NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD Planning Grant

Abstract and Overview
Planning Committee
Planning Themes
Proposed Timeline

Abstract and Overview

As the late recession made long-term trend-lines in the employment prospects of PhDs in the humanities impossible to ignore, real momentum has gathered toward reforming graduate education to better reflect the multiple career paths open to humanists. In recent years both the MLA and the AHA have issued major reports emphasizing the need to expand graduate training in ways which encourage graduate students to seek employment beyond the confines of the traditional academic job market. In keeping with the suggestion by Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA, that we should see the humanities as positioned at a moment of opportunity rather than a moment of crisis, Georgia State University is seeking NEH funding to further a planning process to re-imagine the education of humanists with an emphasis on training our students to compete for jobs in growing and evolving fields such as user experience research, project management, and participatory design in Atlanta’s booming media and technology industries.

One of the nation’s largest and most diverse universities, GSU is well positioned to foster such new connections and opportunities. Our location in downtown Atlanta places us in the center of a vibrant economy, particularly rich in media and high tech firms, in which professionals trained to work at the intersection of creativity, human expression, and technology are in high demand. Moreover, GSU’s modest national reputation gives us a certain institutional advantage as we pursue transformative changes in our humanities PhD programs. Never having defined ourselves as an institution working singlemindedly toward preparing students for positions in research universities, we have less to lose than to gain by proactive engagement with non-academic career paths for our graduates. We are also a rapidly growing institution, with a strategic plan and an institutional culture that is open to new ways of thinking about education. To date, Georgia State’s commitment to rethinking higher education has been most visible at the undergraduate level, where we have developed a national reputation as one of the most innovative universities in the country, with particular expertise in using big data to improve undergraduate graduation rates. With the support of the NEH, we can bring this readiness to experiment to bear on our graduate programs. This year, a variety of actors within the university, including faculty, graduate students, high level administrators, and offices within the university, notably the Student Innovation Fellowship program and the Creative Media Industries Institute, have begun discussing ways to retool our graduate programs with the goal of producing humanists who combine the deep content knowledge, disciplinary research, and communication skills associated with a traditional humanistic education with technical abilities, real world problem solving skills, participatory design experience, and project management practice not generally emphasized in PhD curriculums. Introducing these marketable skills from the beginning of our programs will encourage our students to consider non-academic work as a viable “plan A” rather than a worst-case scenario “plan B.”

These efforts will occur within an institution that is actively expanding its investment in the humanities, and has articulated a strategic goal of creating distinctive graduate and professional programs. The university has four major humanities initiatives planned or in early phases, each of which can contribute resources and expertise to our efforts. 1) a Humanities Center, slated to open in fall 2016, which will be organized around the theme of the humanities and the public 2) The Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII), funded by a $22.8 million gift from the Woodruff Foundation. The CMII is specifically designed to connect GSU and its students to employment opportunities in Georgia’s rapidly growing games, film, and art industries; 3) an interdisciplinary graduate certificate program in Digital Humanities being developed by faculty from across the humanities designed to bring technological skills to humanist education; and 4) the Student Innovation Fellowship (SIF), now in its second year of operation, which provides funding for approximately two dozen student fellows, including four PhD candidates from the humanities, to develop expertise and share ideas around emerging technologies while working on medium to large scale collaborative research projects.What makes the SIF program unique is that it places PhD candidates in the humanities into management roles, supervising teams of students, faculty, and staff working collectively. In this capacity, SIF fellows not only gain familiarity with audio-visual and computing skills, but also meaningful experience in large scale project design, supervision, and management. Teamwork, project design and problem solving are skills that have been identified by the National Association of Colleges and Employers as highly desirable, and the experience of SIF fellows leaves them highly qualified in all these areas.

These are all promising initiatives, each of which develops pipelines towards non-academic employment. However, they are presently isolated efforts, and will benefit greatly from systematic integration and collaboration with representatives from local tech industries and our humanist PhD graduates who work outside of the academy, from whom we have much to learn. For example, Laura Wolfram, a PhD from GSU’s English Department, who wrote a dissertation on a user experience case study she conducted at MailChimp, has agreed to participate. After completing her degree, she found employment at MailChimp, a prominent email marketing company, and now heads a research team there. Her experience will help us understand how humanities graduate work can translate directly into employment in project design, management, and user interface. Karyn Lu, co-founder of CNN’s iReport and former Manager of Insights and Inspiration at Turner Broadcasting, has also agreed to advise us. With her M.S. in Digital Media from Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Lu can help us as we integrate more technology into our humanities programs. With help from these and other representatives from outside of the academy, our planning phase work will be directed at building a cohesive ecosystem for graduate studies out of what are presently disconnected efforts.

At the fulcrum of our efforts is the Student Innovations Fellowship Program (SIF). The SIF program is attracting international attention as a new model for graduate training, and will be helping lead a daylong workshop at this summer’s Digital Humanities conference in Krakow alongside similar projects from Brown, UCLA, Emory, Penn State, and Columbia. SIF work gives graduate students advanced training in a variety of technical skills and experience in project management and design. For example, the Unpacking Manuel’s Project is an experimental, collaborative digital archiving project, devoted to documenting the material history of a landmark of Atlanta’s progressive political scene, Manuel’s Tavern. Using gigapan images, 3D scans, and detailed documentation, it records the history of the thousands of artifacts that line the Tavern’s historic walls. A SIF fellow and PhD candidate in the History Department is assigned to the project team, tasked with processing high resolution images, and building a database of each discrete object in the tavern. The skills associated with these tasks have direct applications in the gaming and film industries, and also have attracted interest from major real estate developers interested in documenting urban spaces prior to redevelopment. The SIF currently operates a number of other interdisciplinary projects with roots in the humanities, including an ambitious project to create a building-by-building 3-D virtual recreation of Atlanta’s Red Light district of the 1930’s using historic photos, the Unity gaming engine, and Blender’s 3-D modelling tools, GIS projects relating to the history of Atlanta as an urban space, and building custom databases for digital curation of dispersed publicly available archival objects. Each of these projects challenges our humanistic fellows to expand their technical knowledge and their understandings of the horizon of meaningful humanistic inquiry.

This year, we have begun placing our PhD fellows in management positions for our work, an experiment that has been a great success. For example, core committee member Thomas Breideband, a PhD Candidate in English whose dissertation explores the impacts of social media on communities of knowledge, supervises a team of computer scientists charged with a large data-mining project which explores the impacts of twitter and facebook on the tourism industries of Latin American nations. Dylan Ruediger, a Next Generation Project co-director and a PhD candidate in the History Department, is responsible for managing two digital humanities projects, one of which is creating tools for archiving and transcribing marginal annotations in 18th- and 19th-century almanacs, the other a crowdsourced critical edition of the medieval poetry of Thomas Hoccleve.

A major goal of our efforts will be to lay the foundation for a significant expansion of the SIF’s model of collaborative research and project management. This SIF program will operate a number of new projects, designed by a committee of academics and industry representatives to combine the best of humanist training and perspectives with specific technological skillsets identified as desirable within the film and media industries. By bringing industry voices into the planning phase of research projects, our Next Generation program strives not only to place humanists into media and technology careers, but also to bring these industries into the academy. These large-scale projects will support, and be supported by, curricular changes associated with the DH certificate program, which will expose as many PhD students as possible to the prospects and possibilities of nonacademic careers. In addition, during the planning phase of our Next Generation PhD Grant we will:

  • Create additional research assistantships for Humanities PhD students through the SIF program as an alternative to teaching-based support.
  • Continue to build relationships and work with industry, the arts community, and NGO’s, as well as current and former GSU Humanities PhD students to develop plans for advisement, mentoring, and internship programs to promote jobs outside of academia and encourage non-traditional dissertations.
  • Collect data to establish where our students are working and set a plan for using data to fine-tune graduate curriculum.
  • Finish development of an outward facing digital humanities degree/certificate program that is designed to provide meaningful training opportunities in collaborative, high tech, interdisciplinary research projects. Work to tie the DH program to real-world skills in demand in the media and technology industries.
  • Support discussions about diversifying the format of dissertations in the humanities.
  • Integrate humanities curricula, the SIF fellowship, and departmental and university level career development activities as we seek to build something that is more than the sum of its parts. By consciously combining curricular changes and collaborative, outward-facing research projects, with institutional efforts to track graduates over the long term and workshops and seminars hosted by departments, university centers, and the offices of the Associate Provost for Graduate Programs, we will lay the foundation for comprehensive transformation rather than piecemeal change.


Planning Committee

Members of our core committee have agreed to attend all planning committee meetings and half-day workshops during the year of grant support. The primary responsibility of the core committee is to connect the disparate efforts of their programs, offices, and companies into a coherent and transformative model for the training of humanists, and to collaborate with the SIF program to develop a series of technically oriented research projects that are specifically designed to integrate humanist PhD training with non-academic job skills. The secondary committee will attend meetings and workshops relevant to their areas of expertise and offer advice during the planning process.


  • College of Arts & Sciences (CAS)– The College of Arts & Sciences is the largest college at GSU, home of 288 PhD students and candidates in the humanities, 73 in History, 131 in English, and 84 in communication.
  • Student Innovation Fellowship (SIF)– The SIF program is distinctive in that it gives graduate students in the humanities managerial experience in long-term, collaborative research projects and advanced skills in gaming design, WordPress and other platforms for public communication, audio/video production, mapping, and data-mining. With the advice of our central committee and its representatives from Atlanta’s media industries, the SIF program will develop and maintain an expanded slate of projects designed to bridge humanist and technical training.
  • Creative Media Industries Institute– The CMII was formed to strengthen connections between GSU and the region’s booming creative industries. CMII’s main objectives are educating students for 21st-century work in the media/arts industries, facilitating media/arts entrepreneurship, and generating industry-relevant research and to help students network and develop relationships with Atlanta’s main film and TV production, broadcast, PR/marketing, music, arts, and journalism companies and nonprofits.
  • GSU Humanities PhD Alumni Humanities Alumni who have found employment outside academia will serve on the core committee and offer concrete suggestions about which aspects of their graduate education prepared them for non-academic jobs and what curricular changes would have better prepared them to do so.
  • Industry We have secured participation from representatives from Atlanta’s media, film and gaming industries. These members will help us design workshops, curriculum, and SIF projects utilizing specific technical skills in demand in these industries.
  • Humanities Center– GSU will soon open a humanities center organized around the theme of connecting the humanities and the public sphere. The Humanities Center will help us connect our graduate students to Atlanta’s business and arts communities.
  • Digital Humanities Committee– We have begun working toward creating GSU’s first interdisciplinary graduate degree program in the humanities, an MIS (Master of Interdisciplinary Studies) degree with a concentration in Digital Humanities, and a certificate program in Digital Humanities for PhD students.
  • Office of the Associate Provost for Graduate Programs– The Associate Provost for Graduate Programs, a new office reflecting GSU’s increased commitment to graduate education, sponsors workshops and career development seminars for PhD students in the humanities, including some focused on non-academic career paths.
  • Office of Enrollment Services and Student Success– This office is a national leader in  bringing data analytics to undergraduate retention and advisement.  We will use their expertise to build a system to track past and future graduates.


Planning Themes

Create additional research assistantships for Humanities PhD students through the Student Innovation Fellowship program as an alternative to teaching-based financial support.

One of the problems with current funding models in the humanities is that graduate students are supported for the most part by teaching stipends, where they acquire skills primarily of value within the academy. In contrast, the SIF program offers an alternative funding model that opens the door for more diverse training experiences and translates into broadened horizons about what intellectually stimulating labor can entail. Our committee work in this regard will identify stable, long-term funding for SIF humanities PhD positions, seeking both internal funding sources and partnerships with area businesses and enabling them to intern at SIF sponsored projects.

Build relationships and work with industry, the arts community, NGO’s, as well as current and former GSU Humanities PhD students to develop plans for advisement, mentoring, and internships to promote jobs outside of academia and encourage non-traditional dissertations.

The centerpiece of our plan is to open pipelines to employment for humanists in Atlanta’s substantial media and technology industries, as well as its arts and cultural communities. Atlanta is one the nation’s major business centers, the tenth largest metropolitan economy in the United States, and one of the fifty largest economies in the world. We have already secured the participation of several representatives of these communities, and are working to find additional partners from the business and cultural communities to join our steering committee. Our focus for this goal will be to develop personal and professional networks that our students and faculty may tap into, and – more tangibly – to solicit the participation of industry in the design of SIF-funded research projects, to ensure that they are incorporating particular technical skills in high demand in their industries. We also hope to showcase the managerial potential gained by humanists when their communication and organizational skills are enhanced through familiarity with these technologies.

Collect data to establish where our students are working and set a plan for using data to fine-tune graduate curriculum.

A 2014 report by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that a major reason for the disconnection between PhD training and the actual career paths of PhD’s is that schools are either not tracking their graduates or are looking only at first-placements (which tend to over-represent academic jobs). The report concludes that diversfying training of graduate students will be more effective if it is grounded in data on the long-term employment of PhD’s from an institution.To date, few schools have compiled the data necessary for this type of analytics. GSU is a national leader in using data analytics to improve educational outcomes and graduation rates of undergraduates, and we will use this expertise to help us better understand the career paths of our PhD Alumni. Modelled after Stanford’s PhD Alumni Employment Project, we will work with the Associate Provost of Graduate Programs and the Office of Enrollment and Student Success to develop a database of our alumni.

Finish development of an outward-facing digital humanities degree/certificate program that is designed to provide meaningful training opportunities in collaborative, high tech, interdisciplinary research projects. Work to tie the DH program to real-world skills in demand in the media and technology industries.

GSU’s graduate humanities programs do not currently have a coherent curricular emphasis on teaching the digital literacies students need in the jobs they pursue inside or outside of academia. While we do not believe curricular changes alone can transform humanities education, they are an important component of doing so because they provide the opportunity to expose large numbers of students to the possibilities of non-academic employment and to the skills required to pursue it. Our DH program will be distinctive because of its emphasis on collaborative work on projects designed jointly by faculty, digital humanist specialists, and representatives of outside industries. In emphasizing collaborative work on projects designed jointly by faculty, digital humanist specialists, and representatives of outside industries, the DH program will give students real-world skills and experiences, and bring them into contact with potential employers.

Build a slate of large scale research projects, staffed by Student Innovation Fellows, which emphasize specific technological skillsets recommended by PhD alumni working outside the academy and by representatives from media and technology industries. These projects should serve as a pipeline to industry jobs while providing meaningful opportunities to engage in humanist research as part of their graduate training.

Designed in close collaboration with faculty, industry representatives, and alumni, the SIF program will support research projects that will be staffed by Student Innovation Fellows and interns from the DH certificate/MIS program. These projects will emphasize technological skills, humanist perspectives, and Atlanta as an urban, social, and physical space and will be designed to teach skills identified by non-academic employers as highly desirable, with an emphasis throughout on project management and design skills. The SIF program has a number of current projects that can serve as models for those we hope to build. For example, the Nation Branding project, headed by a PhD candidate in the English department, is developing algorithms to conduct keyword searches on Twitter and Facebook to collect the raw data, which will also include meta information such as hashtags, time-stamps, geo-location of a tweet, number of shares and likes, to better understand emerging practices of nation branding on social media by countries in Latin America. The resulting skills are directly relevant to large scale data-mining and advertising. SIF fellows have also used GIS and the University Library’s collection of Atlanta Planning Documents, to create a story map of Atlanta’s Public Transport system and of the Growth of the GSU campus, projects which combine historical research with urban planning, GIS, and graphic design.

Integrate humanities curricula, the SIF fellowship, and departmental- and university- level career development activities as we seek to build something that is more than the sum of its parts. By consciously combining curricular changes and collaborative, outward-facing research projects with institutional efforts to track graduates over the long term and workshops and seminars hosted by departments, university centers, and the offices of the Associate Provost for Graduate Programs, we will lay the foundation for comprehensive transformation rather than piecemeal change.

Our intention is to build an infrastructure capable of encouraging and sustaining deep transformations in the training of humanists and in the attitudes of students, faculty and administrators at Georgia State University. To do so, we are pursuing a multi-faceted approach, but in order to achieve the results we desire, we need to integrate its components, so that they can reinforce each other. Many exciting initiatives are happening at GSU at the same time that the Atlanta area is attracting industries that might be a good fit for humanities PhDs. We are excited about the potential for connecting all of these pieces over the planning year. Once these connections are in place, they will provide a vehicle for transforming the educational experiences and job prospects of humanists at GSU.


Proposed Timeline

Our schedule consists of two types of meetings. Planning committee meetings will be closed meetings, with core committee members and relevant secondary members in attendance. Workshops will be public meetings, designed to bring non-committee members, including faculty, alumni, and representatives from industry into long-term collaboration with our work. PI and Co-PIs will meet bi weekly and will work with graduate assistants to document, create, publicize, and implement the plans between the monthly meetings.

September 2016: Planning Committee Meeting

  • Bring all the primary stakeholders to the table to discuss and build relationships  around the major themes of our planning process.
  • Establish specific calendar for future meetings
  • Develop a marketing strategy and web presence to encourage participation from broader GSU and Atlanta technology, business, and arts communities

October 2016: Workshop: Non-Academic Work as a Viable “Plan A”

  • Lecture from Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA
  • Workshop discussion topics include what we are doing when we educate humanists and identifying priorities for institutional transformation, including training faculty to mentor students for work outside of academe
  • Gather ideas for faculty and grad student development workshops

November 2016: Planning Committee Meeting

  • Discuss strategies for building networks with Atlanta industries
  • Plan December workshop in collaboration with our former PhDs and industry representatives on the committee
  • Begin discussions on how to track where our humanities PhDs find employment and how we might use this data

December 2016:  Workshop: Building Connections to Atlanta Media, Art, and Tech Industries

  • Panel presentation with GSU Humanities PhDs working outside of academia and other media, art, and tech industry reps
  • Discussion topics include what businesses want from humanists and what humanists can offer business
  • Establish connections for possible internships

January 2017: Planning Committee Meeting

  • Plan SIF Project Showcase
  • Build further connections between the SIF program, GSU humanities grad programs, and the DH certificate
  • Begin discussion of diversifying the format of the dissertation

Feb. 2017: Workshop: SIF Project Showcase

  • Showcase current and future SIF work
  • Post-presentation discussion on how to secure internal and external funding for these projects and non-teaching PhD positions, how to tie them to curricular changes, and how the university can support collaborative research based models of humanist training

March 2017: Workshop: Changing Institutional Cultures

  • Panel of representatives from CAS Graduate Office, the Associate Provost for Graduate Programs, and the Office of Student Success about the role of the University and College in implementing changes to graduate education
  • Post-presentation discussion on how departments, faculty, and PhD students can work with the University and College to reach these goals

April 2017: Planning Committee Meeting

  • Establish and prioritize implementation goals
  • Develop systems for long-term tracking of past and future graduates

May-June 2017: planning committee meetings focused on white paper, implementation, and organization of new SIF projects