Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Outcomes-Based Graduate School: the Humanities Edition

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

The numbers tell the story: In 2013, 39 percent of English Ph.D.s at Lehigh University found work only as contingent instructors. By late 2018, that figure had dropped to 9 percent. Instead of dead-end adjunct work, 46 percent of the university’s English Ph.D.s now enter humanities careers other than college teaching.

Equally striking, however: The number of the university’s English Ph.D.s who find tenure-track professorships is also up — from about 18 percent in 2013 to 27 percent today.

What happened? In short: The English department at Lehigh used data-centered, outcomes-based planning to assess and overhaul its doctoral curriculum in line with what made sense for its graduate students.

“Assessment” has been something of a dirty word in faculty circles for awhile now — mostly because of administrative fiats demanding that professors quantify the often unquantifiable. Trying to figure out exactly what went into someone’s success in the classroom is like trying to unbake a cake. Yet really, haven’t faculty members always been in the assessment business? We constantly assess our students and we evaluate one another’s research, writing, teaching, and service. Assessment is most impressive when we take the initiative to assess our own work and programs — and then act on our findings.

Last month I wrote about how the microbiology department at North Dakota State University did just that. Using outcomes-based planning, the department successfully redesigned the graduate curriculum to reflect what its students need for the careers they pursue, both inside and outside of academe.

Likewise, the renovation of the English Ph.D. at Lehigh shows that scientists have no monopoly on constructive self-assessment. The English department met with similar success after consciously changing its graduate curriculum — and with it, the department’s graduate culture.

In 2013, Jenna Lay, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in English at Lehigh, began compiling data on the department’s graduate-student outcomes. She focused on career trajectories for the department’s Ph.D. graduates going back to 2000. In keeping with the humanistic conviction that the truth doesn’t lie entirely in numbers, she also collected the students’ stories. “The combination of data and narratives,” she said, is “very important.”

The data revealed where Lehigh’s English graduate students had been getting jobs. Between 2000 and mid-2009, nearly 60 percent of Lehigh’s English Ph.D.s found tenure-track professorships, mostly at teaching-intensive institutions. You can’t call it a wonderful result when 40 percent of academic job-seekers encounter disappointment, but it is notable: Lehigh’s percentage exceeded the national average in that period for English departments, and for most humanities disciplines generally.

Things got a lot worse for Lehigh’s English Ph.D.s. after that, mirroring a national trend. Between 2009 and 2013, the proportion of students who found tenure-track jobs dropped by more than two-thirds, to 18 percent. The numbers “confirmed what we were hearing from graduate students” Lay said — namely, that the market for professorships had withered. In a parallel finding, the number of Lehigh English Ph.D.s who wound up as adjuncts — previously a minuscule 3 percent — shot up to 39 percent.

With fewer than one in five graduates landing on the tenure track, and nearly two in five paddling desperately in the contingent labor pool, Lay and her colleagues recognized this as “a crisis for our students.” The situation had “crept up” on the department, but professors now recognized that they “needed to make changes,” she said. The data “helped us make decisions about how to prepare students to think more broadly” about career options for Ph.D.s.

Lay and her colleagues began with emotions — specifically, their own “fears and anxieties” surrounding reform of their graduate program. Then they proceeded logically: “We drilled down” and analyzed the data. In particular, the faculty looked at students’ career outcomes and asked, “What was helping them?” For example, professors saw that the successful academic job-seekers among the department’s pool of Ph.D.s had certain qualifications in common. Most had additional training in teaching composition. Some had an additional degree, such as a teaching credential. And most had nonacademic work experience on the campus, such as time spent working in the university’s Global Citizenship program.

Professors recognized, Lay said, that “we needed to do more” to help students develop — and demonstrate — such competencies. Looking at which skills were helping students the most on the job market, the department devised various certificate programs, including a particularly successful one on teaching composition and rhetoric. 

English graduate students at the university can now opt to complete an additional certificate (or just take a few courses) on the way to either an M.A. or a Ph.D. While the department has expanded its graduate curriculum, it hasn’t burdened students with additional degree requirements.

“The certificates don’t add onto students’ time to degree or time in coursework,” Lay said. “Instead, they serve as optional pathways through the program and count toward the required courses for the Ph.D. (a number that has not changed). The certificates, in other words, help students to identify areas of focus earlier in the Ph.D.”

On the faculty side, the certificate program in writing instruction “revitalized our graduate coursework in composition and rhetoric,” said Lay. The certificate requires 12 credits, three of which students already have to take in order to teach in Lehigh’s first-year writing program. The nine other credits come from new courses developed for the purpose, including “Rhetoric and Social Justice” (a topic consistent with the department’s social-justice mission) and a course in public rhetoric in which students study the “civic turn” of composition studies (in which composition instructors have students get involved in local projects and then write about their experiences).

Professors also devised practical one-credit courses aimed at developing writing pedagogy, like “Teaching Developmental Writing in College,” which prepares students for community-college job opportunities.

Of course professors are better at adding programs and requirements than at eliminating them, and the department tried to keep that academic truism in mind. “We don’t want to add on extra work for our students,” said Lay. Instead, the faculty aimed for a “cohesive and integrated” curriculum that gives the students more freedom to string existing (and some new) courses into sequences that will give them an additional credential — such as, say, a certificate in writing instruction.

The department’s analysis of Ph.D. career outcomes also showed that students benefited from gaining work experience outside the discipline, so professors built that option into the revised curriculum, too.

Along with the usual teaching assistantships, the department established graduate assistantships outside the undergraduate classroom. “We saw that some of our students who got tenure-track jobs worked in the Global Citizenship program,” Lay said. Helping to supervise a study-abroad trip “expanded their professional capacity.” So the faculty planners generalized from that finding and arranged internship opportunities with other offices across the campus.

English graduate students may now — as a substitute for a TA stint — choose to work for a year at the Office of First-Year Experience or the Center for Gender Equity, among others. Lay described such jobs as “super-GA positions.” The students do programming, public teaching — “whatever needs doing” — and gain different kinds of professional experience.

Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno, an eighth-year doctoral student in English at Lehigh, said in an email interview that her GA work at Lehigh’s Women’s Center (now the Center for Gender Equity) “taught me to appreciate all of the different kinds of educational work that happens at a university, not just from the faculty side.” Next year, she’ll do another GA-ship working to train undergraduate writing tutors. “I would love to continue to work with students in some capacity,” she said, and may pursue a career in student affairs.

Bruno’s GA work has also affected the direction of her dissertation research. Her project now “blends more traditional literary analysis and applied pedagogical practices that foster social justice in higher education.”

Most important, Bruno is glad and grateful for this evolution of her work and goals: “I guess you could say that I fell in love with books first, and books brought me to graduate school, where I then fell in love with teaching. Then having a GA-ship broadened my understanding of teaching and education, and I realized that what I really love is talking about big ideas and working with young people — and if I had the chance to do that kind of work in the future, I think that would make me really happy.”

Jimmy Hamill, a second-year doctoral student in English, works as a GA at Lehigh’s Pride Center. “Seeing some of my colleagues and mentors take on GA-ships communicated to me that there were options beyond the traditional tenure-track path that were just as valid and important in higher education,” he wrote in an email. The job itself “has allowed me to explore my own interests as a scholar-activist.”

Like Bruno, Hamill has found that his GA work is shaping his intellectual identity and goals. “Theoretically,” he said, “the GA-ship has challenged me to consider how intersectional methodologies and theories inform the kinds of questions I may want to answer on my comp exams.” As he eloquently puts it, he has gained “a clearer understanding of my ‘why?’”

That’s exactly the kind of takeaway the professors were hoping for. “We want our students to have a capacious understanding of the possibilities available to them,” Lay said.

It means nothing to equip someone with tools if they don’t realize that they have them. As important is the pleasure that comes from knowing that you have options.

“We don’t really have a lot of opportunities to speak about what genuinely brings us joy in graduate school,” Bruno said. Lehigh’s GA positions “help us to think about all of the skills and talents we’ve gained from our program.” In that light, he said, a nonfaculty career path appears “not as a cop-out, but as a viable choice that could also make us as happy.”

The department’s goal is to stay attuned to what students are experiencing in their GA positions and to the “individualized pathways” they are following to a Ph.D. Because doctoral education, carefully curated, takes time and attention, the department has reduced its Ph.D. admissions from four to six students annually, down to two to four a year. It’s also increased the number of master’s students — fully funded — from five to six a year, up to eight to 10 a year.

It’s easier to keep tabs on a smaller doctoral cohort, and use the information collected about them to make further adjustments in graduate training. In that way, Lehigh’s English department has changed not just its curriculum, Lay said, but its “ways of thinking about graduate education.”

There’s a recursive aspect to that way thinking that we see all too rarely in graduate school. Professors did something, looked closely at how it worked, and then doubled back and adjusted it based on what they learned. We could do with more of that in academe.

Some critics say that most Ph.D.s only want to be faculty members and that the only reform that matters is the creation of more tenure-track jobs. These critics claim that efforts to broaden graduate education and prepare students for diverse careers only pull students away from their main goal: joining the tenured professoriate. But the experience at Lehigh suggests it’s possible to do both. The department’s new, broader doctoral training has helped English Ph.D.s escape the adjunct treadmill and succeed in multiple job markets, including the tenure-track one that these efforts are supposedly a distraction from.

This is public-facing, student-centered graduate school. Yes, it takes extra work on the part of both students and professors. Why do it? Because our students need it. And because it works.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com. His Twitter handle is @LCassuto.

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