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From the Annual Meeting 2004 column of the March 2004 Perspectives

AHA Holds Workshop on Graduate Training

AHA Staff, March 2004

To mark the official debut of the AHA's comprehensive report on the subject of graduate training, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, published by the University of Illinois Press, and to explore some of the issues raised in the report, an innovative workshop was conducted on Thursday, January 8, 2004, just before the 118th annual meeting commenced. About 60 historians, including a number of graduate students and recent PhD recipients, participated in the workshop.

In her opening remarks, AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones described the origins and goals of the new report, which incorporates nearly three years of research and deliberation by the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE). Writing the report, she noted, was "just the beginning . now we have to encourage doctoral programs to implement its recommendations." She asked the participants to consider the specific recommendations in the report, to discuss the general issues facing graduate education today, and to suggest future measures that the AHA should undertake to improve graduate training.

Jones's comments were followed by presentations from the three principal authors of The Education of Historians. Thomas Bender (NYU), who had served as the secretary of the CGE, began by describing the context for the AHA's interest in graduate education. After pointing to three fundamental changes in the historical profession since World War II—the intellectual transformation of the discipline, a substantial demographic shift (among both faculty members and students), and chronic instability in the "employment situation"—he noted that graduate training has been remarkably slow to respond to these changes. But there are hopeful signs for change in the future, especially in the form of a generational succession that is leading many individual departments to reconsider their practices and priorities.

Philip M. Katz (research director for the CGE) then spoke about the profession's need for more accurate, more reliable, more consistent, and more useful data about graduate training. As a rule, he noted, history departments do not gather enough information about their graduate programs or their graduate students. This makes it difficult for departments to engage in effective strategic planning or self-assessment. It also makes it difficult for prospective graduate students to become well-informed consumers. The new report proposes a centralized directory of key data about graduate education, to which every department with a doctoral program would be encouraged (by moral suasion and peer pressure, if nothing else) to contribute its own "vital statistics." Katz described some of the challenges to implementing such a directory (for example, the lack of staff resources), and asked the workshop participants for their advice.

Colin Palmer (Princeton Univ.), who had chaired the CGE, rounded out the first panel with a discussion of departmental planning, which begins with better information-gathering but also requires thoughtful department chairs, respected directors of graduate studies (who need to be seen as "intellectual leaders" rather than bureaucrats), and a willingness to engage in self-criticism. "Have the courage to abandon old ways of doing things," he urged, and "eschew intellectual smugness." This sparked a spirited conversation with the audience about the narrow vision of many doctoral programs, which continue to train historians for one career path—teaching at a research-oriented university.

After a break, the workshop participants broke into five smaller groups to discuss "Self-Assessment and Strategic Planning"; "Building a Doctoral Cohort: Admissions and Funding"; "Diversity, Retention, and Departmental Culture(s)"; "Curricular Transformation"; and "Educating Historians for Realistic Careers." The breakout sessions provided an opportunity for the participants to discuss particular aspects of graduate training, to consider specific recommendations contained in The Education of Historians, to share their personal experiences of graduate school (as students and/or instructors), and to compare notes about the curricula and training at their own institutions. These sessions were probably the most important elements of the entire workshop, because, as several participants noted, there are few other opportunities for historians to talk about the nuts and bolts of graduate training (much less the larger philosophical issues involved in preparing new members of the profession).

In the final hour of the workshop, three historians and a graduate school dean offered various reflections on The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, as informed by their own institutional relationships to the process of graduate education. David Chang (Univ. of Minnesota) focused on the powerlessness that many graduate students experience during their training. He applauded the report for its frankness on a number of specific topics, including the oversupply of new PhDs, the bias against nonacademic career aspirations, and the inadequate preparation of doctoral students as teachers ("grad programs teach us to be graduate students," Chang explained, "not to be historians, faculty members, or teachers"). It was acknowledged, however, that a commitment to procedural transparency—which the report also embraces—can only do so much to alleviate the structural imbalances of power between students and faculty members.

Robin Fleming (Boston Coll.) spoke from the perspective of a former director of graduate studies. Spurred by its participation in the Preparing Future Faculty initiative, the history department at Boston College has already implemented a number of recommendations contained in the new report, including a multiyear package of full funding for incoming doctoral students, more comprehensive teacher training, a cohesive introductory seminar for first-year students, additional funding for graduate students to attend academic conferences, and the introduction of a placement officer. The result has been "a better program . [that produces] better future faculty."

Speaking as a department chair, Alice Kessler-Harris (Columbia Univ.) admitted that her initial reaction to the report was a defensive wariness, which did begin to lift as she reviewed the report's specific recommendations. She then launched into a thoughtful analysis of four inherent contradictions in graduate training that make reform a difficult process: First, the "contradiction of incompatible interests" (what students want and what faculty members want from graduate training is not always the same thing). Second, the "hierarchical contradiction," in which a very small number of institutions (fewer than 5 percent) produce a large number of the new history professors in the country (more than 30 percent); elite doctoral programs want to "reproduce" themselves, but most of their students will never teach at similar institutions. Third, the contradiction between an expanding notion of historical scholarship, which now embraces a remarkable geographic and social diversity, and the shrinking (or at least static) diversity of the historical profession itself. And fourth, the contradiction between the public and the professional understandings of history, which seem to diverge more and more all the time.

Finally, Orlando Taylor (Howard Univ.), a dean of graduate studies, offered an "outsider's" perspective. He applauded the AHA for tackling the big issues in graduate education—interdisciplinarity, better career preparation, diversity in all its forms, and teaching as a scholarly activity—but noted that many other groups are also tackling these issues. He also noted that history departments face multiple challenges today, all of which have implications for graduate training: the competition for funds, the competition for students (between institutions and within institutions alike), the changing demographics of graduate students, the rise of "asynchronous education" (through the Internet and other nontraditional forms of teaching), the increased student interest in interdisciplinarity, and the fluidity of modern careers. After a period of questions and answers, Colin Palmer concluded the workshop with some informal comments about the AHA's ongoing commitment to graduate education. Most important, he said, the AHA should not have to rely on ad hoc committees to examine the problems associated with graduate training—especially when the committees are created at four-decade intervals! Instead, all historians should be concerned about the education and nurturing of the next generation of colleagues.