Preparing (and Caring for) Transformative Scholars in the Arts & Humanities

By Bill Hart-Davidson on October 19, 2015

man with a pink shirt and glasses with his arms crossed

​A theme of Dean Chris Long’s first message here at The Long View is one that resonates deeply with me: In order to succeed, institutions and their people need others to care for and about them.

At MSU, we are fortunate to build upon the work of generations of others—students, faculty, administrators, and alumni—who have cared for and about our programs in the College of Arts & Letters.

Today, those of us who work and study in arts & humanities graduate programs are increasingly called upon to provide a kind of care—urgent, but also in response to chronic problems—that can seem quite daunting. Bethany Noviskie, Director of the Digital Library Federation and Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia, issued an eloquent call of this sort recently in her keynote for the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities annual meeting. It is a rich and engaging entreaty for us to consider how we might adopt an ethic of care that would help us transform our practice in two important ways:

First, is toward an appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, little things and their interrelation. The second is an orientation not toward objective evaluation and judgment (as in the philosophical mainstream of ethics)—not, that is, toward criticism—but toward personal, worldly action and response.

For Long and Nowiskie, being careful is not merely a precaution. It is a set of habits oriented towards maintaining shared values: deepening commitments to noble aspects of our institutional mission, and strengthening the human relationships that are the true foundation of our programs.

Practicing Care in Graduate Education is Working

You may have heard something about a crisis in graduate education in the arts & humanities. Too many students; not enough jobs. Long delays in time to degree: up to ten years or more. Poor employment conditions for graduate students.

I am happy to report that we are not contributors to, nor do we suffer from the worst of these issues in the College of Arts & Letters at MSU. We are in fact taking the lead in responding to these and other problems, including the lack of inclusivity in recruiting graduate students from historically underrepresented groups. That is to say, we are actively caring for our students, our programs, and indeed, our disciplines; in ways that we believe are a model for our peers.

By the numbers, the College of Arts & Letters is relatively small in comparison to some of our peers at other public research institutions. Typically, we enroll 3-5 new students per year in each degree area, and we offer graduate degrees in nine programs across the fine and performing arts (MA & MFA) and Humanities (MA & PhD). We expect programs to assemble fully funded packages for our terminal degree students. This includes assistantship, fellowship, and/or grant support as well as supplemental research enhancement and enrichment funding for research, travel and other activities that will position them for successful placements. These concrete acts of caring for our students’ scholarly endeavors ensure they build the two foundational components of a career: expert knowledge and strong professional relationships.

The evidence suggests that our programs are working. Our median time to degree across all PhD programs in CAL is less than six years vs. more than nine years in most U.S. programs[1]. This includes programs that admit students to PhD programs directly from the BA. We place most students in full-time career-related positions, including but not only academic, within two years after they graduate. We also graduate more diverse cohorts than we initially recruit, which indicates that our students from underrepresented groups do well while they are here.

Our Challenge: Transforming Graduate Education and Higher Education

While we are proud of our success in CAL, we remain mindful that we face significant challenges in the years ahead. One role that graduate programs embrace is preparing the next generation of faculty in their disciplines. In so doing, we seek to prepare faculty and leaders who understand and embody the practices of care our national and international institutions require if they are proactively addressing the grand challenges we share.

Preparing caring leaders does not simply mean helping students to imagine themselves in administrative roles. It means helping them to become role models for their fellow scholars, to become outstanding teachers, to become advocates for students, and what they need to succeed. As graduate educators, embracing this challenge means that we need to recruit the best students in the world into our program areas, and we need to provide them with a careful and powerful set of learning opportunities that allow them to realize their potential to become transformative scholars. 

All of this requires full investment from our faculty, administrators, and from our rich network of supporters. We need their time and dedication to engage these passionate, talented students in ways that challenge them to do their best work. We need their connections to scholarly communities and the private sector to provide opportunities for their scholarship to have a broad impact. We need resources, including financial resources, to make competitive funding and enrichment offers to students who, because they tend to be so talented, have competitive options at other leading institutions.

I welcome the chance, personally, to invest in this noble project to transform higher education for the better. I enthusiastically invite others who care, as we do, to invest along with us!

CAL Graduate Education Mission

The College of Arts & Letters prepares transformative scholars in the Arts & Humanities. We aim to lead the world in providing inclusive, global, digital, and interdisciplinary graduate education in the Arts & Humanities. Across our many programs, we offer graduate educational experiences that prepare students to become disciplinary and institutional leaders across the academic mission, transforming their fields through scholarship and teaching, their workplaces through inclusive and evidence-based practice, and the lives of those they teach and mentor through high-impact pedagogies.

Transformative scholars embody progressive change through work that is simultaneously Inclusive, Global, Engaged, Interdisciplinary, & Digital across the mission.

[1] 2013 data, most recent available from NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates.