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The Old Well as seen in the afternoon sunlight on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. March 29, 2016 (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of 28 universities taking part in a major national initiative to transform graduate education in the humanities.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the initiative looks beyond “the academic-focused future we’re accustomed to training graduate students for,” said NEH Chairman William D. Adams in a statement released Thursday. “If graduate programs wish to make a case for the continuation of graduate education in the humanities, they’re going to have to think about the professional futures of their students in entirely different ways.”

Institute for the Arts and Humanities Director Mark Katz worked with colleagues from across the university to propose “Re-envisioning the Humanities PhD,” a year-long campus-wide conversation on graduate education in the humanities, which will be funded by a $25,000 NEH planning grant and matched by UNC. “Our intention is that this initiative will lead to far-reaching and much-needed change, and in the process offer a national model of creative, collaborative reform,” Katz said.

The project is organized around four main themes, each of which will be explored by committees of faculty, administrators, graduate students, and alumni:

Careers. Graduate programs in the humanities have traditionally trained students solely for university professorships. This committee will investigate the wide range of career options for which humanities PhDs are qualified. According to IAH Coordinator for Faculty Programs Philip Hollingsworth, a member of the core committee that will oversee the project, “The grant will provide future graduate students better professionalization and make them much more desirable candidates in the academic, alternative academic, and non-academic job markets.”

Collaboration. In conjunction with broader efforts to “de-silo” the university and academia in general, this committee will explore ways to promote collaboration in the humanities, including co-authored publications, team-based research and teaching, and partnership with disciplines outside the humanities. UNC science and health affairs faculty and graduate students will join the conversation.

Curriculum and Dissertation. What should humanities PhD programs teach? What is the purpose of a dissertation? This committee will ask these simple but challenging questions with an eye towards discovering what works in traditional approaches to graduate education in the humanities, what does not, and how we might improve the way we instruct and evaluate graduate students.

Data. Working with UNC’s Odum Institute, a renowned center for social science research, this committee will collect and analyze data on the state of graduate education in the humanities at UNC. This work will result in a much clearer perspective on the success and shortcomings of UNC’s graduate programs, and will assist humanities departments in creating clear and comprehensive information on career placement to post on their departmental websites.

The grant UNC received is designed to help universities plan large-scale initiatives to transform scholarly preparation in the humanities at the doctoral level. As Katz explains, “We will accomplish a great deal this coming year, but we also expect that this work will only be the beginning of something truly transformative at UNC.”

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.


The Institute for the Arts and Humanities is a unit of the College of Arts and Sciences and serves as UNC’s faculty home for interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration. Its mission is to help the university recruit, refresh, develop, and retain a world-class faculty of scholars and teachers. At the heart of this mission is the affirmation of the crucial value of the arts and humanities to the life of the university and the world.

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