Where is the Mastery in the History Master's Degree

Philip M. Katz, November 2003

In the mid-1990s, the National Park Service set out to define the "essential competencies" required for virtually every category of employment at the agency, as part of an ambitious staff development plan.1 What they discovered, and what I have rediscovered after examining scores of history department web sites, is that most departments cannot offer a clear, effective, or operational statement of intended outcomes for their master's degree programs. What some offer, instead, are banal statements like the following sentence, which is paraphrased from several actual examples: "Our master's students will develop scholarly and professional skills and complete an acceptable thesis." Usually these outcome statements—or mission statements; the two genres are barely distinguishable—show signs of having been crafted specifically for the purposes of a program review by an accrediting agency or other outside force. That being said, a few history departments do provide exemplary statements of outcomes for their master's programs, and the AHA Committee on the Master's Degree is eager to collect and promote further examples. 2

We should not criticize history departments too harshly for their failure to construct operational outcome statements. Like most academics, historians have "an antipathy towards perceptions of managerialism and [the] loss of autonomy" that often come with any effort to objectify evaluation and assessment. After all, our discipline has only slowly begun to accept the evaluation of student outcomes at the undergraduate level. The "sheer complexity and ambiguity" of graduate- level work and the sheer diversity of master's programs, even within the single discipline of history, make graduate assessment even more complicated.3

And yet, as Peter Knight, a British researcher who has closely studied master's degree programs across the Anglophone world, admonishes, "If the assessment of student learning does not attend to the range of knowledge, skills and other qualities that the department claims to be fostering through a master's programme, it is almost certain that the department is not delivering what it claims—that the pedagogy is faulty." Some observers would place the responsibility for assessment in the hands of university administrators. But we believe the process needs to start at the departmental level, and agree with Knight that assessment begins with a clear statement of desirable outcomes. We are also encouraged by the fact that "In single discipline areas with strong academic traditions [such as history,] the process for judging standards, if not of making them explicit, is well established."4

During the past year, the Committee on the Master's Degree has taken a deductive approach to rethinking and reforming master's- level education. Joslyn Green recommended the same approach in a collection of essays on master's education that she edited in 1987. The process begins with a simple question: "Ought there to be a distinction between work done for a Bachelor's . . . and a Master's?" Green answered, "Clearly there ought to be. My point is that one could reach that conclusion deductively, reasoning one's way from an understanding of a discipline to a sense of what aspects of that discipline are best presented to students at what stages. One need not wait passively for a program review to reveal . . . [the] external evidence of weakness on which inductive reasoning depends."5 The other inductive approach to defining the essential goals of history master's degree—that is, to craft an ideal type from the actual practices at the 435 institutions that offer some variety of master's degree for historians—is simply impracticable.

In this spirit, in May 2003 the committee convened a focus group of historians in New York City to discuss the essential nature and optimal goals of the history master's degree. There, and again at the later focus groups we convened, our guiding assumption was the existence of a common terrain of knowledge, skills, professional understandings, and habits of mind for all historians, regardless of their particular career paths or aspirations. As a corollary, we also assumed that master's degree students who intended to become secondary- school teachers, public historians, archivists, college instructors, doctoral students, etc., might require some additional, more specialized training beyond the common core.

The New York group included community college instructors, faculty members from master's and doctoral programs, public historians, history educators, historians who train future secondary teachers, and graduate students. (The subsequent focus groups included a similar mix of historians.) In the course of a long afternoon, they compiled the following "elements of mastery" for an ideal history master's degree. They also acknowledged the great difficulty of fitting so many goals into a relatively brief graduate program. The elements are presented here seriatim rather than being sorted into any formal scheme:

  • Master's-level students need to be taught historiography and the "philosophy of history."

  • They should become "educated history generalists."

  • Master's recipients should know something about the history of the profession.

  • They should know the history of their own institutions (so they can understand other sorts of educational institutions later).

  • The ability to conduct primary and secondary research.

  • Some capacity in a foreign language.

  • The ability to "draw conclusions from … [a] historical narrative."

  • There needs to be some kind of cognitive or intellectual transformation that makes the students "think like a historian."

  • Familiarity (and capacity) with new technologies, especially for teaching and/or the public presentation of history, but also for research.

  • Facility with the Internet (again, both for research and teaching/presentation).

  • The ability to discern good historical resources on the Internet (for classroom use especially).

  • A broad knowledge of geography (which several people mentioned was sorely lacking on the part of undergraduates and graduate students, much less students in the lower grades).

  • Pedagogical skills, broadly defined (i.e., not just "nuts- and- bolts" approaches to classroom management, but a deeper appreciation of the cognitive challenges of teaching history).

  • The ability to create (or at least appreciate) a museum exhibit or other public history presentations.

  • The ability to engage the public on any level.

  • Critical thinking (or, as one participant put it, "immersion in various kinds of interpretive skills" coupled with a "systematic curiosity about a variety of subjects," with an emphasis on the systematic).

  • Training to teach history, ideally at more than one level (secondary, postsecondary, etc.).

  • The ability to formulate issues and explain the before, after, and significance of a historical event to a variety of audiences (in other words, the ability to form historical questions and construct historical narratives, using primary and/or secondary materials).

  • Excellent writing skills.

  • Excellent "people skills."

  • A capacity to use and interpret material culture and visual sources (such as works of art), in addition to more traditional print sources.

  • Intellectual curiosity.

  • The history master's degree needs to fill a distinctive niche between the BA and PhD.

  • Students should be expected to write a major research project, including primary and secondary research, though this does not necessarily have to take the form of a thesis.

  • Master's programs should include a teaching internship or other practicum.

 

In July 2003, another focus group of historians and history educators gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, in conjunction with a national conference on "Innovations in Collaboration: A School-University Model to Enhance History Teaching, K–16," co- sponsored by the AHA. This group compiled a similar list of ideal outcomes for the master's degree. As before, some items on the list relate more to the structure of graduate programs, others to the intellectual content, and still others to the motivations and accomplishments of individual students:

  • Master's degrees in history should indicate the mastery of substantial historical content, especially given the recurring demand for "more subject content" in the training of new K–12 teachers.

  • A breadth of historical knowledge is probably more important than depth.

  • Master's programs should require a research project involving primary sources, but with an emphasis on analysis. This project does not have to take the form of a traditional thesis; indeed, the format of the research project should be tailored to each student's career goal. The challenge is creating alternatives to the thesis that demonstrate content mastery, a familiarity with primary research, and historical analysis. A related challenge is making sure that these different projects are commensurate in quality and rigor – and making sure that they are seen as being commensurate by employers, other historians, etc.

  • There should be close attention to historiography, both in a strictly bibliographic sense (i.e., a tradition of historical writing on specific issues) and in the sense of history as a mental construct: as one participant put it, students should learn that "History is a problem, not a story."

  • A teaching component – or, more broadly, training in the "presentation of history to non- specialists" (which encompasses classroom instruction at all levels as well as the full range of public history). As several people noted, this would require graduate programs "to take teaching seriously," which they don't always do at present.

  • An introduction to pedagogy and theories of learning (i.e., the cognitive processes involved in teaching and learning).

  • A global (or at least a comparative) perspective on history.

  • Master's programs should promote collaboration and provide a model for collaborative work among historians.

  • Master's students should be fully conversant with new media. This should have both a practical component (How do various new technologies work? How can they be applied in the classroom?) and a critical component (How do we judge the effectiveness of new technologies? How do we judge the quality of historical material conveyed via new technologies – starting with the Web? Does the medium change the message?)

  • More attention should be paid to writing and other communication skills, which are often strikingly deficient among PhD recipients, much less MA recipients!

 

A third focus group met in mid- September at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. The participants reviewed the two lists presented above and agreed that the earlier groups were on the right track; other reviewers have concurred in this opinion. Of course, the lists are not exhaustive—nor are they intended to be. But they do begin to define a "middle range" of outcomes for the history master's degree, which can later be refined into a model set of program standards and model assessment strategies. (By "middle range," I mean everything between the very largest questions associated with the master's degree—"What distinguishes all master's degrees from all baccalaureate or doctoral degrees?" or "Does the history MA serve a socially useful function?"—and such narrow outcomes as the number of required seminars or the criteria for grading a master's thesis, which are properly addressed at the departmental level.)

In the weeks ahead, the Committee on the Master's Degree will continue to wrestle with the question "Where is the mastery in the history master's degree?" In the meantime, we invite our colleagues to share their own answers to this and related questions: What should the holders of a master's degree know? What should they be able to do? What is the best way for a history department, together with other stakeholders, to develop a list of target outcomes for a master's degree program? What is the best way to make the outcomes known to graduate students, potential employers, and other interested parties? What is the best way to measure student accomplishments against these outcomes? And should the master's degree be an implicit warranty that the targets outcomes have been reached?

The committee will host an open forum on these issues at the annual meeting of the AHA, on Friday, January 9, from 2:30 to 4:30. Please join us there.

—Philip M. Katz is research director of the Committee on the Master's Degree in History. The committee's work is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Notes

1. See http://www.nps.gov/training/npsonly/RSC/historia.htm for the results of this effort.

2. Three good examples are offered by Illinois State University http://www.assessment.ilstu.edu/program/history.htm, the State University of West Georgia http://www.westga.edu/~history/assessmentfrom%20fachandbook.htm, and Washington College in Maryland <http://grad.washcoll.edu/history.html>. Significantly, none of these institutions has a doctoral program in history.

3. Richard James and Craig McInnes, "Coursework Master's Degrees and Quality Assurance: Implicit and Explicit Factors at Programme Level," Quality in Higher Education 3:2 (1997), 108–9.

4. Peter T. Knight, "Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in Taught Master's Courses," in Knight, ed., Masterclass: Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in Taught Master's Degrees (London: Cassell, 1997), 8; Pauline Thorne, "Standards and Quality in Taught Master's Programmes," in Knight, 27.

5. Joslyn L. Green, "A Cri de Coeur—And Questions to Consider," in Green, ed., The Master's Degree: Jack of All Trades (Denver: SHEEO Association, 1987), 55.