Having just passed my tenth anniversary as a holder of the doctoral degree in history, I’ve found myself reflecting back on my training. What did I learn? How did it change me? How have I evolved since completing the degree? Where is it all going?
I started a post last week that reflected on things accomplished since 2006. But I quit that effort because I found the recounting tedious, or at least my presentation was tedious to me as I was writing it. In my other writing venue I found some inspiration to reflect on how graduate education is, or isn’t, a meritocratic process. That piece was inspired by a New York Times article on how law schools fund their students.
Today I want to think through the uneven terrain of student preparation for graduate history programs, and what those programs profess to do, especially in relation to doctoral students. On preparation, I’m particularly interested in norms and expectations for incoming graduate students, in terms of both history content and writing ability. In pondering all of this, I found it useful to refer to the AHA’s 2004 report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, particularly chapters one and two, “We Historians” and “Necessary Discussions,” respectively.
I’m interested in these factors because I think they determine, or shape, all inequities in the profession, in terms of material aid and immaterial factors (i.e. networking, enthusiasm, recommendations, tapping for events). Like it or not, our preparation and training—our experiences in graduate school—determines the baseline of our outcomes.
I. Student Preparation
What are the expectation norms for content knowledge in a subject area for a graduate program? If you plan to study pre-Civil War/Antebellum U.S. history in your program, what basic knowledge can be assumed by a professor in a graduate course? What names, dates, and events *must* be known, if any? Is it a crime to not know the details of the Burr-Hamilton duel if your candidate loves studying slavery, or knows all there is to know about philosophers or environmental history in the period?
How much historiography or methodological knowledge should be expected of an incoming student? What if they are strong on one but not the other? Or what if they are strong on both, but weaker on fact-based content?
In the past some of these questions would have been answered by the GRE subject test. I haven’t seen any recent statistics on that test and its requirement by programs, but my impression was that it is now used infrequently. It wasn’t required when I entered my program in 1998.
Apart from the subject test, the other obvious way to answer this question is by assessing prior undergraduate coursework. This is why certain numbers of previously earned credits are required for entry. But how many? What is enough, or not?
In the “We Historians” chapter of the 2004 AHA report, inclusiveness receives, appropriately, front-and-center treatment. But how does the profession balance inclusiveness with baseline teaching expectations? And how does inclusiveness balance with the desire for rigor and excellence—i.e. how does one know who are the best prepared to complete graduate work and excell in the field?
Does the person with more coursework or a high GRE subject score deserve more funding? What if they are terrible writers?
How does one measure “writing ability” in an incoming graduate student? What minimums can be expected? What high-end ability is available? What coursework or writing experience conveys “success” to an admissions committee?
II. Graduate Programs
What is Being Taught in our Programs? Theory, historiography, methods, writing, teaching, content, and professionalism. But how much is actually taught, and how much is practiced or solidified?
How much content is learned in a graduate program? I think the general answer is probably a lot, even if it is secondary—meaning not much is expected in terms of the memorization of facts, people, dates, and events.
How much theory? The answer probably depends upon topical areas—esp. gender, sexuality, race, class. But there are also theories of language and narration, which would apply to all students. On broad applicability, we should include the philosophy of history and associated concepts in “historical thinking.” But how often are all of these areas given due attention, say in a distinct class? And when do questions of justice bear on, or intrude upon, historical questions of theory and philosophy?
How much historiography? As much as possible, of course. But should the historiography be more contemporary, or should classics be taught and learned? If so, how far back? The old “relevance” question is a tough one.
What methods and skills? Archival research, of course. Quantitative approaches. Oral history. Language acquisition or improvement. What about presentation styles? What of website coding and digital mining? What about “foreign” language requirements for those studying topics in their native country and tongue?
What of writing? Is one’s writing improved in a graduate program, or are prior learned skills merely practiced? How much are skills in narration taught? I have no sense of how much a program should improve one’s writing, and even less about how a program measures that improvement.
How many years should go toward coursework? I think the usual answer is 3-4 for a PhD, depending on whether you’re in the quarter or semester system. But how much should be allowed for research and writing? If you’re aiming to teach, should there not be more coursework and less time spent on research and writing?
The master’s and/or doctoral degrees, of course. What of publications? Conference presentations? Certificates? Number of courses assisted or taught? And shouldn’t the desired outcome (i.e. teaching, research, public work) determine the training? Of course. Not as much specialization should be expected of a person headed to work in teaching or public life/policy.
What makes a “compleat historian”? (To borrow words from chapter one of the 2004 AHA report mentioned above.)
With all of these questions in relation to preparation for, and learning during, a program, how can any semblance of norms or equity be obtained, either in terms of training or outcomes? How can any one student ever be judged better than another—before admission, during the program, or after? I suppose by grades, or some holistic measure. But how does one avoid the narcissism of small differences and mere assessments of personality in these judgments, especially after the midway point of any cohort’s progression? – TL