From the Letters to the Editor column of the April 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
On Rethinking Graduate History Education
Louis Haas, April 2009
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To the Editor:
I enjoyed Jonathan Rose’s article, “Rethinking Graduate Education in History,” in the February 2009 Perspectives on History. I found it informative and useful in all sorts of ways, especially since we at Middle Tennessee State University introduced an innovative PhD program in public history during fall 2005. I found all sorts of parallels as well as interesting differences set forth in this article. Like our colleagues at Drew University, we pondered the nature of how to examine students regarding scholarly literature. In a Solomon-like compromise we decided to retain the traditional written and oral examination for the history minor field of our program and introduced portfolios for the public history major field and the interdisciplinary minor field.
I am, however, troubled by portfolio examinations, wondering if they are as effective and as rigorous as the traditional method. Part of my problem stems from the viewpoint echoed in Jonathan’s article, that after the PhD examinations historians will never have to face off-the-cuff grilling for hours. I disagree. Every time we go to conferences and interact with colleagues we face this, especially in the Q and A sessions. We throw books and ideas and theories at each other with abandon. We do this over drinks, at receptions, during dinners, at the bars, in our rooms at night. I have one colleague whose pleasant luncheon conversations with me remind me of my oral defense, he is just so knowledgeable and curious. We do this anytime we meet—from AP readings to our own hallway conversation with colleagues. I fear that if we do not introduce students to this process of off-the-cuff historical discourse, we are not only doing them a disservice, we also will be putting them at a disadvantage. We have already seen them writing historiographical essays in colloquiums. Now how do they act as real historians?
Conducting closed-book, sit-down examinations is what historians do anytime they rub elbows—or during job interviews.
Middle Tennessee State University