For anyone embarking on a graduate program in history, a few things are certain at the outset: you will participate in discussions and debates with colleagues; you will write a lot, including research papers and a dissertation; you will attend countless presentations, and likely deliver a few yourself; and you will teach, a responsibility that includes lecturing, leading discussions, and mentoring students. These seemingly disparate parts of graduate school all work to cultivate different facets of one indispensable skill: communication.
The definition of communication—the process of conveying and exchanging information—and its relevance to historians may seem self-evident. But while graduate programs in history do heavily emphasize one form of written communication—the scholarly article or monograph—few actively expose students to other forms, such as drafting a memorandum on a tight deadline, honing public speaking skills, or writing for a nonacademic audience.
AHA Career Diversity for Historians has identified the ability to communicate to different audiences across different media as essential to flourishing in careers both within and beyond the academy, and although they are not frequently emphasized as such, opportunities to hone a broad range of communication skills are readily available in graduate programs. Conference presentations and classroom lectures constitute examples of public speaking—the act of delivering a speech with the goal of informing and engaging an audience. Participating in classroom discussions and workshops provide opportunities to develop interpersonal communication skills like evaluating and debating arguments as well as confidently and clearly articulating one’s ideas. Leading discussions among students or colleagues also allows for moments to cultivate active learning, and to develop the ability to hear and respond to others constructively to help a group arrive at mutual understanding.
In an environment where everyone is constantly writing, it is easy for students to overlook that clearly conveying ideas in print is also a valuable skill. In particular, the type of writing fostered by graduate training—the ability to carefully weigh evidence from various sources and distill this massive amount of information into an argument—is a highly valued skill in careers and contexts outside the academy.
Diversifying communication skills is far from a distraction from the real work of historians, but rather an essential part of what it means to be trained in the discipline.
By Lindsey Martin
For more ideas on communication and how graduate programs can help students develop this skill, read Lindsey Martin’s (Univ. of Chicago) post on AHA Today, "Communication: The Skill You're Probably Taking for Granted," from which this introduction was adapted. For resources on communication for grad students, see below. For resources for faculty on teaching communication, see Faculty Resources for Developing Communication Skills.
Articles and Blog Posts
By Chris Dunlap, AHA Today, 9 July 2015
Christopher Dunlap, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, provides an overview of a new event in his department that challenges graudate students to distill their research into short, five-minute presentations accompanied by visual presentations.
To the Fifth Floor and Beyond: Re-setting the Compass on Career Diversity with the Perfect Elevator Pitch
By Emily Lynn Osborn, AHA Today, 4 June 2015
Emily Lynn Osborn, one of the faculty directors of the AHA's Career Diversity for Historians initiative at the University of Chicago, outlines why it is important for graduate students to be able to describe their research in a swift, compelling, and accessible manner and details how a workshop at Chicago is helping them develop that skill.
By Alma Igra and Luca Provenzano, AHA Today, 23 April 2015
Alma Igra and Luca Provenzano, graduate students at Columbia University, discuss a clinic course in their department that helped students explore how to share their research with the public and some of the challenges historians face when they seek to engage non-academic audiences.
By Emily Lynn Osborn, AHA Today, 7 April 2015
Emily Lynn Osborn describes a public speaking workshop organized at the University of Chicago as part of the AHA's Career Diversity for Historians initiative and argues that effective communication is essential to the work of historians, regardless of where they work.
By Christine Axen, AHA Today, 2 February 2015
Christine Axen, PhD Candidate at Boston University and winner of the poster contest at the 2015 annual meeting of the AHA, describes how the process of creating and presenting a poster pushed her to think about her research in new ways and to developed increased confidence in her work as a historian.
Panelists at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Historical Association discuss "Why and How We Should Write Op-Eds and Engage the Media." As historians with experience writing op-eds and other commentary for local and national publications, they reflect on the importance of speaking to the public and offer practical strategies from crafting an article to the mechanics of submitting it for publication. Speakers include William Jelani Cobb, Jonathan Zimmerman, Katherine Landdeck, and Yoni Appelbaum.
Scholars and professionals in the field of publishing discuss what it means to write and publish history for a public audience at the University of New Mexico's 2015 Career Diversity Conference, "What Use is History?" Speakers include Ari Kelman (Pennsylvania State Univ.), Erik Loomis (Univ. of Rhode Island), Sonia Dickey (Univ. of New Mexico Press), Sarah Grossman (SEAP Publications), and Tiffany Florvil (Univ. of New Mexico).
Distilling complex, in-depth historical research can be tricky, but figuring out how to present your research on a poster can open up possibilities for getting immediate feedback and reaching a wider audience. This Google Hangout provides tips on effective poster design and features Seth Denbo (director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives, American Historical Assoc.), Colin Purrington (author of web page Designing Conference Posters), and Kelly Spring (PhD history candidate, Univ. of Manchester).
A roundtable at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Historical Association discusses how storytelling, narrative, and writing for an audience is a fundamental component of what it means to be a historian. Panelists include Martha A. Sandweiss (Princeton Univ.), John Demos (Yale Univ.), Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard Univ.), Tony Horowitz (journalist and author), Karl Jacoby (Columbia Univ.), and Marci Shore (Yale Univ.).