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Reimagining the humanities PhD, take two

Conference at Carleton U in May follows up on inaugural McGill gathering last year.

By PAUL KEEN | FEB 17 2016

Few readers of University Affairs will have missed the extent to which questions about PhDs in the humanities have seized people’s attention. Judging by the growing number of op-eds, articles, reports and programs in any number of places, interest in the topic is growing. In part, this is because these questions mark the convergence of two related debates: the role and importance of Canada’s doctoral graduates generally, and the public value of the humanities.

Neither of these debates is new. Nor is the sense of urgency that animates them. The introduction to a collection of essays by a group of leading British academics entitled Crisis in the Humanities put the problem in stark terms: “The humanities are at a cross-roads, at a crisis in their existence: they must either change the image that they present, adapt themselves to the needs of a society dominated by science and technology, or retreat into social triviality.” It is an unenviable predicament, especially since, as one contributor emphasized, “The humanities do not make anything explode or travel faster, and the powers that be are not at present much interested in anything else. So the untechnical studies, of which literature is perhaps the chief, tend to lose influence and prestige and to be pushed aside in the general scramble.”

The fact that Crisis in the Humanities appeared just over a half century ago (in 1964) can help to offer a bit of much-needed perspective, but this uncanny sense of academic déjà vu does nothing to lessen the urgency of our own debates today. These problems, however, also constitute an important opportunity: a chance to re-imagine our answers to questions about the nature and role of the humanities, about their potential benefits to contemporary life, and about how our programs can best be structured in order to meet these challenges. The good news is that in many ways, this self-reflexive challenge is precisely what the humanities have always done best: highlight the nature and the force of the narratives that have helped to define how we understand our society – its various pasts and its possible futures – and to suggest the larger contexts within which these issues must be situated.

A conference on The Future of the PhD in the Humanities that took place at McGill University last year offered a compelling example of precisely this sort of discussion. One thing that immediately became clear to those of us who attended was just how high the enthusiasm level was. We had gathered there from across the country because we felt an urgent need to ask hard questions about PhD programs in the humanities and to try to tackle problems that people were raising, but the atmosphere was buoyant. It felt like we had been part of the beginning of something rather than having brought anything to a close.

A follow-up conference, which has been developed in collaboration with the organizers of the McGill event, as well as with related organizations such as SSHRC, CAGS, and the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, will be held at Carleton University on May 17-18. It will feature many of the leading voices in these debates from across the country, though like last year, the real emphasis will be on the larger discussions these presentations generate. The aim is to sustain the momentum that was building in Montreal by extending our thinking about three main areas of focus that emerged there so that we can begin to envision concrete possibilities for change.

The first issue is the practical question of the structure of doctoral programs. Given that the bulk of most students’ funding packages run out after their third year, are there better ways to design them? Does it make sense to front-load programs with so much course work (much of it in seminars dominated by Master’s students, and in topics unrelated to their area of research) and comprehensive exams that students have no realistic hope of getting close to tackling their thesis until the point when their funding is about to expire?

A related issue is the challenge of preparing our students for the wide range of non-academic career paths that the vast majority of them will pursue. This task involves two changes. One is training. We all know that humanities students develop skills that are highly valued outside of the academy but we do a poor job of preparing them to convey these strengths in ways that potential employers appreciate.  But the more difficult challenge may lie in changing the culture within universities so that non-academic career paths do not seem like an inferior option.

Then there is the larger question of how we might do a more effective job of articulating the public value of the humanities to audiences within and outside of the university. Given the emphasis on applied knowledge these days, it is more important than ever that we manage to communicate why the kind of work we do matters within the broader context of larger social issues. But we must also learn to value the work that many students are already doing along these lines in ways that can be built into their degrees rather than asking them to do it on top of their workload.

These are important conversations. There are no simple answers to the questions they raise, which is why it is crucial that people from as many universities as possible take part in them. But, at the same time, they are just that: conversations. Even if every participant from every university in the country agreed on proposed changes (an unprecedented scenario amongst any group of academics!), conferences such as this have no legislative power. And that’s a good thing. Universities are notoriously ill-suited to one-size-fits-all solutions; any really productive change must come from the bottom up, proposed by individual programs based on a clear sense of their particular strengths and needs.

What a conference such as this one can help to do is to make change possible by clarifying the urgency of these questions, developing options that individual programs might wish to consider, and, perhaps most importantly, reinforcing the efforts of individuals who are pursuing these initiatives within their departments by highlighting the growing sense of nation-wide momentum on these issues. For more information, visit the conference website for links that will enable you to register (there is no charge), see the program and reserve a room. We hope that you can join us in Ottawa in May!

Paul Keen is associate dean, student and postdoctoral affairs, in the faculty of graduate and postdoctoral affairs at Carleton University.

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