tendency or bent of the mind” (Oxford English Dictionary). It is also the “
arrangement, order; relative position of the parts or elements of a whole.”
I suggest it is possible to change what seems like the natural bent of the
minds of people by changing their position relative to other people and
other elements in the world. It is possible for PhD students to develop
a high degree of “dispositional mobility,” a capacity to move effectually
among different fields of activity, by cultivating their public skills – not
only archival skills operating within a limited historical range but archival skills able to illuminate matters of present-day public concern; not
only the ability to write academic prose for a small circle of expert readers
but also the ability to write in different styles for different readerships;
not only the ability to teach at a university but also the ability to teach
fellow workers, senior citizens or high school students.
The cultivation of public skills and dispositional mobility among PhD
students will call upon humanities faculty to change their practices as
well as the academic culture they live in and that lives inside them. Among
other things, the add-on skills-training programs across the country seem
designed to remain well out of the way of faculty and their traditional
practices. It is time now for humanities faculty to take a leading part in
public skills training, in the reorientation of the humanities toward the
world, and in the opening of PhD programs so that they lead and are seen
to lead to a multiplicity of career pathways rather than to only one.
Future of the humanities
Ironically enough, my work on the PhD started with a new program of
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, called Knowledge
Synthesis Grants: Skills Development for Future Needs of the Canadian
Labour Market. In the spring of 2012, my colleague Leigh Yetter and I recruited a team of talented people from Canada and the United States. The
project pulled together theoretical and practical knowledge on graduate
humanities education, including all the statistics we could find about PhD
recruitment, time to completion, non-completion and placement.
We argued that it is impossible to achieve anything like a respectable
academic placement rate. But we didn’t recommend cutting enrolment
numbers or cutting programs; instead we recommended changing the programs so that they become innovative,interdisciplinary and outward looking.
Although I didn’t have the phrases “public skills” or “dispositional mobility” at hand when I was drafting the white paper, those ideas were key to
the reforms for which we advocated.
Over the past year, the white paper has aroused much discussion
across the country. We organized a three-hour “Future of the PhD” workshop for 160 participants at the annual meeting of CAGS in St. John’s in
October 2014. Now we are working with colleagues at some 25 universities across the country. Each university is developing its own approach;
each will contribute a vision document, a program proposal, or a record of
discussions to a national conversation on humanities graduate education.
The present phase of work will culminate with a conference, “Future
Humanities: Transforming Graduate Studies for the Future of Canada,”
to take place at McGill on May 21 and 22 of this year. We are looking
forward to the development of new programs and policies, to the start
of a large-scale shift in the culture of the academy, and to an improved
attitude toward the humanities PhD in business, government and media,
and among ordinary Canadians. We seek to sponsor a new generation of
publicly skilled humanities PhDs who are able to work inside and outside
the academy, who can carry top-level humanities research and teaching
into many other fields of practice, and who will work with great dispositional mobility for the future of Canada.
Paul Yachnin is director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas and the Tomlinson
Professor of Shakespeare Studies at McGill University.
“The shift to the world outside the academy
can amount to a protracted period of harrowing
deracination and readjustment.”