Letters to the Editor

A Very Modest Proposal?

Catherine Cocks, December 2011

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To the Editor:

Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman's proposal for graduate education in history is, indeed, very modest. It seems to amount to tenured and tenure-track faculty being nicer to those unfortunates who don't have such jobs, plus asking graduate students to take additional coursework in fields other than history to ensure that they can find work after earning their PhDs. Apparently this additional coursework won't slow the already glacial time to degree further because people writing their dissertations these days have lots of free time that they waste in existential melancholy. (That's a new one on me—almost everyone I went to grad school with spent most of their "free" time TA'ing, adjuncting, stuffing newspaper inserts, waiting tables, and doing data entry to pay the rent.) And there's no need to reconsider the dissertation as a culmination of graduate study, because nothing but a book requires specialized research, the management and analysis of large amounts of data, and the presentation of that analysis in an accessible format.

I've heard this kind of proposal many times since the mid-1990s, and my father says he heard it in the 1970s, too, and it has produced no real change. If graduate programs are serious about preparing historians for a broad array of jobs, they must incorporate a variety of coursework in their own curricula, not just encourage students to poach from other fields. Moreover, they need to accept a wide array of large-scale research projects as proof of mastery: exhibits, database-driven websites, documentary films, documentary editing projects, or museum outreach programming, just to name a few. The AHA should have a booth and workshops featuring historians working in archives, publishing programs, museums, corporations, government agencies, and non-profits every year, not just once in a while—and these events should not be run by faculty members who have good intentions but no practical experience in nonacademic work.

Until the happy day when graduate programs actually do what I've heard preached so often, would-be historians should take their talents to museum studies, library science, and information science.

—Catherine Cocks