From the Teaching column of the October 2003 Perspectives

Preparing Future Faculty at Boston College

Kevin Kenny, October 2003

Editor's Note: During 2000–2002, the AHA received a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities under their joint program, "Shaping the Preparation of Future Social Science and Humanities Faculty," to provide funds for Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) programs in selected departments. Four history departments—of Boston College, Arizona State University (ASU), Howard University, and Florida State—participated in the AHA's program. This and the following article show different aspects of PFF in two of these settings.

Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a program designed to better prepare graduate students for their future careers, was initiated by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) in 1993. In the discipline of history, the program is administered by the AHA. The PFF approach starts from the premise that doctoral training at research universities, with its principal focus on research and the dissertation, does not always provide an adequate model for graduate students' future careers. The PFF program seeks to integrate training in service and collegiality into the research degree, thereby socializing graduate students into the profession, augmenting their chances of getting jobs, and smoothing the transition once they do so. The history department at Boston College was one of four selected by the AHA in 2000–01 to implement the PFF program. With the assistance of a grant from the AHA, the department has integrated PFF techniques into existing components of the doctoral program and added several new features. Concrete preparation for particular types of teaching careers is now built into the structure of the doctoral program.

The doctoral program at Boston College admits 6 or 7 fully funded students each year and currently has 59 enrolled. Some graduates of the program have secured jobs in research universities, but in recent years the great majority of those finding jobs have been employed by liberal-arts, state, and community colleges. Therefore, the PFF program at Boston College places a heavy emphasis on training to teach. Like any PhD program, however, the Boston College doctoral program also regards the dissertation as its top priority and the PFF program has been implemented as much to improve research and professional skills as to improve teaching. The PFF program is thus not meant to detract from the dissertation but to ensure that it is produced in conjunction with sustained classroom experience and a developing sense of studying history as a professional as well an intellectual endeavor.

At Boston College all undergraduates are required to take a two-semester sequence in history. All PhD students in history, regardless of field, consequently get extensive experience in teaching this core requirement. Traditionally, the Boston College core was in early modern and modern European history, but it is now branching out into Atlantic, Latin American, Asian, and African history. Doctoral students serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs) in the core for at least three years, working with faculty in large lecture courses and teaching their own sections. In their last year or two in the program, they get to teach their own smaller classes in the core as Teaching Fellows (TFs).

The PFF program at Boston College has served to refine and augment the long-standing tradition of teaching as an integral component of doctoral training. Innovations under the PFF program have concentrated on introducing TAs and TFs to new subject areas and to new teaching technology. Faculty have offered PFF workshops in world history and Atlantic history, sharing their syllabi, handouts, bibliographies, teaching strategies, examinations, and lists of visual and Internet resources. When they get their first jobs, many Boston College PhDs will also be expected to cover ancient or medieval history, typically as the first half of a world history or Western civilization core, but few will have had much training in those areas. Regardless of their research specialty, they may also be expected to teach American history, a subject required only in the history major at Boston College but not in the university-wide core, and hence providing only one TA and TF position per semester. Building on PFF training already offered in world and Atlantic history, future workshops will be devoted to other areas in which Boston College students have few direct opportunities for acquiring teaching experience. At Boston College recent PhDs benefit from PFF workshops that provide training in such new teaching technologies as PowerPoint, Web-CT, and Web design. Inspired by PFF, the history department has also begun to digitize its entire slide collection for use by graduate students as well as faculty.

At the heart of PFF as initially conceived by the CGS and AACU is cooperation between doctoral programs and the types of institutions where their graduates are likely to find jobs. At its most ambitious, this cooperation might involve a "cluster" of colleges and universities, but at Boston College establishing a close working relationship with one institution, Salem State University, has proved most practicable and beneficial. In spring 2002, faculty from Salem State held an all-day meeting with graduate students at Boston College, explaining the structure of their undergraduate curriculum—especially the American and world history surveys—and the practicalities of a 4-4 teaching load. They also shared techniques for teaching history to students with English as a second language or with full-time jobs. In the academic year 2002–03, Boston College graduate students were invited to Salem State to "shadow" faculty members with similar research or teaching interests, sit in on classes, and meet some of the students. Another PFF initiative designed to let doctoral candidates get a sense of their future careers has been to invite alumni back to share their experiences. One such graduate shared insights with her former colleagues at Boston College—and the deans of the graduate school—on how her doctoral training had prepared her for a tenure-track position at Holy Cross College.

As far as training in research is concerned, perhaps the most important development under the PFF program at Boston College has been the refinement of an existing, twice-monthly "Dissertation Workshop" for doctoral candidates and faculty. In its initial form the workshop had been confined to Boston College students and faculty. After the PFF program was launched, the department began to include outside participants as well (such as Eric Foner, Glenda Gilmore, Molly Nolan, David Roediger, James Barrett, and Thomas Sugrue to name a few who participated recently). Graduate students get to have lunch with and observe the presentations of some of the top historians in their fields. Required of ABD doctoral candidates but open to all graduate students and faculty, the workshop is designed to enable students to learn about presenting, responding to, and discussing professional papers. In an after-lunch session, a designated student offers a formal response to the paper to initiate general discussion. Students are also given the opportunity to present their own work, whether a dissertation proposal, a chapter, or an article in the making. The workshop meets every other week in a congenial setting, is followed by a reception, and has become an intellectual and social focus of the graduate program, and indeed of departmental life. Less formally, PhD candidates in American and European history have established their own dissertation writing groups, run by themselves with one faculty member typically in attendance at the monthly meetings.

The Dissertation Workshop is one of several aspects of the Boston College doctoral program designed to prepare students for delivering and evaluating papers at professional meetings and, eventually, for job talks. Funds from the PFF grant provided by the AHA, matched by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, have significantly assisted Boston College students in the basic but indispensable task of presenting their research at national as well as local conferences. Under the PFF program, Boston College faculty also help organize panels featuring some of their own doctoral advisees, work hard at the conference to introduce their students to historians in their fields, and generally try to make the students feel at home in what can often be an intimidating environment. In March 2003, Boston College students organized their own conference, the Seventh Boston Area Graduate History Symposium (with support from the PFF program). Students from Rutgers, the University of North Carolina, Brandeis, and Northeastern joined their Boston College counterparts in a lively daylong conference featuring papers on American, medieval and modern European, Soviet, religious, and urban history.

Maintaining morale in a graduate program is a challenge at all times, and here again the PFF program has been helpful, especially over the last year when the job market collapsed. One simple but highly effective innovation has been the circulation of a monthly electronic newsletter, produced by the graduate programs assistant (a full-time staff member who works with the director of graduate studies). The newsletter, written exclusively for graduate students (MA as well and PhD), reports recent prizes, fellowships, and publications; advertises oral examinations, defenses, and graduations; and provides publicity for a variety of social events. Simply by informing all students what others are doing, it serves to introduce them to different aspects of the profession, not least collegiality. That same spirit of cooperative professionalism is fostered in a variety of events funded in part by PFF, including a reception for all students at the beginning and end of the year, informal gatherings of TAs and of first-year students each semester, and most recently a workshop on "getting published" featuring two faculty members, a representative from a local university press, students in the later stages of their dissertations, and postdoctoral fellows.

Getting a job is obviously the most pressing need of any student finishing the PhD. For many years, the history department at Boston College has designated a faculty member as a full-time placement officer, separate from the director of graduate studies who administers all other areas of the program. Under PFF the placement officer pays detailed attention to the particular types of institution where Boston College PhDs are likely to find jobs, helping them to tailor their application letters, supporting materials, and on-campus visits accordingly. Other faculty members join the placement officer in conducting videotaped mock interviews, and students have a chance to present trial job talks to an audience of their peers and faculty. While the vagaries of the job market remain outside the control of any department, PFF at Boston College has helped graduates of the doctoral program in history compete for those positions that are available, survive the first few years of their new jobs, and begin building their careers as professional historians.

—Kevin Kenny is director of graduate studies in history at Boston College.