The Real Academic World
Experiences and Lessons from New Historians
Informal discussions with people you appreciate, trust, and value can lead to great insight. At the 2017 Organization of American Historians annual meeting, the four of us—former peers from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Borderlands History PhD program—got together and realized that we all had similar concerns as young professors early in our careers.
Unfortunately, those concerns were based on more than just the idiosyncrasies of the individual institutions at which we now worked; they pertained to how history PhD programs train historians to meet the needs of their future students, communities, institutions, and careers, inside or outside academia. Despite attending a program attentive to innovative methodology and pedagogy, we felt that our preparation assumed our future employment would be on the tenure track at a research-intensive university with light teaching responsibilities.
In reality, most PhDs—about 88 percent, according to the most recent AHA data—will settle in at other types of work: teaching schools (on and off the tenure track), in museums and parks, or outside of higher education. Why, then, are most of us trained as if we will produce multiple books while spending minimal time in the classroom and doing little community-based work? Here, each of us discusses our own experiences and suggests ways that doctoral training could be more attentive to preparing students for the careers most of them will ultimately have.
Nancy Aguirre, The Citadel: My situation is much different from that of my three colleagues because I teach Latin American history courses in the military environment of the Citadel. Students there have a low interest in Latin America, so I attract students by emphasizing military themes and readings in my upper-level courses. I also teach survey courses exclusively, even at the upper and graduate levels, since students’ lack of familiarity with Latin American history makes it nearly impossible to teach more focused topics. As a graduate student, I taught a variety of survey courses, but I did not anticipate being unable to teach specialized courses as a professor.
But in comparing my experiences with those of my colleagues, I have found some commonalities across institutions. Citadel undergraduates largely come from working-class families, and many are first-generation college students, much like UTEP students. Moreover, students enter college with varying capacities for critical reading, writing, and analysis. I cannot make assumptions about the basic skills my students will have upon entering my class—some do not know how to take notes, understand primary sources, or write a historical analysis. Finally, the number of history majors has dropped at the Citadel, reflecting a national trend. My pedagogical training emphasized ways to teach college-level history and what to do in the classroom, but I would have also benefited from more discussions on addressing cultural and institutional forces (like greater investment in STEM programs) that affect our students and our work as educators.
Cristóbal A. Borges, North Seattle College: Graduate pedagogy seminars seldom provide the experience needed to teach history. Instead, we readily find relevant tools from other areas in our lives. In my community college classroom I use skills I learned while interviewing braceros (farm laborers) for oral histories, helping to launch an H-Net website (H-Borderlands), and working at an Apple Store. I did not realize I would use all those skills until I was in front of students. My first three years taught me that it takes all the energy (and creativity) a new professor has to develop an approach that connects with students.
Facing a population of first-generation college students, international students, returning undergraduates, high school students, veterans, retired elders, and everyone in between, I realized that professional success would require flexibility and nimbleness. Once I accepted that, I began to understand that all the experiences outside my doctoral program, which I pursued at times over advisers’ objections, provided the know-how to excel. Developing questions that provided space for ex-braceros to express themselves helped me craft questions that allowed students to explore their own knowledge. Figuring out how to present information on a website provided me with techniques for creating an online presence for my courses that could extend the learning experience beyond textbooks and the classroom. Helping elders set up email apps on a smartphone inculcated patience and the straightforwardness necessary to reach a diverse classroom.
Those first three years of teaching showed me that a professor’s courses are a sum of all of their academic and life experiences. In the classroom, educators figure out what works for them. A broad scope of experiences benefits the individual, and I pursued many out of my own curiosity and economic need. It is clear that I benefited from a program that allowed this kind of exploration. Doctoral programs could serve their students well by incorporating similar experiences in their preparations.
John Paul A. Nuño, California State University, Northridge: Eager to enter the classroom, I taught my first course right after receiving my MA. I graduated from the PhD program having accumulated five years of teaching experience, which I suspect helped on the academic job market. Hired at another Hispanic Serving Institution, I assumed I would make a seamless transition to California State University, Northridge.
Soon, I was asked to teach my first course in our MA program. As a recent PhD, I loaded my reading list with a book and articles for each week. Determined to shape the next generations of scholars, I emulated the kind of graduate course I had taken. The reaction from my students informed me that I failed to adjust my expectations for an MA program. Although the students that first semester valiantly labored on, I had done them a disservice. Few of these students desired to enter PhD programs, while nearly all of them worked part-time, if not full-time, jobs while dealing with familial responsibilities.
I would have benefited from teaching upper-division courses or assisting a professor in a graduate course that included MA students.
Consequently, I have worked to vary my reading assignments, using more articles and fewer books, as well as group reading presentations. Working with MA students has been an ongoing learning process that I was not initially ready for. Although I had years of teaching experience, all of it was in undergraduate survey courses. I would have benefited from teaching upper-division courses or assisting a professor in a graduate course that included MA students. More varied teaching training as a graduate student would have better prepared me to work at an institution where we teach students at every level—except the one I knew best, the doctoral level.
Jamie Starling, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: In many respects UTEP prepared me for the wide variety of teaching I perform at my current university, as it has a very similar geographic and cultural setting to where I now work. I taught US surveys and Texas history, and the latter prepared me to teach upper-level courses in my field. I did not, however, teach at the graduate level as a doctoral student, and to prepare these courses I had to rely on the mentorship of professors and colleagues.
Another critical area that I had little preparation for is teaching online, which was not emphasized in my doctoral program but is very central to undergraduate and graduate teaching where I now work. Contending with the challenges that come with online or distance courses is a central part of my teaching now, but online pedagogy was not a major consideration during my graduate education. PhD students who face the possibility of teaching at campuses that emphasize online courses might not obtain that experience as doctoral students.
In other regards, though, I feel that UTEP did prepare me for my experiences, as it serves a similar community to that of my current institution, and UTEP’s Borderlands History PhD program made the most of its setting. As universities across the United States become more diverse, the experiences doctoral students have at institutions such as UTEP will better prepare the professoriate for the university of the 21st century.
In general, our experiences lead us to advocate that doctoral programs better prepare students through teaching assistantships, creative teaching opportunities, experiences outside the classroom, and pedagogy classes that incorporate a wide array of experiences at all levels of university instruction. This long-overdue curricular reform should prepare students to do an activity central to their professional lives: teaching. Doctoral programs will also need to consider the needs and training of an increasing number of their students now seeking employment outside academia. We hope that by sharing our experiences, we have demonstrated that graduates of the same doctoral program face a variety of professional situations and challenges, and that this will encourage debate about how to better serve the next generations of doctoral students.
Nancy Aguirre, Cristóbal A. Borges, John Paul A. Nuño, and Jamie Starling received their PhDs in history from the University of Texas at El Paso.
Editor’s Note: We welcome the insights of these four authors. A central tenet of the current phase of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative is that learning to teach history is an important part of career preparation for PhDs, no matter where they eventually find employment (whether inside or outside the academy).
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