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Lambier used to start approaching arts groups in London as partners.
Today, Mr. Lambier is program director for the initiative, which
counts about a dozen program coordinators from disciplines as diverse
as sociology, anthropology, music and medicine. The program’s flagship
projects include a speaker series, a literary and creativity festival called
Words, a campus-community partnership called Engage Western, and
Stories of Illness and Health, an initiative involving Western, the London Public Library and the London Health Sciences Centre to collect and
share personal stories of living with illness. Since its inception, Public
Humanities Western has engaged with 90 local groups and boosted
the university’s profile in the community, even though students receive no
official credit for their involvement to apply against degree requirements.
This lack of recognition is a far cry from the situation in the U.S.,
where students can earn master’s degrees in public humanities at Brown
University and Yale University, or a PhD in public humanities at the University of Washington. Imagining America, an umbrella organization
dedicated to “advancing the public and civic purposes of humanities,” is
supported by more than 90 institutions.
Roberta Cauchi-Santoro followed up a traditional PhD in comparative literature with a two-year Mitacs-funded postdoc that fits the public
humanities profile. She echoes both Ms. Whillans and Mr. Lambier in
thier desire for more official support of the field. “I think this kind of
project should not be undertaken by a postdoc totally independently on
their own initiative, but should be arranged by core faculty members who
actually come up with projects and then give the PhD students, even in
their first and second year, the opportunity to carry out some parts of the
research,” says Dr. Cauchi-Santoro. For her own project, she looked at 35
buildings in downtown London, Ontario (many slated for demolition),
and interviewed locals about them. The project allowed her to make valuable community connections, she says.
For Mr. Lambier, the enthusiasm his work received from the local
community was not always matched by faculty at Western. “I got a much
more mixed reaction,” he says. “There were some immediate champions,
“The majority were either suspicious
or lukewarm. They’d ask: ‘Why would
you want to do this? Where does this
fit into your PhD?”
but I think the majority were either suspicious or lukewarm. They’d ask:
‘Why would you want to do this? Where does this fit into your PhD?’”
Controversies about changing the PhD go beyond the field of pub-
lic humanities. How about making the degree more interdisciplinary?
Many critics see this as a threat to traditional departmental silos. Or more
coursework-based degrees? Some consider them a useful grounding in a
discipline’s language and methodologies, while others argue the option
repeats much of what’s covered in the master’s degree and lacks consis-
tency. And what of comprehensive exams and the PhD’s crowning glory,
the dissertation? While their purpose and relevance have been questioned
(particularly in light of lengthy completion times), most are wary of any
change for fear of diminishing their rigour.
For dissertation defenders, Félix Grenier might be considered a blasphemer. A doctoral candidate in political studies at the University of
Ottawa, he points to the gradual disappearance of the purely research-focused social sciences master’s degree in favour of the coursework-stream
master’s as a marker of things to come. “I see it coming at the PhD level.
You will see it in maybe 10, 15, 20 years,” he says.
Mr. Grenier’s dissertation explores the sociology of knowledge in international relations through graduate education programs. At a recent
roundtable discussion with representatives from international studies
programs, he learned that these programs, which currently offer mostly
master’s degrees, are looking to develop doctoral streams. In a field that
already values applied work, the challenge is to create a program that
would prepare students equally for positions in non-governmental organizations and government as for pure research. Mr. Grenier’s most controversial idea for making a hands-on PhD a reality is to have students
select either a research track or an applied track for their doctoral degree,
much like they already do at the master’s level.
“A program should help them decide very quickly, in the first six months,
what they want to do,” Mr. Grenier says. Researchers who aspire to the
tenure track would pursue a traditional dissertation whereas those inclined
towards non-academic jobs could select applied components like intern-