Connecting the Curriculum: A Collaborative Reinvention for Humanities PhDs

Our first encounter with a graduate curriculum was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as part of a cohort of English PhD students at the University of Pennsylvania. Our experiences stay with us in curious ways. It was a great time to be at Penn, for many reasons, even as we now look with near disbelief at how we came to our own pathways in the profession. The questions we ask of our memories reveal a curriculum that failed to cohere or mark an identifiable starting point: Did courses come together in meaningful ways? Did they directly prepare us for life as faculty members? We recall (and treasure) individual classes and professors. But little else about why and how we were moving through this particular curriculum stands out. We can’t help thinking that we are not alone in having this experience and that this gap is, unfortunately, status quo in our profession.The answers to our questions reveal the cultural and historic divide between the curriculum of our generation’s faculty and that called for by the intervening shift in educational technology and job prospects. While the course work of our graduate experience energized our aspirations with its intellectual content, in only a few instances did we understand it as part of a coherent program. Seminars were, to think of it metaphorically, unnetworked enclosures that functioned primarily to grow a semester’s crop of work. From there, we were left to improvise our way to market.Any reevaluation of doctoral graduate training has to start with the axiom that the PhD is a research degree. The assumption has been that if students are able to make it into Ivy League doctoral programs, they pretty much know how to do research. And the curriculum of our era assumed that the best way to acculturate these ready-made researchers was through seminars—conversations about the way particular professors thought about literature, in which students needed only to find their voice. Indeed, we were told to take the professor, not the subject matter. At Penn, examinations (general and field-specific) ran parallel to but didn’t really intersect (presumably, we were the intersections) the courses we took and were followed by a dissertation, which was the only thing that really counted. The program worked, but it left a lot to chance—a privileged form of curriculum building that assumed too much.The biggest assumption was the advantage of strong preparation. Frankly, although we both came to graduate school from elite liberal arts colleges, we had a lot to learn about literary research that the curriculum should have been designed to teach. But thankfully today’s graduate programs take into account access to education and the diversity of the student body and recognize the need to produce a professoriat prepared to make the humanities come alive to the college population they will teach—a student body that will be more socioeconomically, racially, culturally, and nationally diverse than today’s. We have to prepare a professoriat that is ready to lead.

Of course, the haphazard approach to course work of our graduate school experience arose from the technology of the era. We were pre-Internet in the late eighties and early nineties, and computers had barely made their way into graduate education in the humanities. And while the Internet did indeed enable better communication, it was mostly through e-mail. For all its convenience, e-mail constitutes a clumsy flow of communication, subject to all manner of error and lag when it comes to working with mentors and students, especially in the time-sensitive world of graduate academic progress. Yet here we are, twenty-five years later, and e-mail is still the dominant mode for the sharing of time lines, the exchange of drafts and comments, and the communication between mentor and student that results in career opportunities. Even as personal digital repositories, managed work flows, and aggregating tools were being developed for use in industry or other areas of the university, they were too slow, only marginally relevant, or beyond the capabilities of the student for them to be serviceable. In essence, students were—and still are—subject to the inefficiencies of the back office: filing cabinets, the attention of an office staff, and the stability of administrative leadership.

The landscape has changed in profound ways since the early age of the Internet, both in higher education generally and in humanities doctoral programs specifically. Because many PhDs in English are competing for ever fewer jobs, there is new and increasing pressure on programs to make sense of the time and effort they require of doctoral students. Why spend nine years on a degree that doesn’t lead to the kind of job we went to graduate school to try to attain? Many of the curricular reforms in the humanities proceed from the perspective that we should streamline programs: reducing the number of required courses, making exams measure what happens inside rather than outside the classroom, reformulating the dissertation so that it directly demonstrates the skills we want the holders of PhDs to have even if it is not an original contribution to scholarship.

We want to suggest an additional approach. If we empower students and their faculty advisers to pull together and demonstrate to the world a strong independent program of study, then we have in effect created a personalized curriculum that’s akin to the personalized medicine that will shape health care over the next twenty years. We propose using technology to empower students and their faculty—in particular, digital portfolios.

In our positions as dean of humanities and associate dean for graduate initiatives at Arizona State University, we’ve used that rare alignment of administrative wherewithal, friendship, and shared history to attempt to rethink graduate progress. We are developing these ideas with the help of Connected Academics, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded MLA initiative to help doctoral students in languages and literatures better understand career options, inside and outside the academy. We designed ASU’s part of Connected Academics without the digital portfolio system—that came later. But we knew we wanted to think through how curriculum might be reshaped to serve students’ real needs. We didn’t want to impinge on the authority of the faculty to set the requirements for the PhD, and we certainly did not want to be in the business of approving courses to ensure that they built on one another or of telling faculty members what to teach. Instead, we thought about a tool that would allow the curriculum to develop more or less organically, from the students’ point of view. The goal is to see if we can help students be metacognitive in their approach to their growth, to see their own decisions (both deliberate and improvisational) as part of a whole.

A series of questions drove our project: Can we help students understand connections between graduate courses? Can we invent a tool that could help reshape pathways through the degree, and beyond, to make better sense and provide more opportunities? How does the curriculum work with the student to produce a network of possible successes? A networked curriculum would, conceivably, involve both better design on the part of the faculty and more conscious empowerment of the students in our doctoral programs.

We have avoided altering the core curricula of our programs in the English department and the School of International Letters and Cultures. Instead, we are developing curricular add-ons (which will likely become part of the core) and other processes that help students network their knowledge in newly useful ways. Emphasizing core skills and competencies might be anathema to a humanities community that rightly resists the instrumentalization of higher education. Over the years, however, we’ve yet to observe a doctoral curriculum in danger of succumbing to a sense of the PhD as a commodity. Our goal is to use skills and competencies to transform standard parts of most curricula, including course requirements and comprehensive exams. We want the curriculum to help humanities scholars serve students and our communities outside the academy.

And we envision digital portfolios, flexible in what they can provide in both internal organization and external communications to the world, as helping students accomplish the key goals of design and empowerment. The implications of our efforts will, we believe, be far-reaching and transformative.

At their most basic level, digital portfolios are structured spaces that can bring together student work as it develops over time, serving as both repository and representation of the academic products of graduate training. Digital portfolios offer the ability to achieve three objectives for students in our Connected Academics PhD programs: the construction and continuous adjusting of a coherent curriculum, the provision of a space for student-faculty communication and collaboration, and the fostering of flexible options for presenting a student’s abilities and accomplishments to the university’s publics and their communities.

ASU is working with the industry leader Digication so that students will have control over the look and feel of their portfolios. Students will create a portfolio for internal use by mentors and advisers, bringing together their electronic program of study, a time line of their progress, and their set of work completed for courses and examinations. Using the Digication platform layered above ASU’s PeopleSoft-based tracking and documentation system, students and their advisers construct a curriculum that is personalized to their needs and interests and then share it with the other faculty members. The Digication system tracks a student’s progress in ways that are too granular and program-specific for PeopleSoft tracking. And because the portfolio allows a set of the student’s documents to be curated over time, the external-facing element presents the student’s progress as scholar. Mentors will not only be able to see and understand the scholarly progress of their students but also, through a process created by our project and the university’s technology office, be able to enter into a scene of social reading, by commenting on work in progress shared through Google Docs for Education.

Students will be able to construct outward-facing portfolios for various purposes, customizing the content and appearance of the portfolios they provide to potential employers and other audiences. By sending a link along with a letter of inquiry or job application, students will be able to control (while at ASU and for endless years after) what they share about themselves with particular audiences. There is no limit on the number of portfolios that can be created.

The use of digital portfolios will marry the capacity of new forms of scholarly communication as a mode of social reading and composition with the prudent need for administrative tracking at various stages of the process. Indeed, the simultaneous visualization of tasks, progress on ongoing projects (e.g., dissertation chapters), and public-facing documents (e.g., vitae) enabled by digital portfolio is what is so simple and so powerful about it. Digital portfolios provide easy access to a time line of milestones and put the space of composition and revision within easy reach.

We are most excited, though, about the impact digital portfolios will have on the student’s course of study. It will certainly be possible for students and their mentors to continue with the atomized noncurriculum we describe above. But we believe that digital portfolios will transform how most students understand their progress through a program. Instead of being shoved in a drawer or revised and sent out for publication as a discreet product, a seminar paper will become part of a continually revised narrative of intellectual development registered in the portfolio. As our PhD programs come to understand the power of these digital portfolios, we believe that faculty members will choose to assess student progress through analysis of accumulated student work rather than through the typical milestone examinations. Whether that work consists of seminar papers or other forms of scholarly communication, it will be contained in this one place as an accessible record of a student’s life of scholarship.

Faculty members control the PhD curriculum, and that control is essential not only to their teaching careers but to their intellectual legacy within their fields. The way we educate our doctoral students will be our greatest legacy in scholarship. The fields we research and teach as humanities scholars will change a great deal over the next few decades as demographics and technology provide new ways of seeing and new media for sharing our knowledge. No one faculty member—no one department—will be able to create the change we need. Through the Connected Academics project generally, we hope to be pushed to make the right major changes in all aspects of our doctoral programs. Through assessing where our students are and where they are going, we will be able to shape the courses we offer, the research assignments we require, and the ways in which we communicate what we know.

Eric Wertheimer is professor of English and American studies and associate dean for graduate academic initiatives at Arizona State University. He is a PI on the Mellon Foundation– and MLA-sponsored Connected Academics, and he is the PI on a Luce Foundation–sponsored grant supporting American studies in China. His most recent book is a volume of essays, edited with Monica Casper, Critical Trauma Studies: Understanding Violence, Conflict, and Memory in Everyday Life (NYU P, 2016).

George Justice is dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and associate vice president for humanities and arts in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. A specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, Justice is the author and editor of scholarship on the literary marketplace, authorship, and women’s writing. Before coming to ASU, Justice taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Marquette University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Missouri, where he also served as vice provost for advanced studies and dean of the graduate school.

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