Seeking Purpose in Graduate Course Work

History departments are changing curriculum for doctoral students, seeking to move beyond teaching professors' favorite books and toward the art of teaching.
January 6, 2009

NEW YORK -- “We were more or less raised and professionalized by wolves.”

That line by Ann Fabian, a professor of history and American studies at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, reflected the way coursework in Ph.D. programs used to be focused solely on knowledge and historiography, and was largely disconnected from the future careers of young academics.

Fabian’s comment came in a panel discussion here at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association on how graduate course work is and should be changing. Participants said that in recent years many departments have been trying to make graduate work more relevant to training their students for their teaching duties.

Kathleen Canning, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, said that she thought of the traditional model of graduate courses as “Pick your favorite books, hold forth, and wait for the graduate students to do the same.”

She advocated almost the opposite, with professors being transparent about the pedagogical goals and sharing responsibility for the class -- where appropriate -- with the grad student. “I make pedagogy explicit, and talk about it,” she said.

For example, in one graduate course she team-teaches with a colleague, the professors frame the entire course around books they haven’t previously read or taught. The goal is not just to pass along “truncated knowledge,” but to “enter the defamiliarization of the students and experience it with them.” Also along those lines, Canning said she makes sure that her graduate students are asking the first questions, and offering the first opinions in class. “I’m not letting them rely on me to be the interpreter,” she said, even if, as the course proceeds, she shares plenty of information and ideas. “I’m trying to model the kind of professional participatory skills and ethics they need.”

At the same time, she said that the graduate professor can’t just use the course for her own learning or pleasure at the latest scholarship, but must include context and (of course for historians) history. She said that one of the “irresponsible things” she sees in many graduate courses is when professors “pick the latest, hottest, coolest books and throw them at students with no background,” without a “sense of where these books have come from.”

Fabian described a series of practical components in a graduate course in history at Rutgers. There is a credit course on the teaching of history, in which students are assigned to prepare two syllabuses: one for a survey course and one for an upper level course. Students must prepare a lecture that they would give in a course, participate in programs on using and teaching students to use digital resources, and discuss how to handle the epidemic of student plagiarism.

When the course was first discussed, Fabian said, it was controversial in the department, with some people saying that this was the sort of material students should learn on the job. But the course is now valued, she said, by students and professors alike. The material produced is “very useful” for students when they go on the job market. And the course allows Rutgers professors to tell hiring committees considering one of their doctoral students that when “they land in a classroom, they know what they are doing.”

Like Canning, Lisa Lindsay, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also spoke of the need for graduate instructors to be learning alongside their graduate students. Lindsay said that she teaches graduate courses “outside my comfort zone” as a way of sharing the learning process. A historian of Africa, Lindsay teaches, among other things, a graduate course of feminist theory for historians.

Lindsay said that one of the skills in which she finds graduate students lacking -- and that she can help the most with when she is not in her specialty -- is the ability to quickly read and analyze monographs. By talking about how she is reading and “assimilating” the material, Lindsay said, she’s showing them an important skill. Another technique is to mix up the way assignments are given. In addition to standard research papers, Lindsay said she’ll make assignments that will help a given graduate student. But she added that “others benefit more with an essay on their own research in the context of the history we’ve been reading, or draft an answer to a mock comprehensive exam, or to write an undergraduate lecture or syllabus.”

George R. Trumbull IV, assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College, mentioned a problem with graduate coursework that all the other panelists immediately agreed needed attention. Too much graduate coursework, he said, consists of “students tearing down books they couldn’t have written.” This approach leaves students negative, he said, instead of making them think, “How will I make a contribution to the field?”

Trumbull suggested that graduate courses that are broad and thematic would move students away from this narrow, hypercritical mode of discussion. Others on the panel said that the piling on of criticism can freeze some students, making them fearful of putting forward any ideas.

One solution, from Lindsay of Chapel Hill: “I don’t let anyone say anything negative for the first hour we talk about a work.”


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