The model for graduate-level humanities studies needs to be reformed, according to Dr. Leonard Cassuto. Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University, spoke to the Brandeis community on Sept. 23 about his research centered around “Rethinking the Humanities in Trying Times.” 

In his presentation, Cassuto discussed how to “rethink” graduate-level programs in the humanities, both in terms of education curriculum and career-readiness. He said that the current model for this type of education has not changed much throughout the last few decades, leaving the structure outdated. At the start of the 20th century, Cassuto explained, investments in higher education from national foundations paved the way for research opportunities among university professors. However, as institutions of higher education merged into research institutions, the expectation for graduate students changed. Since then, graduate-level humanities students have been trained with the expectation that they too will become research professors, Cassuto said, despite them now having limited opportunities to do so.

These expectations were seen most dramatically in the 1980s during the Cold War. Throughout this decade, the U.S. government began to reorganize its education priorities, Cassuto said. He explained that this included an increase in government funding of universities, which in turn lessened the cost of higher education so more students could enroll in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Moreover, federal initiatives such as the GI Bill, the Education Act and federally guaranteed student loans also helped more students to enroll. The significant increase in the university student population, coupled with the need for more researchers, created a scenario where there were abundant “research-intensive” faculty openings across the country, Cassuto explained.

“If you could finish a Ph.D., there were jobs for everybody because the sector was expanding so fast,” Cassuto said about this time period. “Unfortunately, it created a new sense of the normal during a period that was anomalous.” He explained that departments used to admit hundreds of graduate students, which also meant that professors could teach courses in a vast number of subjects, but this is no longer the case necessarily. Despite there not being enough students or faculty to support this system today, the old structure of humanities education persists. “The assumptions that we take for granted in our workplace were forged during this time,” Cassuto explained.

Cassuto metaphorized the traditional style of graduate-level education as a version of the “pot roast principle,” which says that a long line of family members may cook a pot roast the same way to keep tradition going, without realizing that the original reason for the tradition is no longer relevant. In terms of graduate school, Cassuto said that educators need to think about the reason for this traditional program style, and then they will realize that it’s outdated.

In the current workforce climate –– today and even over the past 40 years –– Cassuto said, there is an employment problem facing the humanities departments. He explained that the reason behind this issue is the outdated structure of graduate school. With a curriculum that remains steadfast in teaching and training students to become research professors and that overlooks other possible career paths, graduate-level education is in need of restructuring, Cassuto said, adding that the current humanities curriculum “lacks academic freedom and a defined career path.”

First, the current model of graduate school is long and difficult, and not every student completes their education or can expect to find a job afterward. Cassuto explained that in a cohort of eight graduate students, only four will finish their doctorate, and only two of those four can expect a full-time teaching job. And only one, if any, of those students can expect a job at a research-intensive institution, yet it is that one person of the cohort that the curriculum is geared toward, Cassuto said. He continued, “We teach grad students to covet the research-intensive jobs, disdain the teaching-intensive jobs, and at the prospect of getting neither one, we teach them to feel like failures.”

The humanities program needs to be rethought in terms of the current student demographic and employment opportunities, Cassuto said. He explained, for instance, that smaller cohorts of graduate students have a need for collaboration with multiple advisors, directors and mentors, as opposed to the usual one-on-one interactions between a student and their sole advisor –– “Today’s graduate advising takes a village.” Moreover, Cassuto said that the educative approach must be “student centered [and] career diverse,” as well as “public facing” with social engagement. Included in this idea, Cassuto added, is that the graduate student population should also be reflective of the country as a whole, with more inclusion of underrepresented groups.

This student-centered approach is crucial to rethinking graduate-level humanities programs, Cassuto said. “There’s always been a tension in American higher ed between the universities’ quest for knowledge and the colleges’ goal of educating people,” he said, adding that while this tension may have been productive once, this is no longer the case. Cassuto explained that this is because academia and the workplace are changing, and that when an academic job market returns, it will look much different.

“We need to change our workplace, or else, it’s going to change for us,” Cassuto said. “If we do the changing, there’s a chance that what will result will be something that we can understand as improvement.”