Students contribute to cultural shift

Jul 10th, 2015

Janet Harron

Students contribute to cultural shift

It’s not a secret that getting a PhD is no guarantee of a tenured, academic position. And in the case of humanities PhDs, the statistics are even more troubling with only a small percentage of newly-minted Canadian doctorates achieving permanent academic employment.

But in an increasingly complex world, the skill sets of humanities PhDs are, quite simply, in high demand.

“The humanities foster understanding across lines of national, ethnic, racial and gender differences, which is an urgent requirement in an increasingly global world,” said Dr. Noreen Golfman, provost and vice-president (academic).

One need look no further than the recent advances of the LGBTQ community for an area where critical humanities work focused on values, justice, and principles of human dignity has been foundational.

Recently, Dr. Golfman’s office provided funding for Memorial graduate students Jon Parsons, Laura Moncion, Emma Lang and Stephen Jackson to attend Future Humanities: Transforming Graduate Students for the Future of Canada, a conference hosted by McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) on May 21 and 22, 2015.

Memorial’s students and faculty participated alongside representatives from 20 other universities looking at how to reform and strengthen graduate humanities education. The Memorial group stood out for their original submission to the conference – a PhZine that includes a manifesto for change.

History student Emma Lang was among those that participated in the student-led plenary session that kicked off the conference.

“It was amazing to get to sit and just talk to other students from all across the country… We choose to prioritize the need for more transparency on every level of graduate studies and university life and the need for more engagement with people beyond the university and the flexibility in programs to allow for that engagement,” said Ms. Lang who moved from the U.S. to study with Dr. Sean Cadigan.

Part of the discussions centred around flexibility in evaluating the need to reconceive of what counts for academic work, including work in media, with social groups and alongside community services.  There was a consensus that the traditional model of the dissertation needs to be opened up to possible alternatives.

The role of the PhD as being publicly relevant and used for the public good was a big focus of the conference.

Ms. Lang, Ms Moncion, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Jackson were hand chosen for the conference because they are all embodying this change by their active work in the public realm. They live by what they think and research what they are committed to, be it social activism and justice, education, and the role of museums.

Dr. Danine Farquharson, who accompanied the students to the conference, recognizes that the culture of humanities graduate programs is slow to change but that doesn’t mean change can’t happen.

She suggests that best practices guidelines could be implemented by all departments in the Faculty of Arts committed to transparency and accountability.

“A cultural shift is underway,” said Dr. Farquharson. “We need to stop thinking of the humanities PhD as a closed system that only serves to train qualified people as academics. But that shift needs some swift action and continuing work and discussion.”

Jon Parsons’ dissertation is on protest and resistance in Newfoundland and Labrador culture. A PhD student in English, he works with the Social Justice Co-operative NL and the East Coast Fracking Awareness Group and writes for the His concrete take-away from the conference?

“For any academic work I produce, I will try to provide 500 words for the pubic sphere that is relevant to public discourse and public life.”

It’s students like Jon Parsons and his colleagues who are leading the charge for our province’s future.  Hopefully, the momentum they have created regarding changes to the PhD will continue to gain strength in the near future.