Making the Most of Duke, Summer 2021

By Ed Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies

What’s going on with PhD reform across the humanities and interpretive social sciences at Duke, and what does it mean for you?

Like every other facet of university life, the pandemic has upended many plans.  But it has also compelled experimentation and adaptation.  The pivots to remote instruction and interaction have intersected with our ongoing effort to implement the recommendations made by Duke’s 2018 Reimagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) Committee, a team effort that included the valuable perspectives of multiple graduate students.  As we move toward the summer and hopefully a less risky public health situation, I’d like to highlight several developments immediately relevant for doctoral students in the humanities and interpretive social sciences.

Grad intern Ashley Rose Young with guest chef at the Smithsonian

Duke History PhD Ashley Rose Young (’17) onsite as a food history intern at the National Museum of American History.

One key goal of the RiDE Report was to expand intellectual opportunities outside the confines of PhD programs, especially involving exposure to collaborative research and the cultivation of strong communications skills, whether the audience might be students or broader publics.  Many such opportunities are available this upcoming summer.

Perhaps you’ve been thinking that your methodological toolkit or communications skills could benefit from some focused attention.  If so, registration for summer Graduate Academy short-courses just opened; those offerings include several that target humanistic methods (Techniques for Remote Research; Digital Humanities: Working with Text) and others of more general relevance (Public Speaking; Online Teaching; Best Practices in Mentoring).

Are you keen to get an experience mentoring undergraduates, and engaging with a collaborative research project?  Story+ and Data+ provide PhD students with the chance to guide undergraduate mini-teams undertaking such research. (Though at this point, you may need to think more about Summer 2022.)

Maybe you’d like to dive into pedagogical innovation, especially around how one might incorporate archival research into undergraduate classes (even gateway classes).  In that case, look out for Archival Expeditions, a Duke Libraries program that gives humanities PhD students the opportunity, in partnership with a faculty member, to develop an archivally-based research module or project for an existing Duke undergraduate course.  Collaborative Project Expeditions offers a similar opportunity, though in this case the focus is on building team-based research assignments into existing courses. And check out the summer pedagogical fellowships we have co-created with Durham Technical Community College, around curricular development there.

Or possibly you have been wondering what it’s like to take humanistic expertise into an organization that relies on it to achieve a public-facing mission.  To help you attain that goal, Duke has arranged a wide array of Summer 2021 PhD internships hosted by units across the university or external organizations.  Many of our hosts – Duke University Press, the Nasher Art Museum, the Modern Language Association, the National Humanities Center, the Museum of Durham History, and others — are looking for humanities or interpretive social science PhD students.

These internships require 19.9 hours a week.  That means that that they leave significant time to read, research, and write. They also will give you the chance to balance a complex set of obligations and opportunities (internship responsibilities, and tasks for your ongoing study and research), which is a crucial skill for any eventual career, whether as a scholar-teacher, or in a non-academic setting.

There is a new feature for PhD students undertaking internships this summer.  We have created a companion, 1 credit course, taught by Maria Wisdom (“Experiential Learning Workshop,” GS950), to allow those doing internships to hear about the similar experiences of peers, and reflect on the evolution of their research interests and career aspirations (whether focused on academic positions or other fields). And for PhD students looking to think through key transitions in their training along with peers, Wisdom will be offering a limited number of summer coaching groups, starting in June.

Beyond the upcoming summer, I also want to draw your attention to important opportunities for sustained interdisciplinary engagement during the academic year. One significant conduit is our Humanities Labs (some based at FHI, like the From Slavery to Freedom Lab, some rooted in departments as a result of our Humanities Unbounded Mellon grant, like the Ethnography Workshop in Cultural Anthropology and the Visualizing Cities Lab in Art, Art History & Visual Studies).  You can explore these opportunities even if they aren’t affiliated with your department.

The Bass Connections program offers another significant avenue for exposure to collaborative, interdisciplinary research, as well as the chance to work with faculty and mentor undergraduate students. Many of these year-long research teams have a humanistic focus or dimension.  Examples for 2021-22 include:

If one of these teams interests you, reach out to a faculty lead to find out more.

Thinking through all of these options requires some time and opportunity for reflection about where you find yourself in your grad school trajectory, and how you are thinking about intellectual pathways and career aspirations.  Amid the current pandemic environment, that time can be in short supply.  But I would encourage all Duke humanities and interpretive social science PhD students to step back in the next week or two and think about which of these opportunities make most sense for them.

If additional information would be helpful, do not hesitate to reach out program contacts. If you’d like to get feedback on your ideas, it’s always worthwhile to consult multiple sounding boards.  Faculty members with whom you already have good rapport and your DGS are crucial ports of call.  But this could also be a good moment to broaden your mentoring network, whether with other professors and PhD students (inside or beyond your program), Duke’s excellent staff (at The Graduate School, one of our interdisciplinary institutes, or the Libraries), or Duke alumni who have indicated a willingness to engage with Duke PhD students.  Maria Wisdom is also available for 1:1 advising.

One challenge here is that you almost certainly won’t find consensus about what choices make the most sense for you, given where you are, where you would like to go, and what long-term destinations are feasible.  As you consider your options, keep in mind that for a great many humanities PhD students, the ability to engage deeply with something beyond the dissertation helps keep them socially connected, while generating new ideas and skills that infuse their own research in unexpected ways, and clarifying intellectual and career ambitions.

I’ll end on a perhaps obvious but crucial point. As you make plans for this summer and the upcoming year, you of course have to negotiate program requirements and explain your thinking and priorities.  But no one else is going to build and refine your intellectual path, nor make eventual career decisions, but you.

I invite you to take a good look around the university, and make the most of Duke!