Rocking the Academy

Season 1: #1 - Paula Krebs, Modern Language Association

Episode Summary

In the premiere episode of Rocking the Academy, co-hosts Roopika Risam and Mary Churchill talk with Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, about her ideas for the future of higher education. We cover new initiatives at the MLA, Teaching at Teaching Intensive Institutions, and groundbreaking work in digital humanities. Hopeful innovations include new tools and new contexts such as podcasts and Twitter, mergers and consortia, and the role of digital humanities in rethinking race, class, and accessibility. Find us on Twitter: @roopikarisam, @mary_churchill, and @paulakrebs

Episode Notes

Topics Discussed in this Episode:

Resources Discussed in this Episode:

Music Credits: “Come Right Here” by Tendinite, licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 CC-BY-NC-ND license.

Episode Transcription

RTA Episode 1 Paula Krebs October 2019

Mary Churchill: [00:00:00] Rocking the Academy is a podcast that's changing the future of higher education. Your hosts Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the University. Do they rock the boat? Yes, but in doing so they rock the academy.

Roopika Risam: [00:00:26] On this episode of Rocking the Academy, we are joined by Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, the largest organization of scholars of languages and literature in the United States. She previously served as the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University after serving as a Professor of English at Wheaton College.

Mary Churchill: [00:00:52] Hi Paula, thanks for coming on our show, Rocking the Academy. I feel like we've known one another for over 10 years maybe, and we probably first met on Twitter. Maybe? 

Paula Krebs: [00:01:05] That may be the case. 

Mary Churchill: [00:01:07] And that's where I first met Roopsi as well. So we have a series of questions we want to ask you, to talk about the future of higher ed, because we think you're an amazing truth teller in this world.

Roopika Risam: [00:01:18] Paula, as someone who is aspiring to move into administration in public higher ed at some point, your story is really inspirational to me and really informative, and I particularly appreciated the opportunity to work with you on some of the innovative programs that you were working on when you were at Bridgewater -- both the Massachusetts Cross-Sector Partnership and also some of your work to support faculty doing digital humanities initiatives at Bridgewater. So we'd love to hear about what were some of the most proud moments of your time at Bridgewater because these are really for us these moments where you really were rocking the boat, particularly in terms of pushing the boundaries of what we can do at teaching intensive universities like Bridgewater State and like Salem State.

Paula Krebs: [00:02:14] Well, I think what's important for women especially to remember as you move through a trajectory in education and if you have ideas about making change -- and that's where I see your ambition Roopsi --  it's not “I want to become an administrator.” It's “I want to make change at a bigger level. I want to have influence to help people do better what they can do, and I think what's important for us to remember in relation to those questions is that you don't have to be limited by the position you have. And, you know, I was a kind of a non-traditional choice for there [Bridgewater] because of the background I had. But also, looking at what you could and couldn't do. And I ran up against a couple of brick walls, as everybody does who's ambitious and starts a new job. You know, you try some things, and people say, “We don't exactly do it that way here.” Or “No, you can't really do that.” But, you can't stop there. You have to think, “Alright, what could I do then?” And so what? Some of the things that I wanted to do on campus and was unable to do, I thought, “Alright, I'll do them off campus.” 

So I was very interested in what I saw when I would be interviewing people. So a department would be hiring, they bring in candidates, and I would interview them as the dean, and I would say to them, “So what do you see as the difference between the students you're teaching now and the students will be teaching here?” And the answer to that question was sometimes fairly shocking. I remember once I had a candidate from an Ivy League institution who said, “Oh, I'd have to cut my syllabus, you know, by two-thirds for the students here.” And I thought, “You know what, you're not getting this job because you don't understand who our students are and what they can do. And you don't understand the differences between the students you're teaching at Ivy League universities and the students you'd be teaching here are not a matter of capacity at all. They're a matter of background maybe, you know, a matter of privilege maybe but they are not differences in capacity. So I thought, there are graduate students out there who would be perfect for jobs at my institution, but they are also graduate students out there who need to learn what these jobs are and figure out how to be perfect, you know for jobs at these institutions or whether they want jobs at institutions like this.

[00:05:02] We can help them with that. They're not getting it in their graduate programs. You don't go through a graduate program at a Research 1 University and learn what it's like to teach at Salem State or to teach at Holyoke Community College or even sometimes to teach at Wheaton College. And those institutions are not going to teach you that, but we could. The students, faculty members, and administrators at those institutions could take an active role in graduate education. We don't teach PhD students in a traditional way, but the first time we ran that program -- and you were there, I think that first year Roopsi --

Roopika Risam: [00:05:40] I was. 

Paula Krebs: [00:05:41] I said, I think this could happen. I think this would be really interesting, and Matt Reed, who at the time was the Provost at Holyoke Community College, he said, “I think this could happen.” And Mary were you involved that year?

Mary Churchill: [00:05:57] I sent Roopsi.

Paula Krebs: [00:06:02] Everybody who was forward thinking in New England higher education, you know, thought, this is a great idea. And we got 250 graduate students from all over New England who came to a day to learn about what's it like to try to do research on a 4/4 load. Who are the students at a community college? What is a collective bargaining contract? What is undergraduate research? Things that you don't learn in a Ph.D. program. And I remember Matt Reed and I were standing in the back of -- Matt writes the Confessions of a Community College Dean column for Inside Higher Ed -- and Matt and I were standing in the back of the room as we had a panel full of people from community colleges and the regional comprehensives in the front of the room answering questions, giving talks and answering questions, and an audience full of graduate directors and graduate students from the research schools. And Matt turned to me and said, “Look at that, they're in the audience and we are on the stage.” And it was a really, really empowering moment for both of us to think we have something that we can contribute to higher ed overall to make higher ed function better, to make graduate education understand what they could be training their graduate students for, the really rewarding careers they could be preparing their graduate students for, but they aren't doing it. That's work that any of us can do if we're willing to do work beyond what's in our job description: make your day job understand the value of work on a larger stage

[00:07:42] The work that I think I was, in some ways, most proud of besides Teaching at Teaching Intensive Institutions was: I got a bunch of people from Southern New England -- a bunch of different schools community colleges, small private schools, regional comprehensives together to talk about humanities degrees and what their value was post-graduation -- called the Humanities Student Success Initiative. And there were a ton of people who got together, again at Bridgewater State, and I invited people from public humanities. So like the Mass Cultural Council, Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, people like that, and people from museums -- things like that, as well as employers from the region -- to get together with humanities faculty and administrators and say, alright, what do we teach our students? What should we be teaching our students? How will we know if we've taught it to them? And how do we measure it? And that was a conversation that happened, again, not just with the faculty members in the relevant fields, but with employers and with public humanities people, to really have a broad conversation about why students should major in the humanities and what they should be able to say and demonstrate about what they've learned as a result of those degrees. And that's work that I took from the region in New England into this job. I think that's kind of what -- I hope that's partly what -- made me a good candidate for this job, that I'm super interested in walking that very fine line between workforce preparation and focusing on the intrinsic, ineffable values of the humanities. There's somewhere in between those two things that I'm trying to move the MLA to kind of own the ground on: helping students understand why a humanities degree is valuable after graduation yet doesn't have to prepare you for a particular job. 

[00:09:58] Both of you are examples of exactly what I'm talking about, which is that if you're not afraid to pursue things outside of the box that people try to put you in, you actually have a more rich career, you actually will succeed more on campus.

[00:10:19] If you break out of those bounds, if you try other things, if you have a bunch of  side hustles -- that can be including in a tenure-track job, Roopsi, you know, or Mary, not in a tenure-track job at all, but in a campus job -- that's incredibly important and influential because of the choices that you make. You don't have to move off campus entirely. I mean I didn't move off campus entirely until very late in my career. I still managed to do all the things all the cool, you know, different things on a campus for a really long time. I think that's possible and I think that one message for listeners who may be graduate students: It's not that in pursuing, again to use your phrase “side hustles,” that doesn't mean you're preparing yourself for even necessarily a non-academic job. You make yourself more valuable for an academic job in doing that kind of work. 

Mary Churchill: [00:11:20] Oh, I want to say one thing about the model you created at Bridgewater State,  the alliance - - what I'm calling the alliance model of bringing together different institutions and nonprofits across the region. That is a replicable model and that's what I'm doing now, really trying to get people to understand that each of the institution types in the landscape of higher ed has a different role to play in the space of education and teacher preparation and that's a challenging conversation. I think we've all been competing with one another for limited enrollments. 

Paula Krebs: [00:11:55] Yep.

Mary Churchill: [00:11:55] And to get people to see that there are different roles that you can play, particularly in supporting the city of Boston in teacher preparation, in the city of Boston in the Metro region. Baby steps, but we're getting there.

Paula Krebs: [00:12:07] I think that's really important, and I don't think higher ed has prepared us for that kind of mindset. I mean, I think -- especially in the humanities where we work as individuals. I think the social sciences, Mary, you know, sometimes work in teams and I think scientists always work in teams, but we're, you know, Roopsi, we know we're trained to that scholar in the garret model, you know individual scholar at the library with a stack of books. We're not trained to work together. And DH I think is moving us out of that. Digital humanities has helped us understand how working in teams, the total is more than the sum of the parts. 

Mary Churchill: [00:12:52] So I have a question for you about moving to the MLA, kind of based on what you just said about Bridgewater or said earlier, this idea of moving up to a national level and what are the types of things that you can do at that level that you couldn't do when you were in a single institution?

Paula Krebs: [00:13:10] Well, I mean, there's both. There's things you can do that you couldn't do at an institution and then there are things that you could do at an institution that you can't do at a national level. So the power of a learned society -- we are a member of the American Council of Learned Societies. I never thought I would work for a learned Society. 

Mary Churchill: [00:13:27] Beautiful.

Paula Krebs: [00:13:28] It's lovely. But the things that the scholarly associations, the powers that we have really are powers of influence and convening. We have some little carrots but we don't have any sticks at all.  In this position, we have the power to convene. That's a pretty substantial power. One thing that I'm interested in is getting people enthusiastic about things that I think are important. So I think it's really important that we get a grip on graduate education here and what we think humanities degrees are for and change the situation that we were just talking about in relation to graduate education.

So we convene. We can convene people. So I can get the people I know are making the biggest difference in humanities graduate education right now: Jenna Lay at Lehigh, people from the Council of Graduate Studies, there are people they can put put me in touch with.  I mean, we actually know who the people are who are doing the good work. We can get them all together and get these, you know, super highly motivated and ambitious teams from institutions to come and really move the needle so that at the end of that hundred-person event, say 25 teams, we've got 25 influential graduate programs who have committed to making real change now.

Mary Churchill: [00:14:50] Very cool. 

Paula Krebs: [00:14:51] We publish about that, we spread that, we disseminate. You know, that's what you can do at a national association. You can do some of it, you know, I was able to do some of that on a smaller scale regionally at Bridgewater State. This is the larger context. Nobody was going to give me $15,000 here or $15,000 there to make that work at Bridgewater State. They would give me $1,000 and [for] Teaching at Teaching Intensive Institutions, schools ponied up $500 here, a $1,000 there. We were able to make that work but I thought okay if I can do that regionally, you know get a thousand here and a thousand there, I bet I can do better than that nationally and make something happen 

Mary Churchill: [00:15:31] So Paula, we have one final question for you, and then we're wrapping up. What gives you hope for a different future for higher ed? 

Paula Krebs: [00:15:39] I think what gives me hope is initiatives like this -- that people are using new tools and new contexts that we have now to make new kinds of connections and think about new approaches that, you know, 20 years ago, what was a podcast? But now I get all kinds, and, you know, Twitter and you know all kinds of things. I get information from so many new sources now than I used to, and I make connections with people I never would have known through social media and outlets like this, and I think this can be really really creative and help. I think Teaching at Teaching Institutions as an initiative could never have started without social media and the kinds of ways you can connect to people now that you couldn't connect to people before -- that's preparing people much better for a huge range of jobs and people are succeeding in ways they couldn't have before. And I think that's what I like to concentrate on from my perspective, how to get people to succeed in ways they never thought were options, how to expose them to new possibilities and how to show them paths to success that they didn't understand. So I think seeing the people. I see in this job and the range of the number of people that that I get to see in this job. 

And I think other kinds of shifts, like mergers and consortia and ways that higher education is moving in different spaces give me hope as well. The work that folks do in the digital humanities pushes us to think, pushes language and literature in such productive ways that we haven't engaged, and that makes that, that becomes a space for accessibility. For example, I mean, you know accessibility is an area in which again 20 years ago who cared if your website was accessible or your conference and that meant that we were excluding so many people, but fields like DH make us think about accessibility in new ways.

They make us think about race, they make us think about class, they make us think about accessibility. I just think this stuff is the new stuff. It's pushing us in all the right ways. And we should fight for the humanities. Humanities enrollments going down? That's on us. And we should be changing the way we do things to make it so students of color, first generation students, Pell Grant recipients feel permission to major in the humanities. We have to make that happen and, so, to the extent that humanities enrollments are falling, that's on us because we haven't been accessible. And I think there are tons of possibilities. I'm very excited about the changes that are happening, even though I have a board meeting this week, and I have to look at our budget -- I'm still very excited about what we can do.

Roopika Risam: [00:19:12] You have been listening to Rocking the Academy, where Mary Churchill and Roopika Risam bring you conversations with the very best truth tellers who are formulating a different vision of the University. Catch more episodes at