History Graduate Student Associations (HGSAs) are a common feature in many history departments at American universities. Run by graduate students and working closely with the director of graduate studies or other faculty, these organizations often advocate for grad student needs within the department and in the larger campus community. They offer professional development opportunities, organize social events such as happy hours or local outings, and pass on important knowledge regarding program navigation. They allow graduate students to bond and give them a voice in their department. However, leadership of these associations often changes frequently, due to research abroad, graduation, or teaching demands. Remaining members can be left with little knowledge of how to carry on the HGSA's mission. How, then, can this knowledge gap be prevented?
At the recent annual meeting in New York City, the AHA organized a discussion on this topic among leaders of HGSAs from institutions large and small, public and private. Entitled “Retaining Institutional Knowledge during Leadership Transitions,” this was part of an effort to build ties between the Association and HGSAs. The workshop brought together AHA staff and 13 HGSA leaders to discuss barriers to effective transition and ways to address these obstacles. The discussion began with participants sharing their own experience with difficult leadership transitions. Multiple attendees told stories of uncommunicative former officers or documents going missing from year to year. At one school, the HGSA completely imploded and a faculty member ended up appointing new leaders who needed to restart the organization almost from scratch. Such stories showed the tenuous nature of HGSAs in many departments, often staffed with eager but overcommitted students who are stretched thin—or staffed with almost no one at all.
Lack of participation is one of the most pressing issues facing many HGSAs, causing those involved to occupy multiple roles at once—I, for example, serve my HGSA as co-president, secretary, and treasurer. Grad students, already overworked and underpaid, often do not feel an incentive to take on more unpaid work as an HGSA board member. One way to encourage participation is by framing HGSA work as a valuable component of professional development—as academic service on a CV, or as administrative and leadership experience on a nonacademic resume. Departmental culture can contribute to a lack of participation, in the form of aloof faculty members who do not appreciate the work of the organization, graduate student suspicion of faculty, or a diffuse community made up of students in different degree programs (master’s or PhD in regional fields or public history) or a high number of commuter students. In addition, HGSAs can suffer from a lack of structure compounded by byzantine bylaws, in which transitions happen as a product of personal relationships rather than established processes. At one school, all of the HGSA leaders were medievalists, so transition happened because of their closeness and sometimes without the knowledge of other members. Because they are located within history departments specifically, HGSAs may face a lack of knowledge about wider university policies, which will compound transition issues such as accessing organizational funds from a central campus student center. Finally, many HGSAs have an unclear purpose or mission statement, making transition—and the entire work of the organization—muddled and susceptible to the whims of whoever is currently on the board.
Multiple attendees told stories of uncommunicative former officers or documents going missing from year to year.
How, then, can HGSA members address these issues? One solution proposed involved establishing a ladder system of leadership, in which the former vice president becomes president the next year and the secretary becomes the vice president, for example. This system has benefits: it helps distribute the administrative work across all members, spreads out knowledge across all positions, and establishes a leadership structure. It can be made flexible to cope with changing numbers, but it cannot be too flexible or members will end up occupying too many different roles. It would be beneficial to take time to think deeply about the duties of each officer and the institutional structure as a whole, examining how the roles fit into the structure. This evaluation offers an excellent opportunity to revise the bylaws if they are not working for your organization.
Preserving all HGSA-related documentation in a central and accessible location is also essential to any leadership transition. This document repository (on paper in a binder or digitally in a Google Drive or Dropbox folder) can include passwords to email accounts or websites, past budgets and accounting sheets, to-do lists for commonly held events, and meeting minutes. My HGSA struggles each year to add new officers to our bank account, because even though we are self- and department-funded, our account is linked to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The bank wanted a letter from the graduate school despite the fact that GSAS does not fund us. This year, we finally figured out that if we brought a letter from our department administrator, the transition proved much smoother, so I included that information in our dossier.
Additionally, at year’s end, each officer should reflect on their role in the organization, describing their duties and offering tips for coping with anticipated obstacles. These descriptions can then be updated over time. This collaborative activity will unite your team and prepare members for future workplaces, especially nonacademic ones, where this kind of reflection is a common practice upon leaving a position, and it will help with the above-mentioned task of reevaluating organizational structure. If your HGSA does not have a mission statement, this period of administrative reevaluation is the perfect time to write one—again, as a collaborative activity. Clarifying your purpose will help with future event planning and may lead to increased event participation, membership in the HGSA, and appreciation from faculty.
At year’s end, each officer should reflect on their role in the organization, describing their duties and offering tips for coping with anticipated obstacles.
After overhauling the entire structure of the HGSA, how can members encourage interest from the rest of the department? One workshop participant suggested increasing involvement in orientation and recruitment, so first-year students become familiar with the HGSA. An increased commitment to investigating and improving departmental culture with surveys, town halls, and anonymous comment boxes may also create interest in the organization. Such data collection can dictate plans for yearly initiatives, especially if they align with the newly created mission statement.
For my part, I felt invigorated after this session to make changes in my own HGSA. I am looking forward to revisiting and revising our bylaws, changing our leadership structure through reflection on what positions would be most useful for our organization, writing a mission statement, and thinking about how we can further engage in graduate student issues such as mental health. Hopefully, other HGSA officers will also use these tips to reorganize and reinvigorate their associations, leading to positive change in their departments and grad student communities.
Alicia DeMaio is a graduate student in history at Harvard University. Her dissertation examines botanical gardens, federal funding for science, and imperial expansion in the antebellum United States.
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