Publication Date

December 1, 2017

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

When the AHA recently asked directors of graduate studies to articulate the purpose of their PhD programs, we most often heard a variation of “to train the next generation of producers of new knowledge.” We now know how inadequately that language captures the career paths of a substantial majority of our doctoral students. The next stage of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative will focus on discrepancies between what we teach in history doctoral programs and the work that our PhD alumni actually do.

Most recipients of the PhD in history spend the bulk of their careers in positions that include little time for research. For the most part, historians employed in higher education occupy teaching-intensive positions. Only half end up on the tenure track, with only one-third of those at research universities. An additional quarter of our PhDs work outside the professoriate entirely.

This is not an argument for a PhD curriculum that diminishes the centrality of research; the PhD is a research degree. As such, it provides the foundation for a career as a research scholar. But it also prepares recipients for a wide range of occupations that benefit from (even if they do not require) the habits of mind, skills, and knowledge that a historian brings to the table.

Nor is this a brief for considering the PhD’s primary purpose as vocational. On the contrary, we neither can nor should treat the degree program as preparation for a single career path. But programs should facilitate students’ entrance into the wide variety of employment uncovered by the AHA’s investigations into where historians already work; programs should also expand opportunities for students in ways particular to their campus and community. These skills will also better prepare our PhD students to be the teachers that most of them will be, in venues ranging from classrooms to national parks, museums, and beyond.

The gap between the content of PhD history education and the eventual employment most of our students find does a disservice not only to them but also to the undergraduates whom many will teach, by requiring learning on the job instead of during graduate school. Understanding the scholarship of teaching and learning—along with accreditation, assessment, and collaborative curriculum design—is an increasingly important part of a college teacher’s work, especially at the nonelite institutions attended by the vast majority of American college students. That disservice extends to public culture, governance, and economy, all of which can benefit substantially from a more visible presence of historians across a wide spectrum of American life.

With these imperatives in mind, the next stage of the AHA Career Diversity initiative, begun last June with support from the Mellon Foundation, combines four agendas:

  1. Expanding the career horizons, opportunities, and definition of success for PhDs in history. This expansion of legitimate outcomes should in turn help diversify the profiles of admitted applicants.
  2. Improving the quality of undergraduate education by weaving new discourses of teaching and learning into graduate training.
  3. Increasing the presence of rigorous and sophisticated historical thinking and knowledge in sites of decision making in the United States.
  4. Enhancing the career satisfaction, scholarly identities, and professional contributions of colleagues who work outside the professoriate.

These are not new ideas, but to address them effectively requires more than mere curricular reform, collaborations with teaching-intensive institutions, or “professionalization”—important steps, to be sure, but insufficient to the task at hand. How do we move beyond the curricular implications of a single career-path model without creating separate tracks in graduate school or lengthening time to degree? Whether we lament the shrinking availability of tenure-track jobs or embrace the opportunities for historians to spread our influence beyond the academy, that question is no less pressing.

History PhD education now requires more than mere curricular reform, collaborations with teaching-intensive institutions, or “professionalization.”

Until recently, the AHA considered “career diversity” as distinct from its commitment to helping prepare PhD recipients to be teachers as well as research scholars. Now convinced that these imperatives overlap and reinforce each other, we have joined them together. The current strategy draws in part on the AHA’s Tuning initiative. A community of 165 historians at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the United States, Tuning has generated ongoing conversations about curriculum and pedagogy.

We asked our “Tuners” how much their graduate education prepared them for their current jobs, which are mostly teaching intensive. The overall response? “Not enough.” They cited inadequate preparation for the administrative aspects of full-time faculty work and the challenge of teaching beyond areas of expertise and to students of varied preparation. Admittedly, the Tuners represent a sample skewed toward engagement with faculty responsibilities and outcomes-based learning—but they are exactly the kind of faculty we should be preparing. Perhaps most striking, they overwhelmingly (and without cues) identified teaching skills that overlapped with those that historians employed beyond the professoriate have identified as critical to their work.

These skills have played a significant role in AHA Career Diversity since its early days, when we asked historians who were not professors what they wish they had learned in graduate school. Their responses boiled down to five broadly defined skills:

  • Communication beyond the academic book/article and lecture; ability to craft a brief memo or describe a substantial project succinctly and without jargon; visual presentation
  • Collaboration, especially with people in other disciplines, including those beyond the humanities
  • Quantitative literacy, even at the level of basic statistics and/or understanding a budget
  • Intellectual self-confidence to venture beyond one’s zone of expertise, whether intellectual, cultural, or institutional
  • Digital literacy,which is changing the very nature of work inside and outside the academy

Persuading faculty to integrate these skills systematically into the graduate curriculum poses a challenge. But in many cases, such integration requires neither radical transformation nor a substantial investment of time—whether it’s requiring seminar students to translate a research paper or historiographical essay into a one-page memo comprehensible to a general reader or explaining a project in less than 30 seconds.

Historians who appreciate the imperative of broadening the career opportunities of their graduate students have enthusiastically embraced this framework, or something similar. Others, however, consider these skills a distraction. The problem seems to be less about time than about resistance to the implications of curricular reconsideration. To acknowledge the utility of these skills is to admit that the students we are preparing to be professors might enter other careers (often to great personal, intellectual, and financial satisfaction). Implicitly, too, this acknowledgment would call into question the viability of professorial “reproduction.”

These enhancements are not distractions from preparation for professorial careers. Most historians will no longer spend their professional lives writing books and articles, lecturing in the style of the “50-minute essay,” conducting seminars, or mentoring advanced students. New faculty need modern classroom presentation skills, readiness for collaborative curricular work, quantitative skills adequate to the tasks of budgeting and assessment, intellectual breadth, and digital literacy.

As graduate-education reform blends preparation for professorial careers with wider professional horizons, it will open new space for discussion. This will be an arena of healthy debate, especially given continuing skepticism about outcomes-based curriculum and assessment. Many members of the Association consider these concepts a blight on the academic landscape. But they are already fixtures on that landscape, and future faculty ought to be conversant in this discourse. If graduate education includes vigorous disagreement about the role of historians in public culture, the private sector, and undergraduate education structures—not to mention the nature and purpose of scholarship itself—that is all to the better. This next stage of the AHA’s advocacy in graduate education will encourage such conversation among students as a pathway to change itself.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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