Finding Your Way: Cultivating Humanistic Versatility

By Edward Balleisen
Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies

In Story+, graduate students supervise and mentor teams of undergraduates conducting applied humanistic research.

This is the last of three posts that offer advice on getting a good start in your time as a doctoral student at Duke. The earlier posts addressed the variety of opportunities open to you and ways to set yourself up for constructive mentoring relationships.


In this third post on how to make the most of your time at Duke, I’d like to reflect on the advantages of not getting too specialized while you are pursuing your doctorate. As much as you need to cultivate individual expertise in a specific field, there is a compelling case for learning how to work effectively on teams, and how to connect with diverse audiences.

Duke pursued an NEH NextGen grant because it aligns with our wider priorities for doctoral education, laid out in the recently adopted academic strategic plan, Together Duke. That document calls for expanding the training that we offer to doctoral students, both to widen intellectual horizons and to deepen skill sets that matter both inside academia and beyond it. We will be working on many fronts over the next several years, but I wish to emphasize two here: the value of exposure to collaborative research; and the imperative of developing the capacity to communicate effectively with audiences beyond one’s sub-field or discipline.

The nature of humanistic research has broadened in recent years. Ongoing processes of globalization have heightened the salience of understanding the flows of ideas, people, and values across societies, as well as the geopolitical and cultural conflicts among them, whether in our current moment or the much deeper past. Digital projects have reinjected quantitative analysis into many fields, raising new questions and novel methodologies. Many compelling research questions now beckon that are hard for any single individual to answer. They may require unusual linguistic range, deep knowledge of multiple cultures and societal contexts, and/or considerable statistical sophistication. As a result, such research endeavors lend themselves to teams.

Duke provides numerous paths for collaborative humanistic inquiry that welcome graduate student participation.  Avenues you may want to check out include:

Be on the lookout for these collective endeavors, and give some thought about whether they make sense for you. Also keep an eye out for opportunities to develop your own collaborative digital projects, like the Sonic Dictionary spearheaded by Mary Caton Lingold when she was still a grad student in English. If such opportunities strike you as worth exploring, you’ll need to think through how you might weave them into your course of study.

Across the United States and the globe, we also face the great challenge, and also the enormous opportunity, of demonstrating the continuing public salience of humanistic knowledge. Many incoming doctoral students aspire to participation in dialogues that extend beyond the academy. If that description fits you, look for platforms to reach out to community groups and other non-academic audiences, like those provided by Duke’s Forum for Scholars and Publics or the graduate student-run organization Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators.

Engaging in this kind of outreach and dialogue requires commitment and its own kind of practice. Many interdisciplinary teams at Duke incorporate such efforts to communicate beyond the sub-field or discipline. Another option, once you have some dissertation research under your belt, is to think about how you might translate your findings into an opinion piece that can find an outlet, whether on an established blog, newspaper, or magazine. For an example, see the 2015 op-ed by history grad student Tom Cinq-Mars, which related his dissertation research on the history of Russia’s biggest oil pipeline to the American debate over the proposed Keystone pipeline.

There can be a temptation to postpone participation in collaborative, interdisciplinary research projects; or to put off efforts to hone the capacity to connect with multiple audiences, whether through prose, podcasts, or video. Certainly you all should remain aware of the trade-offs associated with any choice about how to allocate your time and energies. And of course doctoral education, with its core premise of facilitating important contributions to knowledge, requires clear-eyed focus.

But as you will discover once you meet and get to know more senior graduate students, such experiences often prove crucial in sharpening dissertation research and opening up career possibilities. They also provide the gratification that comes with completing a project, and give you the opportunity to assess what types of research and writing best suit you. Finally, exposure to collective undertakings and public humanities will likely improve your capacity to juggle multiple commitments, something that will almost certainly characterize your eventual work life, whether in academia or elsewhere. You can find a number of reflections about such matters by your peers on the VH@Duke blog.

Once again, welcome to Duke. We look forward to seeing what you will make out of the resources and people that you will find here. We also welcome your input as we strive to adapt doctoral education to the quickly shifting circumstances that are reshaping research, teaching, civic engagement, and career prospects for humanists and interpretive social scientists.