Thirteen years ago I began graduate school, and 24 years ago I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Of the two institutions -- graduate school and the Army -- perhaps surprisingly, my military experience has been most important in shaping my practices in the classroom. That may be because I teach survey courses at a community college rather than upper-level classes to interested majors at a research university. But, it is also because the military has honed the delivery of training over many decades, and, as I’ve discovered, military training methodology can work well outside of a military environment.
Every year, the Army recruits, at great expense, tens of thousands of young men and women. Given the costs of recruitment (and the dearth of eligible recruits), the Army cannot afford to lose many of these new soldiers. Army training is designed to take recruits who may know nothing about military life, discipline, or maneuvers, and mold them into warriors. Likewise, my task is to mold nascent scholars out of the under-performing, ill-prepared students who frequently show up in my community college classroom. I’ve found three Army practices most useful: making expectations explicit, the “crawl-walk-run” methodology, and formal evaluation of training.
Too often, we as instructors fail to adequately communicate our expectations to our students. Yes, we want a five-page analytic essay, but what does that look like? What are the components of a successful paper? And how do those components fit together? What sort of material should students use as sources? And how will students be assessed on this assignment? The army uses two tools to help its soldiers understand what’s expected of them in a specific task. First, an Army trainer shows soldiers what success looks like by performing the task correctly in front of soldiers so that soldiers “see” success. In my classroom, students see -- when the assignment is given -- what success looks like. In the case of a formal essay assignment, I hand out a similar assignment which has received an A and we, as a class, discuss what makes this worthy of an A. At this point, I also hand students a rubric that delineates exactly how I will grade the assignment.
After doing this, I deploy the Army’s second tool for communicating expectations -- a checklist to make sure that the task or assignment is completed properly. This list tells students exactly what they need to do to insure their work meets the specifications of the assignment. Giving out a checklist may seem like it inhibits students’ creativity, and I would agree in part with this criticism. But my students are more likely to leave key components of a task out than they are to be extraordinarily creative -- and for me, making sure students have a “cheat sheet” that spells out how to meet the standard is a fair trade-off. My students need to build their self-confidence, and this checklist gives them that needed boost, visibly letting them know they are meeting the requirements of the class.
“Crawl, walk, run” is both a philosophical and practical approach to assignments that works as well in my college classroom as it did for small-unit and individual training in the Army. In terms of Army training, doing a task at “crawl” speed means moving slowly and methodically through all steps, perhaps using a sand table to show individual or small unit movement through a field problem. In the classroom, it may mean taking a class through the steps of a research assignment -- going to the library, using the search tools, writing a thesis statement, assessing primary sources, evaluating the utility of secondary sources, and preparing footnotes and a bibliography.
Once students understand the individual steps, then they are ready for the “walk” phase. In Army terms, the walk iteration means that soldiers perform the task on their own, at a slow speed, with careful evaluation by leaders. In my classroom, the walk phase usually means that students, working in groups, do several of the component tasks -- select or analyze sources, write a thesis statement, or outline an argument, for instance -- and then present their work to me and the rest of the class. This practice enables students to learn from each other’s work while allowing me to critique each group’s efforts in detail, so students also get the benefit of extensive feedback from me.
Now students are ready for the “run” -- performing the assignment to standard on their own. “Crawl, walk, run” methodology allows under-prepared students the chance to build necessary skills incrementally, and it allows students who are already proficient to focus on individual steps that they may not have learned as well. Programmed correctly within the context of the course, such a methodology can also enhance a student’s understanding of course content -- the crawl and walk phases can be used in earlier sections of the course so that students are working with different material each time while still honing academic skills.
Finally, the Army stresses constant evaluation of training effectiveness. Likewise in my college classroom, I constantly evaluate my own performance as well as that of my students. I evaluate myself in several ways -- evaluating questions I get from students to see what was unclear, actively soliciting feedback from students about what was effective and what could be restructured for clarity or efficiency, and asking trusted colleagues to critique both assignments and my classroom delivery. The Army taught me to have a thick skin, and I appreciate receiving constructive criticism from students and peers. That criticism helps shape my approach to assignments in future semesters.
None of these techniques were either implicitly or explicitly taught to me in graduate school. As a teaching assistant, I watched instructors craft the delivery of their course content, but think very little about how individual assignments fit into the broad goals of their courses. Lectures, textbooks, exams and papers were all components of the course, but how they meshed together was often not clear -- to me or to the students. This methodology may not make sense at colleges with exceptionally well prepared undergraduates. But at community colleges like mine, institutions that reach many students who either didn’t have great high school preparation or for whom it was a long time ago, the training methodology I learned in the Army can be invaluable. My first department chair at Suffolk Community College used to tell me and my colleagues that our real focus should be on the middle third of the class. These Army practices help me do just that by showing capable but under-prepared students methods of achieving success using methodical guidelines. And what they learn in my class about studying and preparing assignments they can use in future classes.
Martha Kinney is an assistant professor of history at Suffolk County Community College and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. For more information about the Army's approach to training, a guide may be found here.
After Sidonie Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, took on the herculean task of asking the profession to rethink the shape of the dissertation, Arnold Pan at Post Academic took up the MLA’s call to respond. Among his suggestions was “legitimating non-academic options for Ph.D. students, beyond the more practical advice offered by the campus job center.” Much attention has also been devoted lately to what Bethany Nowviskie calls “#alt-ac,” the alternative academic track for humanities scholars.
But humanities education needs to do more than change the shape of the dissertation, legitimate non-academic jobs, or validate academic jobs that are not tenure-track teaching posts. The crisis in academic humanities, brought on by years of focus on nothing but turning out professor-wannabes, has to be addressed long before the job-placement stage. Long before the dissertation stage. We need to train Ph.D. students differently from the first day of graduate school.
If we value the humanities enough to teach them at the undergraduate level, if we believe that humanities education produces thoughtful, critical, self-aware global citizens, then we need to recognize that advanced training in the humanities cannot be simply the province of aspiring tenure-track faculty members. If there’s no prospect of a tenure-track job in the humanities, and humanities graduate programs train students for nothing but tenure-track jobs, how long can these programs be sustainable?
The current job crisis may be just the impetus graduate humanities education needs in order to recognize that what it has to offer is essential to this democracy, and essential to training leaders in a whole range of fields, far beyond academics.
As Pan, Nowviskie, and others point out, if most graduate programs devote a thought to "non-academic" careers for their Ph.D.s, they make very clear that there are indeed only two categories — academic and undesirable, i.e., everything else in the entire world. It’s that everything else we should be addressing, though.
Among my own friends I count a director of a state humanities council, a director of a university women's center, and a director of a state Center for the Book. Graduate work in the humanities has been absolutely essential to each of those professionals, in the sense that they learned writing, research, and analytical skills that they use every day. They discussed values, ethics, and aesthetics, and they applied abstract theory to concrete texts. They learned to develop complex arguments, to balance competing claims, to present clear positions. Yet in none of their graduate careers did any of them get any acknowledgment that such preparation might be of good use in any number of professional contexts. And in none of their graduate careers were any of them offered any coursework or workshops that focused on anything other than their academic disciplines.
What would a humanities Ph.D. program look like if it saw itself as preparing professional humanists rather than simply humanities professors? Courses from outside our departments could complement our intensive training in a chosen area of specialization. Deep work in a specialized area is most valuable, teaching us organization, research, writing, and often collaboration skills that are necessary in any humanities field. But how many of us, even in academic positions, would have benefited from a graduate course in organizational structures? In grant writing? In state and federal government? In arts administration?
A doctoral program that allows such courses to count toward the degree would be the stronger for it, I believe. If programs allowed two or three of these pre-professional courses in three years' of coursework, the loss of discipline-based courses would be more than made up for by the benefits of increased job prospects. Students who didn't want the courses needn't be force-marched into them, but the humanities departments would need to endorse the new approach. That will be the tough part -- getting faculty who might be unaware of these humanities-based professional careers to steer students in this new direction.
And it’s not just coursework that should change. Graduate student employment would need a shift in emphasis as well. Most grad student work in the humanities is teaching and research assistantships, of course. These jobs are not designed to prepare graduate students for careers as faculty members, though; they’re designed to teach the undergraduates at a very low rate of pay. But there are other jobs at the university, jobs that are equally designed to exploit graduate student labor but that offer training in a bigger variety of skills. When I was in grad school, I did survey research in the school of education and taught outside my department, in both the journalism school and the business school. I had friends who worked in administrative offices in women’s studies and African American studies. A guy in my department worked in the university’s foundation office and eventually went there full-time.
The one thing that all those jobs had in common, however, was that my home department neither placed us in the jobs nor recognized that the jobs offered anything of value to a humanities degree. Imagine a humanities department that assembled a list of jobs from all over campus and asked graduate students to consider what they might learn from each. Or, even better, a department that asked its graduate students to compile an electronic portfolio that collected work from both humanities courses and graduate employment. The portfolio could include an essay in which the student reflected on the skills and knowledge he or she was acquiring and the ways those things might be useful after the degree. It wouldn’t have to be a job portfolio, but it would have to ask the student to think about what he or she was learning, beyond the theory and content in the discipline.
A humanities department that really saw the value in placing thoughtful, well-trained humanists in government, nonprofit associations, and even business or the military, could shape a graduate experience around the idea of the humanist at large. Such a direction need not, and indeed should not, be a separate track. These wider opportunities and broader coursework should be available to all humanities graduate students. How much better would academics be in our committee work or as department chairs or in national organizations if we had been prepared in our graduate programs for those parts of our jobs that did not revolve around research or teaching?
We are beginning to acknowledge that the graduate training we offer in the humanities is simply not fair to our students, the vast majority of whom will never get tenure-track jobs in their disciplines. But the worth of humanities graduate education need not depend on the number of tenure-track humanists it produces. Graduate education in the humanities is an excellent preparation for many, many careers. But our students should not have to find those careers on their own, and they should not have to think of those careers as “non-academic” careers—the jobs we take when we can’t get the jobs we’ve been trained for. Humanities education needs to take itself seriously. We believe that undergraduate humanities programs produce thoughtful, informed, global citizens. Now we need to decide what we really want graduate humanities programs to produce.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. She serves on the board of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
Master’s degree programs in history play a role far more influential than would be indicated by the number of students enrolled. Because those students go on to either earn Ph.D.’s, teach in community colleges, teach in high schools or work in "public history," these programs have a broad impact on what millions of Americans will be taught about history.