graduate in PhD regalia raising fist in front of building

The Future of Humanities PhDs

Originally published in the Fall 2020 Newsletter.

It has been a challenging time at the MLA as we face the transformation of work under COVID-19 and fresh threats to the future of the humanities. The report by the MLA Taskforce on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Education focused on power dynamics in graduate education. It clearly opposes the unacceptable conditions for students who face harassment and neglect as well as debt and impending financial precarity, and it sets MLA guidelines for faculty conduct (Report). The pandemic has made life even more difficult for graduate students, intensifying racial and economic disparities and underscoring the need for graduate student participation in deciding the safety of their environments for teaching and studying.

For many years, the MLA has sought to be an advocate for graduate students, who are too often underpaid and whose career trajectories are increasingly uncertain as academic job opportunities dwindle (e.g., Arteaga and Woodward). Our resources for those pursuing a range of career paths, including the Mellon-funded Connected Academics project, have proven to be indispensable as many graduate programs seek to adapt their placement programs to a changing market for PhDs. The MLA has worked closely with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) in developing its fellowship programs that offer humanities PhDs a way to put their knowledge to work in the service of public art, legal assistance, health care, cultural preservation and innovation, journalism, archives, and forms of activism including antiracist initiatives and climate justice projects. Yet too many of us remain attached to an academic culture that reproduces the same graduate curriculum and training without regard for the shrinking academic market that awaits most of our students. Including diverse career options as part of placement program is a first and necessary step (“Where?”). But now it has become obligatory to include the public humanities as part of required graduate education as well. That way we prepare students through internships and interdisciplinary collaborations for paid work with the PhD, and we revitalize our profession as more responsive to historical conditions and more active in bringing our capacities to think about language, values, and critical judgment to bear on the transformation and repair of our public worlds.

It makes sense to suspend admission to a humanities graduate program for a year or two under the present circumstances, but only if we can guarantee that such actions won’t be used as a pretext by administrations to shut down programs and departments. Some argue that resources would be better used to support students who are already enrolled and are living in precarious conditions than to support new students now, when academic prospects are bleak (see, e.g., Hartman; Flaherty). Yet the decision to suspend graduate admissions is a risky one: administrations may demand that humanities departments close their graduate programs indefinitely or find external funding to fund those programs—and that response is a form of extortion we must oppose (Tullman). There is a way to avoid this situation by restructuring programs such that the curriculum for language and literature imagines a wider range of future positions in the arts, culture, law, health, and public life.

If we train in the fields of public humanities as well as in established fields,  structure internships into the program, and pursue the kinds of interdisciplinary and public connections that show the value of the humanities for the world, we make the public case for the humanities and take better care of our PhD students (Cassuto). If we only argue, however, that the humanities have value because they are useful to businesses and profit-making parts of the university or the economy more generally, we accept a measure of value that demeans or even destroys what we do—or relegates our fields to subservience to other fields. The public humanities offer an alternative vision, one that the ACLS, The Mellon Foundation (e.g., “Hunter College”), and New York University (“Public Humanities Initiative”) have affirmed and one that I hope other funders and educational institutions will increasingly come to value and support.

Further, if current trends continue, language and literature courses run the risk of becoming ornamental or service-oriented aspects of the university taught by adjuncts only. Intensifying adjunctification, as we know, undermines both tenure and faculty governance and, in most cases, health care and a livable wage. By strengthening the public humanities as part of graduate training, we have a chance to make clear to nonspecialists within educational institutions and the public sphere the value of what we do and how our commitment to education can help strengthen traditions of public writing, discourse, storytelling, and critical engagement. Partnering with scientific research and public health, but also with environmental and science studies, seems timely and crucial, suggesting that we need to support those fields that represent the intersection of science and literature, including narrative medicine and medical humanities, but also climate and social justice projects. We will then have employment possibilities that will justify our renewed programs, and we will turn out to live in the world we seek to understand and make the world a more livable place. A new imagining that restructures higher education for PhDs is required to combat climate change and racism, to establish all the lives considered dispensable as indispensable and invaluable, and to build shared life that reverses the social and racial inequalities intensifying in these nearly crushing times. We can create against and within these times a humanities for emergent and future publics.

Works Cited

Arteaga, Rachel, and Kathleen Woodward. “Mentors, Projects, Deliverables: Internships and Fellowships for Doctoral Students in the Humanities.” Profession, May 2017,

Cassuto, Leonard. “Doctoral Training Should Include an Internship.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Aug. 2020,

Flaherty, Colleen. “Pausing Grad Admissions.” Inside Higher Ed, 1 June 2020,

Hartman, Stacy M. “A Pause in the Pandemic.” Inside Higher Ed, 18 Aug. 2020,

“Hunter College.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2020,

“Public Humanities Initiative.” New York University,

Report of the MLA Task Force on Ethical Conduct in Graduate Studies. Modern Language Association, May 2020,

Tullman, Anya. “SAS Will Not Admit New Ph.D. Students Next Academic Year due to COVID-19 Financial Loss.” The Daily Pennsylvanian, 15 Sept. 2020,

“Where Do Humanists Work? Organizational Profiles.” The Humanities PhD Project, University of Michigan, 20  June 2018,