The Humanities Expedition and Lab: graduate students exploring the wide landscape of innovation in the humanities

Written by
Wright Seneres
James Van Wyck, GradFUTURES
Sept. 29, 2022

Lucy Partman *21, stood up in front of a group of nine incoming Princeton graduate students. Partman handed out the week’s itinerary, the book Unflattening, a folder full of reading, and gave them a challenge: broaden the way you think about your graduate education and your career. These nine Princeton graduate students were the inaugural participants in the Humanities Expedition and Lab in New York City, hosted by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council and the GradFUTURES professional development team in the Graduate School. 

The program exposes graduate students–before they even start coursework–to the myriad ways that a graduate degree in the humanities and social sciences can have an impact in the academy and beyond. Over the coming years, the aim is that the grad students who participate in this program will continue to be involved in the growing community of innovation and entrepreneurship in the graduate student population on campus. Partman relished the chance to lead the cohort, noting that "all graduate students and Ph.D.s can be agents of innovation, change, and leadership in the world.”

James M. Van Wyck, assistant dean for professional development in the Graduate School, said “the future of the Ph.D. and of graduate education will see more groups of interdisciplinary teams working on grand challenges, and it is key that we connect with humanities graduate students as they begin their training to facilitate connections that will expand the reach and impact of their research, as well as augment, complement and extend the new knowledge others are creating in other disciplines.”

During an action-packed week in August, the graduate students criss-crossed the city, speaking to Princeton grad alumni and others doing innovative work that leverages humanities training. For example, the group met with Roy Swan '86, and Margot Brandenburg *06 of the Ford Foundation’s Mission Investments team, which is responsible for approximately $1.3 billion in capital deployed to advance social justice. The conversation lasted well over an hour and touched on ways that the Ford Foundation’s funding has an impact on pressing social issues. 

“Being able to meet people who work beyond academia in all sorts of spaces, from foundations like the Ford Foundation to startups like Headway, has been quite eye-opening,” said Tom Abi Samra, doctoral student in the Near Eastern Studies department. 

One theme that emerged during the week was the need to rethink the boundaries between academia and the rest of the world, highlighted in the conversations with graduate alumni. For example, the group’s open conversation with former Trustee Ann Kirschner *78 centered on her leadership experiences, the future of work, and her ideas about higher education and graduate studies in the 21st century. 

“The walls between the university and the outside world are getting more porous all the time,” Kirschner pointed out, and she added “I for one do not see that as a negative, but as a positive. I believe in the university’s power to help address society’s greatest needs and greatest challenges.” Facilitated by Partman, that free-ranging conversation seeded further discussion among the group throughout the week.

“This past week has already changed how I understand my program. I actually just did my course enrollment this morning and the way that I was going about choosing classes was so different than it would have been if I hadn’t had this week of broadening my perspective about graduate school and opportunities after Princeton,” said Sofia Tong, a doctoral student in the English department. 

The week included discussions at the Modern Language Association, the American Institute of Architects and the Morgan Library. There were also discussions with Mark de Groh *08, an expert on sustainability and smart cities who encouraged them to create a ‘personal board of advisors’, and Headway, a mental health startup. And the students were treated to a dinner with Princeton Professor of the Practice Derek Lidow '73, who spoke about his book which is soon to be released called The Entrepreneurs: The Relentless Quest for Value.

Princeton Entrepreneurship Council (PEC) and GradFUTURES organized the Humanities Expedition and Lab as part of an ongoing collaboration to support and increase innovation and entrepreneurship in the arts and humanities at Princeton. 

“I consistently hear undergraduate students returning from TigerTreks they organized to Silicon Valley, New York and Tel Aviv, say that the discussions they had were among the most meaningful of their undergraduate experience, and that the bonds they formed were life-changing.  When imagining how we could give graduate students a view into the huge array of options that are open to them, I thought that we could adapt the TigerTrek idea.” said Anne-Marie Maman '84, PEC executive director. 

“This week allowed us to envision the many career paths that are open to us after Princeton. It was an amazing opportunity to talk and connect with people,” said Foivos Geralis, Ph.D. student in Architecture. “Thank you for funding this opportunity to be here!” 

PEC and GradFUTURES intentionally sought graduate students from a range of academic departments and backgrounds, for diversity of thought and experiences, and will continue to do so for future cohorts. “These past five days have been very relevant for me because I just finished my undergraduate studies. This is my first time being surrounded by graduate students and other academics,” said Esther Ishimwe, a master’s degree student in the School of Architecture. By contrast, Bobby Ge, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Music, said, “It’s been a long time, for me, since I was able to be in the exciting intellectual discourse informed by people from all sorts of fields.”

The challenge, to consider the campus as a laboratory where they create a space and time for thinking, observing, experimenting, practicing, and learning, started off as a success. To sustain their community, the graduate students of the Humanities Expedition and Lab will continue to meet throughout the year.  

For more information about the Humanities Expedition and Lab, contact Anne-Marie Maman or James M. Van Wyck.

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