Chapter 3 – Expanding Definitions of Scholarly Success


Katina Rogers begins chapter three of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work by considering what it means to be “successful” in terms of research and career outcomes in humanities fields. Particularly in our current moment, where the values of the humanities are constantly being redefined and renegotiated, this chapter comes as a necessary remark on what it means to be “doing” humanities. Rogers asks humanities practitioners to consider what their work contributes to public good as well as the ways in which doing this work publicly is crucial for opening up academia to inclusivity. 

Rogers rightly points out that “the perceived isolation of the university has contributed to a nationwide mistrust of knowledge and expertise, with a growing sense that the deeper a person dives into specialized knowledge, the further removed they become from the realities of everyday Americans” (58). Certainly, and especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have witnessed time and again as humanities departments continue to shrink. As funding is cut from research that seldom makes its way to public audiences. By turning the work of humanities practitioners outward towards the public sphere, not only is the highly specialized knowledge of the humanities PhD opened up to non-experts, but humanities practitioners themselves are asked to consider what impact their work has on a wider public. The tools of the trade—namely close reading and archival research—are endlessly generative, but it is only when those tools are applied to questions of public interest that they become, as Rogers puts it, “demystified” (59). Of equal importance is the need for humanities practitioners to consider the crucial skill of translation in the dissemination of their work. Writing for a nonspecialist audience in a way that is easily understood and inspires further discussion should be at the core of humanistic scholarship. 

Ultimately, Rogers argues for a humanities that is loosened of “the conservative nature of the university” and given the space to expand beyond the academic ivory tower which is so frequently bound up in ideas of whiteness and elitism. In order to do so, however, a necessary shift must be made in the overall “look” of humanities scholarship. This shift means that research projects may exist in digital spaces and other non-monographic formats which promote the contribution of humanities-born insights to public discourse. Some of these insights include the ways in which literary texts from other times can open up conversations about our current moment, or the ways in which humanistic approaches encourage people to renegotiate how they navigate the world. It is crucial that these non-traditionally formatted projects also be included in considerations of promotion within the academic workplace, as well as classification of dissertation work. Finally, Rogers argues that humanities work must become clearly visible in the public sphere. Although public engagement with work-in-progress research may be intimidating, allowing others to witness what humanities work looks like, as it is happening, builds a sense of community and understanding. In doing so, the sustainability and impact of departmental endeavours becomes more easily understood and validated by readers who may be more inclined to browse a website or forum than to pick up a monograph on the same subject.

Rogers’ suggestions for moving the work of humanities practitioners out into public attention comes at a critical moment—particularly for graduate students considering how to navigate what is becoming an increasingly shrunken job market. By turning the elitism of the academic world outwards for public consumption, the work of the humanities—the study of what it is to be human—might reach more of the subjects at the center of this very work. This chapter should be essential reading for any and all humanities practitioners, offering insightful, smart, and even hopeful suggestions for all who have felt themselves hit a wall or see the impact rapidly approaching.

Peer Reviewer: Salwa Kazi