Publication Date

May 18, 2022

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Graduate Education

Recently, the American Historical Association hosted its first online HGSA workshop, inviting graduate students to collaborate on and exchange models for HGSAs that serve students’ diverse needs. The AHA designed this workshop for graduate students to discuss practical solutions and work through challenges in graduate education, building on lessons learned during the Career Diversity for Historians initiative. The goal of this workshop was to think about how to support students within the institution as it exists today while working to transform it into what it ought to be. HGSAs provide a valuable avenue for this conversation; graduate students are using these associations to take actionable steps against the challenges to equity that departments and the wider academic institution still struggle to address.

People sitting in chairs with notebooks on their laps.

At the AHA’s first online HGSA workshop, attendees focused on how to find mentorship and community during graduate school. Sincerely Media/Unsplash

At the outset, participants identified equity and advocacy as core values that HGSAs work toward; they articulated mentorship, community, and accessibility as needs that HGSAs work to meet. Guiding the conversation, keynote speaker Reginald K. Ellis (Florida A&M Univ. and AHA Council) helped participants think through how these associations might ground their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. This initial discussion helped frame subsequent conversations. In breakout sessions, participants then discussed current challenges, shared successes, and learned about different approaches to developing and implementing an HGSA.

Graduate students understand their power to shape departmental and institutional structures, and participants identified equity and advocacy as core values within their HGSAs. Picking up on this theme, Ellis encouraged participants to consider how students can advocate for the recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty. In focusing on retention, he argued that HGSAs are in a unique position to advocate for clear, specific, and actionable reform. Ellis explained that, as a liaison between faculty and students, HGSAs can collaborate with faculty and administration to advocate for sustainable structures that better recognize the time, intellectual labor, and service of faculty and students of color—especially women of color—who bear a disproportionate workload for mentorship, committee service, and other forms of unrecognized labor. This might take the form of course remissions, financial incentives, or other remuneration. More generally, HGSAs can create structural change for students by working with faculty to reevaluate the core curricula in graduate seminar offerings, professional development opportunities, and access to research and funding.

HGSAs are in a unique position to advocate for clear, specific, and actionable reform.

Because they exist outside of the bureaucracy of the university but remain an organized and institutionalized association within departments, HGSAs are often able to implement changes more swiftly, adjust to student needs more nimbly, and suggest strategies more effectively than traditional committee systems within academic departments. Programmatic and curricular changes usually take time and political will when done through normal channels, but Ellis and others in attendance suggested that HGSAs can use ad hoc programming while leveraging the institutional resources at their disposal to take action more quickly. For instance, while a curricular shift toward pedagogy and professional development might take years, HGSAs can work with faculty to tap into alumni networks to offer workshops throughout the year on these topics.

In addition to broader interventions, HGSAs can also help their members on a more personal level. Mentorship is key to graduate student success, and HGSAs have a central role to play in unveiling the hidden curriculum, the informal knowledge needed to succeed and thrive in a department but which is usually outside the scope of formal instruction. For instance, knowing how to access professional spaces, knowing how to read and study, knowing how to gut a book, or knowing the expectations, norms, and manners of academic spaces are rarely taught explicitly but are necessary pieces of information for a graduate student.

HGSAs are uniquely placed to demystify the hidden curriculum. Participants shared that their associations have created successful intercohort mentorship programs that pair advanced graduate students with first-year students, and Ellis helped home in on specific goals for creating community while prioritizing equity. HGSA members can foster a sense of belonging by reaching out to students in advance of meetings, they can pair mentors with peers who faced similar challenges, and they can offer workshops and development opportunities. Such peer outreach can mitigate feelings of isolation and support first-generation students and students of color who are most likely to need help with the hidden curriculum.

An online interinstitutional model that connects students across the country could help.

Creating such a community is a priority among the workshop participants. Several participants explained their desire for interinstitutional meetings where HGSA members can share valuable insights about the goings-on in their department or region—similar in structure to the AHA’s workshop or to the quarterly teleconferences the AHA arranged for Career Diversity fellows. Regular interinstitutional meetings facilitated by HGSAs would open access to mentorship networks and increase accessibility to knowledge. Smaller or more isolated graduate programs have limited access to peer and professional mentorship, and it all but disappears once students begin to travel for research or settle into dissertation writing. Access to a community of history-specific mentors and opportunities for professional and academic development would increase student retention and success, they argued. An online interinstitutional model that connects students across the country could help generalize the student experience and address the common challenges to graduate student success. Some of this structure already exists. Currently, the AHA offers opportunities for this type of networking. The HGSA Community functions as a chat board with threaded replies, where students can interact across institutions and share news, updates, or resources. The AHA has also provided in-person HGSA workshops at the annual meetings in 2020 and 2022, and planned a full HGSA Professional Development schedule for the 2022 meeting.

Adding to and expanding the reach of these outlets can create a larger network to help students address and navigate specific topics, engage in sustained conversations, and build a stronger community. Topics might include writing grant and funding applications, writing a dissertation chapter, dealing with imposter syndrome, or supporting mental health in academia. Further, sharing information across institutions about research funding, graduate worker organizing, or student salaries can empower students to see trends in the larger national educational ecosystem and organize their efforts to affect large-scale change on their campus.

With equity and advocacy identified as core values and with mentorship and community as core needs, participants articulated a vision for the future of academia. The graduate students in this workshop understood the clear structural issues, the opposition of institutional inertia, and the other pressures on faculty time and resources. Against these difficulties, HGSAs are a powerful mechanism to create substantive change and that collaboration across institutions will further support their vision of accessible and equitable graduate education.

Vanessa Madrigal-Lauchland is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis, and a career diversity fellow at the AHA. She tweets @VMLauchland.

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