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From the AHA Activities column in the September 2000 Perspectives

AHA Launches Study of Graduate Education

Thomas Bender, September 2000

Over the course of the past half century, as we all know, the historical profession has changed in profound and important ways—in numbers of historians, the social composition of the profession, employment opportunities, the diversity of work-settings of historians, levels of specialization and professional identities, the place of history in American public life and in the liberal arts curriculum of high schools and colleges, and, most important of all, in its intellectual content, including a vast expansion of the subject matter of history. All of these changes have implications for the training of future historians, and it is the responsibility of professional associations to explore these implications. While it is true that every local situation is distinctive, there are commonalities that unite the profession and there are particularly effective educational strategies that ought to be more widely known. The profession as a whole has a shared commitment to the best possible preparation of historians for their various academic and public roles.

Toward that end, the AHA Council created a Committee on Graduate Education, chaired by Colin Palmer of Princeton University, to undertake on behalf of the Association an examination of doctoral training in history. The Carnegie Corporation of New York has provided substantial resources to support this multiyear self-study. The objective of the committee, broadly stated, is to ensure that the profession's many and diverse doctoral programs, which both sustain the discipline and prepare historians for professional work, are effectively training the next generation of teachers (broadly defined) and researchers.

This examination will be the first such inquiry into the professional training of historians since the 1950s, when a committee chaired by Dexter Perkins, also funded by the Carnegie Corporation, organized a study. The results of that study were reported in a volume authored by John Snell, The Education of Historians in the United States (New York, 1959). Much has changed since then and another study is warranted.

The current committee has three general objectives: first, it will seek to determine the changes that have (and have not) occurred in the various programs across the country; second, it will seek to identify those innovations in preparing students both as teachers and researchers that seem to deserve broader attention and that might serve to stimulate fruitful local curricular discussions; and, third, it will seek to learn more about the expectations of employers of historians, whether in colleges, research universities, museums, historical agencies, and other employers of professional historians. In order to obtain a clear sense of the national shape of doctoral education and entry-level employment, the committee intends to develop a survey instrument that will be supplemented by site visits to selected institutions.

With that knowledge base as a foundation, the committee will make such recommendations to the profession as seems appropriate. These are not to be prescriptions but rather talking points for departments. Along the way, the intention is to involve department chairs and other members of the Association in conversations about the challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities of doctoral faculties.

Since what happens in doctoral programs has such an impact on the undergraduate history curriculum, various general education or liberal arts curricula, and on K–12 teaching, the committee will be attentive to the role and practice of history education at these levels as well. More generally, the question of the balance between teaching and research in doctoral training will be pursued, including the extent of responsibility doctoral training programs should assume for preparing teachers (broadly defined) as well as researchers.

Although in the course of its work the committee will no doubt move in some unanticipated directions, its guiding questions, 13 in number, were outlined for the AHA Council at its January 2000 meeting:

  1. To develop an intellectual rationale for the place of history in graduate education in accordance with changing national and global needs;
  2. To examine the recruitment patterns of graduate students with special attention to social class, sex, and ethnicity;
  3. To undertake a critical review of the nature of graduate training in history, being careful to examine the practices of a wide range of institutions;
  4. To undertake a critical review of pedagogical practices and methods of testing and student evaluation in the various graduate programs;
  5. To undertake a critical review of existing fields and areas of specialization in history;
  6. To inquire whether history graduate curricula have changed in accordance with the changing national and global intellectual and political climates, with particular reference to geographical coverage;
  7. To recommend ways to give history a more significant place in public life;
  8. To undertake a critical assessment of financial aid for graduate study, current employment opportunities in history, and the relationship between the production of M.A.'s, Ph.D.'s, and the job market.
  9. To inquire into the employment expectations of historians and the expectations of potential employers of historians;
  10. To consider and make recommendations on the ways in which graduate students in history can be trained to become more effective teachers;
  11. To examine and make recommendations to foster closer relationships, and a cross-fertilization of ideas among university-based historians, high school teachers, and the faculty at community colleges;
  12. To examine and make recommendations regarding the relations between history departments and programs of teacher education in schools of education;
  13. To make recommendations regarding future direction of graduate education in history, broadly conceived.

The membership of the Committee on Graduate Education approved by the Council seeks as much diversity as is possible on a small committee—of field, of stage in career (including graduate students), of gender and race, of type of institution, of geography. Of course, more perspectives will be helpful, and the committee plans in the course of its work to bring into the process advisors representing a variety of fields and perspectives. And at various points, but surely at the annual meeting, it plans to establish opportunities for open dialogue.

Not only is this project central to the responsibilities of the American Historical Association as a disciplinary organization, but it will also be the work and the product of the profession as a whole. Its success depends upon the cooperation and effective collaboration of history departments and historians across the country.

—Thomas Bender is professor of history at New York University and is secretary of the AHA Committee on Graduate Education.