Teaching Ph.D.'s How to Reach Out

Brian Taylor

May 06, 2012

The legendary historian Charles A. Beard once said that to earn a master's degree you study one coal mine, and to earn a Ph.D. you study two. As a metaphor for the dangers of scholarly specialization, Beard's phrase resonates even more profoundly today: Coal mines are narrow, dark, and deep.

Ph.D.'s have to dig deep to advance knowledge, particularly if they're following veins that many miners have ventured down before. But the value of what they find will be limited if it stays in the mine. No matter how specialized their work, Ph.D.'s need to get out of the tunnel sometimes.

Marc Aronson, a lecturer in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University at New Brunswick and a historian who writes books for young adults, recently suggested that all Ph.D. candidates be required to take a course he calls "Communications." The goal, Aronson explained on his blog, would be to teach Ph.D.'s—both would-be academics and those who will pursue other work—how to talk about what they do to a variety of public audiences.

"Public" is the keyword there. In last month's column, I suggested that we think about the keyword "placement" as a way of understanding a large chunk of the graduate-school-industrial complex. "Public" has the same resonance. If higher education is to get out of the trouble that it's in with legislators, with the general public, and—let's face it—with many present and former graduate students, too, we need to conceive of the doctorate in a more public way.

That means a more outward-looking orientation. Aronson is not suggesting that particle physicists should blog, or that every anthropologist needs to be trained to write for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. That's actually a very narrow definition of "public" that just reassigns the need to publish. Instead, he argues that graduate students need to learn to think about—and talk about—their work outside of their narrow audience of specialists. They need to get out of the habit of imagining the intellectual universe as limited to the coal miners working right next to them.

A Ph.D. communications course might bring together students from across a university. Together, they would explore disciplinary and interdisciplinary literacy in their different fields. The instructor might bring in such speakers as a documentary producer, a museum curator, or a book publisher. Those professionals would talk about the needs of their diverse audiences, and how a specialist might respond to them.

The case of the publisher who focuses on books for younger readers is worth dwelling on for a moment because it points to the elementary- and secondary-school audience that academics mostly don't acknowledge. Professors should spend a lot more time thinking about the K-12 curriculum than we do. What other industry shows so little concern for its main supplier? The current debate over the Common Core State Standards in schools, for example, affects nearly all of us. (The Common Core Standards are law in 45 states, and require that elementary- and secondary-school teachers focus on teaching specific content and skills to tomorrow's college students.) National town-gown relations could only improve if academics—including graduate students—got more practice talking with schoolteachers who have to work within that framework.

Students in a Ph.D. communications course, Aronson told me, might be asked to develop a proposal for "a presentation to any nonspecialized audience that takes your work outside of itself."

I see two immediate values to such an exercise. First, it teaches teaching. Graduate students who go on to professorships would hone the ability to present their work to audiences not unlike the undergraduate classes they will teach. A glance at the job postings in any academic discipline makes clear that most college teaching takes place at the general level, with specialized upper-division courses more the exception than the rule.

But would-be professors aren't the only Ph.D.'s who should learn to teach in that way. Those who work outside the academy would get valuable practice dealing with nonspecialized groups of the sort they will encounter regularly in the workplace.

Learning how to successfully reach multiple audiences isn't only a skill. It's also a way of looking at the world that enables you to see alternatives to specialization. It's a habit of thinking that provides a necessary counterweight to the default tendency of losing yourself in a narrow field of knowledge.

Ph.D.'s have to do specialized work, and they should. "Public Ph.D.'s" are simply scholars who see the work that they do in terms of its propagation as well as its contribution to a specialty or subspecialty. By thinking about how to communicate knowledge at the same time they create it, they turn their creative powers outward.

What that will look like will depend on the scholar and the nature of his or her work. A program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison called the Public Humanities Exchange (or "HEX") offers an admirable example of what I mean. A living legacy of the progressive-era idea that the university should serve the whole state, the HEX program sponsors local projects—often involving graduate students—that take the university outside of its own walls. In one continuing project, two graduate students, Colleen Lucey (in Slavic languages and literature) and Janelle Pulczinski (comparative literature), seek to create a "literary environment" for recently released prisoners through reading and creative-writing groups.

Such work does not amount simply to community service. Tracy Lemaster, a graduate student in English at Madison, extended her dissertation work in the interdisciplinary field of "girls' studies" (which focuses on girlhood as distinct from childhood and womanhood) by working with actual girls under the HEX aegis. "While researching this field throughout my graduate career, I began to feel removed from the subjects within it," Lemaster wrote in an e-mail, and she questioned the "practical applications" of the theoretical work she was doing. So a few years ago she created a media-literacy program for girls that she tested with some 13- and 14-year-olds at a local organization. "It was fascinating," said Lemaster, "to observe how real girls' feedback could support, nuance, or even contradict adults' theories of girlhood subjectivity in the field."

There are lots of other possibilities. A physicist might take special pride—as the Nobel Prize-winner Richard Feynman once did—in teaching the introductory undergraduate course in the field. Or an academic historian might write a young-adult version of a scholarly monograph, as Scott Reynolds Nelson did about his work locating the real "John Henry" memorialized in the old labor song. An English professor might offer her expertise to her local "Big Read," a government project in which members of a community come together as one big book group.

Much scholarship is bound to be specialized, and a communications course for Ph.D.'s does not change that fact. It does bid to change the way that we ought to look at our specialized work. The compartmentalization of inquiry surely makes our scholarship more efficient, but we shouldn't overlook the ideological effects of our bureaucracies. The growing group that resents the cost of graduate education surely does not.

It's worth something in itself to reach out to nonspecialized audiences, but it also doesn't hurt to be friendlier to the public that feeds us.

Let's train our students to advance knowledge and to talk about what they're doing at the same time. There's plenty at stake. We imperil our whole industry if we allow a life of the mind to become a life in the mine.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at