Yale attracts humanities postdocs

Yale attracted seven of the 64 ACLS fellowship recipients in 2011 — more than any other university.
Yale attracted seven of the 64 ACLS fellowship recipients in 2011 — more than any other university. Photo by Antonia Woodford.

A temporary program by the nonprofit American Council of Learned Societies is boosting the number of postdoctoral fellows in the humanities and social sciences at Yale.

The ACLS, a group of scholarly organizations that promotes the humanities, launched the New Faculty Fellows program in 2009 to help support recent Ph.D. graduates in the humanities and humanistic social sciences as the academic job market grew weaker during the recession. Yale failed to attract any ACLS fellowship recipients during the competition’s first year, but last year and this year administrators have considered the winners’ applications more fully and tried harder to make offers to people who are “good matches for Yale,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. Seven of the 64 recipients in 2011 came to Yale last fall — more than went to any other university. Miller said the program is helping to build a “critical mass” of postdocs in the humanities at Yale.

The winners of the ACLS fellowships are selected from a pool of hundreds of Ph.D. graduates nominated by their alma maters. Universities participating in the ACLS program then can make offers to fellowship winners to come to their schools for two years of teaching and research. This year, Yale has made offers to seven of the fellowship recipients, and three had accepted their offers as of Tuesday, said Pamela Schirmeister, associate dean for Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“We would really like to see the development of a healthy postdoc community in the humanities and the social sciences,” Schirmeister said. “The ACLS is a really big step in that direction.”

While postdoctoral positions are commonplace in the sciences, they are relatively scarce in other fields and particularly in the humanities, administrators said. Schirmeister said postdocs can provide an “infusion of good ideas” as they spend a few years at the University at the beginning of their careers before moving on to tenure-track positions.

The Whitney Humanities Center has several postdocs who teach in the Directed Studies program, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies is hosting around 20 social sciences postdocs this year. Individual departments also sometimes support postdocs.

Postdocs can also help fill departments or programs’ teaching needs, as is the case with postdocs who teach sections of Directed Studies. Sun-Joo Shin, director of graduate studies for the Philosophy Department and a mentor for the ACLS postdocs, said the postdocs in her department “teach very important subjects which we desperately need.”

Nancy Ruther, associate director of the MacMillan Center, said postdocs at the center are used to jump-start new research programs and gauge student and faculty interest in them.

For Ph.D. graduates in the humanities and social sciences, postdoctoral fellowships are becoming increasingly attractive as a way to build research and teaching expertise before entering the academic job market, five current ACLS postdocs at Yale interviewed said.

“Part of what the fellowship aspires to do is teach us how to be faculty members in a department, to make that next professional step from being a graduate student to being a member of the faculty,” said Adriana Jacobs, an ACLS postdoc in comparative literature and Judaic studies.

The ACLS program requires recipients to teach three courses per year during the two-year fellowship, providing postdocs with “really good teaching experience” while allowing them more time for research than a typical faculty member, Schirmeister said.

Jacobs and three other postdocs interviewed said they especially appreciate the chance to teach courses that match their research interests.

Pablo Kalmanovitz, an ACLS postdoc in political science, said he is teaching seminars that correspond with the subject of a book he is working on about the history of political thought about postwar justice. He added that discussions with his students in seminar have helped him further develop his own ideas.

ACLS postdocs such as Sadia Saeed, in sociology, and Emily Green, in music, also are using the two-year fellowship to organize conferences or workshops around their topics of research. Green said she is planning a conference on “musical consumerism,” how music is bought and sold, while Saeed is convening a comparative research workshop in which graduate students, faculty and visiting scholars from different social science areas discuss their current work.

This may be the last year the ACLS offers the New Faculty Fellows program. ACLS Director of Fellowship Programs Nicole Stahlmann said leaders of the program have not yet discussed whether it will continue for a fourth year, and it would have stopped after its second year had the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation not renewed its funding. Stahlmann added that the program was envisioned as a “short-term initiative” for Ph.D. graduates “unduly affected” by the economic downturn.

Forty-nine universities are participating in the ACLS New Faculty Fellows program.

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