Collaborative Humanities Graduate Research and Training for the 21st Century

This is the first in a series of articles that reflect on the The Integrative Graduate Humanities Education Research and Training (IGHERT) project brought, which was a collaborative, cross-institutional initiative that focused on devising an international and collaborative mode of advising and training graduate researchers at the doctoral dissertation stage. To see more entries, click here.

Our CHCI-sponsored IGHERT (Integrative Graduate Humanities Education and Research Training) project was a collaboration of four institutions: University of California at Santa Cruz, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the Graduate Center for the Study of Culture at the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, and the Australian National University in Canberra. Originally sparked by the CHCI’s call for proposals for its 2011–12 planning initiative, it was generously supported from 2014–16 by the CHCI with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The CHCI’s call set out certain basic parameters that all proposals should address: We should imagine 21st-century advanced humanities research in an international framework, informing both the conceptualization of that research and the modes of conducting and communicating it. We should incorporate disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration and dialogue. We should envision new or enhanced or transformed roles for humanities centers and networks of humanities centers. And we should attend to the various forms of impact that humanities research can have in a variety of public spheres. But the real imperative, as we understood, was to address an underlying question: how might the new research and structures we were proposing point out innovative directions for humanities research and offer humanities centers a leading role in this process?

Initially, we read the call and were excited by what was being asked of proposers. We scurried to put together collaborators and a proposal, and sent it in. It was thrilling when, after a few weeks, we received notice that we were one of four groups that had been selected, and that the project leads from the partner institutions should make preparations for a meeting with the CHCI board at the University of Washington, comprising two intensive days of presentations, discussion, and brainstorming.

Our way of approaching the call had been, we discovered at the Seattle meeting, different than the other three proposal groups. Whereas our peers had answered the call by identifying a thematic area of research—environmental humanities, medical humanities, questions of religion and secularism—and projected a structure to be able to address it collaboratively, we started the other way round. We took up, specifically, the organizational framework of doctoral research in the humanities as a point from which both present and future change could be leveraged; and we tried to imagine a scalable, adaptable model for interdisciplinary, internationally-collaborative doctoral education in the humanities that would integrate new ideas about funding and support, about the process of developing graduate research from proposal to dissertation, and about the potential spaces of impact for the work. Crucially, we also imagined the humanities centers at our individual universities, as well as the international network of centers we were seeking to build, as key protagonists in conceiving and implementing this model.

At first our planning was oriented towards fleshing out this structural model, addressing questions such as: How could we integrate graduate funding with participation in an innovative research-training program? How did we understand interdisciplinary collaboration, and how would our interdisciplinary focus accommodate our participants’ primary affiliation with a disciplinary department or degree program? What would constitute meaningful collaboration across institutions? How could we reconcile the different requirements, expectations of doctoral students, doctoral career timetables, and cultures of institutions spanning three continents? And, given the interests of CHCI in our project, how could we project the specific strengths of each participating humanities center in new, productive ways that might ultimately inform the thinking of others in the network?

Our work on these questions evolved over many video conferences, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings with our project leads, including an epic two-day meeting in Giessen with all-day brainstorming, all-night proposal writing, and another day-long session of discussion and editing, to prepare our full proposal for submission. When we celebrated that evening over dinner in Frankfurt, we were exhilarated by our own experience of multi-institutional collaboration and international cross-talk. We had learned in much greater depth from one another about how other institutions, and even whole national higher education systems, think about the details of doctoral research and training. Our German partner represented the expectations of the Bologna system in which doctoral students have already finished coursework and the preliminary prospecting for their research topic at the Masters level; they enter PhD programs primarily to conduct dissertation research and complete theses. Students from the United States institutions, in contrast, would have recently finished coursework and be pivoting to start their dissertation research. Our Australian partners brought yet another model (and a different set of southern hemisphere dates and terms) to the collaboration.

At the same time, these discussions brought into relief the novel content and special contribution that such differences could contribute to a shared project: in particular, the U.S. partners highlighted the importance of graduate research funding; our Australian partners highlighted opportunities for publication and other forms of scholarly communication, as did our colleagues from Germany; and our German partners offered extensive experience of academic collaboration and collaborative structures, from master classes to international summer schools. Confronting potential obstacles and generating ingenious solutions to harmonize our diverse constraints into a shared program was, however, part of a creative process that pushed us to new ideas about our project design. Everyone knew that we had generated a framework and projected activities that no one of us could have come up with alone from our single-institution and nationally-bounded perspectives. This too gave us confidence that we were on the right track in proposing activities that would bring our doctoral students into the participatory, collaborative, internationally networked learning we ourselves had just experienced.

Our next phase, prompted by our CHCI sponsors, was to take this transferable and transposable structural model and choose a specific pilot theme with which our institutions could test out the framework collaboratively. Based on faculty and student strengths at our four universities, we chose to explore the theme of “indigeneity in an expanded field,” which would focus our interdisciplinary cohort on the ever-broadening scope of “the indigenous” in our contemporary world—its widening conceptual scope, its increasing geographical and geopolitical range, its expanded legal application, and its capacious embrace of both local and global environmental contexts. With this theme determined, each institution recruited two faculty facilitators and selected two participating doctoral students—and we prepared for the first of our four plenary gatherings, beginning at the University of California at Santa Cruz in September 2014. Following our kick-off meeting was a week of workshops in July 2015 at Australian National University; a conference and workshop meeting in May 2016; and a summative conference at the Justus Liebig University conference center outside Giessen in November 2016. Students and faculty were encouraged to maintain contacts and to work together between the plenary meetings as well.

Over the course of the four sessions, certain emphases were consistent, even as we shifted between different aspects of the theme and took inspiration from the local expertise at each host institution. One of these emphases was on collaborative learning: we engaged in reading and presentation of scholarly materials from a wide range of relevant disciplines, including history, anthropology, literature, legal studies, cultural studies, art history and visual studies, and ethnic studies. We experimented with a variety of workshop practices to help us gain familiarity with a broad and relatively large body of shared bibliography, such as intensive group discussion of a subset of reading followed by presentations of that subset to the group as a whole. While it would have been difficult for our participants to have read twenty or more articles prior to our meetings, it was possible, using such methods, for the whole group to gain conceptual familiarity with the selected literature, to bring the arguments to bear on our discussions, and to explore parts of the bibliography in greater depth where relevant to their research.

Another focus was on our students’ effective communication of their research. They presented in a variety of formats, including “three-minute thesis” and other lightening-talk formats; ten-minute public talks; conference papers; and, at UWM, a televised panel discussion. These various oral and media presentations accompanied our intensive work on their written texts. We emphasized repeated and varied presentation of their work not just because, of course, it would help in its eventual presentation to scholarly and public audiences. Equally important to us was the process of thinking, feedback, and productive criticism that these presentations fostered in our group. As a group, we came to know each other research thoroughly after several presentations, and we could track the impressive evolution and modulation of this research as our doctoral students progressed through the two years of the program.

The other important emphasis, as might be expected with a group of dissertation-writing doctoral students, was on the writing and revision of chapters of their theses. Our student participants were quite hungry for substantive response to their writing-in-progress, and it was one of the areas in which they were most vocal in helping to reshape the activities we had projected. We modified our program based on their feedback and criticisms and experimented with a number of writing session formats to get closer to meeting the students’ express desires and needs. 

Indeed, out of this experience and that of other analogous interdisciplinary workshops in which I have been involved (for example, the Social Science Research Council’s Dissertation Proposal Development program), I believe that careful attention to graduate writing may be the most challenging, yet also most important component of any collaborative, interdisciplinary program that includes doctoral students. Such attention is not only intellectually important—after all, almost any scholar can benefit from more useful feedback!—but it is also emotionally critical, insofar as written texts are one of the major foci of the affective life of our profession. Graduate students’ confidence as scholars, their sense of recognition (or lack of recognition), and their judgments of the value of the collaborative work with one another are all very much in play in encounters over their writing. Upfront formal guidelines and coaching in giving productive feedback can help ease possible tensions in this process; but project leads should also be prepared to listen without defensiveness and respond productively to student criticisms if the writing feedback is not meeting their expectations.

Many of our IGHERT students have already completed their dissertations (we hoped that timely completion would be one of the reciprocal benefits of the fellowship support and supplementary mentoring); others will finish this year. We still have a collaboratively-edited book in progress, to be published by ANU press, that will present the work of our participating students, faculty, project leads, and some outside participants from our workshops. Our Giessen colleagues are also encouraging IGHERT participants to submit work to a forthcoming issue of their peer-reviewed online journal. 

In both tangible and intangible ways, the IGHERT collaboration has left its mark on our work together and in our individual views of the world. Above all, we formed friendships founded in common work, respectful intellectual engagement, and struggle with shared problems. I feel confident that these will endure, and look forward to seeing how our relationships evolve over many years. We are grateful to the CHCI for having granted us the occasion and the means to nurture this special community, and we hope our experience will help others in developing their own.

Tyrus Miller is the Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.