Philosophy of Space and Time; Reading Animals; Race, Science, and Medicine in U.S. History; Los Angeles as Artwork: Día de los Muertos; Visualizing the Heavens: Images and Instruments of Early Modern Astronomy. What do these Caltech courses have in common?
They have all been taught by postdoctoral instructors in the humanities, whose fields include modern languages and literatures, history, philosophy and religion, the arts, and cultural studies. These instructors spend one to three years at Caltech deepening their research—and quite often turning their dissertation into their first published book—while learning the craft of teaching and bringing rich variety and new trends in the humanities to the Caltech community.
Postdocs in the humanities are relatively rare. The reigning model is that newly minted humanities PhDs will be hired into tenure-track assistant professor positions, where they will take five to seven years to teach and produce research adequate to win them tenure at the university where they will spend a lifetime.
However, many humanists do not follow this clear linear path. Why? Mainly because there are not nearly enough tenure-track positions to secure jobs for all or even most graduating PhDs in the humanities. Recent PhDs who want to stay in academia typically take adjunct teaching positions(sometimes for years, and sometimes forever), rely on families and loans to stay afloat while turning their dissertation into a book or a series of journal articles, and hope for the day that the right opening in their field comes along.
A very different model operates in the sciences. It is customary for those who have finished their doctoral work to take one or more postdoctoral research positions before they accept a regular faculty position. This arrangement is good for newly minted PhDs and for universities. New career scientists are given opportunities to learn more about the ins and outs of running a research program, to produce publications and acquire contacts that enhance their position in the field, and to extend their research beyond their dissertation. The university, in return, is able to enlarge its scientific capacity, be seeded with new ideas and techniques that postdocs from other universities bring with them, and have assistance in training and mentoring incoming graduate students and interns. As a measure of just how popular STEM postdoc positions are, today at Caltech there are 560 postdocs—in an institution with 982 undergrads and 1,419 grad students.
Caltech humanists have not had to look far then to see how bringing in postdoctoral fellows might enrich their programs. "Appointing postdocs was a natural departure for Caltech," says Dan Kevles, Caltech's J. O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, who taught at the Institute from 1964 to 2001. "Postdocs were commonplace in the sciences and had been for some 50 years, including at Caltech."
Caltech humanists first solicited and received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1978 to bring postdoctoral instructors to campus. The Mellon Foundation had only begun to fund humanities postdocs in 1974, in what was then a fairly novel approach to research and instruction in the humanities. In March 1980, Caltech requested funds from Mellon to expand its initial pilot program for six postdoctoral instructors over 10 years to a total of 18 for the decade. Since then Caltech has raised postdoctoral endowments from the Mellon Foundation and other supporters to create the robust program that exists today.
Another motivation for bringing humanities postdocs to Caltech was the perilous state of the job market for recently graduated PhDs in the late 1970s. "The national job market for new PhDs in the humanities was collapsing," Kevles says, "so it was thought that Caltech could help keep some of the very best young scholars in the profession by giving them opportunities to teach and write and establish their reputations."
"The postdoctoral program is now a thriving and integral part of the humanities at Caltech," says Tracy Dennison, the Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Science History and Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech. "We do a great job of training young researchers for tenure-track jobs—despite adverse market conditions—and they bring new ideas and perspectives to Caltech."
Humanities postdocs have generally been well-placed after their time at Caltech. The first two postdoc instructors, Terrence McDonald and Gordon Appleby, moved on from Caltech in 1980 to long and successful careers at the University of Michigan and the World Bank, respectively. Humanities postdocs in the intervening years have landed tenure-track jobs at the University of Cambridge, McGill, Princeton, Stanford, Boston College, and American University in Cairo, among others.
Caltech was also inspired to bring in postdocs in the humanities because the faculty wanted to mentor new scholars in their disciplines. "In the early 1970s, the Humanities and Social Sciences division was beginning a doctoral program in the social sciences," Kevles remembers. "Various faculty in the humanities wanted something comparable, but it made no sense to have doctoral students in, say, history or literature at Caltech because the faculty was too small and the library resources were too limited. So their ambitions turned to postdocs in these fields."
"This program appealed to a lot of the faculty in the humanities because there weren't other opportunities to mentor graduate students," says Ben Saltzman, an associate professor of medieval literature at the University of Chicago who was a postdoc at Caltech in the mid-2010s. "This gave them a chance to bring in recent graduate students and support and mentor them, and also to allow them to benefit from a fresh intellectual exchange with younger scholars."
Alumni of the program are enthusiastic about time spent with their mentors at Caltech. John Bowers, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, spent the early 1980s at Caltech as a postdoc instructor. "The Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences was extremely collegial, with regular Fridays for beer in the basement of the Athenaeum, usually followed by dinner afterward at some local restaurant." Julia Hori, an alumna of the program from the early 2020s and an assistant professor of postcolonial and Caribbean literatures at the University of Cambridge, remembers her humanities and social science colleagues as "such open and generous interlocutors when it came to teaching and research. I think being at a tech institution where we were in the minority put a greater emphasis on community building as a socially and intellectually vital resource."
Some collaborations were particularly fruitful. G. Gabrielle Starr, now the president of Pomona College, came to Caltech for a postdoctoral year in 1999 with a specialization in eighteenth-century British novels and lyric poetry. During that same year Caltech acquired its first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. "I joined a cognitive neuroscience reading group, and it changed my career," Starr says. After her time at Caltech, she got additional Mellon Foundation funding to do graduate work in cognitive neuroscience. This interest stemmed, in ways, from her earlier focus on the eighteenth century.
"At the beginning of the eighteenth century, philosophy was a part of natural philosophy—which became science—and something closely related to theology. These were integrated fields at the time because nature and humans were both seen as evidence of God's plan. An eighteenth-century thinker wouldn't see a disjunction between studying both, and studying them together," Starr says. She gravitated toward cognitive neuroscience for the promise it held of coming closer to understanding internal mental properties rather than evaluating psychological states solely from the perspective of human behavior. She has since focused on how the brain responds to art. Her book Just in Time: Temporality, Aesthetic Experience, and Cognitive Neuroscience was published by MIT Press in June 2023.
Moshe Sluhovsky, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a postdoc instructor at Caltech in the early 1990s and was inspired by Robert Rosenstone, Caltech professor of history, emeritus, to launch "a huge conference at Caltech to which we invited people who were frustrated with the normative way of narrating history. This led to the creation of a new journal that is still with us: Rethinking History."
Such collaborations have in some cases persisted long after these postdocs have left Caltech. David Igler, professor of history at UC Irvine, was a postdoc at Caltech in the late 1990s. Igler recalls that "Caltech had a marvelous collection of young faculty, many of whom I still know today and a couple with whom I actively collaborate. I've continued researching at the Huntington Library for the past 25 years, and I live in Pasadena despite my job at UC Irvine." His time at Caltech yielded his first book, Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920, and the beginnings of his second.
The connection to the Huntington Library has been a great draw for humanities postdoc instructors over the years and was an essential consideration from the beginning of the program in the late 1970s. The 1980 proposal to the Mellon Foundation mentioned that "Caltech is within walking distance of the Huntington Library, one of the great research libraries in the world." Bowers recalls his research accelerating "from the first day in 1982 when I was given a primitive Zenith personal computer and began working on the pioneering WordStar word-processing software. I began conducting research at the nearby Huntington Library, which would lead, over the years, to a series of articles and books." The first such book was the revision of Bowers's dissertation, published as The Crisis of Will in "Piers Plowman."
Derrick Spires, associate professor of literatures in English at Cornell University, recalls being part of a group of early career scholars at The Huntington that they called SCAG—the Southern California Americanist Group when he was a postdoc at Caltech in the early 2010s. "The Huntington has a great periodical collection in their basement," Spires says, and it was here that he found important material for his book The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States.
Postdoc instructors remember their time at Caltech as very productive. Sluhovsky turned his 1992 Princeton PhD dissertation into a book, Patroness of Paris: Rituals of Devotion in Early Modern France, and began research for his next book on demonic possession and female spirituality in late medieval Europe (Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism). Christa Noel Robbins, an associate professor of art history at the University of Virginia who spent the early 2010s as a postdoc at Caltech, revised her dissertation, which was published as Artist as Author: Action and Intent in Late-Modernist American Painting. Saltzman likewise completed a book manuscript: Bonds of Secrecy: Law, Spirituality, and the Literature of Concealment in Early Medieval England.
A key feature of Caltech's postdoctoral program in the humanities is teaching. Most postdoc positions in the sciences do not include teaching, but Caltech expects its humanities postdocs to offer courses regularly. "I think it's actually very helpful for people who have not done a lot of teaching to have those opportunities," says Dehn Gilmore, Professor of English and Executive Officer for the Humanities. "It helps them to position themselves in the job market. If they've never done a survey before, it's good to show that they have experience with this. All of our classes are also writing intensive, so teaching for Caltech necessarily shows that they have expertise in teaching writing."
Alumni of the program are uniformly enthusiastic about their time with Caltech undergrads. "The students struck me as really hungry for the humanities and keen to integrate what they're doing in the sciences with what they're reading in the humanities," says Spires. Robbins recalls, "I didn't know what to expect when I got there, but Caltech students are very open and experimental thinkers, interested in learning for its own sake." Julia Jennings, an associate professor of anthropology at SUNY Albany who was at Caltech in the early 2010s, says Caltech students "reminded me of the people I went to high school with. I went to a math and science high school, and so in that sense it was kind of like coming home. Some of my very brightest students have been Techers."
Caltech students led some postdocs to rethink their approach to teaching. Keith Pluymers, who was a postdoc at Caltech in the late 2010s and is now an assistant professor at Illinois State University, says the students at Caltech "really relished discussing big ideas together. I had to change my approach from more traditional history courses that assume students will move through a chronological sequence. I found that liberating. It led me to think about new ways to approach the past that I still use in my teaching today." Sluhovsky had the opportunity to co-teach a course with Kevin Gilmartin, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and Vice President for Student Affairs. "We chose a few crucial moments in the history of European colonialism and each of us chose a primary source to deal with these moments: Columbus's diaries and Shakespeare's The Tempest; diaries of people who were shipwrecked and Robinson Crusoe; American justifications for the invasion of the Philippines and Madame Butterfly, and so on. We loved it, students loved it, and it was politically important, which I believe teaching should always be. I've continued to teach this course throughout my career."
From the beginning, the variety of subjects covered by humanities postdocs has been thought to provide a special benefit to Caltech. "Caltech undergraduates are extremely able," reads the 1980 proposal to the Mellon Foundation. "Although known primarily for their aptitudes in science and mathematics, Caltech freshmen also rank among the best in the country in their scores on tests of ability and achievement in verbal skills." Since Caltech undergraduates were required to take 20 percent of their classes in the humanities and social sciences—and still are today—bringing in instructors linked to student interests would provide not only more teaching resources for Caltech students but more varied ones.
Humanities postdocs look back fondly at their time spent at Caltech. "I turned down a good tenure-track job in order to take the postdoc," Igler says, "which scared the hell out of my graduate school adviser. But I knew that a two-year postdoc would open up better opportunities in terms of conducting research, publishing my first book, and hitting the job market more fully prepared." Sluhovsky remembers "the most amazing interlibrary service imaginable," while Bowers recalls studying karate "under the instruction of the legendary Mr. Ohshima," who founded the first university karate club in the United States at Caltech.
Many specifically recalled how supportive Caltech was of its humanists. "People often wonder what I was doing at Caltech as a humanist," Saltzman says, "and I just love sharing with them that Caltech is a place that genuinely values the humanities."
"I loved my time there," recalls Louise Nelson Dyble, a historian and now an environmental policy lawyer who was a postdoc at Caltech in the mid-2000s. "I look back on it as kind of idyllic. Caltech students are brilliant and just a pleasure to work with generally. It's a beautiful campus, and I felt very calm there, able to really, really focus like at no other point in my life. I'm just very grateful that I had that opportunity."