Noteworthy

Encouraging Minority Students in Graduate History Programs

Neil Larry Shumsky, January 1993

Despite the attention that minority representation in our profession has received in recent years, the number of Ph.D.s earned by minorities has shown no substantial change during the past two decades. Ritualistic hand-wringing, it seems safe to say, has not, and will not, produce a more diverse faculty. Instead, our first priority should be to increase the number of minority graduate students who will become the faculty of the twenty-first century.

During the summers of 1990 and 1992 (and again in 1993) the History Department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) has confronted this situation by offering a six-week summer program for fifteen talented minority undergraduates, mostly African-American, from surrounding universities, who have just completed their sophomore or junior years. The purpose of the program is to persuade these students to attend graduate school and obtain higher degrees, especially the doctorate, in history. We first offered this program during the summer of 1990 and then again in 1992. Both years, we received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education under its program to encourage minority participation in graduate education. This grant paid all costs directly associated with the students, including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, an allowance for transportation, and a stipend. Virginia Tech paid for faculty and administrative salaries, publicity and recruitment, and outside speakers. Each summer, the total cost was about $90,000, of which the federal grant covered roughly 60 percent.

Each student in the program enrolled in, and received credit for, two graduate-level courses taught at the same level as those in our master's program. For those six weeks, at least, they were graduate students at this university, they were treated as graduate students, they were expected to do graduate-level work, and they learned to think of themselves as graduate students.

The basic course, taught by Professor Daniel Thorp, was Historiography, and was taken together by all fifteen students. Despite its name, this was really a course in historical methodology and the specific skills used by historians—framing questions, interpreting evidence, constructing arguments, and supporting conclusions. The course introduced students to different kinds of primary sources, to the biases inherent in those sources, and to use of those sources despite their biases. Finally, the class emphasized writing skills. Although the overt goal was to increase students' skills, Historiography had another, more subtle, purpose. It was designed to bring all fifteen students together for daily discussions of doing historical research. For most of them, this was their first introduction to historical discussion at this level and a chance to engage briefly in historical discussions with a group of their peers. They implicitly learned that they were not alone in their interests and plans, and that they were part of an important and accessible support group. Besides its outward purposes, the course therefore began a process of group formation, one of the strengths of the program. In addition, Professor Thorp took the students on two field trips, one to Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to talk to faculty members and administrators in a Ph.D. program about the application process and about job prospects in the profession, the other to the Virginia State Library to take a close look at a major archival repository.

Besides Historiography, the students participated in an internship program and associated seminar. They were divided into three research teams, each directed by an individual faculty member, which explored specific historical problems closely related to the instructor's current research. This past summer, the topics of the teams included nocturnal life in Colonial America, daily life in the Civil War South, and the American family after World War II.

In the team studying nocturnal life in Colonial America, directed by Professor Roger Ekirch, the students examined early American diaries, Virginia county court records, and London court records. These records allowed them to consider nighttime crime and different aspects of popular culture. The specific assignment was to assess and record the dimensions of nocturnal activity revealed in the documents. Students exercised their own discretion in selecting relevant material and wrote papers analyzing their findings. They met regularly to discuss their research and specific methodological issues.

Professor Crandall Shifflett directed the interns studying daily life in the Civil War South. The focus of the work was the impact and meaning of the Civil War at the community level. The reactions of slaves, free blacks, planters, nonslaveholders, merchants, preachers, women, soldiers, and other citizens involved in the war were analyzed. Fredericksburg, Virginia, provided the specific focus for the work, and students used local newspapers, the census of 1860, city council minutes, and printed diaries to assess the impact of the war on a single community.

The research team on the American family after World War II, conducted by Professor Kathleen Jones, engaged students in research on families who did not satisfy the popular image of being suburban, white, middle class, and having two parents and three physically, mentally, and socially normal children. Students gathered data from many different kinds of sources to contrast the merits of each and to compare their different perspectives. Students used newspapers, popular magazines, advice manuals, college family-life texts, and government documents to construct an image/reality problem and test perceptions by examining how and by whom specific images were created and what purposes they served.

In each seminar, students reported on their individual work both orally and in writing. Their specific assignments provided an opportunity to use the skills being taught in the Historiography course. The actual seminars provided a place to discuss and resolve problems relating to the team project and a forum for presenting final written papers. Class readings and assignments were structured to help students reach answers to their own particular historical questions, and the faculty members worked closely with each student to help him or her develop the skills necessary to complete his or her project. This part of the program offered a close mentoring relationship, intensive individual oversight, and direction of the students' work. It also gave students the opportunity to interact in a professional manner, discussing and criticizing each other's work in a collegial atmosphere.

The other formal aspect of the program was a non-credit course that was nonetheless central to our objectives. One of the greatest hurdles for all graduate students, minority or not, is learning about and adjusting to graduate school and recognizing the differences between graduate and undergraduate education. We tried to overcome this problem by dealing explicitly with many of the central issues in a course called Succeeding in the Academic Environment. Taught by Phillipp Cunningham, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, this course focused on topics that are directly related to academic performance such as faculty expectations; work load; methods of preparing for discussion; skills in verbal presentation and classroom performance; and the level of reading and writing skills needed in graduate school. We also devoted time to the graduate experience outside the classroom and considered student–faculty relationships, relationships among graduate students, working with staff members, sources of information, and the academic social environment. It is also important for students to understand the relationship between their personal and their academic lives, and we dealt with organizing and using time, financing graduate school, and balancing school and other aspects of their lives.

In addition to the formal aspects of the program, we tried to develop an interest in graduate school in nonacademic ways. The students lived together in a separate section of an on-campus dormitory and ate together in the campus dining hall. This experience provided an opportunity for intense out-of-class discussions in which many of the students had never previously been involved. In a very short time, both years' groups became tightly knit, and individuals came to see themselves as part of a larger community. We have found that many of the students developed relationships that continued after they left Virginia Tech. We also used two of our own graduate students as assistants in the program. They helped the students with their work, talked about their own experiences, developed social ties, and provided a bridge between students and faculty.

Although it is too soon to judge the long-term success or failure of the program, we believe that the program will ultimately increase the number of minority faculty, especially African-American, in the profession. Of the fifteen students in the program in 1990, three have entered our M.A. program, and two others decided to attend law school. Student responses and evaluations have been uniformly enthusiastic, and this year's reactions have been even more positive. We currently expect at least half of this year's students to attend graduate school in history, with most of them going directly to the Ph.D. program.

This year's program benefited from earlier and more effective recruiting. Because the original program was so successful, Virginia Tech agreed to underwrite its entire cost if we did not receive external funding. Consequently, we were able to solicit applications earlier, and we received more applications. For the summer of 1993, Virginia Tech has renewed its offer, and we will be sending out applications just after January 1, 1993.

Currently, we are trying to strengthen the program in two ways. We are seeking permanent funding so that we do not need to prepare new proposals annually and can plan further ahead. Ideally, we would like Virginia Tech to make the program a permanent part of its curriculum and budget, but fiscal constraints mean that the university, like the U.S. Department of Education, is working from year to year, and prospects for a long-term commitment are uncertain. Therefore, we are investigating foundation support. We are also trying to develop institutional ties with one or more Ph.D.-granting institutions. One reason for the success of this program is that we do not have a doctoral program and have only a small M.A. program. Therefore, we are used to working intensively with only a few students at an introductory graduate level and are well prepared to offer this program and work with pregraduate students. However, this is disadvantageous from the students' long-range point of view because attending the summer program, or enrolling in our master's program, does not guarantee admission into a Ph.D. program. Student response is uniformly enthusiastic to the program, but by the time it is over, many of our students have become so committed to graduate school that they want closer ties to a Ph.D.-granting institution. Therefore, we are trying to make institutional arrangements for them in the future. While we don't expect any other school to guarantee financial assistance to our students, or even promise them admission, we hope we can make arrangements that will provide them with some special consideration.

Demographic problems within the historical profession seem resistant to easy solutions. Despite the collapse of institutional barriers and the greater availability of financial resources, minority students are not choosing to attend graduate school in greater numbers than they did twenty years ago. A great deal of evidence suggests that, when considering careers, they overlook academics in general and history in particular. Therefore, if we believe that the health and well-being of higher education require greater representation of minority faculty, we need to find new and creative ways of approaching minority undergraduates and encouraging them to attend graduate school. Our program is one way of doing that.

—Neil Larry Shumsky is associate professor of history and director of the Summer Minority Program in History at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.