From the Executive Director

Preparation for a Professorial Profession: Reflections on One Aspect of Graduate Education

James Grossman and Julia Brookins | Sep 2, 2014

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PhD students constitute the pool of future college teachers. But they are not being prepared adequately for that future, given the shifting landscape of higher education. This is not for lack of effort on the part of PhD-granting universities, most of which have created centers for teaching and learning as interventions in the traditional model of apprenticeship and role modeling. These centers, together with the Council of Graduate Schools’ “Preparing Future Faculty” initiative, have vastly increased the number of PhDs who are prepared to discuss teaching at job interviews and even offer “teaching portfolios” to potential academic employers. In addition, a growing scholarship of teaching and learning specifically focused on history has generated ideas as well as a small cohort of specialists. Yet department chairs at undergraduate institutions often lament that new faculty remain generally unprepared for the work most of them will be doing. They might be able to deliver a lecture or lead a seminar, but many have given little or no thought to other important functions of higher education faculty: curriculum design, assessment, and serious consideration of how students learn within the context of their particular discipline.

All future faculty require broad and deep preparation in their discipline to anchor their teaching. But this is not enough. Increasingly, faculty are expected to work closely with instructional designers and other units of the college or university in planning educational programs. If historians and our colleagues in other disciplines are to maintain effective oversight of the curriculum, they will need to be adept at interacting with these professionals, and they will need to demonstrate that their expertise includes not just content knowledge, but also learning assessment and curricular review. They will need to be willing to consider curriculum and program experiences holistically, not merely on a course-by-course basis. Learning how to teach a course is not the same as learning to participate in discussions about the composition of a major or the trajectories of student careers across four years. If we want historians to play a leading role in the future of higher education—indeed even if we only want to shape our place in the process—our new faculty need at least an introduction to vocabulary and scope.

Our PhD students, however, are receiving little or no preparation for such activity. At first glance, this seems surprising, given that centers for teaching and learning are well placed to bring pedagogical issues to the fore. The problem is that such presentation often takes place without contextualization within a discipline, and instead introduces theory and practice generically.

We need programs to create not merely good scholars, with expertise in their disciplines, but good teachers who are prepared to teach in a variety of instructional environments.

Not surprisingly, senior faculty—the women and men whose opinions matter most in the arena of graduate education—seldom encourage students to engage their work at the centers at a level even close to that on which they engage their research. The general assumption among faculty in many disciplines is that what graduate students get at the centers has little to do with the production of new knowledge or even the particular passion and challenges of teaching in a given discipline. In many cases the role of these centers seems to be focused mainly on “what you need to know to be a TA at this institution.” Even at universities with especially impressive teaching and learning centers, graduate student programming uses a vocabulary and occurs within a methodological space that is alien to historians and many others; this can make learning about teaching an off-putting proposition to senior faculty even when such knowledge may be attractive to students eager for new ways of thinking about their roles as teachers. Graduate students are encouraged to seek support from the centers, but they are not encouraged or assisted in integrating what they learn into their specific disciplines. Hence, within the context of a PhD program, the time spent at a center for teaching and learning is tangential—necessary perhaps, but neither central nor considered on a par intellectually with what students are learning elsewhere, whether inside their discipline or beyond.

This is as ironic as it is problematic, given that scholarly societies and our allies in the world of higher education have been busy of late promoting liberal education. At the same time, we have done little to help the next generation of faculty to think either conceptually or practically about the “industry” they are entering—i.e., liberal education. Graduate students, at least in history, seldom engage nor generally even encounter the stimulating debates relating to higher education in the United States. They learn nothing about the institutional matrix beyond the university that structures higher education: AAC&U, ACE, AAU, AAUP, the accreditation agencies, and the rest of the alphabet soup. We prepare them to be college teachers without considering the value of reflection on the nature of college or the nature of teaching.

PhD students need a bridge. They need a pathway that connects graduate education to the institutional context of higher education and that enables them to benefit from current scholarship and best practices in curriculum design and assessment. This pathway needs to be grounded explicitly within the context of their disciplinary homes. In the best of all possible worlds, those who travel back and forth across that bridge would be not only the students, but also the staff of the learning/teaching center and the faculty in PhD-granting departments. Even more important, however, are the ideas that constitute the very essence of the bridge—ideas that connect the epistemology and intellectual culture of a discipline to the research that underlies the work of the centers for teaching and learning.

These ideas—many of them generated by the scholarship of teaching and learning (aka SoTL) specifically focused on history, and by such nationwide initiatives as Reacting to the Past and Decoding the Disciplines—can be incorporated into graduate education. These resources did not exist a generation ago, and we should take advantage of them. We need programs to create not merely good scholars, with expertise in their disciplines, but good teachers who are prepared to teach in a variety of instructional environments. Current recipients of the PhD are likely to teach at colleges and universities that have institutional profiles very different from where they received their graduate education or, for that matter, their undergraduate education. “Learning by doing” is not adequate. Our graduate students need to acquire the intellectual habits and conceptual sophistication to communicate the disciplinary frameworks, and the analytical and methodological tools, to students in whatever institutional situation they find themselves.

Given that this will entail integrating a new set of issues into an already overcrowded graduate curriculum, some imagination is required. The AHA is eager to help, although at this point it is not clear what our most useful role might be. The menu of issues is considerable, based on conversations with department chairs: current issues in higher education, including the nature and purposes of liberal education; disciplinary epistemologies and their implications for curriculum design; how class, race, and other differences among student populations affect learning environments; expertise in multiple instructional delivery modes, including new technologies; and principles for assessing learning. New faculty need to be aware of the full range of faculty responsibilities within a liberal education model, with particular attention to curriculum oversight, assessment, and academic advising. And they need an intellectual toolbox for historical thinking to deal with whatever they find on their first academic job.

The centers for teaching and learning have provided a necessary first step, and our colleagues in the scholarship of teaching and learning have taken another. It is now up to us to follow through and use what they have done to deepen and inspire graduate student learning. Failure to address these issues will further weaken the position of our disciplinary faculty in high-stakes struggles over not just the direction of liberal education, but its very existence. To begin, we must be willing to draw on all of the resources available to us, both as individual teachers and mentors and as a disciplinary community.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA. Julia Brookins is the AHA’s special projects coordinator.

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