Cultivating Productive Attitudes in Graduate Humanities Education

thinking man statue

John Heins is a cataloging librarian at the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C.  His scholarly research focuses primarily on the culture of the German-speaking countries in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  The foregoing remarks were presented at a roundtable discussion held at the meeting of the East-Central American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in October 2018.

Since patterns of thought are the product of experience, it may help to know what mine have been: After earning my PhD in German, I taught German literature, language, and culture for ten years, after which I earned two more graduate degrees, one in library science and one in art history, and I have been working now for eleven years as a cataloging librarian in the research library at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. My curvilinear professional path has given me a few ideas about how my first graduate program in particular might have done a better job of preparing me and other students like me for a wider variety of types of work, and helped us better contextualize what exactly we were gaining in our intensive humanities education. When I think back on the humanities graduate students that I knew at that time, easily the majority, perhaps as many as 2/3 of them work outside of the academy now, 25 years on. I don’t imagine that the statistics for graduate students in more recent years are much different. So I would like to share a few opinions, born of my own experience, and of the experience of a few friends as well. One disclaimer: As much as I have thought over the past bunch of years about the relationship between my education and the work I do now, when I finally sat down to formulate some ideas on the topic, I found it very difficult to focus my thoughts – I trust that this is a reflection not only of my aging mind, but also of how much there is to say about the place of the humanities PhD in our current work world.

Overall, and most importantly, I would like to encourage people involved in graduate education in the humanities, in whatever their role might be, to think about how their programs encourage productive attitudes, the most important of which I might provisionally call an attitude of curiosity. I think one should strive to develop this in at least equal measure with the attitude of expertise that graduate students are traditionally more intent on (that is, owning one’s own very specific knowledge). An attitude of curiosity, I feel, is a necessary component of cultural understanding. Without it, attempts at cultural critique too often manifest themselves as a reflexive rejection of differing points of view, from a position of superior knowledge, rather than the kind of circumspect and thoughtful critical engagement that we humanists like to pride ourselves on. And graduate students, in my experience, seem particularly prone to developing that kind of reflexive negation, which I take to be a misconstrued idea of expertise. The attitude of curiosity that would balance that tendency, I consider to be a life skill that the humanities are particularly well-placed to cultivate, and that can help anyone become happily engaged in a much wider variety of types of work than are traditionally thought of for PhD’s in the humanities.

The kind of open-mindedness that might result from the attitude of curiosity could help students understand their primary discipline in a more holistic and comprehensive way, by being able to see its place in a wider world of thought and work. One specific goal in that regard might be to help graduate students learn how to speak about their work to non-specialists, or even non-humanists. Maybe this is already done in many programs, but it certainly was not in mine, at least not in any formal or explicit way – the focus was entirely on expert knowledge and theoretical sophistication. Speaking of one’s work coherently to non-specialists is a skill that, in a certain way, is the opposite of what we often do as humanists. What I’m thinking here is that we spend considerable time and energy in graduate programs learning to see the complexity of cultural phenomena, and that we might spend more time and energy than we traditionally have, developing the complementary skill, that is, learning to simplify the real complexity of cultural phenomena in a way that is honest and accurate, so that our knowledge and skills can become more useful outside academe, and we can learn how to adjust our discourse for different audiences or readers.

I want to emphasize that I don’t think any of these suggestions would tend to abandon the traditional strengths of the humanities – rather, they would deploy those strengths in different ways. The experience of a friend of mine from my first graduate institution might illustrate this. She wrote to me recently that she left her graduate program “feeling ill-equipped to do anything but teach literature and writing at a college or university. But our skills and talents are more transferable than we think.” This particular friend taught English for a few short years after the PhD, then went into mid-level university administrative positions, then entered a nursing program and worked as a psychiatric nurse for some years, and is now, in her mid-50’s, going through a program in clinical mental health counseling. In this context she is finding, at last, as she explained to me, the value of theory, something that was never clear or explicit for her in graduate literary studies, where theory felt more of a chore. She writes, “A therapist’s theoretical orientation makes a huge difference to how therapy is conducted– […] Theory matters. It doesn’t feel abstruse or abstract, and it’s laid out clearly so that intelligent and educated people from a range of backgrounds can grasp and talk about it.” This relationship between theory and practice is perhaps one good example of habits of mind that humanists are distinctly trained in, but whose potential breadth of application is seldom explicitly addressed in humanities graduate programs. For my friend, in the case of “theory,” the benefit of her humanities training manifested itself consciously only decades later.

Without dwelling too long on the idea of “transferable skills,” I want to mention that most people I have spoken with about that, people who have earned graduate degrees and gone on to work outside the academy, make the point that it is not enough to have transferable skills, but that we need to be able to explain what those skills are – communication, research, managing long-term projects, global awareness, adaptability, ethical reasoning, etc. – and how they are applicable extramurally. That is, we need to be able to translate them, to explain how they can transfer. And I would add that we need to do this in a spirit of genuine curiosity about the world of work outside the walls.