Tag: higher ed

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 salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.

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 2 Bonus | A short history of higher education & universities in the US

This bonus episode includes a part of the conversation for Episode 2 with Dr. Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) and Dr. Leonard Cassuto (Fordham University). During the conversation Dr. Cassuto provided an articulate yet succinct history of the higher education institutions in the US and connections between the present problems in academia and that institutional history. In this bonus episode (7 mins), we reproduce Dr. Cassuto’s remarks in full.

You can listen to the full episode with Dr. Teresa Mangum and Dr. Leonard Cassuto at this page.


Dr. Leonard Cassuto

Leonard Cassuto is the author or editor of nine books on American literature and culture, most The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. He is the author of “The Graduate Adviser,” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Other recent books include The Cambridge History of the American Novel (General Editor, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011), winner of the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sports Historians.

His Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by The Los Angeles Times. Cassuto is also an award-winning journalist who writes on subjects ranging from science to sports, in venues from The New York Times to salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.

Audio Transcript

[Leonard Cassuto]: So I want to tell a big story in relation to this, that Teresa is talking about the how, how difficult it is now to collaborate and to innovate in today’s University. So I’m telling the big story, that the way that higher education began in the United States was in part of what is what what historians now call the Age of the College. That the first the first college in the United States was Harvard, which was founded in 1636. And for over 200 years, the only institutions of higher education in the United States were colleges. They tended to be small, and they focused on preparing students for service. Harvard was originally founded to prepare students to enter the clergy. But not.. it wasn’t.. didn’t take very long for the mission to secularize. And the idea was that you were preparing students to become productive citizens in the enterprises of their choice. So you could say that the goal of colleges was to prepare students, to produce students educated students who could go out and contribute to society. After the Civil War, and as the United States industrialized, universities came to the United States, research universities. And the the people who were founding them had in mind, among other things, the model that was being propagated in Germany, where some American academics had gone to study for periods of time. The American American research universities were not copies of German research universities. Instead, they were inflected by the by the American surrounding. But and universities were founded as either either out of whole cloth by philanthropists as we were talking about earlier. So the John D, Rockefeller provided most of the money to start the University of Chicago, Cornelius Vanderbilt to start Vanderbilt and so forth. Or they could be grafted onto existing colleges. So Harvard College becomes Harvard University and Yale College, Yale University, or they could be founded by states. So the… you had public universities, which were coming into being. State legislatures weren’t grant were sub sub minting money and also providing the land.

So all of these universities, though, that when they when they were coming into being they were being informed by the research model that prevailed in Europe, and the the mission statements of early American universities, were guided by not the preparation of students necessarily so much as the creation of new knowledge. That this is what research is, its discovery. And so the, the idea was, and this is made explicit in the in the founding documents of many, many American universities, during this period of generally about 1880, or 90, to 1910, or so. There were dozens of universities that were being founded in the United States during that time. The idea was that the pursuit of knowledge or research would be primary, and teaching the teaching of students secondary. That’s almost an exact quotation from the founding documents of the University of Chicago. So this could vary to a greater or lesser extent. The legislation that created public universities, like the University of Iowa, does mention instruction of students, that these universities were coming into being as research universities.

And there was a tension, attention that persists between the mission of the college to prepare educated students to enter society. And the mission of the university, which is to create new knowledge and have teaching be is an almost a byproduct of that. That tension has animated higher education since the age of the university. And it has been mostly a productive tension, partly because there were ample resources for both sides. And both kinds of institutions have perhaps persisted through the history of American higher education.

However, in recent years, as resource as the resource base, has grown smaller, the friction that can exist between these two missions has become more and more clear. And it leads I think, to some of the of the of the practical problems that Teresa [Mangum] began by describing a few minutes ago. And if it’s not that American higher education should discard the research mission and embrace teaching, nor vice versa. Rather, I think that we all benefit, if we uncover the assumptions that were that are buried in history that underlie and inform the way that our structures are the way that they the way that they look, the way that they are the way that they’ve existed. If we uncover those assumptions, and we examine them, and we and we, we update them in the ways that we can and we should. Some of them, we may want to leave where they are. Because higher education, the university is one of the, is and ought to be one of the most conservative institutions in American life. And I say conservative with a small ‘c’ — shouldn’t be blown about by fads. I don’t mean political conservatism, right wing conservatism, but rather the belief in the persistence. And the of something that’s, that’s, that’s worthwhile.

Higher Education is one of the few institutions in American life that has roots in the Middle Ages. And so we don’t need to blow it up. But we should be looking at the ways in which it has evolved and the ways in which it should evolve in order to meet the needs of a need full time. Now.


Episode Producer:
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer

PhD Futures Now! is produced by the Humanities Without Walls Consortium with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Episode 2 | Is Higher Education in Crisis?

In Episode 2, host Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann talked to Dr. Teresa Mangum (University of Iowa) and Dr. Leonard Cassuto (Fordham University) about the diverse challenges facing higher education in the United States today.


Dr. Teresa Mangum

Teresa Mangum is a professor in the departments of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and English and Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa. She is leading a Mellon-funded project, Humanities for the Public Good, to design an interdisciplinary, experiential PhD in the humanities for people interested in careers other than the professoriate.

Teresa is the PI for Humanities for the Public Good at the University of Iowa, an innovative new PhD program that includes collaboration and public engagement through graduate programming, which you can read more about here.

Dr. Leonard Cassuto

Leonard Cassuto is the author or editor of nine books on American literature and culture, most The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education. He is the author of “The Graduate Adviser,” for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Other recent books include The Cambridge History of the American Novel (General Editor, 2011), and The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011), winner of the Best Anthology Award from the North American Society of Sports Historians.

His Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by The Los Angeles Times. Cassuto is also an award-winning journalist who writes on subjects ranging from science to sports, in venues from The New York Times to salon.com. His website is www.lcassuto.com.

Audio Transcript

Jason Mierek (intro): This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity, and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a sixteen-university consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann (intro): Hello, everyone, and welcome to PhD Futures Now. I’m your podcast co-host, Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, and on today’s episode, we discuss some of the problems and challenges facing PhD programming in higher education. To help us unpack the history, values, and larger systemic forces impacting current trends in the academy, we’ve invited two leading scholars working on reforming graduate training. We’re joined by Dr. Teresa Mangum, professor in the Departments of English and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. Teresa is the director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, where she’s leading an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project, Humanities for the Public Good, to design an interdisciplinary, experiential PhD in the humanities for people interested in careers other than the professoriate. Dr. Leonard Cassuto, professor of English and American Studies at at Fordham University, and co author of the recently published The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, joins us for the first of a two part series with Len and his co author Robert Weissbuch to discuss The New PhD, which advocates for student centered public facing and diverse career paths for students in the arts and sciences. Bob will be joining us on our next episode for a full conversation about their new book, and about pathways forward and reforming PhD programming across the academy. So you won’t want to miss that episode. Before we begin, we want to thank all of you, our listening audience, for joining us subscribing to the podcast, and for becoming a part of this community we’re trying to build here with PhD Futures Now. And now, we welcome to Teresa Mangum and Len Cassuto to the podcast.

MNH: As I mentioned, we are calling this episode The Crisis in Higher Education. But we’re really wondering, is it a singular crisis stemming from one overarching issue? Or are the crises we faced multi-pronged, requiring many different approaches and solutions? So this is kind of our first question, what are the crises we face in academia today, as you see it, from your perspectives at Fordham or at the University of Iowa?

Teresa Mangum: You want to start Len?

Leonard Cassuto: Well, okay, sure. Let’s see. The word “crisis” is something that I think we should be careful about overusing because it has a sense of immediacy, house on fire, kind of aspect to it. And there is a way that the problems that are facing higher education right now are … if they represent fires, they’ve been burning for a long time. I’ve been looking at academia closely for a while and graduate education in particular. And it seems to me that one of the ways in which we are out of step – you can can call it a crisis if you want but I would call it instead of fundamental problem – is the loss of a collective sense of higher education as a public good, rather than as a personal investment. I think that people who have come of age in the last 40 years or so has the experience of thinking about higher education starting with colleges, should I do this for me? Is it worth the investment of money that I and or my parents are going to make? And certainly American higher education has a long history of being that kind of personal investment that has that has a reward in the form of a credential that can lead to people’s economic betterment, but higher education in the United States has for much longer and always been more than that. Higher education is something that’s good for everybody. As K-12, public education is paid is paid for by property taxes. People don’t don’t say, “Oh, I don’t have children. I’m not going to pay my property taxes. Because I don’t, because I don’t have any children to get public education.” Because there’s a general recognition that an educated population is good for everybody that educating the children of today, even if they’re not my children, benefits me, as a member of society. So too, with higher education. And in the last, particularly 40 years or so, starting with the Reagan years, there’s been an erosion of the idea that higher education is and ought to be a public goods that benefits us all, and should be a source of public investment for that reason. And we have a long track record in American history of higher education, proving that out, that is, when higher education has been viewed as public good, we have all benefited, particularly for example, in the post World War Two era.

And in the last, particularly 40 years or so, starting with the Reagan years, there's been an erosion of the idea that higher education is and ought to be a public goods that benefits us all, and should be a source of public… Click To Tweet

TM: And I’ll jump in, I would second everything that Len just said. And I’m also someone who’s a bit leery of the “crisis” rhetoric, for very similar reasons, that this has been a long, slow roll out of a set of problems, not a sudden avalanche, even though it feels like an avalanche on a daily basis sometimes. I was reading a great piece this morning in Inside Higher Ed by Stephen Mintz, who is a historian and the former director of the Institute for transformational learning at UT Texas, Austin, and so appreciated the way he was calling us all back to think about the relationship between liberal arts broad based deep learning, and vocation and careers. And we tend to go in one direction or the other. And, when we think of education as only a public good if it leads directly to a job ,and then we start to shift away from thinking about a broader kind of learning that prepares us all for any kind of life experience and career as a first stage, we just give away so much. And so I just want us to think about going forward, how we think with the public, how we think with our students and their families about.. and how we think with our university administrators, about looking at the values that we want to support in education, and then thinking about budget, and the reverse is the way we tend to have conversations these days. And that really could change fairly quickly with with great leadership.

MNH: So one of the things as you were both talking that I started to think about, and just so you both know, I’m a historian by training story in a philanthropic foundations, especially during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States. And so one of the questions I have is, as I’m listening to both of you, is to think about, and to think through what shifts historically led to this movement away in education, that perhaps, and maybe I’m wrong by suggesting this, but this movement away from that idea of education as a public good. You know… what happened?

LC: I’m sure we’re both gonna have plenty to say about this. But Teresa, by your leave, I’ll take the first whack at it. In in the period following World War Two, the government started investing heavily in higher education as its research and development lab, as a way of dealing with the tech the arms technology and space races with the Soviet Union. And it transformed this higher education in a way that is never been seen before. It’s more and more people who could never consider higher education before could now go to college and beyond. Because the good thing is government investment expanded the sector, and also government investment included legislation like the GI Bill, the National Defense Education Act, and later the guaranteed student loan program, all post war programs that expanded access to college. It was a time when the higher education sector not only grew but democratized and fulfilled in some sense, its vision, and the period following World War Two, the attitudes shifted. exponentially, it was a very good thing for the country, economically and socially. And it started, when resources became scarce, the access to college began to constrict, and it is continued to do so. But the reasons for this and the reasons for the growing conflict between higher education and society at large, they’re very complicated. And many of them, many of them can be rooted in the conflicts that roiled the nation in the 1960s, over race, and Vietnam. Universities became a locus for some of those conflicts, and higher education became during that period, and for the first time, partisan. And if we have a mission as educators, and people who support higher education, it would be I think, to try to reinforce the nonpartisan character of higher education, because it is, as we’ve been saying, something that all of society is invested in.

"And if we have a mission as educators, and people who support higher education, it would be I think, to try to reinforce the nonpartisan character of higher education, because it is, as we've been saying, something that all of… Click To Tweet

TM: And for sanity sake, the way, I tend to approach questions like this is to think large scale and then small scale, what can I do about it. And so large scale, in addition to the great overview that Len just offered of historical effects, I think we’re all experiencing what happens when national income bifurcates the way it has in the last 20 or 30 years, so that the middle class is hollowed out. And it has become more and more difficult for people to be in the middle in terms of income, where they live, all of those things, we tend to think about aspirationally I suppose there’s a lot less meta motivation to to walk the path of education toward that kind of life fulfillment, because it just feels more and more hopeless. And so I think that’s a heartbreaking part of where we are.

MNH:I think that’s a really a great place to transition to another question that Deepthi and I worked on as we were preparing for the the podcast interview today. Teresa, you mentioned to us in our in our preparation materials that there are certain values by which higher education in the US is designed. What do you think are some of those values that undergird our system of higher education? What do you think some of those values are? In what ways have those values maybe contributed unintentionally, to some of the problems that we face currently?

TM: Oh, another wonderful, wonderfully complicated questions. So even in the time of my career, so a few decades, I’ve really seen markedly each decade, the way there has been a slide away. And this is an economic frame this with the realization of state budgets dropping etc., for education. But I’ve watched the slide from the way we tended to do business is we had a good idea, it would benefit scholarly knowledge and it would benefit our students. If I came into a dean’s office or our provost office with a really good idea for experimentation, the first comment was, let’s figure out how to do it, or a version of it. And that kept us all in an enterprise of learning and excitement about ideas that just spilled over into all sorts of other parts of academic life, when I walk into an office now, before I can get my first sentence out, I’m being told, we don’t have budget, there’s no money for that. And so I’m getting really creative, as are many of my colleagues, at what you can do with very limited budgets, or relying too heavily on goodwill. As part of that budgetary definition. We made the decision to also change some of our formations, like shrink the tenure track faculty and create all of these different kinds of positions for short term faculty from part time teaching one class to longer period appointment. But we’ve now created a system in which it is very difficult for for the full faculty to cooperate to work together effectively to share in the work of the university because it is so tiered. It’s so tiered in terms of commitment of the institution to individuals, financial differences in what we get paid. And so our balance, you know, budget, plays out your values. And try to respect the fact that if there’s less money, we have to learn how to live with that with those budgetary constraints. But you feel like the choices we’ve made, have made it more and more difficult to be a place of learning and discovery. And a place that really fosters creativity and collaboration.

MNH: You know, as you were talking, it made me think about a little bit about PhD students who feel really frustrated, as they’re writing their dissertations, and thinking through this lack of tenure track jobs, and then thinking and that is my work of value, if there is no clear job outcome? And so I think coming back to that first premise of what is our value, that we do have value in the things that we study, is something that, you know, I keep trying to reinforce with my colleagues at Marquette University to who are kind of going through that similar kind of crisis of faith in terms of the value of their scholarship, PhD training, is such a provides such a transferable skill set

LC: A lot of the problem here, and a lot of the alienation that we as educators are creating is not so much that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, academic jobs that don’t exist right now, although there is that and, our system does need reform. It is also that we are teaching them to want those jobs above all others, and to feel that they are failures, when they don’t get those jobs. When a teacher teaches students to want something that’s not out there that they can’t supply, then we’re teaching our students to be unhappy. And there is practically no worse thing that a teacher can do than that. And it’s a measure of the problems that plague PhD education right now that we are socializing our students to feel and believe this way, and set them up to be unhappy, bitter, despairing. It’s a it’s a thoroughly avoidable human tragedy.

"A lot of the problem here, and a lot of the alienation that we as educators are creating is not so much that we are preparing students for jobs that don't exist, academic jobs that don't exist right now, although there is that and,… Click To Tweet

TM: And Len’s book is going to hit and and Bob’s book is going to have such an impact in offering alternatives to that model. Most people here also know Katina Rogers’ book, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom. Her book has just changed the way a lot of our faculty are thinking now and grad students, because it does go right to where Len just went, which is thinking about the whole person as, rather than a degree or a body of knowledge alone. One of the things that we’re talking about is part of the humanities for the public good design… One of our working groups is is thinking about what might it mean to have comps [exams] be a semester long collaboration among students, with faculty, thinking about what do I need to know to do a project? Or to imagine different ways I could work in the world? Instead of what do I need to know about a field only? What do I need to know that we’ve put together the field based knowledge with skills or understanding how careers were, or interviewing people? And I’m so excited to see what they come up with, because it’s such a different notion of thinking about the comps, again, as a sort of whole person experience that integrates the knowledge with sets of possibilities. I just want to echo what Len said, that I think that we as faculty really need to take some responsibility for setting students up for that disappointment and that grief, because we don’t have to do it. There are ways to use the humanities in multiple settings. There are ways we could adapt, and exactly the way you’re describing Maggie [producer’s note: this conversation refers to an issue discussed by host earlier in the episode that did not make the final cut], by getting to know people in different sectors and bringing that into the classroom with us and normalizing what in fact, we’re learning through programs like our internship program, are places to work that bring people incredible experience and fulfillment. So I just want to second what Len said about the role we as faculty can play in this.

"I think that we as faculty really need to take some responsibility for setting students up for that disappointment and that grief, because we don't have to do it. There are ways to use the humanities in multiple settings."– Teresa… Click To Tweet

LC: So you mentioned Maggie, the growing number of history PhDs are thinking about careers in the nonprofit. So I have not surveyed them, obviously. But I guarantee you that a percentage that we can find disturbing, are afraid to tell their advisors, that that is that their career goals have led them that way. And it’s a measure of the dysfunction of academic culture, that that remains the case. And so we don’t, when when we as faculty are not going to always know the kinds of discussions that are happening in any given profit or nonprofit sector that our students are considering entering. But we should be inviting to the table, the advising table, people who have that knowledge, so that we can all, but especially our students, learn from this, is part of what in Bob and I are both causes called “student centered graduate education,” the idea that we should be proceeding from what it is that our students want and need. And if that seems obvious, the history of graduate education runs the other way. It’s against the grain. Historically, graduate education is an outgrowth of faculty research, because graduate education takes place at research universities, which privilege research, were we in the academy and possibly people outside are aware that there is an enormous body of scholarship on undergraduate teaching and learning. People make careers out of studying undergraduate teaching and learning. But if you want to look at the scholarship of graduate teaching, there is very, very little. But graduate students are learners too–why does nobody worry about how to teach them? Because graduate teaching is historically not its own thing. Graduate teaching, historically, simply proceeds out of faculty research. And that’s why particularly in the humanities, you have seminar offerings that are esoterically connected to whatever sub-sub-specialty a faculty member may be working on at the time. Because the the the ethos that underlies this is, students will just work along with me on this subject of interest to me, and they’ll learn whatever they need to learn in order to do their own work. I don’t think that that has ever been the case. But it’s a particularly unsound model now.

TM: Well, and in a way, this loops back to a topic that’s come up several times in our conversation, which is about the the effect of bifurcation of people one group and making assumptions about another group and and that stalling out possibilities for working together. I was interested in the last few years that are often have heard the sentiment expressed that the work of career diversity training might be done better by people other than faculty, because it isn’t what most faculty members know, they know their own career and not others. I want to say that it’s our responsibility as faculty members, just to start learning about other careers. And Maggie, I know you have had wonderful success in this at Marquette. And I have been fascinated when I brought together faculty, a few faculty members, with owners of businesses and directors of nonprofits, to think about how graduate students could do have internships in that environment or how they could work together. And those conversations start with each group assuming things about each other, that would stall out any collaboration. And then we have to do what you would do in a classroom. We have to start stitching together. You know, tell us about what you do. Tell us about what you know, what happens in your classes, like what do you, what is the value of teaching literature, and through the conversation, people start to be surprised by each other and what the humanities graduate students could bring into the workplace and what the workplace can tell the faculty members about in their own language, as you suggested earlier Maggie, in their own language, how they would take advantage of the training of humanities graduate students. And just as a really concrete example, we have a great African American Museum and Cedar Rapids, just up the road, and one of our grad students worked there for an internship who’s in Communication Studies. And they had been using an exercise, one of those experiential exercises in which students imagine they were slaves, with kids. And the graduate student is studying critical race theory, etc. He very compassionately thoughtfully brought to them the research. And he was surprised to find out the research was more split than he imagined. But he talked through the museum staff, why he would like to design a different kind of experiential learning. Everybody who was in that conversation came away feeling like they had learned important, not just ideas, but ways of thinking about the world, and thinking about education, and thinking about other human beings. And those things can’t happen nearly as easily until we as faculty take the time to get to know colleagues in these other sectors where our students could work.

LC: So I want to piggyback on what Teresa is saying, to add a couple of things. First, that we haven’t mentioned the pandemic, which is interesting and instructive, in its own way. The pandemic, as is obvious, is terribly destructive of the higher ed sector, along with many other sectors in the American economy in ways that we can only focus or only guess at the full extent of because we’re still in the middle of it, at the time that we’re having this conversation. I think one of the reasons it hasn’t come up yet, is because the effect of the of the COVID pandemic has been simply to emphasize, accentuate, and deepen the issues that were already there. And if there’s anything good about it, you know, they say every crisis is an opportunity. And I would, I would as soon do without these kinds of opportunities. But if, if every crisis is an opportunity, in this case, we can see more clearly what the problems are, because so much of our support has been blown away by what’s happening over the past year. But on a on a very basic level, a lot of this is about people. And because education is fundamentally a personal and public activity, as Teresa mentioned, the idea of people gathering around the table to talk about graduate student education, and bringing assumptions that are so fundamentally at odds that they can prevent collaboration in many cases. Well, something that many graduate programs have taken to doing, and this is highly commendable, is to invite alumni back to campus who are engaged in careers outside of the academy to talk about their lives. And that’s great, and it should continue. But something that I would like to suggest here is that faculty attend these meetings, instead faculty saying, “Oh, it’s, this is happening, you graduate students go and have a good old time, and you’ll learn some things and that’ll be good.” If faculty show up, that’s a way of honoring the choices that graduate students already have before them. The choices the graduate students already face, the world that graduate students are already having to reckon with. Graduate students don’t all believe in every case that their faculty advisors are behind them. But if faculty take their bodies and put them in front of those speakers, that’s a way of showing graduate students that we’re all in this together, and we are collaborating in ways that Teresa is talking about.

"Well, something that many graduate programs have taken to doing, and this is highly commendable, is to invite alumni back to campus who are engaged in careers outside of the academy to talk about their lives. And that's great, and… Click To Tweet

MNH: If you had to suggest only two reforms to tackle the academic problems we’ve been discussing, what would they be? Or to think of it in another way: If there are multiple crises or problems facing the academy, what is the most important one according to you to tackle?

LC: So for me, I will say that there are two concepts that need to underwrite any reform–reform will vary from discipline to discipline and campus to campus. And I think that we can agree that reform is necessary. But reform has to be number one, student centered, because it has to meet the needs of students and so it needs to be reverse engineered from the concerns that students face–not faculty members. And second, if I have to pick, I’m going to say it needs to be public facing. Because we started out the our time here talking about that how one of the really dire problems that higher education faces right now is a communications breakdown with society at large. We’re not understanding each other, and in particular society at large is not understanding what it is that we are doing in this workplace, that is so important for the fate of society at large. And if we face the public, if we interact with the public in ways that are more generous, more productive, we can hope that we can start to mend mend those those fences, fill those gaps, and fight and find common mission, which higher education needs more than anything.

"I think that we can agree that reform is necessary. But reform has to be number one, student centered, because it has to meet the needs of students and so it needs to be reverse engineered from the concerns that students face–not… Click To Tweet

TM: I would completely completely agree with both of those. Those options are orientations. And I guess another another change that I see beginning, but I think what further help the movements that that Len just described, would be to take really seriously the call to social justice that we’ve all been hearing more clearly than ever this summer, which is partly about COVID, partly the Black Lives Matter movement, and attendant movements around social inequity, as well as the income bifurcation that we were talking about earlier. I think if we really took on as a university and as disciplines, what does it mean, to reorient the way we’re teaching, to address some of this–use what we do to address some of these compelling problems in the world. I would love to see how that shifted how we teach, what we teach, what’s on a syllabus in a Victorian Lit class in my area. And again, I’m seeing people ask those questions. But I would say that we’re not going to have a planet if we don’t start taking the environmental questions seriously as like a leading front leading issue. And that takes us right to the public facing. And then back down to the ground. I’d like to see us think about funding for graduate education differently. This is a very modest change that we could make, instead of imagining all graduate support should be in the form of teaching assistantships, or the majority… What if we had administrative assistantships? What if we had a whole variety of ways of applying what we’re learning that gave students introduced in one year to, or a couple of years, what it means to teach in different settings. But in another year or two, what is it like to do research in the provost office, or to be that educator in the hospital that you just described so beautifully, Maggie [producer’s note: this is in reference to an anecdote from the host earlier in the conversation that did not make the final cut], and endorsing our graduate students, various forms of connecting their education with job opportunities in that way, and articulating the two would just be transformative overnight.

"What if we had administrative assistantships? What if we had a whole variety of ways of applying what we're learning that gave students introduced in one year to, or a couple of years, what it means to teach in different settings.… Click To Tweet

LC: And I will add only one thing that I agree entirely with everything Teresa just said. And to follow from the idea that if we don’t pay attention to issues like climate change, we won’t have a planet. If we don’t pay attention to diversity issues, we should not have a university, you are higher education should look like America. And over the last, particularly 20 to 30 years, the democratization that occurred in the post war era has been eroded. and higher education is increasingly riven by the kinds of inequality that are not only unjust, but unproductive. We need to reopen the sector, on both the undergraduate and the graduate level, in ways that are going to make higher education into a true social enterprise for all of society.

"…if we don't pay attention to issues like climate change, we won't have a planet. If we don't pay attention to diversity issues, we should not have a university, you are higher education should look like America."– Leonard Cassuto Click To Tweet

TM: And where as so many of the changes that we contemplate, would be incredibly expensive, and will demand a complete overhaul of our economic system, that call to that kind of work to being serious about training for diverse democracy, training for a commitment to being part of solving huge problems, that’s free. That’s what we could be doing even in individual classes in departmental curricula, so that we can do!

MNH: That’s a great place to end our conversation today. Thank you, Len and Teresa for joining us. To all of you folks listening, we will see you in three weeks, with Len and Bob Weissbuch to talk about their new book, The New PhD until then, I and the whole team at HWW and PhD Futures Now, wish you continued health and well being. As always, if you’re a graduate student looking for resources to help build your future career, or ways to help bring some of these reforms to your campus, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Deepthi Murali (outro): PhD futures now is produced by Humanities Without Walls consortium. Our producer is Deepthi Murali, and our co host for this episode is Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann. If you would like to know more about this podcast or about HWW, please visit our website at www.PhDfuturesnow.org or contact us at our social media handle @PhDfuturesnow. Special thanks to our guests for this episode Dr. Teresa Mangum and Dr. Leonard Cassuto. See you back in three weeks!


Episode Producer:
Deepthi Murali, PhD Futures Now! Producer
Episode Host:
Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, HWW Associate Director of Career Diversity

PhD Futures Now! is produced by the Humanities Without Walls Consortium with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

PhD Futures Now! Teaser – 3

We are coming to a podcast listening app near you SOON! But here is a snippet of our new podcast series – PhD Futures Now! Have a listen!!

In this clip from one of our upcoming PhD Futures Now! episodes, Lisa Betty (PhD Candidate, Fordham University) unpacks the broken promise of graduate education especially for black women and women of color. 


A large amount of the student debt, you know, carriers are black women, or women of color. 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. And it doesn’t stop us, at least to fully understand that lie, 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 the information, and the networks. Presumably, if you come from a financially marginalized base, that may be your only way to, to move to get to the next level.

PhD Futures Now! Teaser – 2

We are coming to a podcast listening app near you SOON! But here is a snippet of our new podcast series – PhD Futures Now! Have a listen!!

In this trailer, Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann, co-host of PhD Futures Now!, talks about the most significant problem haunting graduate education in the Humanities today. 


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. I want to sort of up end 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 variety 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. I would like to see us separate the job outcome from the actual education we receive as PhDs.

PhD Futures Now! Teaser – 1

We are coming to a podcast listening app near you SOON! But here is a snippet of our new podcast series – PhD Futures Now! Have a listen!!

In this teaser, Dr. Antoinette Burton, Professor of History at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Principal Investigator of the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) Consortium talks about what is her most pressing question for the future of Humanities higher education in the United States. 


We have a commitment to our institutions being social escalators, and of making the institution which is not built for first-in-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. But 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 to need, so that they can with the different kinds of knowledges that they bring from all kinds of walks of life from all social classes from all different kinds of racialized underrepresented and subjugated communities? How can the knowledge and the experiences they bring transform what we mean by higher education? That’s what I’m interested in.