According to this article at Inside Higher Ed about an AHA roundtable last Sunday, “A Learning Process: Revisiting the Role of Graduate Coursework in the Making of a Historian,” graduate courses should be “more relevant to training their students for their teaching duties.” Sounds good, right? Well, how that’s actually supposed to happen is a little unclear. On the one hand, Kathleen Canning of the University of Michigan decried what she called the old model of “[p]ick your favorite books, hold forth, and wait for the graduate students to do the same.” On the other hand, faculty shouldn’t just “‘pick the latest, hottest, coolest books and throw them at students with no background,’ without a ‘sense of where these books have come from.’” Instead, faculty should strive to
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.”
I realize that most of us with Ph.D.s have only one graduate institution–and therefore can’t know what graduate training is like at other institutions in any detail–but this doesn’t strike me as a particularly new model of graduate education. This sounds like just basic, thoughful instruction at the graduate level–like the graduate education I received nearly 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Our profs assigned a few classics–in my area of specialization, books like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, and Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black, and perhaps signal works by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, but nothing more than 25 years old at the time. Otherwise, we read mostly new to newish contributions to the historiography (in 1990-93, I read books that were overwhelmingly published between 1980-93). Maybe Penn was just an incubator of brilliant graduate advisers and self-confident grad students, but professors rarely “led” discussion–it was more like they had to duck out of the way of the volley of impassioned comments from scary smart graduate students. (I’m talking about my classmates–Historiann was too young and out of her league, and by far the dumbest in the class.)
Moreover, while there was some gratuitous beating on the books, there were always students and faculty members who spoke up for books and defended their many insights and clever innovations–I don’t recall ever being invited to participate in a ritual dismemberment of a book. The tone in our discussions was passionate sometimes, but always respectful. We weren’t there because we wanted to sneer collectively at books and their authors–we were there because we admired historians and the books they wrote, and we were hoping to emulate them some day. Sure, there were one or two classes that I thought weren’t all they could have been–but by and large, I was invited to learn at the feet of masters, and I was grateful. I’m even more grateful now to hear that I was the beneficiary of such cutting-edge graduate training, 16-18 years ahead of the curve!
One innovation noted at this discussion is Ann Fabian’s description of a graduate course at Rutgers ”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.” That surely is very helpful for their students–there was lots of talk about inventing a course like this on teaching methods at Penn in the early 1990s, or at least building more mentoring into our TA-ships, but nothing ever came of it in my years. I think a course like this is really necessary now, because the expectations for teaching (as for research) are so much higher these days. When I finished my degree 12 years ago, PowerPoint was a new gadget that few scholars knew how to use well. (I sat through a lot of meetings and lectures at my former university where people used it very badly–they put together a bunch of boring slides and read the slides verbatim in the meeting although they had handed out a xeroxed stack of the same boring slides so that you could follow along while they were being projected onto a screen and read out loud for you. I wish this were exaggerated for comic effect, but it’s not!) But the days when new lecturers were permitted to flounder around talking from notes cribbed hours before from a few library books are over–now you have to have the PowerPoint, the embeds, the BlackBoard, the BlackBerry, the web 2.0 at your fingertips, and be an expert at using these technologies too, in addition to being an expert in your field.
But other than a class in teaching methods–what’s wrong with historiography being the backbone of graduate education? It’s historiography that makes us professional historians. The lede of the IHE story is a comment by Fabian to the effect that graduate education ”used to be focused solely on knowledge and historiography, and was largely disconnected from the future careers of young academics.” But historiography, and lots of it, is what we need before we can stand before a room and profess about differing schools of thought on the significance of the Nullification Crisis, the debate on whether or not there was a “Great Awakening” at all in the eighteenth century, or the evolution in thinking about the Investiture Controversy. Historiography invites questions of epistemology–how do we know what we (think we) know? Reading in-depth about these problems and asking further questions enlarges graduate student brains and worlds. Historiography is crucial to professionalization–it’s what we need before we can begin to think about getting a crummy conference paper accepted, let alone published some day. In some ways historiography is a “secret handshake” we’re given as part of our initiation in the profession–but it’s also a respectful acknowledgement of the valuable work of our predecessors.
We had a discussion here last summer about “Centers for Teaching and Learning” and their implicit message that reading deeply and widely in one’s field is less important to quality teaching than workshops that purport to teach us how to teach. I want to defend historiography along similar lines: I don’t understand why professional historians would want to devalue historiography, when after all, it’s what we do, and it’s what no one else does.
What was (or is) your graduate training like? (Can I be the only person who feels that she was well served by her graduate mentors?) Do you want to join me in taking up arms to defend historiography, or do you think there are dramatically different ways to train professional historians? I’m listening!