U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Foray into the Unknown–graduate pedagogy

I’m putting together a grad class for my teaching portfolio. It’s a bit of code switch to be a graduate student and then think about teaching graduate students (more so than the undergrad switch, I find). I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the thinking processes you
go through when putting together a syllabus? How do you balance comprehensiveness with depth? How do you balance particular setting with information that would help students with any research focus? For instance, I’ve thought about putting together an African American Intellectual History seminar or a seminar on Networks–physical, imaginary, and textual.

I’d really like to include primary sources, but most of my grad classes focused on secondary. Do grad classes normally avoid primary sources? I had thought I would assign a primary source with a connected secondary source each week.

Also, what are your thoughts about student led discussions? From the position of student, I didn’t find them as helpful as when the prof led the discussion, but it seems like most profs use them as a way to structure graduate classes.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    Most of my grad classes did ~not~ use primary resources. It’s an interesting thing—meaning the do/don’t dilemma.

    I think most grad class profs don’t because they assume you have a set of primary docs you’re concentrating on for your dissertation. And then they believe that they’re teaching you how to use your docs through the examples of books they choose for their courses. Finally, since many grad classes require a final paper that is supposed to be of high quality, they assume that you might use primary docs in that paper. Of course that excludes courses requiring historiographic papers.

    As for undergrad classes, I had only a few that required the use of primary documents. And the primary docs were usually in the form of books from a period (e.g. using Nelson Algren in a History of Chicago class). I recall only 2-3 primary document readers assigned in any of my upper-level history courses—even those upper-level undergrad courses one is allowed to take as a grad student (that was allowed for 2-3 courses at Loyola).

    As for your situation, I say if it feels good, do it. Primary doc usage/study/reading apparently varies by institution. If it’s not done often where you’re teaching, the students might appreciate the effort—if not the results.

    – Tim

  2. Lauren,

    This is a good question. I agree with Tim that graduate classes rarely assign primary sources because it’s (often wrongly) assumed a graduate student already knows how to read and interpret primary sources, and that the student will write several primary source based research papers during the course of her studies.

    Thus, most graduate seminars seem to focus on historiography. I usually assign books that, in some fashion, all address some significant historiographical question. Graduate students, if nothing else, should walk away from your course with a firm grasp of a body of literature. That said, the best courses mix and match primary and secondary literature. I always try to do this–and it works really well within intellectual history, since our primary sources are often books or articles (instead of other types of documents, etc.)

    I also try to bring these objectives together by assigning at least one book that is at once a primary and a secondary source. For example, in my course on US conservatism I always assign the Daniel Bell edited collection, “The Radical Right,” because it paved the way for a generation of scholars, but also because it’s a primary example of how 1950s liberals understood conservatism.

    Good luck. AH

  3. Great questions, Lauren!

    My primary appointment for the last decade or so has been in an undergrad-only unit (the Honors College), so my graduate seminar experience is limited to one class that I taught in the History Department. I think it went well, but I do think I’d do some things differently next time through.

    My experience in grad school echoes what you, Tim, and Andrew said: very few primary documents on the syllabi….with one notable exception. My adviser, Dan Rodgers (who was incidentally another one of Leo Ribuffo’s grad school roommates….not quite Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin, but a pretty good rooming group nonetheless!) tended to use primary documents (along with works of history) in his U.S. intellectual and cultural history grad course and they worked very well. In the second half of the class he gave the students an opportunity to pick some primary sources to focus on. I remember one of the ones we chose was Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve.

    In the one grad class I’ve taught at OU (US History, 1865-1900), I decided to create an assignment that would allow us to supplement our non-primary syllabus reading list with primary sources. I had a number of students each week find and distribute to the class a primary document somehow related to the assigned readings and then lead a discussion of it. While I led the discussion of the main (secondary/historiographical) readings for each week, this primary source assignment thus gave the students a chance to lead some discussion. It was also, of course, an opportunity to do a little research and encourage further thinking about the course material.

    This assignment worked ok, but it only did about half the things I hoped it would do. While many students got into the assignment and found wonderful primary documents that directly related to the assigned class material, other students didn’t go outside their comfort zones and chose documents related to research they’d already done but that had little to do with the assigned readings for the week. And the students never really engaged with each others documents. The documents were usually the last thing we’d discuss in an overly long seminar (for some reason, OU’s history department insists on four-hour long grad seminars), and the class was usually exhausted. Of course, once a habit of not really discussing these additional items set in, the practice hardened. Students would expect little conversation and sometimes didn’t read the documents. Instead of leading discussion, students would just present a report, occasionally followed by a question or two. I still like the idea of this assignment, but I’d want to tweak it somehow were I to use it again.

    One other thought about these and other issues of the form and content of graduate seminars: many of these questions ought to be answered in the context of a consideration of the relationship of the particular seminar to comprehensive/general exams in the program. Dan Rodgers was able to run his I/C History seminar as he did in part because all major fields in US History at Princeton were temporal. A course like US I/C History, then, in a sense wasn’t responsible for comprehensively covering the historiography. It could drift in and out of methadological issues, explore primary sources, and the like in part because coverage wasn’t such an issue (one could do I/C history as a minor field–and I did–but like all minor fields at Princeton, it was individually tailored).

    In contrast, the temporal US grad seminars at Princeton were designed, first and foremost, for historiographical coverage with an eye to generals, and probably had less flexibility in their construction as a result.

  4. i’m in the writing phase of my program now, recently finished with coursework. at least at my institution, grad classes in the history department are divided fairly clearly between historiography and research seminars. in the historiography classes, there is very little primary source work–as others have said, the goal is to become familiar with a large body of historiography. now, in one of these classes (Caribbean slave revolts and revolutions), one of the minor assignments was to in fact find a primary source treated in one of the monographs we were critiquing. this was possible only because several of the more famous contemporary accounts of the Haitian revolution are now on google books, and count as primary. still, it was an interesting exercise.

    the research seminars tend to be more or less strongly thematic. race, gender, the state, and so forth. there is a fairly strong expectation that all the students will be working on a substantial research paper for the course, and the prof assigns exemplary research of various kinds (often a clutch of essays), and then there is a certain amount of time given to mutual critique and substantial revision–so that at the end, the student has something like a whole essay.

    that’s kind of long winded. i guess the short version is that as a person only recently out of coursework, although I think an excellent grad class will include the study of primary source material, it should be possible for the students to choose this material themselves, so that it is useful for (formulating) their dissertation projects.

  5. My grad classes were pretty heavy on secondary sources, but primary sources would be paid attention to in our discussions of that scholarship, and students were encouraged (at least that’s how I felt about it) to use primary sources in their research papers, if they were accessible.

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