AHA Activities

Ending the Modern Academic Guild: A Report on "The Future Professoriate: Preparing Graduate Students for the Classroom"

Vernon Horn, March 1995

There is much about graduate education that makes it comparable to the medieval guild system. First there is a rigorous selection process, followed by several years of dedicated apprenticeship with an adviser/master craftsperson. Long hours and low pay are the necessary sacrifice for those wishing to gain the intellectual autonomy of the university. As in the guild system, graduate school promotes learning by doing. One learns to research and write by going to the archives and staying up late writing seminar papers. One learns to teach by landing in front of a roomful of stony-faced first-year students, and then by just doing it. At best, many old school (and not so old school) faculty members assume that in this process of trial by fire the truly gifted will thrive while the merely average will fade away. Most assume that teaching is easy to pick up on the job. Even if it's not, failure to achieve teaching excellence is generally thought to be excusable, as the real mark of a master scholar is excellence in research and publications.

While still commonplace, this quasimedieval system is increasingly drawing fire from all quarters. Angry undergraduates distressed by ever-rising tuition rates, as well as graduate students seeking an advantage in a competitive market, often take the lead in attacking the system. Parsimonious state legislatures, unconcerned about quantity of publications, likewise are beginning to demand more competent and more involved teachers. This pressure has led many to honestly reevaluate the process of training scholar-teachers in the university.

Instead of seeing teaching as a detached activity, some are beginning to see it as an integral part of scholarship. This trend has been growing within the AHA itself. At the Association's 1995 annual meeting, the Teaching Division sponsored numerous sessions on teaching. One of the most popular of these was a session dedicated to preparing graduate students for the classroom. A panel of senior scholars and one recently minted Ph.D. all agreed that our profession tends to create a false dichotomy between good teaching and good research. Instead they proposed that good teaching and good research are complementary. For instance, both teachers and researchers benefit from good organizational skills, and both need to communicate clearly and effectively. A scholar who is a competent and efficient teacher will have more intellectual energy and time for research than a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants teacher who hastily tries to accomplish research between teaching crises.

Chaired by Terry L. Seip (Univ. of Southern California), the panel members included Gerald A. Danzer (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago), Donald L. Fixico (Western Michigan Univ.), Gretchen L. Knapp (a recent Ph.D. recipient from State Univ. of New York at Buffalo), and Frederick D. Marquardt (Syracuse Univ.). The panelists, who were also members of an American Association for Higher Education program organized to develop teacher-training programs around the country, all worked to cultivate a good discussion with the large audience. Far from pushing any particular approach, the panel recognized that different schools with different needs would naturally develop divergent programs. They all agreed, however, that ongoing training is essential for producing scholars. Often, teacher training can be combined with courses designed to train graduate students how to cope with the pressures of the academy, find and apply for fellowships and grants, present conference papers, and the like. Such programs help graduate students move quickly to the level of mature master scholars while avoiding a lengthy and often frustrating trial-and-error process.

As a graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Gretchen Knapp became an activist for the cause of good teaching. Knapp helped form a graduate student union that effectively lobbied for standardized hours, work space, and a library for information on teaching. Her union also bargained for mandatory teacher training for all graduate students, but lost, partly due to a lack of support from graduate students.

Other universities, in contrast, have succeeded in creating teacher-training programs. A program at Syracuse University, for instance, allows senior graduate students to design and teach a first-year seminar in an area related to their dissertation. At Western Michigan University Donald Fixico began one of the earliest comprehensive courses for training future teachers. His students must prepare a syllabus and notes for a course that they may have the opportunity to teach the following year. As Fixico noted, this assignment also helps students prepare for comprehensive exams. Another popular technique used in teacher training is videotaping. Videotaping students' lectures permits them to evaluate their teaching style and make improvements. It also often allows them to produce a promotional tape to include with the c.v.'s they send to potential employers. Teacher-training classes have the added benefit of helping some students reexamine their career goals and sometimes to redirect their careers from academia to public history or other related fields. Those who remain in academia often gain a competitive advantage when applying for teaching jobs. (Fixico noted the success of Western Michigan in placing its Ph.D. students.)

All of the teacher-training programs discussed at the annual meeting session have a number of things in common. First, they are generally low in cost, requiring little more than the development of a new graduate course. Second, they require very little time, typically not more than one course in a graduate student's education. For this investment, however, the rewards may well be a lifetime of more productive teaching and research. The courses might, in short, help turn graduate student apprentices into accomplished master scholars.

—Vernon Horn is a graduate student in history at the University of Maryland at College Park.