Micro-Utopias and Training PhDs in a Time of Precarity

My colleague Catherine Frieman broke her Twitter sabbatical to recommend a recent article by Yves Rees & Ben Huf called “Training historians in urgent times” in History Australia (2020). The article is really good and if you only have time for so much reading today, do go and read the article rather than my blog post!

The authors provide a fairly standard interpretation of contemporary professional training for scholars in the humanities and the diminishing career opportunities facing new PhDs on the current job market. They offer a useful historical paradigm for understanding current trends over time. If PhD training early on produced “PhD as hero of knowledge” which gave way in the 1950s to a more professionalized vision of the degree, “PhD as expert,” contemporary practices tends to see “PhD as human capital.” This is nowhere more apparent than recent calls to diversify PhD training in the humanities to ensure that students have a wider range of skills appealing to a wider range of employers. In this scenario, the graduate student and degree holder are less distinctive, heroic practitioners of the discipline or experts in both methods and content, and more bundles of transferable skills primed to be monetized by the individual and adapted to existing and future workforce needs.

Of course, It is hard to deny the power of this reading of contemporary graduate training. The harsh realities of the academic job market permeate almost all discussions of PhD training in the humanities with coursework, dissertation topics, dissertation committee arrangements, and pre-degree fieldwork, publishing, and presenting all draw into the powerful gravity of job market preparation. Indeed, these pressures have alternately reinforced the older concept of the PhD as expert in distinctly relevant method and content and subverted this emphasis, by stressing the role of professional relationships and networking in successfully navigating the early career job market (and securing letters of recommendation and invitations to fieldwork projects, academic conferences, and edited publications through which one’s career might advance). If the PhD as expert supported the professionalization of our disciplines, the PhD as human capital has shed light on the limits of this professionalization as professional opportunities become so scarce as to approach randomness and careers increasingly divergent from core aspect of our training. If we’ve learned anything from the COVID situation, it’s that expertise is no longer enough (if it ever was in the past) and who you know remains more important than what you know. In short, academic training is at a crossroads (and this is something that I’ve blogged about before).

Rees and Huf cannot solve these problems, of course, but they do think it is important for historians to recognize that pivoting professional training to adapt to the current economic situation runs the risk of complicity with a regime that in no way supports the larger goals of our discipline. More than that, it risks blunting the potential of history (and the broader humanities) in making an impact on the problems in the contemporary world. And, even more than that, the current PhD-as-human-capital represents a profoundly dehumanizing turn which has real consequences for students who often pursue graduate education not in a quest for a marketable bundle of skills but to advance human knowledge and telling stories that matter.

They system cannot be changed, of course; at least, not all at once and not from within, but there are opportunities for resistance. Rees and Huff recommend, then, creating micro-utopias that suspend — even just for a moment — the pernicious reach of precarity and professional pressures, pecking orders, and procedures. As examples, they suggest cooperative workshops and reading groups, various Open and Free universities which bring together members of the public and academics to engage seriously with a work outside of the typical university setting with its implicit and explicit hierarchies and expectation, and the construction of interdisciplinary spaces where individuals bring different perspectives to pressing problems. The proposed approaches centered around four principles: inclusivity, collegiality, public mindedness, and interdisciplinarity. 

I’d add that their various examples also demonstrated an ambivalence toward the traditional academic hierarchy and models of knowledge making that emphasize credit and deliverables (as so many grants and programs require). In short, the micro-utopias proposed by Rees and Huf shift the emphasis from what a program or project accomplishes and redirects it toward what is happening. 

This to me is a very compelling proposition not only because it resists the temptation to advocate for the complete dismantling of the existing approach to PhD training (however deserved such a dismantling would be) and instead proposes that we make space that not only recognizes the human toll of precarity and professionalization, but also works at the human-scale to subvert it.

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