and workshops. Proud of her family’s U.S. southern and Jamaican roots, Lisa contributes to the development of safe, sustainable, and healing spaces for Black and brown people.

Lisa’s writing can be found on Medium. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Dr. Timothy Emmanuel Brown

Tim is an incoming Assistant Professor for Bio-ethics at the University of Washington. He was previously a Postdoctoral Research Associate working primarily on a National Institutes of Health–funded project on the effect of neurotechnologies on user agency. More generally, Tim’s work lies at the intersection of biomedical ethics, philosophy of technology, (black/latinx/queer) feminism, and aesthetics.

Follow Tim on Twitter.

Audio Transcript

JM 0:04 [Intro track] – 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.

Deepthi Murali 0:32 [Episode intro] – Hello, everyone. Welcome to Episode Four of PhD Futures Now. I’m Deepthi Murali, the producer of the podcast and I’m here to introduce our three special speakers in this episode. Our host is Dr. Antoinette Burton. She’s the PI of HWW. And our guests are two of the HWW pre doctoral career diversity fellowship workshop alumni, Lisa Betty, who’s a student at Fordham University, and Timothy Emanuel Brown, who is now the incoming professor for bioethics at University of Washington. When we recorded this podcast earlier this year, Tim was a postdoctoral scholar. So he will refer to his experiences as a postdoc, and as a graduate student, in the course of our conversation here. This episode is a special one, because this is our very first episode looking at the lived realities and experiences of graduate students in higher education, particularly black graduate students. And so we are very honored and privileged to have Lisa and Tim share their experiences so candidly with us in this episode. So thank you for being here. And now over to Antoinette Burton, the host for Episode Four.

Antoinette Burton 1:53 – So the first question that I wanted to ask is the following. Equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice. These are watchwords in certain spaces of higher education in the US today. Tell us what you hear when you hear these words.

Timothy Emmanuel Brown 2:13 – If I can go first. I think it depends on the context, right. So there are so many different contexts within higher education where you might hear these words. And depending they might be lip service, they might be honest, good faith efforts to think about the way institutes of higher education have harmed marginalized communities. They might be misguided, misused, or they may be certain kinds of code switching for some students, you know, there are so many different contexts. So I would say it really depends. But for me, if somebody is using these words, in good faith, it means that they at least recognize that there are problems that marginalized people face within these institutions within institutions of higher education. And that doesn’t necessarily, you know, indicate that they have a commitment to things like anti-racism, or anti-sexism, or inclusion. But at least it indicates that they’ve heard of the problem. And that’s more than I’m used to. Things have been pretty bad for a long time, but at least people are starting to understand that there are problems. At least some people are.

Antoinette 3:50 – Thanks. Lisa?

Lisa Betty 3:53 – So for me, I’m more skeptical. [Laughter] And I am because I see these specifically, these these watchwords that are used–equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice–kind of go in tandem to like microaggressions, stereotypes, threat. They’re just a part of the narrative that is produced. These are the words you use when you’re trying to clean up an incident or a mess that has just occurred. So when I hear these words from human resources departments at institutions, higher education institutions, the provost, the president’s office, or even the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices, that’s just kind of codeword for something happened, and we’re trying to act quickly as possible so it doesn’t get out of hand. It’s also so I do see it as rhetoric, but it’s also rhetoric attached to a lack of accountability because you have students for decades, from the 60s and 70s, in particular, when integration was a part of the status quo in higher education, that students of color, or the most marginalized students, have been addressing these issues. And I think only from the 1960s and 70s, that’s the height of when some sort of accountability was occurring… from then, I don’t see any significant, to be honest, any significant changes. So for the height of equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice, those right now, those are just, that’s just rhetoric, because the real progress that was made is like 1968 1969, you know, 1971, when some of these ethnic studies departments are created or scholarships created. But after that, I’m just seeing a lot of just clean up. So for me when I hear that from HR, from administration, it’s: something happened, and it’s quick, clean up.

Antoinette 6:04 – I think it is a kind of nomenclature, it’s a vocabulary that we know is been assimilated into a variety of institutions, including and especially higher ed, because for people who are really invested in reanimating those terms, and operationalizing them, actualizing them for social change, it’s important to be reminded that too many ears, they sound empty, or cynical, or, like appropriations, so I appreciate that. What are some of the impediments that hinder movement toward actually dismantling structural inequality, and making academia a space where black people, women and people of color, and first and family PhD students, among other kinds of students feel that they rightfully belong? What would what is the beginning of that conversation in your mind, in your view?

Tim 7:04 – Well, honestly, I think that one of the impediments is a kind of aversion to concrete action. When I said earlier that words like equity, inclusion, anti-racism, social justice, and many, many, many others, can be a kind of lip service. It’s usually because the words stop there, they stop at being words, right. And so we’ll talk about anti-racism. And honestly, we haven’t really been–I haven’t really seen people talk about anti-racism until fairly recently, at least in those administrative spaces. But when we talk about anti-racism, it has to come with anti-racist acts, it cannot be in the abstract. So for example, if we’re putting together a panel or a committee or something like that, it cannot be an all-white panel and an all-straight panel and an all-male panel, it can’t be. Not in 2021, when we’re putting together curriculum for classes, it can’t the curriculum cannot just be old white men, as we see a lot in philosophy, you know, the history of philosophy courses, usually just, you know, Plato, recounting Socrates… [Laughter] You know, he is just historical figures that are all white male, and that cannot be the case going forward. And so in my own brushes with different organizations, these organizations are still white male, and so that means hiring people, and then supporting those people, and then making sure they succeed and making sure they’re paid and feel fulfilled. Right? So those kinds of things, concrete actions, that change or terraform the communities. Or? Creating new ones, and then dismantling the old ones, new institutions entirely. But yeah, maybe, maybe we can talk about that a little bit later.

Antoinette 9:24 – Thanks. Lisa?

Lisa 9:26 – For me, it would be first these institutions really, kind of grounding in the fact that they are colonial institutions. They are white supremacist institutions from from the inception. And they’ve only been inclusive for the past 50 years. So it’s like they have to really 50…, really inclusive, we’ll say, 70s even though, 60s you had some of some of the first classes that are coming in in large numbers. So for one that this is something thing that’s new. For them, they’re mostly they’re used to being in segregated institutions, white only, and majority male. So that’s the first thing that they have to know that they’re not good at this. Their institutions are the opposite of inclusion, equity, anti-racism, belonging, social justice–inherently. 50 years out of a 400 year history, say, for a place like Harvard, or 300, 200-year history is not very long. So I think that’s the first thing.

Lisa 10:32 – The other thing, even when these institutions have said: yeah, we’ve been white supremacist, colonial, and these are the ways that we have been a part of been a part of part of that type of space, either, if it was through chattel slavery, or all of these types of things. There’s no accountability. They’ll do the most bare minimum thing to appease people in that moment. And then as things kind of simmer down, and then maybe even the people who were agitating, are even quelled, either, you know, oppressively, by telling that person, they may need to leave, not giving that person tenure, or the different ways for students who are threatened, it can be oppressively, or by way of just giving them personal or interpersonal concessions, like supporting them in particular types of ways to not agitate for systemic change. There’s a lack of accountability. So I think there’s a lot of just untruthfulness. And that happens when these situations of, you know pushing for systemic change within academia and higher education happens, where we were not really privy to the actual system, because there is a lot of trauma and harm that happens to make sure that people acculturate to the culture of the academy and the culture of higher ed.

Antoinette 12:12 – Lisa, I’m gonna ask you to kind of pivot on to this next question, which is connected. Have you faced some of these impediments that you’ve described personally? And if so, how have you navigated them, if you’re willing to talk about it, or if you want to generalize in some of the ways that you did earlier in your, in your earlier response, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Lisa 12:36 – I’m really open, you know, with my institution that I don’t really respect the way that they treat black people they treat, you know, poor people. Whether if it’s working class people that are in the Bronx–I’m at Fordham–having me come into, and I’m just being very frank, having me come into a history department that didn’t really know what to do with me. And because I’ve worked in administration, from the from the time I got out of college, when I was 22. I was really just like, this is a circus like, this is not how, how I treated doctoral students that I supported as a faculty assistant and coordinating programming. So I didn’t really understand that what I was dealing with was maybe pieces of tokenism, maybe, you know, I can’t really fit, I can’t really think about how people are see me coming in and that institution, what they think that they can, how they think they can support me, but it felt like they wanted me to be lost and just go away. But the reason why I’m getting my PhD has absolutely nothing to do with me attempting to be a part of the academy. It’s a lot more than that. So I had to, I had to navigate differently.

Antoinette 14:01 – I appreciate that candor, I think we really need to hear that kind of honesty and frankness and institutional critique. Tim, I don’t know if there’s anything in there, you want to echo or whether you want to take us in a different direction, whatever you want to do in terms of how you’ve navigated this, these issues yourself.

Tim 14:23 – I would say that my experience is similar. Um, you know, I did my, my graduate work in two different places. I did some of my early graduate work in at the University of California, Santa Cruz, about an MA’s worth of work. And that was an experience. That’s also where I did my undergraduate work. So I was familiar with with the context, the university. It tries to have its fingers in social justice issues, but it’s not clear how much they’re recognizing the day-to-day struggles of its graduate students. But also, I’m a philosopher by training, and philosophy is historically white, as I mentioned earlier, and historically male and dismissive of anything that doesn’t fit within a very narrow focus of, of pretty well-maintained philosophical canon. And so no matter what you do in philosophy, you’ll always be compared to a very small core of white male philosophers. And that’s been a challenge throughout the entire my entire time in graduate school. And so that means that I’ve never had a black professor, that means that the administration is mostly white. And the folks that you interact with are people doing, like Lisa said earlier, you know, cleaning up for some catastrophe that’s happened in the past.

Tim 16:10 – And it means that you’re extremely limited in what you can think or say, with regard to your own identity, in ways that are really difficult to navigate. And so from the very beginning, where I applied to, as a graduate student, or as a graduate student, moving between departments had to be very well calculated, I had to be very careful about how to present myself. And that created a kind of difficult to navigate internal dialogue. And that’s, that’s always been difficult for me. So, am I being too black? Am I being too male, because black men are evil. As far as they’re concerned, they’re dangerous. Or at least defiant. That’s the bad D words. And so I have to be very careful, usually about how I present myself. And that’s kind of why I’m really interested in concrete ways forward, because it seems like a lot of the people that were trying to be helpful, couldn’t be helpful, because they didn’t know. I’m going to use a philosophical term, _akrasia_, right, this weakness of the will, it felt like they had weak wills, and they didn’t know how to overcome the the kinds of white supremacy that were laid into their institutions laying into their intellectual frameworks, or didn’t know how to reach out to the resources that were on campus. And we had that other campuses didn’t. But they were also trying to play clean up, right. So, this has been a pretty difficult matter for me. And it means that now, I’m thinking more about social justice as a part of my work.

Antoinette 18:14 – So thank you, as well for sharing that. I think it resonates uncannily with what Lisa has been saying. And if we were to think about kind of benefiting our audience, our listeners benefiting from those experiences, if that’s not too terrible thing to say. What advice would you give a person of color, a black person, a black woman, who’s coming into a PhD in the humanities in 2021? What would you say to them, either by way of advice, or warning, or counsel?

Lisa 18:54 – I mean, I don’t necessarily have any warnings, because if you’re at that point where you want to do a PhD, or move further in your education, any type of way, it’s very, it’s a very personal decision that has, and if you’re at the intersections of different, marginalized, and even, you know, interesting, and, you know, survivor, and all of these types of identities, that you just have to stay on course, and that’s the most important part. And sometimes you’re not going to be light. So it’s also learning what what the academy is, is about. So just, you know, take the experience as the PhD experience or the graduate student experience as a learning experience. For one, to even know if you want to engage with the academy in that way, that’s why it’s so important. So it’s like, do I want to engage within the academy in this way because I see some of the issues within the academy that do not work for me at all?

Lisa 20:11 – Another thing I would say is, have a persona outside of the academy. I have not been published by an academic journal, I have not been published by by, you know, any type of academic even, you know, mainstream blogger. However, I published myself through the Medium platform, and I have my, you know, academic work on black immigration out there, I have and you know, academic work on just you know, Harriet Tubman, but then I also have important work that I do that’s somewhat outside of history that’s critically thinking about white supremacy, is thinking about white feminism, that’s thinking about all these different issues within social movements that have marginalized the most liberatory and radical thinkers, at the either the fringe of those movements or the alternatives of those movements. So thinking about that, and I couldn’t do that within the framework of history in the history department at Fordham, but I have done it outside of Fordham, and it was kind of my experience within Fordham, that made me be critical of certain things that I was seeing, feeling, in the way that I was being, and even being seen within that space. That allowed me to, you know, understand and just do my own investigative, [Laughter] personal ethnographic anthropology, anthropological research on like, what’s wrong with this place?

Lisa 21:52 – Then also no hard feelings because everyone is attempting to survive the academy in a particular type of way. And so I can’t be, I can’t take anything personally. So I think putting yourself outside those institutions, and then publishing and writing and creating a persona outside those institutions. I’ve seen, particularly so many people of marginalized identities do that. Not until March did I actually use my professional Instagram in a particular type of way, I only had maybe like, 100 followers, and it was people that I knew in the social justice space that I’ve worked with, in the nonprofit social justice space. And then now I have like 7000 [followers]. And I just post the things that I actually, you know, that I really believe in, in a different spaces that I’m a part of. Although I work on the Caribbean diaspora and the English and Spanish speaking Caribbean, I’m talking about food access, sustainability, decolonization, white supremacy, all of those spaces: education, language, linguistics, because I have found expertise in a lot of those spaces, mostly because trying to figure out where the reason why I was being treated or marginalized in a particular space. So I just had to be different. And I had to see okay, what are, what are other people who have a similar presentation, you know, black fam, working class, you know, you know, a part of these institutions, a part of social justice movements, a part of sustainability movements, how are they moving and maneuvering in these institutions? And I think they just find communities within themselves, and like-minded people, but then they also create platforms for themselves. They create websites for themselves, they create podcasts for themselves. And I think that’s where the academy is falling behind.

Antoinette 23:48 – Thank you. I’m gonna turn our conversation a little bit toward career diversity, since this is part of our consideration on this podcast.

Tim 24:01 – Also, if I can jump in, is there any way I can add on to what Lisa just said?

Antoinette 24:05 – Yes! Absolutely. Go ahead.

Tim 24:08 – So, first of all, I wanted to say that everything that Lisa mentioned is great advice. I also want to acknowledge that white supremacy and the structures of it, and the ongoing colonization of academia, these forces turn inward, and they make it very hard for us to live in these spaces in academic spaces. And so I kind of wanted to offer some advice for dealing with that internal struggle.

Tim 24:45 – So one of the things that I think is important is to just realize that you are enough and that your contributions matter. A philosopher Myisha Cherry built on Audrey Lorde’s notion, that anger is a tool for unmaking oppression, for criticism for all of the things that we want to do in the academy. And that if someone tells you that you’re a little angry, or you’re a little bit defiant, those are good things, lean into those things, that means you’re doing something, right. Even if you don’t get the validation of a community telling you that those things are right. And of course, that can be a slog that can be so difficult to not get that confirmation that you’re doing the right thing. But just know that it’s the right thing. And so I just wanted to put that out there, that if if you can’t make it work right now, it might work one day, so persist. And don’t let them talk you out of it. Don’t let them convince you that you’re doing the wrong thing.

Antoinette 25:56 – What you said earlier, you are enough. I think it’s so profound and re-centering and mindful of self-sufficiency in all kinds of ways. Thank you for that. So as I said, I wonder if we could talk about career diversity. And career diversity is in many ways an extension of higher education, of the higher education enterprise in the US. That is to say, it’s part of larger Eurocentric traditions. And it’s embedded in the same systemic inequalities that are characteristic of the western academy itself. So what can people working in career diversity initiatives, like HWW, do to decolonize, or dismantle that project? And I mean, I use those words intentionally–decolonize and dismantle–even as I recognize, apropos of our earlier conversation, that they’re in danger of being just words, how should we think in an anti-racist, pro-black, pro-indigenous, pro-women, pro-trans, LGBT way, in this space, in more with more than just words?

Lisa 27:11 – I think the only fear that I have, and sometimes with career diversity, specifically with people with PhDs or people with, you know, an array of pedigrees coming into certain spaces, and which were kind of community designed, and allowed for an array of candidates and leaders with, you know, not a PhD, maybe a bachelor’s, or maybe even not higher education or not as much higher education as that these, you know, people with PhDs will then replace people that have 20 years of experience or 15 years of experience, particularly for community based organizations, or organizations that represent marginalized identities, and particularly social justice and, you know, nonprofit spaces, nonprofit advocacy spaces. That is a real thing. Because when the job market is going to, which it is now, squeeze people out of the academy, their first, the first place that they’re going to want to go is to these social justice institutions, especially if their work is geared towards that, or their work is geared towards ethnic studies or studying communities have been marginalized systemically.

Lisa 28:37 – So that’s, that’s kind of the biggest thing I see. So it’s about understanding. Just because the job sounds good, is the job for you? Meaning, is there someone else that could be better, that is better fitted, more community-grounded that can, you know, be do this do this work? I think that’s one of the most important part for career diversity is to come in knowing that there is intersectional marginalization in these spaces already. So you don’t want to create or add to or be complicit in additional marginalization, particularly if you’re in a you know, particularly if it’s the social justice nonprofit advocacy arena, because we already know there is a nonprofit industrial complex. So you have, you have particularly for me, black scholars and people who have PhDs and MAs having to find work in other spaces, and literally being you know, having four roles in society, being educators within the academy, but also within secondary and elementary education, just the education system writ large, being social justice activists and pioneers, being people that are part of creating economic systems, alternative economic systems and, and support systems for which we’re part of. And then scholars writing books, doing that. So I’ve always thought that my role within society by getting a PhD is not necessarily about me getting a tenure track position. Never.

Antoinette 30:33 – Tim, did you want to respond to that question about career diversity and its outgrowth from these very Eurocentric patriarchal, white supremacist institutions?

Tim 30:48 – Yeah, sure. But I’ll, I’ll start by saying that, I’ve always wanted to be a professor always, always wanted to be a professor, I was a kid, I was 12 years old. And I said, I want to be a professor. And I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that you had to go and finish a bachelor’s, and then, you know, maybe get into a master’s program and then not finish it, go to a PhD program and spend eight years on it. I didn’t know. But I knew I wanted to do that. And I knew that I knew no one who did that. Like there was no one around me who had a PhD. Like, I didn’t, I didn’t have anyone to ask, and no one in my community could correct me or warn me or give me guidance. Not even the teachers, right, you know, we were too busy thinking about the new metal detectors that were put up in front of the school to keep the gangs out, right, or whatever, keep them from bringing guns on campus, at least. You know, so. So that’s, that’s, that’s a part of my history.

Tim 32:00 – And, and so in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been flirting with the idea of jumping ship from academia, when I’ve been on the ship for so long that I’ve been on this ship for a long time. I got my PhD, I’m on the job market, the academic job market. It’s exhilarating, and makes me feel very anxious. But Humanities Without Walls gave me the opportunity to sort of dip my toes into a lot of different possible careers, possible identities, possible expressions of my identities. And to do that, in a way that did lead me to trying to get a job at Microsoft at one point, as part of their ethics team. In ways that made me a better mentor for students who weren’t philosophy students, but well, they were philosophy students, but they were also computer science students or med students like pre-med students, or so on and so forth. Right.

Tim 33:09 – And so when I think of career diversity, I think of a sort of intersectional approach, a collision of identities, intellectual identities, gender identities, racialized identities, you know, socio-economic identities, and, and people shifting through those, becoming one thing rather than another, learning to express one thing rather than another. And then, at the end of the day, trying to figure out what job fits that, right. And it’s like being a complicated jigsaw puzzle in need, I mean, a jigsaw piece of a jigsaw puzzle, looking for the right fit, and then having to jam yourself in somewhere because there is no place. Or creating a new part of the puzzle to fit yourself into. That’s, that’s how we should be thinking about career diversity, as a diversity, like both kinds of diversity: identity, diversity, and a diversity of jobs at the same time, and trying to bring those together. And I think that’s where Humanities Without Walls was, its strongest.

Antoinette 34:27 – Thank you. So we’re coming to the end of our time. Unfortunately, there were lots of other questions I wanted to ask you. But if there was one thing that you could suggest for those of us, you know, thinking about the future episodes of this podcast, which is, you know, trying to envision the future of the humanities PhD, what would you like to see developed as a segment, or an episode, to follow up on some of the issues we’ve been talking about? Just one one thing.

Lisa 34:57 – I would say really talking about student debt crisis, because I think, you know, I have no citation or anything for this. But most of the, you know, student debt, a large amount of the student debt, you know, carriers are black women, or women of color. So I have no citation. AB 35:28 I bet we could find one.

Lisa 35:29 – So, yeah, easily, just Google it. [Laughter] But, so that’s also a problem because we’re also fed, within colonialism, there’s assimilation and acculturation. So we’re also fed a story that if you, if you jump through these hoops, and you do all this work, and you get this paper, we will finally respect you, and you will finally be able to live a substantial and positive life within our society. And that’s a goddamn lie. All you know, and it doesn’t stop us, we fully understand that life, but it’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, especially if you’re in that space, where you do want access to information, and the networks and the quote-unquote, expertise, it’s really the information that you know, these libraries and accessing books and articles.. there’s a lot of information you can get just from being affiliated with a higher education institution. So if you want to kind of navigate in that way, and even if you’re specifically, if you come from a financially marginalized space, that may be your only way to move to get to the next level. But I think that the financial crisis that’s attached to the PhD, because then there’s a sense of failure and not even an imposter syndrome in the way that it’s been put out, put forth, but an imposter syndrome within your own community. I have a PhD, why am I struggling? Why? I mean, I have even, you know, an MD, why am I struggling? You know, they have people that are navigating and moving through higher ed in these particular types of ways of taking on a lot of debt, and still struggling. So I think the student debt crisis definitely needs to be a part of this because with the job, you know, with issues with with getting positions in jobs and the anxiety around that.

Antoinette 35:43 – Thank you, Lisa. You put your finger on that perfectly, Tim?

Tim 37:45 – So on the flip side of Lisa’s suggestion, I think there’s a need to address issues of overwork within academic spaces, but also in spaces that you’ll end up in if you’re an academic, or you have academic credentialing. And this kind of overwork that we experience as people with marginalized identities that intersect is a little unique, right? It’s not just okay, the job is hard. There’s a lot of workload, a big workload. It’s the kind of things we experience from day one, right? I like how Lisa keeps saying passive-aggressive aggression instead of instead of micro-aggression. But one thing I’ll add on the top of that is macro-aggression, like there are some macro level, mezzo level aggressions levied against us on day one, right? Like, just things that people say, that are incendiary. And depending on the identities you inhabit, right, they may be extremely difficult to navigate. And this has a psychological toll.

Tim 39:15 – So, for example, think of what it is to be a black trans woman in academia at all, but in particular, in philosophy, with people making arguments over whether or not you exist, or ought to exist, or, I mean, and this is an argument that people have made that trans women are just gay men who are confused. It’s just maddening and to have to do the work of defending who you are and what you are, and where you’re positioned, while at the same time, being part of a support structure for other people. People who have similar identities, right? Or people who are dealing with the same kinds of marginalization, or the same kinds of macro-aggressions against them. Being the mentor, being the person who organizes them, the the emergency conference against, you know, against Trumpism, that happened in my department, a lot of us, folks who were worried about what Donald Trump’s election, back in 2016 would mean for this country. And we saw in great detail what it meant for this country, it means, you know, 400,000 people and counting dead capitol with excrement on the walls. That’s what it meant back then. But we were trying to digest it. And so a lot of us got together to organize this panel discussion is very concrete concretized panel discussion, but who gets called on to do that kind of work? The people of color in the department. And so, when we talk about career diversity, we’re also thinking about, like, what is it like for us to be in these academic spaces? And what is it going to be like down the road, when we end up in an alternative space, or, like, we may not be doing that direct advocacy work, but a lot of that work is going to fall in our laps. If we get jobs in industry, we’re going to have junior colleagues, that we have to navigate this also white supremacist space, also, sexist space with together, right? And then we’re going to have to fight against administration. And if we become administration, there are going to be people below us who need our help. And that can burn us out really quickly. So how do we protect our time? How do we protect our mental health? How do we protect one another? How do we coexist? How do we not step on each other’s toes? How do we make the space into the kind of space where we can kind of relax every now and again, without worrying about the macro- and micro-aggressions against us and the passive-aggressive aggression? And all the aggressions? How do we how do we do that? Without without hurting ourselves? And what does self care mean? Even? So, I have one suggestion, that would be it.

Antoinette 42:41 – Thank you so much for that, and thank you both for sharing your insights and experiences and reminding us of what’s hiding in plain sight in many cases, and that we take that very seriously and we’ll go forward with all these questions front of mind. So, thanks again.

Deepthi [Outro] 43:06 – Thank you for joining this episode of PhD Futures Now. In the next four episodes we bring to you professionals who have humanities PhDs, but who now work outside academia. In Episode Five, that is the next episode, we have Dr. Matthew Costello, Senior Historian at the White House Historical Association who will talk to us about being a historian outside a university setting. Please join us for that episode in three weeks. Till then please stay safe.

Episode 1 | Introduction to HWW & Career Diversity

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.

Hosted by:
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer

Antoinette Burton, HWW PI
Jason Mierek, HWW Director of Operations
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, HWW Associate Director of Career Diversity
Peggy Brennan, HWW Assistant Director of Operations

Audio Transcript:

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 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.

JM: Absolutely.

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.

DM: Maggie?

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.