Publication Date

April 12, 2016

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Over the past four years, the AHA has devoted substantial energy to reconsidering the purpose and content of history education in colleges and universities, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. More than 200 historians have participated in a set of separate initiatives that share a common approach: taking end points as starting points. If one way of thinking about historical scholarship is to ask, “How did we get here?” (with “here” referring to any point in time and place), then a correlate for history education works backward from a desired outcome. Tuning, for instance, is an AHA project in which historians convene and collaborate to frame what history majors at different types of universities should know, understand, and be able to do upon graduation. While this might seem self-evident as an approach, it requires that we focus less on teaching than on learning: we begin not with what we want to teach but rather with what we want our students to learn. A radical notion indeed.

An outcomes-based approach also requires articulating purposes and goals. In the case of undergraduate education, this has meant replacing an emphasis on preparing our majors for graduate study in history with a focus on the role of the history major in liberal education, and replacing the broad rubric of “critical thinking” with the more precise “historical thinking” as our contribution to that education. Those two shifts opened a space for departments to reconsider what they want their students to learn and how both faculty and students can articulate those outcomes.

Few of us have thought about graduate education in this way, especially at the PhD level. We take for granted the desired outcome: employment as a faculty member in higher education. And we focus on a limited set of duties related to that professional path, largely scholarly publication along with classroom teaching at the level of the single course. This is hardly surprising: we want our students to be successful, and PhD programs have traditionally defined success as attaining a tenure-track appointment, preferably at a four-year institution of higher education, and if possible in the kind of research environment that enables its faculty to play an active role in the next generation’s production of new knowledge.

This definition of success has shaped the graduate curriculum. And if the large majority of our students attained such positions, that curriculum would be appropriate. Anecdotally, it seems that a great proportion of history PhD students anticipate that their degree will be the gateway to lifetime faculty tenure. (The AHA will soon gather survey data to test this assumption.) But what happens if that gate opens only wide enough to accommodate half of all history PhD recipients, sending the rest along different pathways? And what if many of the people thought of as winners find themselves poorly prepared for the actual work of the professoriate?

Preparing PhD students for diverse careers is not a distraction from the professorial career path most students apparently still expect and with which faculty are most comfortable.

Data compiled by the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative tell us that only half of our PhDs do indeed make it through that gate (leaving aside those who leave programs before attaining a degree). Even if a history department has dropped the suggestion that those PhDs who pursue different pathways have failed, the curriculum tells a different story: the normative route is in the direction of research and teaching environments that consider the individual classroom the locus of accomplishment. The other 50 percent are often left to fend for themselves. Of those, nearly half pursue careers beyond the professoriate altogether, and a slightly smaller proportion finds employment teaching college off the tenure track.

Career Diversity for Historians began with the imperative of expanding the employment horizons of and opportunities for history PhDs. Graduate programs are still preparing students for jobs that most of our PhD students will never occupy. Perhaps more important, we are squandering opportunities to increase the influence of historical thinking in contexts outside the professoriate. We are also squandering resources by ignoring those alumni who have not followed the route for which they were prepared. We asked those alumni—working in government, business, nonprofits, and higher education administration—what they wish they had learned, either to more easily find employment or to advance more quickly once hired. The responses fell into five broad categories: communication beyond the scholarly and classroom modes, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy/engagement.

We hoped that these skills could be easily woven into the existing fabric of doctoral programs and built the Career Diversity initiative on this strategy, supporting pilot programs to try some experiments. At the same time, along another track and with a different funder, we began to explore the implications of new insights into student learning for graduate education in history.

These two initiatives in graduate education proceeded simultaneously with the Tuning project. The result is the crucial recognition that the skills history PhDs need for more diverse careers are the same skills they need to become the next generation of college professors. In addition to the 25 percent beyond the professoriate, nearly 60 percent of history PhDs are teaching either off the tenure track or in an environment other than a research university. They would need the same five groups of skills if they were to make valuable contributions to campuses that differed substantially from most PhD-granting institutions, and if their work focused on not only teaching but also curriculum design.

Preparing PhD students for careers outside the professoriate does not constitute a distraction from the professorial career path that most students apparently still expect when they enter graduate school, and with which graduate faculty are most comfortable. The demands on teachers of undergraduates have changed. Assessment, student learning outcomes, and other alterations to the curriculum are now the purview of a majority of history faculty. Some of these changes are caused by shifts within academic administration, but it’s also the case that 20th-­century pedagogical training is inadequate to the needs of today’s students, who are more diverse than ever before. Graduate students who hope to secure a tenure-track position will have to navigate this new environment. To a large extent, it is not the environment their advisers encountered when embarking on their own careers.

History departments that begin not with normative assumptions about their students’ career paths but, instead, with actual data that is easy to compile can draw on the methodologies we have learned in Tuning: working backward from expected outcomes to define what students need to learn and then collaborating in the design and implementation of a curriculum geared toward those outcomes. We can prepare students for the higher education landscape of the future rather than the one we experienced and with which we are comfortable.

Not all history PhD programs will teach the same things; not all students will follow identical paths. The Tuning project taught us that outcomes-based curriculum planning yields a variety of approaches, as broad as the range of universities that offer degrees. Reconsidering the goals of those degrees should include open and thorough reviews of the function and form of the dissertation.

Thankfully, we don’t have to ask graduate students to decide on day one to pursue a single pathway. Strategically inclined students can figure out how to prepare themselves to travel in more than one direction, depending on how they respond to teaching, where their talents and inclinations lie, and what priorities emerge during their time in graduate school. They can prepare themselves to be better professors and better professionals with broad career options.

The initiatives mentioned in this essay received generous support from Lumina Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Emily Swafford is the AHA’s manager of academic affairs. She tweets @elswafford.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.