Next month, the CDH kicks off How We Work, a new series for graduate students on the theme of work. How do you pursue “traditional” careers in a changing educational landscape? Is there anything truly “alternative” about alt-ac? What do university employees do on a daily basis?
Bringing together CDH affiliates and staff, How We Work opens honest conversations on university work, how to get it, and how it gets done. The first event, on March 4, features CDH postdoctoral fellow Zoe LeBlanc and former CDH postdoctoral fellow Jim Casey (assistant professor of African American Studies, Penn State University) on the transition from humanities PhD, to postdoc, to professorship. The second, on April 13, features CDH staff members Rebecca Munson (PhD UC Berkeley 2014) and Grant Wythoff (PhD Princeton 2013) on teaching, publishing, and cultivating academic community in interdisciplinary and collaborative university environments.
In honor of How We Work’s launch, I invited its creator, CDH Faculty Director Meredith Martin, to answer some questions about the series.
How did you come up with How We Work and how has the idea evolved over time?
Because DH is a fundamentally collaborative discipline, it requires humanities professors to communicate ideas across their disciplinary formations and to think differently about how intellectual work happens. That was the first level of my interest: How does collaborative intellectual work happen in the humanities, what environments foster it, and how can other units on campus learn to value collaboration and acknowledge that scholarship relies equally on the intellectual labor of faculty, staff, and students.
Then I started thinking, both as an administrator and a professor, and realized I wanted to share this insight with graduate students. It isn’t only professors who live intellectually stimulating lives; our campus is full of highly educated specialists who have found different ways to be impactful. Our faculty are only a tiny fraction of how Princeton works and they rely on countless intellectual resources that go unremarked. I wanted to demystify the sense that professors are researching and writing all the time (we aren’t) and also show that intellectually challenging and research-driven careers are possible all over Princeton.
I’m also genuinely interested in hearing about the realities of work in this day and age. We’re very conscious at the CDH of how workflows facilitate or stymie our success: How might project management skills translate to a dissertation project? How do the ways we describe our intellectual passions relate to the nuts and bolts of how we construct our day-to-day activities?
What do you most want graduate students to take away from the series?
I want graduate students to open up the possibilities of what being a “scholar” means. We’re at a moment when we’re ethically obligated to rethink graduate education and fight for alternatives to the contingent labor market. I cannot believe that a system that “works'' for so few and is harmful to so many is ethical, so I’m hoping to begin conversations about how humanities scholarship is vital and valuable even, or perhaps, especially, when not aimed toward the elusive tenure track job.
In your experience, what’s the greatest misperception students have about being a university professor?
That we have our jobs as professors because we somehow earned our positions and are smarter than, or set apart from, those who are not professors. The second is perhaps that we have free time. There’s a sense in graduate school of “if I can just get through this hurdle, then it will get easier.” The professoriate is a treadmill that keeps accelerating; you just build up a tolerance. The pandemic has forced us to slow down and think about how we use our time. I hope working under these conditions might teach us about how we can work less, or at least, more mindfully, in the future.
What work-related advice do you wish you’d been given as a PhD student?
I’m one of those infuriatingly lucky people who went straight into my first assistant professor job. I wish my advisors at the time had taught me to negotiate. (I had two offers and they told me not to negotiate!) I also wish they’d told me more about what life on the tenure track was like, that I learned more about time management and self-care, and had frank conversations about how labor works in the academy, especially for women.
What’s your hope for the future of How We Work? More broadly, what’s your hope for the future of professional training in humanities PhD programs?
I hope we have two events per term in perpetuity! And I hope the series expands, so that next year we might talk with scholars outside of the CDH. The more graduate students learn about how universities work, the better able they’ll be to navigate their future careers, be they on the tenure track or not. Students shouldn’t be shielded from the labor and infrastructure that allow academic work to thrive. The more we see our enterprise as collective and collaborative, the more likely we’ll be to change it for the better.
More broadly? My hope is that PhD programs treat their students with respect. The business of rethinking professionalization in the humanities won’t be easy, but we can enter into the project with goodwill and a commitment to addressing structural issues. Princeton has the potential to become a model for humanities graduate education for the rest of the country.