Lessons from the short-lived Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. program.

Todd Butler.

In 2016, Todd Butler, an English professor at Washington State University, joined a committee charged with exploring changes in graduate education. At first, the group’s planning sessions felt typical: the slow consensus-building, the circling conversations. But then something shifted. “Two months into our planning process, the dean of the grad school said to all of us who were assembled there, ‘Are we just going to talk about doing something, or are we going to do it?’” Butler perked up: “I was not interested in writing another internal white paper that would get read, be appreciated, and stall out somewhere.” He saw the work as vitally important — an opportunity not just to improve graduate education but to articulate the importance of the humanities to a rural, land-grant university like Washington State.

Butler and his colleagues had received a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities under a new grant program called the Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Begun in 2015, its mandate was broad, offering funds for graduate institutions to rethink doctoral education in the humanities. The goal was to focus on what the NEH delicately called “disparities between graduate-student expectations for a career in academe and eventual career outcomes,” and to further the role of the humanities in public life. Colleges could apply for either a planning grant, with the NEH matching an institutional commitment of up to $25,000, or an implementation grant of $350,000, to further efforts already under way. In 2016, the NEH awarded an initial round of grants: 25 planning grants and three implementation grants. Grantees planned to study a host of possible changes in doctoral education: practicum internships, curricular reform, professionalization, changes in academic advising and mentoring, and even new dissertation formats.

And then, in 2017, the program was quietly canceled. What went wrong?

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Chronicle of Higher Education