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Rethinking the humanities PhD

“It is important for the humanities to take back the word ‘skills’ so that it can incite PhD programs to turn outward toward the world. That is why I want to make a case for the particular value of public skills.”

By PAUL YACHNIN | March 11, 2015

Across Canada, graduate schools have implemented skills training programs as add-ons for doctoral students. At McGill University, we have SKILLSETS, with the aim of helping participants to improve their career development, communication and interpersonal skills, and so on. The Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills offers online instruction in such areas as academic and professional communication for new researchers, the search for academic work, among many other topics. At the University of British Columbia, students can enrol in the Graduate Pathways to Success program, “a palette of non-credit workshops, seminars and other activities designed to complement the graduate program’s academic curriculum and mentorship experience.”

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies published a report on professional skills development for graduate students in 2008, arguing that such training would improve their employability and benefit both society and the economy. Like most graduate-skills programs in Canada, the CAGS report made clear that skills training should be an add-on to the PhD, not something integrated into the programs themselves. It also said skills training should not be burdensome for students: “Professional skills components should not extend the length of the program of study.”

I want to offer a reconsideration of skills training for PhD students. My focus is on skills related to the humanities PhD, although I hope that what I have to say will be pertinent to other disciplines. Skills should not be collectible goods – attributes that doctoral candidates can pick up by way of add-on programs and take with them into the academic or, more usually, the non-academic labour market. Rather, skills training is already an integral but usually invisible dimension of PhD programs. That dimension needs to be acknowledged, redefined and developed. I don’t mean to suggest, by the way, that SKILLSETS,, or Pathways to Success are bad programs. It is rather that what they aim to achieve needs to be taken further, right into the heart of the PhD, if skills training is to realize its transformative potential.


Skills that turn toward the world
Skills training across the sectors of government, industry, and colleges and universities, has enjoyed considerable prominence over the past several years. The federal government’s campaign to address a (non-existent) national “skills gap” has been debunked, but the idea of a skills gap continues to exercise a hold on the university sector.

Consider the Conference Board of Canada’s five-year undertaking, the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, which aims “to address Canada’s advanced skills needs by helping to renew the roles, structure, activities and impact of the post-secondary education (PSE) system.” Together with colleges and universities across Canada, the Conference Board seeks to produce highly skilled PSE graduates. How does the Centre for Skills define what it is promoting? Not surprisingly, the terms of reference are economic:

“Advanced skills – defined as those skills acquired beyond secondary school and gained through educational achievement, training and experience – are increasingly important to innovation, productivity, economic growth, and competitiveness. … They are also vital to the well-being of individual Canadians who need satisfying work and good jobs and careers in order to enjoy a high standard of living. Together, they build the capacity of our people to contribute to Canada economically, socially, and culturally.”

While society and culture do get a mention here, the framework for thinking about skills is basically economic, and in two senses: skills contribute to economic growth, and skills are something the skilled person possesses. The skills people get enable them to contribute to the economy and also afford them a high standard of living.

Is it not possible to think of skills in deeper terms? Isn’t it true that learning a new skill can change a person, often in profound and long-lasting ways? And have we not seen how such people, bettered by the skills they have learned, are sometimes able to take on socially and politically influential roles? It is worth remembering that one major purpose of humanities education in the past was to prepare students for public life and public service. And it is certainly important to bear in mind that Canada is a society and a polity as well as an economy.

In a recent essay in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (“Beyond Skills: An Integrative Approach to Doctoral Student Preparation for Diverse Careers”), two academic administrators at the University of British Columbia, Susan D. Porter and Jennifer M. Phelps, have made a strong case against the whole idea of linking up skills training with PhD programs. They argue that we should put aside the idea of skills training and even the word “skills” in favour of “a more integrated approach, where students’ thesis research itself is oriented to their possible futures.”

I agree with almost everything they say except for their proposed moratorium on “skills.” It is important for the humanities to take back the word, to redefine it so that the word itself makes visible and thereby advances exactly the kind of shift in doctoral programs that Drs. Porter and Phelps are recommending. And take it back so that the word can incite PhD programs to turn outward toward the world. That is why I want to make a case for the particular value of public skills.

According to The Craftsman, Richard Sennett’s 2008 study of craftsmanship, skills are embodied, social and ethical; the skilled person (say, someone who has learned how to make shoes) belongs to the skill as much as the skill belongs to the person. Skills bind people together across generations. To think about skills in Dr. Sennett’s artisanal terms is also to begin to recognize that doctoral supervisors hardly ever teach content to their supervisees. Like accomplished shoemakers, doctoral supervisors (those at the top of their bent) model and pass along high-level skills – how to read and write, think through problems, gather evidence, organize arguments, question what counts as evidence, teach and listen to the arguments of others.

Skills understood along these lines are already public in a weak sense since they bind people together in non-familial groups and since skilled individuals are publicly identifiable by their professional characteristics; the public self of a shoemaker, or a cardiothoracic surgeon, or a Shakespearean is of a piece with each one’s learned craft. What we can start to see is that skills are not merely things we take with us into the labour market; skills are shared, transformative kinds of know-how that are able to knit people together into communities of practice.

For a still stronger idea of public skills – skills that not only confer a degree of public identity or create an artisanal community, but also enable PhDs to translate back and forth between university-level inquiry and active, creative, public lives inside or outside the academy – we can turn to Hannah Arendt’s ideas on public life and personhood.

Arendt makes clear what the stakes are. Without the ability to speak and act in public in meaningful and effectual ways, people do not become fully human. On her account, public skills are requisite for both the attainment of political agency and the concomitant achievement of personhood. “Through [speech and action],” Arendt writes in her 1958 book, The Human Condition, “men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct; they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects but qua men. This appearance, as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human.”

Reorienting humanities training outward
PhD students cultivate a host of research, organizational, critical-analytical and communication skills in their doctoral programs. These don’t migrate at all easily to the multiple fields of activity outside the university because of one weighty inheritance students receive at the hands of their (usually well-meaning) mentors: doctoral students are integrated into the institutionalized culture of the humanities. Academic culture takes root and grows up inside them in the form of an academic disposition, which means that they are disposed to do their work only in a university environment. Other fields of activity – commerce, industry, media, public service, community organizing, and so on – don’t feel like home to them. Indeed, the shift to the world outside the academy can amount to a protracted period of harrowing deracination and readjustment.

The word “disposition” has two principal meanings. It is the “natural tendency or bent of the mind” (Oxford English Dictionary). It is also the “arrangement, order; relative position of the parts or elements of a whole.” I suggest it is possible to change what seems like the natural bent of the minds of people by changing their position relative to other people and other elements in the world. It is possible for PhD students to develop a high degree of “dispositional mobility,” a capacity to move effectually among different fields of activity, by cultivating their public skills – not only archival skills operating within a limited historical range but archival skills able to illuminate matters of present-day public concern; not only the ability to write academic prose for a small circle of expert readers but also the ability to write in different styles for different readerships; not only the ability to teach at a university but also the ability to teach fellow workers, senior citizens or high school students.

The cultivation of public skills and dispositional mobility among PhD students will call upon humanities faculty to change their practices as well as the academic culture they live in and that lives inside them. Among other things, the add-on skills-training programs across the country seem designed to remain well out of the way of faculty and their traditional practices. It is time now for humanities faculty to take a leading part in public skills training, in the reorientation of the humanities toward the world, and in the opening of PhD programs so that they lead and are seen to lead to a multiplicity of career pathways rather than to only one.

Future of the humanities
Ironically enough, my work on the PhD started with a new program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, called Knowledge Synthesis Grants: Skills Development for Future Needs of the Canadian Labour Market. In the spring of 2012, my colleague Leigh Yetter and I recruited a team of talented people from Canada and the United States. The project pulled together theoretical and practical knowledge on graduate humanities education, including all the statistics we could find about PhD recruitment, time to completion, non-completion and placement.

We argued that it is impossible to achieve anything like a respectable academic placement rate. But we didn’t recommend cutting enrolment numbers or cutting programs; instead we recommended changing the programs so that they become innovative, interdisciplinary and outward looking. Although I didn’t have the phrases “public skills” or “dispositional mobility” at hand when I was drafting the white paper, those ideas were key to the reforms for which we advocated.

Over the past year, the white paper has aroused much discussion across the country. We organized a three-hour “Future of the PhD” workshop for 160 participants at the annual meeting of CAGS in St. John’s in October 2014. Now we are working with colleagues at some 25 universities across the country. Each university is developing its own approach; each will contribute a vision document, a program proposal, or a record of discussions to a national conversation on humanities graduate education.

The present phase of work will culminate with a conference, “Future Humanities: Transforming Graduate Studies for the Future of Canada,” to take place at McGill on May 21 and 22 of this year. We are looking forward to the development of new programs and policies, to the start of a large-scale shift in the culture of the academy, and to an improved attitude toward the humanities PhD in business, government and media, and among ordinary Canadians. We seek to sponsor a new generation of publicly skilled humanities PhDs who are able to work inside and outside the academy, who can carry top-level humanities research and teaching into many other fields of practice, and who will work with great dispositional mobility for the future of Canada.

Paul Yachnin is director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas and the Tomlinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University.

Correction: Please note we had incorrectly stated that Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition was published in 1998. We have since corrected the date to 1958 – the original date of publication for the book.

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  1. Sheri Oberman / May 8, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you for writing this post. Tacking on ‘skills’ training to graduate school education throws a bone at the monster of change that could come to research training with the impact of new information and communications technologies.

    Far easier to tack on ‘skills’ training than to integrate the disposition necessary for the skill into supervision, course work, or dissertations. Romiszowski writes about the complexity of skill development and has a great model to capture his work. One skill that is poorly taught if at all is academic writing. Strong writing is assumed and complained about but not formally integrated into courses at the doctoral level. With this history toward skill development in graduate school, the tacked on approach makes sense.

    I’m glad to hear of the conference you organized later in May to bring together those offering doctoral training in the humanities in Canadian universities. What a difference your White Paper can make. One of the insights of the Carnegie Project on the Doctorate is that the ‘student is the secret agent of change’. I hope that students will be coming to the conference.

    To change the future of doctoral training, change the student experience. If students do not examine and critique their program, if they are treated as ‘by-products or products’ of the educational system, then the sins of the their education will be passed to the students they supervise.

    The link below to a blog post on LSE MAAB.

    The failure of applied philosophy to break out of being a purely academic pursuit is examined in all its irony and speaks volumes to the disposition the White Paper is trying to escape. escaping the pull back to the Ivory tower takes as much energy as breaking the through the sound barrier. Students can find a way. Draw on their energy to realize the vision. Engage them and get them into CAGS.

  2. Ksenia / June 6, 2015 at 11:32 am

    Problem is, you do not describe the actual skills, which would help to develop them in any manner. This article has more water than Indian ocean and very little of actual content.

  3. Shawn Warren / March 12, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    Hello Paul

    I will read your white paper to discover why you believe, “it is impossible to achieve anything like a respectable academic placement rate,” though my own research allows me to anticipate your reasons. However, not withstanding those reasons, as a philosopher and higher education theorist I take issue with the claim it is “impossible.” In fact, there are two possible ways to achieve respectable placement rates for academics, that would effectively advance your aim of “public skills” and “dispositional mobility”:

    Here is one:

    Here is the other:

    For over 20 years my teacher, supervisor, mentor, and dear friend, Peter March, wrote a weekly newspaper column on philosophy, based on public philosophy busks he held once a week in parks, malls, college common areas, etc. By example he instilled in me the “public skills” and “dispositional mobility” to which you refer. I eventually wrote a weekly newspaper column on the philosophy in Star Trek and held my own public philosophy busks, doing what Peter called, “vernacular philosophy” (philosophical questions/issues as discussed outside the academe walls). We also brought philosophy to high schools, which sadly lack it as core curriculum. We viewed each of these “mobility” efforts as a (welcome) requirement of academic public service.

    I look forward to reading your work.

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