From the Graduate and Early Career Committee

History's Future: What the AHA Might Do for Emerging Scholars

Anita Casavantes Bradford, February 2018

In its mission to advocate on behalf of the individuals, activities, and interests that make up the historical profession, the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee (GECC) supports the goals of graduate students and historians early in their careers. GECC also communicates the concerns of these constituencies to the broader membership of the AHA. My three-year term as GECC chair recently ended, but I want to reflect on the ways the AHA serves PhD students and recent graduates and to offer thoughts on what more it could be doing.

During the past three years, GECC members expanded and updated the AHA website’s resources for graduate students and early career professionals. The materials now provide guidance on professional development, mentorship and publication, the academic job search, and the path to tenure. Meanwhile, the AHA has made significant strides in advancing career development for graduate students and early career professionals. Through the Mellon-funded Career Diversity for Historians initiative, the AHA has developed programs and resources for PhD students and recent graduates related to various career options. Through its Career Contacts program, for example, Career Diversity matches grad students and PhDs to counterparts working beyond the professoriate.

We must support departments preparing graduate students to be competitive for academic jobs.

The AHA also recognizes that many, perhaps most, history PhD students aspire to careers as scholars and educators. Despite the factors working against these aspirations—including reduced federal and state support for humanities education, the declining popularity of the undergraduate history major, and widespread reliance on adjunct instructors—we must support history departments as they prepare graduate students to be competitive for the scarce number of academic jobs.

As pressure grows to graduate doctoral students in as few as five years, we must forge a clear consensus about what constitutes essential training for graduate students. Through its Tuning project, the AHA has already helped clarify the key skills, understanding, and knowledge that go into the undergraduate history major. Now, the AHA is engaging graduate faculty around the country to define the essential components of the history PhD, especially teaching. This new phase of Career Diversity will ultimately assist graduate directors to ensure that their programs can respond to the reality confronting PhD students and early career professionals.

A collaborative and broad-based graduate-level program resembling Tuning would shed light on how to provide graduate students with consistent professional training for careers in higher education. Although discipline-specific content and skills will always be central to doctoral education, so too should be coursework that provides training in other tasks that make up a scholarly career. Of course, these must include the skills essential to the research, writing, and publication process, but they should also cover grant proposal writing, guidelines for serving as an external reviewer, and instruction in teaching.

Because these skills are often imparted through faculty mentorship—or imagined to be things students can “figure out on their own”—they are frequently not included in course syllabi. But the fact is that when graduate curricula don’t require training and assessment in professional skills to graduate, students in the same department will receive vastly different preparation in these competencies. They will earn the same degree on paper, but they will have received inconsistent grounding for a competitive academic job market.

Unsystematic professional training compounds inequities for students who are first generation, low income, and/or from communities of color. These students can lack exposure to higher education and the understanding of how graduate school works, which more-privileged students bring to their first seminars. In this area, the AHA could do more to serve its graduate student and early career members. By advocating for a clear statement of the professional skills that PhD curricula should include, the AHA can stand for the success of all graduate students and early career professionals, while also taking an affirmative stance on equity.

Since a majority of history PhDs will secure positions with high teaching responsibilities, the AHA needs to better prepare graduate and early career professionals for success in these institutions. A first step would be to increase outreach to graduate program directors, making them aware of the teaching and learning resources on the AHA website. The AHA should also encourage directors to share these resources with their faculty and assign them to graduate students.

The AHA is now advocating for history departments to require discipline-specific pedagogical training in their doctoral programs. Nationally, an increasingly diverse student population now includes more English language learners and international students, many of whom have had little or no previous exposure to the history taught in US and world civilizations survey courses. Incoming faculty must be equipped to advance their research agendas while engaging these students. PhD-level coursework should explicitly address the skills early career professionals will need to develop course objectives and syllabi effectively and efficiently, and to employ best practices in teaching and assessment.

When curricula don’t require training in professional skills, students in the same department will receive vastly different preparation in them.

The fact that university faculty members typically haven’t received such training makes this task more difficult and perhaps contributes to the tendency to pass off pedagogical development to campus-wide centers for teaching and learning. Through the second phase of Career Diversity, the AHA is seeking to find ways to encourage departments to offer discipline-specific instructional training themselves. Ideally, graduate students and faculty at different career stages would learn together in ways that would support early career success for aspiring historians, while also strengthening relationships between faculty and graduate students. This training would promote a culture of discussion and continuous professional development for all, and improve the overall quality of instruction the department offers.

Finally, we should consider ways graduate students and early career professionals can feature more prominently within the historically grounded discussions the AHA seeks to advance within and beyond our community. The AHA should include more of their writing in its publications and create opportunities for them to lead initiatives to lend historical insight to the public sphere. In today’s polarized political climate, it is more important than ever that our discipline work to reclaim a leading role in civic life. The AHA might forge partnerships with reputable news media, magazines, and other outlets willing to feature short, accessible essays by members linking historical scholarship to broader public concerns. Because many graduate and early career members actively engage with contemporary issues and are usually more fluent in youth cultures and idioms, these professionals could lead the way in translating scholarly insights for a broader (and younger) audience. Initiatives like this would allow the AHA to support the professional development of graduate students and newer faculty while increasing the visibility and prestige of the discipline as a whole.

Today’s history graduate students and early career professionals confront a different set of challenges from those that shaped the careers of previous generations. This means the needs of emerging historians are different from those of the faculty who teach and mentor them. As the AHA looks forward, it would do well to place the needs of our increasingly diverse graduate and early career members at the center of its agenda. The future of history is in their hands. If we hope to ensure that the study of the past retains—or perhaps regains—a preeminent place in our institutions of higher learning and in the public sphere, we must look forward.

Anita Casavantes Bradford is associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies and history at the University of California, Irvine.

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