Learning from the Pros in the Connected Academics Proseminar

Originally published in the Summer 2016 MLA Newsletter

The more of these amazing people I meet, the more I’m convinced that graduate students with a strong alt-ac plan are exactly the sorts of colleagues you want to hire in your departments. (Always assuming, of course, that a great nonprofit or library hasn’t swooped them up already!) —Beth Seltzer

Beth Seltzer, who holds a PhD in English from Temple University, is one of twenty PhD candidates and recent PhD recipients taking part in the inaugural year of the Connected Academics proseminar on careers in New York City. Connected Academics (connect.mla.hcommons.org) is an MLA initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that addresses a concern raised by both the study of career outcomes of 2,200 language and literature PhDs and the Task Force on Doctoral Study: the need to prepare PhDs in language and literature for a range of careers. Proseminar fellows such as Seltzer are connecting with peers from eleven different academic institutions to learn how to apply their research and teaching credentials to articulate transferable skills, create a professional Web presence, and gain an understanding of the humanities workforce beyond the classroom. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Connected Academics is the opportunity to meet with humanities PhDs at the organizations where they work, such as the New York Public Library, Ithaka S+R, the American Council of Learned Societies, Bard High School Early College, and the Frick Collection.

Connected Academics is about encouraging language and literature PhDs to recognize the fullest expression of their abilities and to realize that the humanities workforce is not limited to teaching. Seltzer emphasizes in her blog post that she prepared for and pursued multiple career options at once, including tenure-track teaching positions at postsecondary institutions. Indeed, she felt more prepared for the academic job market because of her varied professional experiences. In Seltzer’s case, the outcome of her job search was a full-time position at Bryn Mawr College as an educational technology specialist—a job that will draw heavily on the teaching and research skills she acquired while pursuing her PhD. Her year in the Connected Academics proseminar has made her aware of her capabilities and of the variety of organizations in which she could put them to use.

With an awareness of the many possibilities for employment come energy, optimism, and ambition—and our proseminar fellows possess these in abundance. I invite you to read their blog posts at the Connected Academics Web site, where they have addressed a broad range of topics in a manner sure to provoke further thought. They write with the conviction that their professional training as humanists will serve them well in roles in academia, secondary education, the nonprofit sector, and even the for-profit world. Most of them do not see careers beyond the classroom as an abandonment of the ideals that led them to undertake advanced study in the humanities—quite the opposite. As another member of the current proseminar cohort, Manoah Finston, puts it, “[W]e should not think of employment off or on a tenure line as the sole determinant of success, just as we can no longer permit the distinction of in or out of the academy to decide the legitimacy of our choice of career.”

Most graduate students today, including our proseminar fellows, look to their faculty advisers, chairs, and directors of graduate studies to help guide them on a career path. It’s understandable that those without experience in careers beyond the classroom have been hesitant to endorse students’ desires to explore a breadth of career options, yet those of us involved with Connected Academics believe that things will begin to change as our proseminar fellows share their confidence and enthusiasm with others at their home institutions.

Our three partner institutions are exemplary in the adaptability and innovation they have shown in the face of the breadth of graduate student career ambitions. Georgetown University’s Reinvent the PhD project has, as one of its central goals, the creation of a Georgetown Center for the Public Humanities and a new, interdisciplinary doctoral program in the public humanities. Arizona State University is focusing on enriching the doctoral experience through the incorporation of additional skills—digital, quantitative, and entrepreneurial. Finally, the University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Humanists@Work program provides opportunities for graduate students to expand their professional experience through statewide workshops and paid summer internships.

While participating in the Connected Academics proseminar has convinced participants of the value of their wide-ranging work, it is, of course, the MLA’s core belief that all labor should be fairly compensated. I want to emphasize here, as I have elsewhere, that we will continue to advocate better working conditions for adjuncts and for the creation of more tenure-track positions at universities. Yet the enthusiasm generated around the Connected Academics project demonstrates that our conversations on academic labor and post-PhD humanities work must become broader. The MLA is prepared to work with departments to help graduate students prepare for an expanded range of career opportunities. We owe the next generation of humanities scholars our support for their ambitions as they apply their humanities PhDs to a broad range of satisfying careers.

Note

I thank my colleagues Stacy Hartman and Nicky Agate for their assistance with this column.

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