Reimagining the Humanities PhD

Simpson Center receives grant to build bridges between UW scholars and two-year colleges.

What does it mean to do socially relevant English scholarship in a time of rising inequality? How can scholars find new non-traditional forms to reach beyond the academy? What does a successful teaching career look like when nearly half of all undergraduates attend two-year colleges? What do English students and faculty at the University of Washington and two-year colleges have to gain by working together in the humanities?

UW graduate students will probe such questions through Reimagining the Humanities PhD, a new four-year program of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. Funded by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program explores new forms of scholarship and teaching beyond traditional academic circles.

The program responds, in part, to the evolving role of two-year colleges, which serve 44 percent of undergraduate students in the United States, says Kathleen Woodward, Lockwood Professor in the Humanities, Director of the Simpson Center and Professor of English.

“Our conviction—which has increased steadily over the last fifteen years as the public’s support for higher education has declined—is that we must find ways to take the humanities to publics beyond the academy even as we maintain our commitments to our scholarly professional circles and to research addressed to academic audiences,” says Woodward, the project’s director.

Reimagining the Humanities PhD, launching in July 2015, has three components. The first is a bridge-building initiative with Seattle-area two-year colleges. Six UW doctoral students in English and other humanities will shadow faculty members at North Seattle College, Seattle Central College, and South Seattle College—going to class, attending faculty meetings, sitting in on advising sessions, and occasionally co-teaching in their courses.

Second, the grant funds summer fellowships for doctoral students to pursue projects in public scholarship, a core commitment of the Simpson Center. (For example, a website that explores teaching literature in prisons or a collaboration with community partners to create an online map of John Steinbeck’s California museum exhibition.) Third, the program supports UW faculty members in developing graduate seminars that incorporate the public humanities. Workshops throughout the program will bring together faculty and leaders from the two-year colleges, doctoral students, UW faculty, administrators, and others.

To gain an accurate view of the higher-education landscape, UW graduate students and faculty must understand how “non-traditional learners” have become the majority of students, Woodward says. Only about 15 percent of current undergraduates are under age 25, attend four-year colleges, and live on campus, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The new program challenges the stigma against community colleges by showing how they provide vital launch pads for students and bring together learners with a wealth of life experience. A brief sampling of humanities courses offered at two-year colleges suggests a rich variety of topics: “Literature of Emerging Nations—Third World Literature,” “African American Literature,” “Women in the Global Context,” “History of Asian Immigration to the West Coast,” “The World in Evolution to 1500,” “Transnational Cinema,” “Chinese Society and Thought,” and “Survey of Chicano History.”

Brian Gutierrez, a UW doctoral candidate in English, has spoken of the breadth of experience among students at North Seattle College, where he has taught many courses. Students in his evening classes have included a sixteen-year-old high school junior, a fifty-year-old engineer recently arrived from West Africa, returning veterans, and parents in their thirties starting college.

“There is no more diverse classroom than a two-year college evening course,” he says.

Reimagining the Humanities PhD also encourages students and faculty to rethink the division between humanistic skills and vocational training, suggesting that both critical thinking (or interpretive skills) and applied skills are essential for 21st-century careers.

The new program grows out of previous Simpson Center initiatives to broaden the scope of humanities scholarship, including the Certificate in Public Scholarship, which equips doctoral students to conduct community-engaged research, teaching, and service.

“Doctoral education is a crucial site for instilling the values and modelling the practices of public scholarship,” says Woodward. “Their studies should lead to an understanding of the complex landscape of higher education across the United States and shed light on how their teaching and scholarship can contribute to it. For many, teaching itself becomes a practice of the public humanities.”