UGrow stands for Graduate Opportunities at Work, a new initiative at the University of Miami offering yearlong placements for humanities and social science PhD students in nonteaching units on campus, with plans to expand off campus to local museums and other civic and cultural institutions. Instead of their regular teaching or teaching assistantship duties, successful UGrow applicants work part-time in such units as our libraries’ Special Collections and Cuban Heritage Collection, in the communications and advancement offices of the College of Arts and Sciences, in the Center for Computational Science, and in the office of the Graduate School. The program functions as a regular work assignment for our students: their stipends, health insurance, and tuition remission all continue as they would have done if they were TAs or instructors.
Behind the acronym, however, stands our first cohort of UGrow fellows, who we hope will be the first beneficiaries of our efforts to respond to the structural changes in employment patterns for humanities doctoral students. People like Pamela Fuentes Korban, a second-year PhD student in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, originally from Argentina: “I applied to the UGrow fellowship because I wanted to expand my set of skills, to learn more about archival and special collections librarianship. Now as a UGrow fellow in Special Collections, I am working on the development of the cartoneras collection, using my knowledge of Latin American literature and culture to make a meaningful contribution to understanding and cataloguing these materials.” Cristina Favretto, head of Special Collections, enthused, “We in Special Collections are enjoying working with Pamela; her energy, enthusiasm, and desire to learn as much as possible about how the world of archives and rare books work are inspiring. In addition to working with our cartoneras, Pamela has also immersed herself in the day-to-day functioning of the department, helping us research display materials for visiting classes, handling the intricacies of logging in new acquisitions, and she plans to post content about her scholarly research to a variety of social media sites.” At the end of her placement, Pamela will curate an online and on-site exhibit, bringing her library work into the public sphere.
Instead of simply ruing our inability to advise and train students for nonacademic or alt-ac careers, we have made a minor change to our doctoral programs to allow some students to substitute library, communications, and other experience for their regular teaching assistantships.
The program is still small, but we believe it has large-scale implications for doctoral job placement at the University of Miami. It could perhaps be argued that instituting alt-ac training and guidance programs simply accepts and even accommodates the catastrophic elimination of tenure-track academic careers. But surely our current doctoral students deserve every opportunity and all the support we can give them in the current state of the academic job market, and it seems unethical not to try to do better than we have done up to now. We could see this as a belated recognition that not all humanities PhD students want to become professors and that we have not been serving those students well who choose nonacademic or alt-ac careers. Moreover, some students will no doubt take this alt-ac training and make themselves better candidates for tenure-track positions, now with research, teaching, and librarian or archivist skills, for example.
Most immediately and concretely, the UGrow program is providing skills and work experience outside the classroom to students like Brad Rittenhouse, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of English who is writing a dissertation on encyclopedic narrative form in American literature. This year, instead of teaching a first-year composition class, he is working ten to fifteen hours a week at the university’s Center for Computational Science, where he reports that he is “using supercomputers to ‘read’ and analyze all the fiction written in the United States from 1850 to 1875, while getting hands-on experience in big data analysis and high-powered computing.” He is enhancing his own research while contributing to the digital humanities initiative at CCS and the university as a whole.
UGrow came together rapidly during the 2014–15 academic year, because the need to act was so compelling and because we were able to build on long-standing but ad-hoc initiatives at the university. As is common to all humanities PhD programs, some students at the University of Miami were alt-ac long before Jason Rhody and Bethany Nowviskie coined the term in a Twitter conversation in 2009. Our nonacademic and alt-ac alumni include a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Folklife Officer of the Bermuda government’s Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, a staff writer for Ballotpedia, as well as department chairs, deans, and teachers of English at several independent schools around the United States. In the last few years, the Center for the Humanities has run workshops and seminars on alt-ac employment, bringing doctoral alumni back to talk about their career trajectories and offering advice about the nuts and bolts of résumé writing in conjunction with the Toppel Career Center.
It turns out that nonteaching units on campus are keen to host humanities PhD students, who bring the kinds of skills that employers everywhere are looking for: great research and writing skills; the ability to work independently and to initiate new projects; strong communication skills honed in classroom settings as instructors and students. These units compensate the students’ home departments for the teaching labor the students would ordinarily have performed, and departments are happy to reinvest those funds into their graduate programs to support research and teaching.
Most important of all, PhD students themselves enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to diversify their work experience while still making normal progress toward their degrees. At an open house in October 2014 that filled a large classroom to capacity and was bursting with ideas and energy, humanities PhD students made clear their support for alt-ac initiatives of all kinds, but especially for ones that gave them on-the-job training. In a follow-up survey (which had a striking response rate of 59%), almost four out of five humanities PhD students at the University of Miami said they would be likely to apply for yearlong internships at some point in their doctoral programs if they were available.
The students made abundantly clear the scale of the problem and the urgency with which it needed to be addressed. I was rapidly able to get agreements from the chairs of all the humanities departments, plus the Department of International Studies, to allow students to apply for internships instead of teaching, as long as they had the support of their faculty adviser and the director of graduate studies. The deans of the Graduate School and of the College of Arts and Sciences supported the program strongly and offered placement positions of their own. By February, I was able to secure enough promises of placements for 2015–16 to launch the program with its own Web site and a name. Students applied for particular placements by sending a cover letter and a résumé (rather than an academic CV), and we were able to select six students for the first cohort, which began in mid-August 2015.
UGrow is hardly unique: similar programs exist at Penn State University and the University of British Columbia, and arrangements have long existed in departments that house scholarly journals for PhD students to act as editorial assistants and managing editors instead of teaching (as has been the case in our English Department, where students routinely work on Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal and on the James Joyce Literary Supplement). Around the country—as documented on the Connected Academics resources pages—humanities centers, graduate schools, and individual departments are working feverishly, with financial support from the Mellon Foundation and others, to diversify career options for PhD students. Notable alt-ac postdoctoral opportunities include the American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows program; curatorial postdocs funded by the Mellon Foundation at the American Philosophical Society and several other museums and cultural institutions; and the Council on Library and Information Resources postdoctoral fellowship program. UGrow is proud to be a small part of this collective effort to address the problem of humanities PhD employment.