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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Disciplinary Action

For the love of the humanities

Andrew Torry

For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities

Loleen Berdahl, Jonathan Malloy, and Lisa Young

University of Alberta Press

312 pages, softcover and ebook

A widespread notion persists that university graduates in the social sciences and humanities face bleak employment prospects. This belief does contain a grain of truth: in a 2018 report, the Conference Board of Canada found that liberal arts graduates, more than graduates from any other discipline, encounter challenges when entering the workforce. In the early years after convocation, they may find themselves in roles that don’t make good use of their skills or qualifications. But over the long term — typically within a decade — these same graduates tend to thrive in a range of rewarding careers, including in education, law, finance, management, and arts and culture. The Conference Board report recommended that social sciences and humanities departments improve their efforts to prepare liberal arts students for employment, to ease the transition to the labour market.

In For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, the political scientists Loleen Berdahl, Jonathan Malloy, and Lisa Young make a similar call for change, though they focus on those pursuing advanced degrees. Most liberal arts doctoral students, they write, embark on their studies with aspirations of securing tenure-track positions. Unfortunately, many who do eventually earn doctorates work tirelessly as contingent sessional instructors, with low pay, few if any benefits, and limited job security, with little hope of attaining the coveted professorships they once envisioned.

While the authors are deeply concerned about the current employment outcomes of liberal arts graduate students, they also see opportunity: “We believe arts graduate education is uniquely positioned to be reimagined to advance Canada’s public good by producing graduates who are able to apply advanced skills to address Canada’s most vexing human-based problems and challenges.” For Berdahl, Malloy, and Young, the public good is “a state of improved societal well-being,” and actions taken in its name benefit all of us.

The book identifies three targets for urgent action: the “wicked problems” imperative, subsuming such complex issues as climate change, disinformation, and threats to democracy; the “equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization” imperative; and the “talent” imperative, which underscores the need for skilled workers to address the first two.

Berdahl, Malloy, and Young are persuasive on the role arts graduates can play in addressing Canada’s wicked problems, which require “an understanding of how social, environmental, and economic issues depend upon and are informed by human behaviours, systems, and institutions.” They argue, as others have before them, that the social sciences and humanities have much to offer: “Humans and human societies are extraordinarily complicated. The arts disciplines are all about exploring and explaining those complications.” Thus arts graduate programs — designed to complement and challenge the sciences —“have the potential to advance Canada’s public good by embracing the complexity, irrationality, and messiness of human societies and their problems.”

This potential for exploring and explaining complicated human behaviours can also be applied to the EDID imperative, the authors claim. Fair enough. But while Berdahl, Malloy, and Young provide a comprehensive description of EDID as a complex issue, they fall short in showing why it deserves recognition as a distinct imperative, rather than being merely one more wicked problem. What distinguishes it to warrant special attention? The authors hint at an answer with a single sentence: “Wicked problems affect groups differently, depending on their social location, so their solutions must take into account questions of equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization.” This may be true, yet a more thorough explanation would greatly benefit readers — particularly those skeptical or even critical of the EDID framework. The lack of adequate reasoning leaves the decision to single out EDID feeling arbitrary and contrived.

The authors are more successful at outlining the talent imperative: the need for social sciences and humanities departments to better equip their graduate students with employable skills. As the economy continues to adopt automation and artificial intelligence, competency in what the authors call human literacy becomes even more valuable. “Human literacy” is essentially an academic term for what most people think of as “soft skills,” including effective communication, leadership, relationship building, problem solving, and ethical conduct. As the authors note, a computer can model our wicked problems, but it takes humans to devise and implement solutions.

For the Public Good also delves into the intricate web of systemic forces responsible for the difficulties faced by graduate students in the social sciences and the humanities. Their analysis presents a complex network of funding mechanisms that, for decades, have prioritized enrolment expansion, resulting in an oversupply of doctorates relative to available academic positions. In addition, various actors — individual faculty members, university administrators, policy makers, and funding agencies — are in their own ways complicit in the exploitation of graduate students and resistant to change. Many graduate students struggle with mental health challenges during their studies, and close to half drop out of their programs. The authors paint a sombre picture, highlighting the urgent need for change if liberal arts departments are to have a hope of staying relevant in the face of enrolments that are now stagnating.

Nearly half the book is dedicated to charting a transformative course for liberal arts departments through a so‑called EDITS framework (efficient, deliberate, inclusive, talent developing, and student focused). The authors’ robust and detailed plan would take years to implement fully, and, to their credit, they acknowledge the complexity of the university system and the many forces that will almost certainly resist change. They outline their path for renewal with those complications in mind, suggesting that liberal arts departments need not completely transform overnight. Incremental improvement year after year would be far superior to the status quo.

In some respects, this is a surprisingly practical book. Berdahl, Malloy, and Young have included several helpful tools, such as a rubric with which departments can assess their graduate programs, a comprehensive list of steps that various participants can take to initiate change at various administrative levels, and a set of detailed guidelines for graduate-level supervisors to implement the EDITS system with their individual students. Faculty members, administrators, and even grad students themselves will find these things useful for taking their first steps toward improvements.

If For the Public Good can provide the impetus for social sciences and humanities departments to refine their graduate studies programs, the career outcomes for tens of thousands of grad students will be the better for it. That alone would move the needle on Canada’s public good problem.

Andrew Torry works as a curriculum designer for the City of Calgary.