Tag Archives: graduate education

Getting History in Tune

Over the past year or so the American Historical Association has been working on what they call the “Tuning Project“. For those who are not members of the Association, the April 2013 edition of Perspectives included an entire forum on the project. Now the AHA has issued a new (pdf) document detailing the current state of the Tuning Project’s work on what they are calling the Discipline Core: “a statement of the central habits of mind, skills, and understanding that students achieve when they major in history.”

There is much to like in this document, which as Julia Brookins of the AHA writes, is intended to foster dialogue among history educators, students, the general public, and others interested in how history is (and isn’t) taught. If I were starting a history major from scratch, this document would be one of the source documents I would use with my colleagues as a basis for our conversation about what we ought to be teaching (competencies and skills, not content) to and with our students. And because I’m teaching historical methods this coming semester, I plan to revisit my syllabus to see what sort of alignment my assignments have with the core competencies laid out in the Tuning document.

In the spirit of Brookins’ call for conversation, I would also say that I found the document surprisingly disappointing in a couple of important ways. The first of those is that the document seems to be focused primarily on undergraduate education. As someone who teaches both graduate and undergraduate students, and who also spends a lot of time working with K-12 history educators, I was hoping to see a bit more conversation on the trajectory of history education from the earliest grades through the terminal degree. Because the authors of the document speak to a desire for a broader conversation, I think that more of that conversation would be likely if all phases of history education a part of the report.

A second critique I would offer is that the document just doesn’t seem very forward-looking. While the authors have done a very nice job of capturing what is common to historical study as it is right now at most colleges and universities, there is no sense of future possibility here. A reader coming to this document for the first time will have to be excused for concluding that what history students do is read, research, and write. What about the making of historical things — websites, digital archives, digital stories, re-created artifacts, museum exhibits (virtual/analog), and all the other ways that history students are beginning to use new media and other tools to make history in new and different ways?

The report does mention the creation of a website/blog/e-portfolio toward the end, but that is really the only mention of the digital world history students live in, other than saying that students should be able to locate appropriate materials online as well as in libraries. Those two statements about the digital world our students inhabit just strikes me as not nearly enough. For instance, shouldn’t history majors learn to apply their critical thinking skills to databases — not as tools for locating sources, but as resources that have historical arguments all their own? Shouldn’t history majors learn how to source digital sources (digital forensics)? Shouldn’t they learn to think critically about how the maker movement might have something to say to historical scholarship? Or what does it mean to have historical information be open source? At what point in the trajectory of historical study should students begin learning to work with big data? These are altogether different and yet very pressing issues in history education and they are largely missing from the Tuning document.

I would also like to see a much richer conversation about the ethics of historical research and production. Too often our conversations with our students about ethics come down to a series of admonitions about plagiarism in the first week of the semester and that’s that. Before the Library of Congress went offline last week, I did a search for books on the ethics of the historical profession and found exactly three. Three. I think we need to find new ways to spread the conversation about ethics across our curricula and so if I were editing this document, I’d include more on ethics.


Historians and Books

Books“History has been and remains a book-based discipline…” This phrase, that begins the third paragraph of the recent statement by the American Historical Association on dissertation embargoes, has been rattling around in my head for weeks, like that annoying song from high school you just can’t get out of your head.

If you followed the controversy that ensued after the AHA issued this statement [search on “#ahagate” for more], you know that much of the often heated discussion centered on two issues: was it a bad idea for recent PhDs to embargoe their dissertations, and what did the AHA’s position on the issue say about the Association’s position on open access more generally?

Both of those topics have now been pretty well beaten to death in the blogo- and twittersphere, so I’ve been at a loss to explain why that phrase won’t get the heck out of my head. Fortunately, I’m teaching my Clio Wired grad seminar, starting tonight, so I had to focus hard on all things digital history over the past couple of weeks and in that focusing I finally figured out what my problem was. (I know you’re relieved.)

You see, regardless of what we might think about open access, or dissertation embargoes, or any of the other issues that came up in the ahagate conversation this summer, if we accept that history has been and remains a book-based discipline, then we are accepting that the book is the standard by which historians should be judged for such things as jobs, promotion, tenure, raises, etc. For our professional association to make such a bold defense of the book as the gold standard is more than just counter productive, it’s really out of touch with the realities of the history job market our MA and PhD grads find themselves in.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books. Really love books. Don’t believe me? Come to my office and take a gander at the overflowing shelves. But my bookophilia doesn’t extend to my definition of what it means to be a historian in 2013. And, yes, I know the AHA doesn’t ignore the fact that lots of historians do lots of things that never involve publishing a book or even a peer reviewed article. But still.

“History has been and remains a book-based discipline…” Saying this so directly is to take a position that the book is the goal, the standard by which historians are to be measured. If that is so, those historians who choose to build their careers around museum curation, or website development, or public history, or any number of “altac” career paths just don’t quite measure up to the book (gold) standard promoted by our professional association.

And that just makes me sad. Sad for everyone who is a historian and never publishes a book and so is somehow not quite up to snuff, and sad for the AHA, because, well, emphasizing the bookishness of our discipline is just so 1990.

Shaving Years Off the PhD in History

For years historians have wrung their hands about how long it is taking our doctoral students to complete their PhD degree. Six years? Seven? Eight? More? In fact, a 2008 report by the American Historical Association indicates that eight years is the average, with the range being 4-11 years to complete a PhD in history.

The longer it takes our students, the more expensive it is for them (and for us), in particular because every year they are in school is a year of lost income after someone graduates. Most of the solutions I’ve heard revolve around offering students more funding so they can spend more time on their studies/dissertations. It is interesting to note, however, that size of program seems to be more important to time-to-degree than funding, as students in small programs seem to complete their degrees in much less time.

I spent a fair amount of time last week in Switzerland chatting with PhD students there. If you are familiar with the typical European PhD program, you’ll know that PhD students on the Swiss side of the pond take no, or almost no classes. They enroll in their doctoral students and, as one student told me last week, begin “making a PhD.” In other words, they start on their dissertations right away, which means that they are generally done in three or four years.

My view is that both versions are problematic. Our students spend too much time on their degrees and European students don’t have the opportunities our have to deepen their knowledge or a topic, develop a knowledge of more than one subject area via minor fields, and because they aren’t spending time in class with fellow students, often lack a community of practice with other students–or so several have told me over the past year.

Given these issues, I have a modest proposal for changing the PhD degree–a proposal that puts the onus on us rather than on our students or the administration. Assuming they come to us with an MA in history, doctoral students could follow a curriculum that includes:

Year 1-2
12 credits of course work
6 credits of advanced reading
Qualifying exams

Years 3-5
Dissertation research and writing

Students who followed such a curriculum would thus have the benefit of the study of two specific areas of history–say a 12 credit major field and a 6 credit minor field, as compared to European students who launch right into the dissertation. These same students would then have had the opportunity to begin building a community of other students that could lead to such things as writing groups, etc., as their career progresses.

If we are honest with ourselves and our students, three years is certainly enough time to research and write a dissertation. Too often we either load them up with expectations that can only be satisfied by spending four, five, or even more years on the dissertation, or we allow them to work on topics more suited for monographs than for dissertations (or simply allow them to dawdle).

It’s possible to imagine fully funding students for four or possibly five years in such a degree program, especially if they spend (no more than) one year working as a teaching assistant go gather some useful classroom experience.

I realize that it’s unlikely that any PhD program out there is going to willingly shave credits off of their program, if only because of the revenue losses that would result. In the case of our program here at George Mason, such a proposal would mean the loss of between at least 6 and probably 12 credits (and possibly more) sold to each doctoral student.

There are many difficulties with such a proposal, not least of which is the willingness of external accrediting agencies to accept a doctoral degree that includes fewer credits. Nevertheless, I think a discussion of such a modified degree path is well worth having.

NB: There was an article in Perspectives back in October that dealt with some of these same issues.

THATCamp Switzerland (8)

The final full session I attended was devoted to the question of digital project management, led by Radu Suciu.

Among the questions discussed were how to complete a project once the money runs out? Another was how to plan successfully for the final outcome? Another was how do we get started with a digital humanities project?

The conversation then turned to audience. We have to think through who might be using the resource–ranging from just me to many different audiences in different fields. This makes project management difficult in the extreme if we don’t know what people in those other audience groups want (or don’t) from our work.

Another was whether digital humanities projects can be anything but a collaborative/team effort? My own take on this is that none of us have the expertise we need to realize all aspects of such an endeavor and so from the beginning we need to plan collaboration into the project in a formal as well as an informal way. This can also mean, according to one of the participants, that we may do much of the initial work alone, but there is almost always a point at which we have to engage others as partners, building a community around the work we began. The evolution over time can therefore move from an idea to a community with specific details of the project being realized either by the initial researcher or the growing community over time.

The session also raised the point that, given the difficulty of realizing a digital humanities projects, shouldn’t there be some part of graduate education (formal or informal) to teach our graduate students learn how to get from start to finish on a digital project. Our second course in the Clio Wired sequence (most recent version) offers one example of a full course version of such an introduction.