A New Kind of CFP

Originally posted by Ashley McNeil on October 30, 2016

A couple years ago, the Modern Language Association created a special task force to research and publish a special report, “Report of the MLA Task Force in Modern Language and Literature.” Ok, so nothing about that sentence sounds special. But the impetus, aims, and content of the report is more than special: it’s groundbreaking in the fact that it calls itself–the MLA–out for failing in the administration of doctoral programs.

Specifically, the task force acknowledges:

“In the light of persistent criticism from within the academy and from a larger
public, the legitimacy of doctoral study needs reformulation if we expect to meet the
challenges and opportunities of the moment. We are faced with an unsustainable
reality: a median time to degree of around nine years for language and literature
doctoral recipients and a long-term academic job market that provides tenure-track
employment for only around sixty percent of doctorate recipients. We as members
of the scholarly community must insist on maintaining excellence in our research and teaching by recognizing the wide range of intellectual paths through which we produce new knowledge. We must also validate the wide range of career possibilities that doctoral students can pursue.

While the boldface emphasis is mine, I’d wager most everyone who read this report in its original published form zoned in on those sentences as well. Essentially, the task force is calling for a pretty dramatic revision of the narrative of “success” for doctoral candidates and graduates–a new kind of CFP, if you will. The task force recommends ten core changes for all literature and language doctoral programs, four of which I find particularly gutsy in their overhaul-tone and germane to this blog post:

  1. Redesign the doctoral program. Departments should review their programs to align them with the learning needs and career goals of students and to bring degree requirements in line with the evolving character of our fields. Noncourse-based activities are essential in today’s career environment.
  2. Reimagine the dissertation. An extended research project should remain the defining feature of doctoral education. Departments should expand the spectrum of forms the dissertation may take and ensure that students receive mentoring from professionals beyond the department as appropriate.
  3. Expand professionalization opportunities. Departments should provide students with ways to acquire skills necessary to scholarship and future employment, such as collaboration, project management, and grant writing. Internships and work with professional associations can provide transformational experiences.
  4. Validate diverse career outcomes. Departments must give students a full understanding of the range of potential career outcomes and support students’ choices. Prospective and new students should have information about the program’s placements, the academic job market, and the casualization of the academic workforce.

Being a Student Innovation Fellow this year, I’m lucky that the program and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning already espouse and employ many of the calls the MLA task force makes: we work with multiple faculty members from different fields, departments, and sectors of the university; we work collaboratively and creatively on projects that extend far beyond the confines of higher-ed walls; and there is a multitude of opportunities–not to mention the fantastic support and encouragement–to liaise with non-academic professionals on work that is both scholarly and public-based.

Yet the SIF program is only a program, not an accredited degree or certificate unto itself. Recognizing this important trajectory for future expansion, I started doing some research into other university institutions that have been working toward reimagining what a doctoral degree in the humanities looks like.

My findings to date show Public Scholarship to be a hot-ticket pursuit for many (well-funded) universities that have committed to revising their doctoral program pedagogies to make their graduates viable and prepared in their non-student lives.

Public Scholarship is defined a little differently depending on who you read. GSU’s Department of English, for example, explains in it’s statement on Public Scholarship:

Public scholarship is something scholars do in public, with the public, and with the potential to impact the public: it’s extroverted, and appeals to a general audience . . . [as it] is predicated upon giving back to the community that supports higher education; cultivating audiences that expand our potential reach; and breaking down barriers between the academic world and the public consciousness.

Other institutions have also notably weighed in, including Carleton College’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement and the Public Scholarship Program at the University of North Dakota’s Center for Community Engagement.

Not only does Public Scholarship seek to strengthen the weaknesses of doctoral programs for graduates, but it also harkens a revision of tenure and promotion processes for faculty. In 2008 (perhaps inspiring the MLA to create it’s own task force to assess doctorate degree programs), Imagine America created the Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship (TTI) to “recognize publicly engaged art and scholarship as legitimate scholarly and creative activity, and to ensure faculty, administrators, and students are free to take up this work.”

Programmatically responding to the MLA and Imagining America’s hails for broadened and more inclusive reform is the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. While there are certainly other universities that have also updated their programs to respond to bleak projections for PhDs in the humanities, I believe that UW’s Certificate in Pubic Scholarship is unique in that it is an actual accredited certificate that is conferred with the doctorate degree (rather than a mission statement or side-funding projects) and it brings together diverse faculty (not just professors) and non-academic professionals to chair a candidates proposed project that services public good.

Sounds interesting, maybe even exciting, huh? Check back in for my next blog post, which will dig into all the working parts of UW’s Certificate of Public Scholarship and how their model effectively responds to “the crisis of the humanities” that so many of us are weary of reckoning with.