Reflections on the Future of the Doctorate in the Humanities

This post is an edited version of my presentation at the Council of Graduate Schools annual meeting in Seattle, December 2016.—TM

humanitiesjobs-2The organizers of our panel, “The Future of the Doctorate in the Humanities,” have invited us to prognosticate a about where our humanistic graduate programs may be headed in the near and possibly distant future. Moreover, the very fact that we are having a session about the future of the doctorate in the humanities suggests an underlying assumption: that the future won’t be the same as the current situation or how it’s been for the last ten, twenty-five, or fifty years. Neither my experience as a graduate dean nor my training as a humanistic scholar really equip me to peer into the future; but what I can do is look at a few current developments that bear, I believe, the index of the future, and try to derive some general directions from those. I’ll be pointing to some programs at UC Santa Cruz and in the University of California system more broadly that exemplify the trends that I will be discussing.

I predict that in the future, the Humanities doctorate will become:

1) Increasingly reoriented and customized towards the user of the Humanities doctoral degree, which entails a weaker influence exercised by the norms of academic disciplines and a redefinition of the mentorship roles of research professors in the Humanities;
2) More “translational”: that is, connected to practical interventions into pedagogical practices, public discourses, policy discussions, and community desires and needs. If perhaps the notion of “translational” humanities work doesn’t have as clear a channel as translational medicine’s “lab bench to bedside,” I nevertheless think it is true that humanities doctoral work will have to become more intentional about translations to and from different publics, across different linguistic and cultural contexts, and among different configurations of digital and analogue states of the Humanities’ primary objects of study;
3) More embedded in the specific needs, requests, and desires of particular communities and publics;
4) More self-conscious and experimental in the design of doctoral procedures, configurations of expertise, and platforms of scholarly communication than has been the case in the previous fifty years.
Allow me to take these predictions one-by-one, and briefly unpack and exemplify them a bit.

I’ll start with the first: making the doctoral degree in the Humanities more user-centered and customized to user needs. Notably, this move, which has only begun in doctoral education, has strong parallels in the shift from teaching-centered to learning-centered approaches in undergraduate education. If I have focused more on the “users” (rather than “learners”) of the Humanities doctorate, it is because at least one strain of thinking about the Humanities have emphasized the apparent distance of Humanities research from utility as a positive, defining characteristic: roughly, the Humanities captures all those values—ethical, aesthetic, historical, affective—that in a ruthlessly pragmatic, bottom-line and technically driven society are conceived to be useless. While there is a certain philosophical power in that argument, too strong a tilt in the direction of inutility has generally not served the Humanities well as a rhetorical strategy in institutional, political, or public contexts that demand clear demonstration of impact and value, or even, “return on investment.” Yet notice that I spoke not of uses, but of users—this reminds us that Humanities doctoral degrees all along have been put to use by users, in a wide variety of more and less direct applications, even though the focus of most disciplinary professionals, Humanities professors, has been up till now heavily focused y on one use ( albeit an important one): the doctorate’s use as preparation and credential for tenure-track university employment. Reorienting towards users acknowledges the plurality of uses—some extremely creative and innovative—that have been found or invented by users of Humanities doctoral degrees, and seeks to facilitate options for success along a multiplicity of professional pathways.

As an example of attempts to practically embody this reorientation, I’d like to call attention to an initiative of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, the “Humanists@Work” initiative, which is a UC system-wide initiative to track, analyze, and discuss Humanities graduate career paths; provide information and professional development support for Humanities grads, and publicize what we know about how Humanities students have put their expertise to work.


The notion of the “translational” follows rather logically from this focus on the users of the doctoral degree and the plurality of uses that they find or invent for their doctoral expertise and training. Our students need for us to design into our doctoral degree programs and authorize through our mentorship sufficient flexibility to gain the particular translational skills that they will need—not only to end up in a unique professional role, but also to begin imagining it while still in their doctoral program.

I suggested that the future Humanities doctorate will be more embedded in the specific needs, requests, and desires of particular communities and publics. At present, this is more aspirational than actual, but I believe we can see various “public humanities” initiatives pointing in that direction (e.g. at Brown University, and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison), in which internships in cultural institutions, community organizations, NGOs, and entrepreneurial ventures are not simply training add-ons to research and graduate skills, but are constituting the very medium of their formation and application. Still more richly conceived are the European “Science Shops”, which include the “human” and “social sciences” as well as natural and technical sciences, and which have spread to a network including continental Europe, the UK, Canada, and even one in the US.

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The basic idea is that Science Shops are places where the community, through organizations and public forums, brings forward research questions and problems that will be addressed by Science Shop investigators, who in turn communicate the research results back to the community for discussion and action. Though some of the Science Shops are independent of universities, several have been formalized as spaces for credited work and research by university graduate students. The Science Shops represent a general structure that can be adapted to a wide variety of specific community contexts, disciplinary areas, and institutional designs, but I believe that innovative, new, academic-public frameworks such as these, which have been piloted in Holland, France, Germany, Austria, Romania and elsewhere, may ultimately constitute a notable part of the future of the Humanities doctorate as well.

Lastly, I suggested that the future of the Humanities doctorate would be more self-conscious and experimental in the design of doctoral procedures, configurations of expertise, and platforms of scholarly communication than has been the case in the previous fifty years. Presently, at UC Santa Cruz, we are participating in a four-institution, international collaborative project involving Humanities doctoral training, funded by the Mellon Foundation and coordinated through the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. We called it, with a blatant nod to the NSF, IGHERT: Integrative Humanities Education and Research Training. The program brings together faculty and student participants from UC Santa Cruz, Australian National University, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture at Giessen, to test the training scheme with the pilot theme of “indigeneity in an expanded field,” looking at the way in which the status of the “indigenous” is being defined and redefined in global human rights law, art and literature, history, spatial and urban studies, anthropology, museum curation and archival practice, and environmental studies.


Our participants, similarly, come from a wide range of humanistic disciplines, in which they will earn their PhD. Not only, however, is the interdisciplinary design exciting and multifaceted, but we have also tried to experiment with a variety of pedagogical modes to maximize the impact of working together as a group. Some of the methods we have used are presentation formats inspired by the three-minute thesis talks; collaborative group learning exercises, where we used techniques pioneered in the corporate world to familiarize the group rapidly and efficiently with a shared interdisciplinary bibliography; peer editing and joint presentations; and various digitally-mediated formats for discussion and comment.


The later stages of the project will include presentation of conference papers and a publication based on their dissertation research, and a final conference and publication that focuses on keywords and key concepts in indigeneity that reflects on the work of the group over two and half years. The students have been funded by Mellon support for two academic years to participate in this project, which gives them intensive time for dissertation research and writing, but also allowed them travel to four international sites for the themed workshops and conferences and the opportunity to interact with a group of international peers working across the disciplines. It remains to be seen what the final outcome of the project will be, but so far it has been an exciting experience for the PIs and for the student and faculty participants. While it may be utopian to think that we can provide this kind of intensive, well-supported, highly designed training for all our Humanities doctorates, I do think it points towards another element of their future.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom out in the press and in the academic job markets about the future of the Humanities doctorate. And indeed, there are plenty of reasons to feel the urgency to take action and to rethink many of the assumptions that have governed our doctoral programs for decades. But when I look into the future, I also see some very promising prospects, and wish for the opportunity to see that glimpsed future become the constituents of our daily present.

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