Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Nov 12th, 2011
  • Category: higher ed
  • Comments: 24

it starts on day one

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Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating a generation of knowledge workers prepared not only to teach, research, and communicate in 21st-century modes, but to govern 21st-century institutions.

First, kill all the grad-level methods courses.

Kill them, that is, to clear room for something more highly evolved — or simply more fruitful — to take their place. Think: asteroids clobbering dinosaurs. Choking weeds ripped from vegetable gardens. The fuzzy little nothings and spindly cultivars in this scenario, squinting cautious eyes or uncurling new leaves into the light, are:

  • those research methodologies and corpora (often but not exclusively gathered under the banner of the “digital humanities”) that address hitherto unanswerable questions about history, the arts, and the human condition;
  • and the new-model scholarly communications platforms we can already recognize as promising replacements to our slow and moribund systems for credentialing and publishing humanities scholarship and archiving the cultural record on which it is based.

What do these critters need to grow up? The same thing our colleges and universities so desperately need: a generation of faculty and alternative-academic scholar-practitioners who have been trained to work in interdisciplinary contexts and who can not only take advantage of computational approaches to their own research, but who have been instilled with enough of a can-do, maker’s ethos that they feel empowered to build and re-build the systems in which they and future students will operate.

Although a small number of extra-curricular experiments (like the Praxis Program) and curricular interventions (like Michigan State’s Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool) offer new and concrete models for emulation, there’s little hope for wholesale, bottom-up, grass-roots reform of methodological training in the humanities. With vanishingly few exceptions, required first-year graduate methods courses are dinosaurs and weeds. Some are an abbreviated introduction to journals databases and the mysteries of inter-library loan. Others have little to do with research and production “methodologies” at all, and are instead a crash course in the jargon and en-vogue theories of a given discipline. The intra-institutional level of coordination in developing and teaching these courses, even among closely-allied humanities departments, hovers around zero. Within single departments, they are catch-as-catch-can, shaped almost wholly by the individual faculty who teach them (often as they themselves were taught a generation or two before) and sometimes vacillating wildly in content from year to year as instructors rotate to make more equitable the “burden” of a course generally construed as service. Is it any wonder they’re a mess?

And is it any wonder that we continue to produce graduate students unready to engage with new technologies and opportunities for interdisciplinary and computational work — baffled and frustrated at the conditions of the academic job market and its underpinnings in a dying scholarly publishing industry — and under-prepared for or uneducated about hybrid and non-traditional academic careers?

Here comes the asteroid we require. (And in offering a trajectory for it, I want to acknowledge my debt to conversations with participants in the Scholarly Communication Institutes held at UVa Library, with Scholars’ Lab faculty and staff, and with our Graduate Fellows in Digital Humanities and Praxis Program students.)

Funding agencies, both private and public — like Mellon, Sloan, and (in the US) the NEH and NSF — should be approached by a respected humanities organization that itself possesses a mandate for and a track record of inter-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. I think here of groups like CHCI, the international Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes — especially in partnership with centerNet, its digital counterpart — or the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The organization should offer, with sufficient funding, to serve as a broker for a prestigious and competitive RFP (request for proposals). The RFP would be issued to universities with core strengths in the humanities, adequate support for digital scholarship, and a desire — able to be expressed at the institutional level — to create broad-scale curricular change in the way graduate students are inducted into and trained for 21st-century humanities. Probably no more than 3 or 4 schools would win funding, which would be contingent on this:

  • the planned, top-down, apocalyptic wiping-out — one academic year from delivery of the award — of existing graduate methods courses in (say) four to six core humanities departments;
  • the formation of a small but representative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary team charged with creating the year-long common methods course that will replace them;
  • a commitment by participating academic departments, in the light of the new common course, to re-think the training that they consider to be absolutely unique to their disciplines and to offer an avenue (1-credit classes? discussion groups? new approaches to departmental teaching or to comps and orals requirements?) for students to acquire it;
  • and a rigorous program proposed for assessing and publicizing the successes, failures, and overall impact of the experiment, so that lessons may be learned and new programs inspired.

The common methods course would be required of all incoming graduate students in participating departments. Grant funding could support staffing of curriculum design and assessment phases, offer incentives (including course release or professional development) for faculty participation, or pay for teaching assistants. The program would be designed and team-taught by its planning group, which should include faculty from relevant departments, representatives of the offices of deans and provosts, and — importantly — local #alt-ac professionals, trained in the humanities, but working as scholar-practitioners in R&D or academic support roles in libraries, labs, publishing units, and centers. It should also engage faculty from departments like CS and Architecture, whose students may not participate directly in the program, but who would have important lessons to share about research methods and collaborative practices.

As its primary focus, the course must cover current humanities research skills, corpora, and trends — both digital and archival or material. But it should also address issues like: intellectual property and open access; the intersection of scholarship with the public humanities; publishing, preservation, and scholarly communication; funding and material support for research and teaching; interdisciplinary collaboration; matters of credentialing and assessment (peer review, tenure and promotion), faculty self-governance; and the under-interrogated policies that cover and shape the humanities in the modern college and university.

This is a tall order — but we can no longer afford to produce humanities PhDs who have only a foggy notion of how universities work, and how they are impacted by external technological and social forces. The first time a humanities scholar encounters a budget spreadsheet or performs a calculation should not be when he or she becomes department chair. And no new member of the professoriate should feel utterly out of depth in decision-making processes that impact the teaching, research, and service mission of his or her institution. Likewise, the health of the humanities depends on our production of graduate students who do not simply replicate the faculty of yesteryear, but who are prepared to take uncharted paths in and around the academy, working together to ask new research questions and to fashion new systems or adapt the ones we treasure to altered conditions.

Graduate training in the humanities starts anew every year, on Day One. How, at a moment when we feel so much is at stake, can we allow it to remain so purposeless?

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24 Responses to “it starts on day one”


  1. Eric Johnson
    on Nov 12th, 2011
    @ 5:33pm

    Though I’m contractually obligated to agree with you, I toss aside my contractual obligations and simply say that I’d agree with you anyway, as you well know.

    Two things, though, do cross my mind after seeing the idea laid out so terrifically and in detail:

    1.) Have there been any formal studies done recently of the efficacy of introductory grad-level methods courses? In this I plead total ignorance; they may well exist. But I’d be interested in seeing what–if anything–they say is (still?) being done well.

    2.) In my ideal world, the planning group for this program would include practitioners from outside the academy, too–those working in museums or libraries, for instance, unrelated to the university in question. You suggest that it include “local #alt-ac professionals, trained in the humanities, but working as scholar-practitioners in R&D or academic support roles in libraries, labs, publishing units, and centers,” and in this you may well be considering just the same group as I am, but I just wanted to make that point explicit. I think it’s important to have #alt-ac folks from both within AND without the university, getting the professional perspectives of those who remain in the orbit of the academy and those who have found their bliss further away (but still within scholarly and humanities-focused realms) is important.

    Oh, for a crystal ball to see if this will indeed lead to a new Cenozoic Era!


  2. Sharon M. Leon
    on Nov 12th, 2011
    @ 6:12pm

    As someone with an interdisciplinary degree in American Studies, I would respectfully submit that there are really important methodological distinctions among the disciplines and that graduate students need to know that they are before they can even begin to engage in interdisciplinary work that won’t result in mush.

    At GMU in History, we do both a research methods course and an introduction to the theory and methods of digital history [1] [2]. It’s a system that has been working many years now and has resulted in a good number of well-equipped scholars, #alt-ac or otherwise.


  3. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Nov 12th, 2011
    @ 9:05pm

    Hey, Sharon — I agree entirely about the value of the disciplines, which is why I emphasize in a bullet point above that this not mean giving up unique disciplinary methodological training. However, I’ll stand by my statement that most departmentally-run methods classes need to be re-booted. I think a program like the one I suggest would give many departments their best and maybe, politically, their only opportunity to flush away the old and create something fresh and new.

    I also think that the History department at GMU is one of the — sadly few — places where required methods courses seem to be taken seriously and very well done!


  4. Sharon M. Leon
    on Nov 13th, 2011
    @ 11:11am

    Sure. That all makes sense. But, I’m thinking about Mark Sample’s notion of the “uncoverage” mode of teaching. I really believe that that is where we need to start, so in a sense methods are everything and traditional examinations on content coverage need to fade into the background. From this perspective, a one credit course or a set of discussion groups doesn’t seem to be sufficient to really deal with the perspectives, approaches, and methods that are unique to individual disciplines.

    In effect, I’m in favor of more methods instruction, not less. Both/and, not either/or.


  5. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Nov 13th, 2011
    @ 12:15pm

    I don’t think we disagree at all. My point in throwing out some different options and in specifying a requirement like that (that departments sending students to a new, common methods course re-think their own offerings) is meant to jump-start and strengthen what happens at the department level, rather than erase it or let the disciplines off the hook. Some departments would be able to emulate History at Mason, with a multi-semester, comprehensive program — and for some, even a 1-credit discussion group would be an advance.

    I don’t presume that one size fits all for disciplinary offerings, and want to see what would happen in departments that have traditionally done a poor job of this if a) they felt like non-discipline-specific “basics” were taken care of and b) they were impelled to work seriously on the issue by virtue of their school’s participation in a prestigious grant-funded initiative.

    Thanks for responding to this, Sharon!


  6. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Nov 13th, 2011
    @ 12:24pm

    Eric, thanks for your comments here, too! On question 1: that kind of survey is something SCI 9 participants called for, but most specifically in the context of #alt-ac rather than tenure-track careers, and with an eye toward understanding how humanities grad education readies (or does not ready) people for unconventional jobs. We may be in a position to work on that next year. On your second issue, some related points were raised here: 1, 2.


  7. Keith Weimer
    on Nov 15th, 2011
    @ 10:44pm

    This has been a stimulating post and a stimulating discussion. I think that both you and Eric have great and practical ideas for relating humanities graduate education to a full range of professional opportunities and to the wider world of academia in which it resides. This statement in no way diminishes Sharon’s points that training in disciplinary methodologies may require more than a one-credit course. Research into graduate education (including the project that I’ve been involved with for the past couple of years) suggests that shockingly little discussion about career plans or opportunities takes place between graduate students and their advisers, and I love the idea of actually building a conversation about these subjects into the curriculum.


  8. N I N E S - News
    on Nov 16th, 2011
    @ 1:30pm

    [...] to arise from symposium (besides the institute itself, of course) will be Bethany Nowviskie’s call for reform of graduate training, to match the methods and questions that will form the future. But in the [...]


  9. Katy Meyers
    on Nov 17th, 2011
    @ 12:39pm

    Great post and idea! As a second year grad student, I’m finding that the skills that are moving me ahead in my field, as well as those which seem to have the most promise for future projects are not ones which I learned in my methods course. In Archaeology methods we learned about typologies, classifications, sampling and statistics. However, I’ve been doing work with databases, content management systems, XML, HTML, CSS, and my future work seems to be more digitally focused. I was lucky in that I was able to get digital training as both a fellow in the MSU Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative and was a teaching assistant for the MSU CHI summer fieldschool. Further, my own involvement with THATCamp has helped my development. But my formal grad school training has not prepared me for these things. I’m glad that a conversation about the role of digital in graduate education is beginning… change is desperately needed.


  10. Going to Grad School | Brian Sarnacki | <!-- History Grad Student -->
    on Nov 18th, 2011
    @ 1:42pm

    [...] Nowviskie also proposes a bold reforms in “it starts on day one,” including killing the traditional “methods” course: Kill them, that is, to clear [...]


  11. Follow Up on Academic Nonteaching Jobs » Defiant Musings
    on Nov 30th, 2011
    @ 11:25am

    [...] from Bethany Nowviskie, “It Starts on Day One” is a “a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humanities and creating [...]


  12. » Day 1 Minus 730: Rethinking Undergraduate Methodological Training Ryan Cordell
    on Dec 5th, 2011
    @ 12:55pm

    [...] past weekend, Bethany Nowviskie published “It Starts on Day One,” a provocative call to reform humanities education by summarily “kill[ing] all the [...]


  13. MLA 2012: A Nonteaching Academic Job Search Resources » Defiant Musings
    on Dec 30th, 2011
    @ 5:44pm

    [...] it starts on day one « Bethany Nowviskie Tags: #alt-ac, digital-humanities, methods, scholarly-communication Here’s a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the humani… Nowviskie [...]


  14. It Starts on Day One - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
    on Jan 12th, 2012
    @ 9:02am

    [...] post is reprinted (lightly edited, by her) from Bethany’s blog, in order to circulate its ideas more [...]


  15. Proposal for Change in Graduate Education in the Humanities | Alabama Digital Humanities Center
    on Jan 13th, 2012
    @ 12:42pm

    [...] http://nowviskie.org/2011/it-starts-on-day-one/ [...]


  16. Literature and New Media, Spring 2012
    on Jan 19th, 2012
    @ 3:38pm

    [...] Fish’s “The Digital Humanities and the Transcending of Mortality” and Bethany Nowiskie’s “It Starts on Day One.”  Fish trades in caricatures—of long-form academic writing as well as of new media forms—but he [...]


  17. _Deep Impact_: a short overview and response to Bethany Nowviskie’s “it starts on day one” | Shawn W. Moore
    on Jan 29th, 2012
    @ 7:16pm

    [...] her blog, Bethany Nowviskie lays out “a modest proposal for reforming higher education in the [...]


  18. What is Digital Humanities? That’s Just Scanning Right? – An Affective Response to Defining Digital Humanities | Shawn W. Moore
    on Jan 29th, 2012
    @ 10:40pm

    [...] only when let those forces affect our emotional responses to our position as academics, as “knowledge workers” as Bethany Nowviskie has recently employed the term (for me, Nowviskie’s term goes [...]


  19. Aden Nichols
    on Feb 2nd, 2012
    @ 1:48pm

    Up the Revolution!!! Thanks, Bethany, for taking the bull by the horns–you’re an oak! I agree with Eric: If the academy is the stone tossed in the pond, the restructuring of the humanities only *begins* with the first ripple–the concentric waves emanating outward from the academy are equally important (and often overlooked). The #alt-ac movement will prove more beneficial to all stakeholders, including–no *especially*–humanities students, if it engages with those who carry the banner beyond The Pale of the ivy-encrusted walls.


  20. » DH, Interdisciplinarity, and Curricular Incursion Ryan Cordell
    on Feb 20th, 2012
    @ 6:53pm

    [...] that might aid such practitioners. I haven’t abandoned Bethany Nowviskie’s strident call for interdisciplinary methodological training. In many ways, I hope to suggest a practical model for a “pandemic” curricular reform [...]


  21. The Myth of Academia | Brian Sarnacki
    on Jul 18th, 2012
    @ 10:21pm

    [...] meant tongue-in-cheek if you didn’t pick up on it, instead take Bethany Nowviskie’s word for it). In terms of coursework and other degree requirements (comprehensive exams, the dissertation, [...]


  22. Resources | Alt-Ac
    on Mar 26th, 2013
    @ 7:44am

    [...] These two pieces by Bethany Nowviskie:  “Two and a Half Cheers for the Lunaticks” and “It Starts on Day One” [...]


  23. “Doing” the Digital: Panic and Persistence
    on May 15th, 2013
    @ 4:06pm

    [...] be instructive here is one that we read in the early days of the fellowship: Bethany Nowviskie’s “it starts on day one.” Nearly eight months later, I still agree with the bulk of her argument, particularly the thread [...]


  24. “Doing” the Digital: Panic and Persistence
    on Oct 1st, 2013
    @ 1:28pm

    […] be instructive here is one that we read in the early days of the fellowship: Bethany Nowviskie’s “it starts on day one.” Nearly eight months later, I still agree with the bulk of her argument, particularly the thread […]

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