Publication Date

September 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


Editor's Note: This essay is one of two responses to Peter Stearns's suggestion in the May issue that one of the PhD oral examinations may be focused on teaching.

Peter Stearns's suggestion has considerable merit but will take time and care to implement. There are no boilerplate formulas; good teaching is a valuable, interpersonal endeavor precisely because it allows for the particular needs, idiosyncrasies, and personalities of teachers and students. Departments will have to ease into this experiment, with feedback from candidates and undergraduates along the way. Moreover, when undertaken, it should not become just another mechanical hurdle for candidates to leap; and it ought not create a two-tier system, whereby some faculty get "assigned" to monitor the project while others are left untouched to pursue their research and writing.

The past quarter century has witnessed a "dumbing down," an erosion of competence, commitment, and expectations that has left many incoming college students ill prepared for serious study, impatient with rigorous assignments, but nonetheless insistent on good grades as a means to career empowerment. How do we get students to apply themselves and to exchange their findings in fruitful discourse with teachers and peers? The liberal arts do not traffic in quick fixes, which exasperates an American public keen for immediate "solutions." Indeed, speculation, rumors, leaks, spin, and disinformation threaten to displace two of history's essential attributes, evidence and analysis, from public discourse.1 These are problems well beyond the reach of the Stearns proposal, but his idea might help generate instructional models to promote thoughtful inquiry on campus and beyond.

To imagine a doctoral candidate presenting a field as it might be taught is to picture a young colleague who has enjoyed the considered counsel of a faculty mentor and has explored what other disciplines on campus might add to the design and delivery of a curriculum. The Stearns proposal may involve an extra semester of residence for some candidates, necessitate additional sections of undergraduate courses (for candidates working alone or as team-teachers), and require support from central administration and the department. It may also produce some alterations in reward systems that have favored publications over concerns for effective teaching.

Customarily, we have learned to teach by embracing and reconfiguring our mentors' styles. Although logical as a first refuge for newly minted PhDs, imitation and osmosis have limited utility; no one perfects a craft by remaining another's clone. Accordingly, a doctoral program should encourage apprentices from the moment they enter the department to consider how best to share knowledge with others. One hopes that Stearns's suggestion will bring candidates into fruitful contact with undergraduates, peers facing the same imperatives, full-time faculty newly alert to issues of teaching, and adjunct, temporary, or part-time instructors who possess considerable classroom experience. The results could lend fresh collegial life to departments that adopt the Stearns proposal.

What might faculty examiners expect from a candidate who chooses the teaching-a-field option? Certainly no less attention to substantive and interpretive matters, but these would now be wed to explication and exposition as offered in a specific classroom setting: an introductory course of first-year students, or an upper-division offering with juniors and seniors from various disciplines, or a class at a community college, or a seminar of history majors. What themes or combinations of themes should apply and with what degrees of complexity and sophistication?

When would the candidate use a lecture? What readings for different levels—anthologies, edited documents, monographs, comparative studies, biographies, quantitatively grounded journal articles? What computer-based resources might the candidate urge students to pursue? Would there be individual research projects, collaborative tasks involving groups of three and four class members, or simultaneous exposure to audiovisual presentations followed that day or next class by in-depth discussions tied to previously assigned readings? Possibilities abound, but the key is to have the candidate review the choices and the reasons why.

As the American Historical Association's executive secretary from 1965 to 1974, Paul L. Ward often invoked the metaphor of a high-wire performer kept in balance by a long pole weighted on each end. Just as the circus performer's success depended on the creative tensions transmitted through the pole, so the academy relied (and still does) on the mutual participation, reciprocity, and harmony between its weighted pairs: teaching and research, students and teachers, faculty and administration. Ward labored constantly to engage the AHA in projects to enhance teaching, and Peter Stearns's proposal nicely echoes that objective.2

Early in this century, Louis Brandeis observed that "a lawyer who has not studied economics and sociology is very apt to become a public enemy."3 Turning Stearns’s proposal gently on its head raises a parallel consideration about doctoral candidates and professional breadth. Beyond assessing an ABD’s readiness to teach, should historians not also examine what they teach candidates about higher education, the environment in which most will function? Should not graduate departments enlighten candidates about the discipline’s past and current activities, its roles in the academy at large, the disquieting dangers to academic freedom that surface with some frequency, and issues like discrimination and sexual harassment which candidates may confront in seeking employment and should guard against once employed? If they are to serve their students (from whom the next professional generation will emerge), assist colleagues, protect the discipline, and promote public understanding, candidates must not be unknowing and naive about such matters.

For the past 40 years with civil rights struggles and the Vietnam War, followed by the feminist, consumer, environmental, and gay rights movements and more recent debates about diversity and multiculturalism, America has experienced intense culture wars, whose combatants hope to determine our collective awareness of the past and our paths to the future. Readers familiar with positions taken by Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Leon Litwack, Lawrence Levine, and Joan Wallach Scott, for example, will recognize the nature and dimensions of these struggles.4 This is not the place to explore the controversies. Building, however, on Peter Stearns’s idea of better preparing candidates for their professional responsibilities, it is appropriate to wonder how well and how systematically candidates are trained to deal with battles that will touch their work as teachers, authors, editors, consultants, and administrators.5

How many departments inform their candidates of the AHA's Professional Division as a forum in disputes over plagiarism, academic contracts, the handling of submissions by journal editors, and the like? How many make available to their candidates copies of the AHA pamphlet, Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct? How many encourage candidates to keep abreast of work done in governmental and public circles by the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History? How many explore with candidates the endeavors of other groups, such as the Organization of American Historians, or the joint undertakings among historical associations and those from other disciplines? How many explain to candidates the reasons behind and the arguments against grade inflation? How many review with candidates the tendencies of administrators across the country to hire increasing numbers of nontenured and part-time instructors (a cost-cutting device that too often exploits their talents in financial and emotional terms, minimizes their health and pension benefits, and must ultimately undermine all faculty roles in campus governance for want of a sizable core of senior faculty to counter arbitrary actions by administrators and trustees)?

Brandeis, Ward, and Stearns are correct: Business as usual will not do, especially if we want to preserve and enhance the valuable legacies of this profession. Departments satisfied to award degrees with little or no attention to matters beyond the content and literature of a field cannot sufficiently meet their obligations to candidates, students, the public, and Clio.


1. John Moody, vice president of the Fox television news network (24-30 million viewers), recently announced that web site gossip sensationalist Matt Drudge will join the staff: “We are less fact oriented, more story oriented . . . in a period where some people feel that emotions are as important as knowledge. That’s one of the things changing in the news business.” (Emphasis added.) As quoted by Jennifer Weiner of the Knight Ridder Newspapers, Akron (Ohio)Beacon Journal, June 15, 1998, B-6.

2. References to Paul L. Ward derive from Zangrando’s experiences as the AHA’s assistant executive secretary, 1965-1969.

3. Quoted in Alpheus Thomas Mason, Brandeis: A Free Man's Life (New York: Viking Press, 1946), 246.

4. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987); Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: Harper & Row, 1990); Leon F. Litwack, “Trouble in Mind: The Bicentennial and the Afro-American Experience,” Journal of American History 74 (September 1987): 315-37; Lawrence W. Levine, “Clio, Canons, and Culture,” Journal of American History 80 (December 1993): 849-67; and Joan Wallach Scott, “The New University: Beyond Political Correctness,” Perspectives 30 (October 1992): 14-16, and 18. Jerry Z. Muller responded to Scott in “Challenging Political Correctness: A ‘Paranoid Hysteric’ Replies to Joan Scott,” Perspectives 31 (May/June 1993): 13-15. There is now, of course, a vast literature of and about the culture wars.

5.History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn examines the heated controversies over the proposed National History Standards in the mid-1990s.

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