A New Brecht for LA: Public Scholarship through Technology in Project-Based Graduate Education

Calls for the recalibration of doctoral programs in the humanities at American universities are increasing in number and urgency, with suggestions aimed at length of study, alternative careers, and the role and shape of dissertations. This essay summarizes some of the complaints raised and remedies offered concerning current practices in graduate education. I show how they led to a curricular innovation: the bridging of a graduate seminar at the University of Texas, Austin, and the public space of a theater group, the Uranium Madhouse in Los Angeles. The project A New Brecht for LA ( fostered the development of skills that are not commonly associated with PhD programs in the humanities but that are relevant to transforming teacher-scholar roles in the twenty-first century and opening visions of nonacademic career paths. The project’s environment also helped graduate students take initial steps toward alternative dissertations. The project suggests how digital media production and public scholarship may be integrated into a graduate-level seminar.

Reforming Doctoral Programs: Recent Trends

In 1990, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation launched the Graduate Education Initiative (GEI) and distributed about $80 million to fifty-four doctoral departments in a variety of humanities fields over a period of ten years (Zuckerman and Meisel). Departments were selected from ten leading universities and charged to allocate funding for graduate support and curriculum development in order to improve the following factors: time to degree, attrition, and completion rate. A systematic assessment of the GEI’s impact became available only in 2010. Ronald G. Ehrenberg et al. concluded that strategic funding decisions gave some positive results, but the money had less effect than expected (250–52).

In the 1990s, when budgetary pressures were not as threatening as they are today, departments had already begun to question time to degree in graduate programs. Yet departments that managed to guide doctoral students quickly to the PhD were not universally acknowledged as having more desirable programs, either by PhD students or their professors. For example, in 1998 Robert Scholes advocated a ten-year model for PhD programs in the humanities that would produce better doctoral results (175–77). Given the difference of opinions about the ideal length of a PhD program, it is not surprising that the GEI’s progress indicators showed most success where individual faculty members had a greater commitment to improving their doctoral programs (Ehrenberg et al. 258).

From today’s vantage point, both Mellon’s $80 million GEI and Scholes’s ten-year PhD seem unrealistic, because they stood for a more-of-the-same mind-set: either more money (GEI) or more time (Scholes) would produce better academic offspring. Initiatives today are more radical, aimed at changing the fundamental nature of PhD study—to shorten time to degree, open up alternative career paths, and better prepare PhDs for known professional contexts. Two recent MLA presidents questioned the form of the dissertation and traditional scholarship. They urged the profession to reconsider curricular goals and content to transform humanities graduate programs into learning environments that prepare PhDs for careers beyond academia.

In 2010, in two editorials in the MLA Newsletter, Sidonie Smith challenged prevalent standards for the dissertation. She criticized the notion of the dissertation as monograph (“Beyond the Dissertation Monograph”) and argued for a new dissertation (“An Agenda for the New Dissertation”). Specifically, she suggested that “digital project[s] . . . valuable to other scholars, teachers, and students” as well as “public scholarship . . . undertaken in a community outside academia” must be regarded as alternatives to the dissertation monograph (“Agenda” 2). She also asked for a redefinition of scholarship in the humanities. These views are consistent with the recommendations of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship and Promotions issued in 2007 (“Report”).

Smith’s ideas are vital in an age where knowledge and information in most domains are far more likely to be produced and distributed in electronic form than in print. But in her discussion of the dissertation form, Smith describes a desired outcome without offering concrete suggestions regarding the structure and content of a curriculum that can prepare PhD students to achieve it.

Russell Berman, who succeeded Smith as MLA president, outlined in 2011 changes to doctoral programs that related not only to the form of the dissertation but also to the entire curriculum and the overall goals for PhD programs. While charging his profession with developing doctoral programs that significantly reduced the time to degree and remained economically self-sustainable, he envisioned the PhD as preprofessional and having relevance beyond the academic workplace.

Berman, like Smith, underscored digital and public scholarship as forms of intellectual engagement for the twenty-first century, but he also argued that this focus would provide “a gateway to many different careers” if the graduate curriculum was recalibrated to relate directly to them. He saw the profession’s future in equipping PhDs with “skills that, while central to an academic career, can also be transferred to other paths” (2).1 His remarks were made in the light of curricular innovations that had already taken place: Stanford’s BiblioTech program, established in 2011, served as one of his models for a humanities curriculum with a reach beyond academia. Besides envisioning technology-centered opportunities that supplement training for graduate students in language, writing, and critical thinking skills, the program educates both students and potential employers through networking events and advocacy for the value that humanities PhDs can bring to a variety of organizations.

These voices are not alone in urging that graduate curricula be redefined. While not the only options, the ideas initially articulated in the alt-ac community are now shaping policy in the mainstream of the profession.2 Still missing from the discussion, however, are concrete descriptions of what should happen in the classroom to integrate training in public scholarship and technology into a graduate program.

Project-Based Graduate Education: Public Scholarship through Technology

The context for such curricular innovation at the University of Texas was a graduate-level seminar on curriculum development in foreign language disciplines that included the design of an educational outreach project in collaboration with a theater company. Motivated by the theater’s need to increase the community impact of a production of “A Man Is a Man,” a new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1924 comedy Mann ist Mann, students developed a strategy for educational outreach and then created teaching materials to fulfill the educational goals they had identified. The project resulted in a Web site that had to serve the needs of the theater group. In the process, students gained and refined a number of competencies that are usually not associated with PhD programs in the humanities but that are common in the activities of public intellectuals and thus transferable to nonacademic careers.

Unlike typical graduate instructor training, which is limited to teaching duties in lower-division language classes, the seminar Course Design and Curriculum Development in Foreign Language Disciplines, taught to a group of five graduate students from the Department of Germanic Studies and the Department of French and Italian, addressed a broader set of curricular scenarios for postsecondary foreign language departments: literature instruction, general education programs, study-abroad programs, area studies, translation, and language training for specific purposes. Although the main purpose of the seminar was to prepare doctoral students for faculty roles in foreign language departments at colleges and universities, its collaborative engagement with professional contexts outside academia also offered a different set of opportunities.

Each of the seminar’s three main objectives was tied to a course module in the fifteen-week semester.3 The first objective was to familiarize students with scholarly and professional debates about curricular innovation in higher education, with a focus on the humanities and foreign language disciplines. In the second module, students discussed and critiqued both general and discipline-specific frameworks used in the curriculum development process. Finally, students were given the opportunity to apply what they had learned from the first two modules in the New Brecht for LA project.

During this third module, students worked with Andrew Utter, the artistic director of the Uranium Madhouse Theater. They read and discussed ideas on education outreach initiatives in the arts by Jarvis Ulbricht and by Stephani Woodson to get a better understanding of reasons and approaches for engaging with the nonacademic public. They analyzed and critiqued the Web-based educational outreach initiatives of the San Francisco Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. These Web sites provided models for their project and also helped them expand their vision of arts education, fund-raising, and public scholarship. Students read both the German original and Utter’s new translation of Brecht’s comedy. They interviewed Utter by e-mail and Skype about what the director planned to emphasize in his production and about his new translation. These exchanges allowed them to focus on the specific production’s choices while also situating these choices within Brecht studies by recovering implications of the play in its original context and language that would have to be explained to a United States audience.

Students then discussed the target audiences for both the play and their educational outreach materials and decided what scope and form their research and cultural materials should take. Most important, they generated a set of educational objectives that served as overall guiding principles for the project and agreed to focus on these topics: the relation between posttraumatic stress disorder and reenlistment, artistic representations of war, Brechtian stage aesthetics, and gender and sexuality issues.

Students chose to design the teaching materials in English, so that the Web site would be accessible to more than the relatively small audience of learners and teachers of German. They made this decision after they discovered that the play would be relevant not only to people with an interest in German culture: the director was going to stress political issues that related to the United States military presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, so the play would be of interest to people or organizations involved in antiwar activism and peace education.

Students further decided that the materials should not be limited to educators and students who saw the play during its short run; they wanted to include learners who could not see the play because of the theater’s location and because the performances took place during the summer, which made it unlikely that teachers would attend with their classes. This decision was consistent with the educational programs offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Opera. Although their materials encourage immediate interaction between the learner and a featured exhibition or production, they also serve as educational resources to a worldwide audience of learners and teachers who access them through the Internet.

Students were charged with managing the project themselves by creating a list of tasks, for their group and for the Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at the University of Texas, Austin. In subgroups, they worked on components for the project, developed all necessary materials, and regrouped to discuss drafts. An editorial meeting after the end of the semester resulted in the creation of the Web site, in collaboration with a Web designer.

Within the three weeks at the end of the academic year, the graduate students moved from their planning into creating the Web site that articulated their outreach strategy. As most such projects do, the site includes general information about Brecht, the play, the translation, and the theater company. Most important, it serves as a distribution channel for teaching materials aimed at specific educational goals and audiences.

Contributions to Graduate Education

By providing students with theoretical insights into and hands-on experience with the curriculum development process, the seminar’s capstone project gave them the chance to refine professional competencies required for careers inside and outside academia. The seminar enabled them to develop and assess curricula and programs by equipping them with a cognitive framework and the vocabulary to articulate their actions and evaluations. In today’s climate of increased accountability, professors will operate more effectively if trained early in curriculum development and the assessment of institutional innovation. A New Brecht for LA offered students the experience of being accountable for their own professional environment. It was the first time for many to design and execute a plan for research and writing that was collective. Hard deadlines and product goals forced them to think and act beyond familiar class boundaries. By giving students the opportunity to shape a hitherto unstructured space, the project resembled many public arts education scenarios. It stressed collaborative, goal-oriented productivity rather than the individual creativity asked for in traditional humanities graduate education.

Collaboration, a necessity in project-oriented settings, extended beyond student-student and student-faculty interactions: students had to establish and foster partnerships with stakeholders and professionals outside the ivory tower as well as with staff members whom they did not normally encounter as graduate students (e.g., instructional design and tech specialists on campus). The success of the project depended to a large degree on their willingness and ability to respond to the needs of these new partners. They needed to understand the director’s vision of the play as well as their own contributions to the larger context of the production, its promotion, and the fund-raising efforts. They needed to work with a Web designer while considering technological feasibility, budgetary limitations, and user constraints. These involve competencies that are critical to many outreach situations—public scholarship, arts advocacy, museum or collection education, fund-raising—and that are becoming indispensable to academic institutions as well. Note that the project’s deadline was nonnegotiable: the finished product had to be delivered on time because of the partnership with the theater company, because of the fund-raising and promotion connected with the staging of the play. A work-in-progress fragment, perfectly acceptable for end-of-semester projects in many academic contexts, was not an option.

Admittedly, it is not likely that the students who participated will immediately rethink their professional goals. Rather, the project provided a learning environment that called for new or refocused competencies. These competencies grew out of the skill set students developed in graduate school but required them to retool themselves in response to a public that needs support in its interaction with the arts.


The project taught me much: this was the first time that I, an experienced instructor of a compulsory foreign language teaching methods course for graduate students, had tried to structure project-based work into a seminar. The experience gave me insights into graduate student professionalization for careers inside and outside academia and led me to make recommendations for methods teachers who would train future professionals, not only teachers. It also made me reflect more on the integration of technology training and public scholarship into the graduate curriculum in the humanities.

Professionalizing beyond the Methods Course

At many institutions, pedagogical training of graduate students is insufficient because it is too narrow.4 It is frequently limited to a single seminar on foreign language teaching or to a series of workshops on various topics (e.g., teaching literature) that offer sample lessons that can be fed into an existing syllabus on a single day. Rarely, if ever, does this training deal with articulation, course design research, or the pragmatics of designing and modifying courses for use by particular groups.

The graduate seminar on curriculum and instruction described in this essay is more integrative, providing professional preparation for future faculty roles through scholarship, collaboration, assessment, and planning. This combining of pedagogical and professional activities can help graduate students develop transferable competencies in leadership, project management, decision making, and supervision as well as the ability to present complex matter convincingly to different audiences. Thus I recommend that the obligatory foreign language teaching methods seminar be supplemented with a second course that fosters broader professional competencies useful both inside and outside the college classroom.

Collaborating beyond Academia

Collaborative work often results in a better product, but it also helps students develop interpersonal skills as they connect with professionals and stakeholders outside academia. Students will benefit from encountering different work cultures and interactional patterns in the corporate or not-for-profit sectors, and they may build professional networks in those sectors that lead to future opportunities. When integrating collaborative work into their curricula, I recommend that humanities programs help their students build partnerships with stakeholders outside academia.

Digitizing for Multiple Audiences

Digital technologies offer a variety of roles for academics and public intellectuals in the twenty-first century. When these technologies are integrated into collaborative work, they improve communication and increase the public dimension of an enterprise.

Granted, today’s graduate students may have been exposed to digital archives, publications, and editions as well as to some kinds of computational textual analysis procedures. But these are often highly specialized applications that appeal only to a narrow circle of colleagues. In contrast, designing a Web site aimed at public outreach considerably broadens the role of digital technologies in the humanities. Such a project exposes students to the elegance of hypertext, the social-interactive capabilities of Web 2.0 technologies, and the Internet’s ability to deliver knowledge not only to the students they will someday have but also to a global audience. I therefore recommend that the integration of digital technology into the graduate curriculum not be reduced to using technologies to further knowledge in a small expert community. Let humanities PhDs learn to instrumentalize the Internet to reach people beyond subfield, discipline, academia.

Dissertating beyond the Monograph

Projects like A New Brecht for LA expand the vision of scholarship and professional activity. At least one of the students involved in our seminar entertained the possibility of an alternative dissertation topic. Graduate seminars must open to alternative forms of scholarship and to the inclusion of digital materials in dissertations, which has been an option at the University of Texas, Austin, for twenty years but is still rarely used.5 The quality of alternative projects, however, depends on the training offered to graduate students by their departments. I therefore recommend that programs promoting alternative dissertation projects provide students with technology training and public scholarship opportunities in the context of graduate seminars.

Implementation and Outlook

In an ideal PhD program, every faculty member is willing and able to implement in existing graduate seminars the innovations I have recommended here. Unfortunately, too few colleagues are actively engaged in public scholarship and technology. Programs should address this lack by changing their hiring priorities in the near future, but it is not likely that many departments will recruit tenure-track faculty members with alternative profiles to replace retiring colleagues in core areas of their discipline.

Instead, programs might choose to hire experts from outside the ivory tower to complement their own institutional strengths. These experts, having backgrounds in technology and arts advocacy, could be hired on an adjunct basis to offer workshops and seminars that give students the skills they need to create alternative dissertations and work on projects that bridge academia and the outside world. An adjunct position comes with disadvantages, of course, since it is difficult to build curricular initiatives on the shoulders of colleagues with short-term contracts, minimal compensation, and stripped-down benefits packages.

In the absence of departmental involvement, there can be interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration. Beginning in 2014, the University of Washington’s Simpson Center of the Humanities offers summer support and research funding for graduate students and faculty members who form work groups that explore technology-based research in the humanities.6 Using the summer term for project-based work in the digital humanities and public scholarship has the advantage that adding this dimension to the graduate curriculum will have little adverse effect on a student’s time to degree.

Summer schools that introduce new tools or emerging paradigms and methods to graduate students and faculty members are more common in the sciences, but in the history of our field there have been summer programs that transformed scholarship and teaching. In the 1970s, when critical theory emerged as a significant factor in humanities and the interpretative social sciences, many departments were not sufficiently staffed to train graduate students in this area. The School of Criticism and Theory, now housed at Cornell University, was established in 1976 to fill this vacuum. Similarly, just after the millennium, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute was established (see Today, the profession needs an equivalent summer school, a School of Public Scholarship in the Humanities. It would not only improve the training of current graduate students and faculty members but also help advance public scholarship. In an era of diminishing interest in the arts and humanities, public scholarship initiatives represent a survival strategy for otherwise marginalized fields.

Questioning the traditional form of the dissertation and thus promoting alternative forms for scholarship in the humanities are necessary, but it takes the kind of experience provided by A New Brecht for LA to spur students to envision alternative dissertation projects that are scholarly robust and professionally relevant. Therefore, parallel to advocacy for alternative forms of dissertation and public scholarship, the profession must develop graduate curricula that give students the skills to produce these kinds of scholarship, to consider alternatives to the monograph, and to acquire a professional profile for careers outside academia. If existing graduate seminars cannot innovate in this way, the innovation must take place through alternative curricular constructs as well as workshops and summer schools on the regional and national levels.


I thank Katherine Arens (Univ. of Texas, Austin) and Russell Berman (Stanford Univ.) for their comments and encouragement for this essay. I also thank Andrew Utter for collaborating with my students on the project it describes.

  1. For a description of transferable skills in the five domains—communication, mind-set, talent, management, and technology—see “Skills.”
  2. The alt-ac community defines itself as “a grass-roots, bottom-up, publish-then-filter approach to community-building and networked scholarly communication around the theme of unconventional or alternative careers for people with academic training” (“Welcome”).
  3. The course met one day a week for three hours in a regular classroom setting. The association to the theater was arranged through my personal contact with the director.
  4. For a critique of the state of professional development of graduate students in foreign language departments and a number of innovative concepts to address the problems, see Allen and Maxim.
  5. For information on how the process is understood and implemented on my campus, see “Electronic Theses.”
  6. For more information on this program, see “Digital Humanities Commons.”

Works Cited

Allen, Heather W., and Hiram H. Maxim, eds. Educating the Future Foreign Language Professoriate for the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Heinle, 2013. Print.

Berman, Russell. “Reforming Graduate Programs: The Sooner, the Better.” MLA Newsletter 43.4 (2011): 2–3. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. “A Man Is a Man.” Trans. Andrew Utter. 2011. TS.

———. Mann ist Mann. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968. Print.

“Digital Humanities Commons.” Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. U of Washington, n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2013. <>.

Ehrenberg, Ronald G., et al. Educating Scholars: Doctoral Education in the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

“Electronic Theses and Dissertations (ETDs).” The University of Texas at Austin Graduate School. U of Texas, Austin, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013. <>.

“Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion.” Profession (2007): 9–71. Print.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.

“Skills: Tools for Solving Today’s Problems.” BiblioTech. Stanford U, n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2013. <>.

Smith, Sidonie. “An Agenda for the New Dissertation.” MLA Newsletter 42.2 (2010): 2–3. Print.

———. “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.” MLA Newsletter 42.1 (2010): 2–3. Print.

Ulbricht, Jarvis. “What Is Community-Based Art Education?” Art Education 58.2 (2005): 6–12. Print.

“Welcome.” #Alt-ac Academy: A MediaCommons Project. MediaCommons, n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <>.

Woodson, Stephani E. “Creating an Educational Theatre Program for the Twenty-First Century.” Arts Education Policy Review 105.4 (2004): 25–30. Print.

Zuckerman, Harriet, and Joseph S. Meisel. 2001 Annual Report: The Foundation’s Programs for Research Universities and Humanistic Scholarship. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Jan 2013.

Per Urlaub is assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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