Toward a New Graduate Reading Course

William W. Freehling, Marian Vischer, and J. Patrick Mullins, February 2001

WWF: Graduate history seminars usually assume two forms: a research seminar, aimed at writing an original essay from primary sources, and a reading seminar, aimed at analyzing secondary sources. After many years of teaching solely undergraduates, I agreed to teach a graduate reading seminar on my specialty, Jacksonian and Civil War America. But how to teach the course? Some graduate students complained to me that many of their reading courses concentrated too much on secondary sources, with too much time spent on picking writers apart. They wanted less historiography. They wanted more history.

Not sure exactly what they meant, in April of 1999 I called together all students who had enrolled in my course for the fall 2000 semester. "You design an improved course," I affirmed, "and I will teach it your way."

JPM: In our April organizational meeting, Bill Freehling's bold proposition surprised us. But surprise soon gave way to elation about our unexpected freedom. We could make this seminar into our ideal graduate course.

Our first resolution was spontaneous and unanimous: no secondary sources! Having become graduate students out of a fascination with the past, we had found our enthusiasm partially blunted by too much emphasis on historiography rather than history. Future historians must know past historians' work, especially within an aspiring scholar's field of specialization. But the seminar students agreed that primary sources should come first and secondary sources second. Without a secondary source telling us what to think about primary sources, we could cultivate our own understanding of the evidence, both independently at home and collaboratively in class. Familiarity with the primary sources could enable us to make informed criticism of scholarly interpretations, when we later read the secondary sources.

MV: Familiarization with the secondary literature in our field is one thing. Inundation is quite another. I recognize the need for specialization and reading secondary sources in the field of history. As a wise professor once told me, however, we have the rest of our lives to "master" the secondary literature of our various fields. In most cases, a lifetime is indeed needed! Historiography should complement our scholarship, not drown it. Glorified name-dropping of those who have come before us is not why most of us began graduate school; and it certainly did not spark our initial passion for history. Does historiography have its place? Certainly. But too much historiography suffocates the original documents. Let us read the contemporaries—let us determine for ourselves what they believed. Let us read Lincoln and determine if he was "The Great Emancipator" or just "The Great Politician." Let us go straight to the primary source.

WWF: I had my own reason for agreeing. Current academic history often seems to me written too exclusively for specialists, involving too exclusively a debate between professionals. Instead of developing their own vivid portrait of the past, many historians settle for responding to other historians, and only fellow scholars find warring responses very arresting. Meanwhile, most American readers of history will not settle for academic infighting. They eagerly read nonprofessionals who ignore jargon-ridden professional debates.

I think the problem starts with some graduate readings courses, especially with those that imply that doing history is all about tearing down previous historians. How refreshing to detour around previous writers and to go straight to the primary sources, to reconstruct the past.

Which Primary Sources Should We Use?

The students also had strong opinions about which primary sources to use:

JPM: We wished to use mainly traditional documents—speeches, letters, diaries, and so on. But we wanted to complement literary sources with cartoons, songs, engravings, paintings, and architecture, presented by means of slides and tapes. We also proposed making field trips to historic homes and art museums.

MV: Educators at both the primary and secondary levels have long recognized the value of "active learning" and the existence of various learning styles. Why are graduate learners any different? Alternative teaching tools can open up new worlds to even the most successful PhD students. Nonverbal primary sources enable us to reconstruct history more completely. No verbal text can convey the splendor of Monticello or the grotesque caricature of a slave child on painted canvas. Who would have thought that a group of "serious" graduate students could become giddy listening to antebellum tunes? Music, buildings, cartoons, paintings—all these nonverbal materials reveal the past more intimately.

WWF: Again, I had my own reasons for liking this innovation. Training and experience with nonverbal sources too often slip through the cracks between the two customary types of graduate seminars. The papers developed in research seminars usually employ only traditional literary sources, and the debates between historians—the subject matter of many reading seminars—seldom concentrate on anything but words. Yet images and sounds are the stuff of vivid historical writing.

I also quickly learned that more than half of the students in my reading seminar were shying away from the forbidding academic job market. They aspired to alternative ways of practicing history—as high school or community-college teachers, as curators in museums or period houses, as guides, actors, or filmmakers. For a new climate of historical employment, we need a new kind of historical education. The appreciation of visual or aural culture serves those purposes beautifully; the dissection of past historians does not.

But the students in that April meeting also envisioned something more startlingly new: a course for graduate students taught largely by the students themselves. Instead of a professor controlling the choice of assignments, questions, even answers, they wanted what one called a "wonderfully egalitarian classroom environment."

JPM: In lieu of writing yet another historiographic essay, our meeting decided that each seminar student would organize and direct the course for one week. Each presenter would research and select primary sources as the week's assignment. The presenter would then direct discussion of the assigned material. Tired of the grad school survival strategy of skimming long reading assignments, we also decided to confine weekly readings to a manageable 150–200 pages so that we might carefully read and thoughtfully savor the entire assignment.

Although he provided guidance and advice over lunch to each class presenter, Freehling usually left the direction of class meetings up to the students, intervening only in the rare event of a stalled or derailed discussion. Discussion flourished because of this light-handed approach. The students came to class excited to be led by a fellow student in a discussion of primary sources on subjects we had elected to study, including Cherokee removal, the Mexican War, slavery and antislavery, antebellum party politics, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and 19th-century art, literature, and architecture.

MV: Research on our particular teaching topics invited a fresh approach, compared to our usual research for papers. We sought primary sources that would provoke thought, for the interpretation rested on all the individuals in the class, not just the teacher. Moreover, when we thought about teaching peers, unlike when we thought about teaching undergraduates, we discovered the virtues of not assuming we were more enlightened.

This climate is not always cultivated in graduate reading courses. While some professors encourage freedom to differ, without fear of giving the "wrong" answer, others ask a question and the students timidly hope they answer with the "right" interpretation. In another, not infrequent scenario, the professor becomes a lecturer, directly transmitting her or his interpretation. A seminar should not serve the same purpose as a lecture.

WWF: Once again, my agenda dovetailed with the graduate students'. Just as graduate teaching assistants sometimes feel an immense distance from their professors, so they sometimes feel an immense distance from their undergraduate students. Because they are sometimes lectured at from on high, they easily slip into lecturing from on high. To lead excited discussions, graduate teaching fellows need to feel that their undergraduates are coequals in generating a reconsideration of a document, not as experienced or as trained but capable of good things to say, if the saying is encouraged. Our classroom atmosphere established the ideal of coequality, of the teacher as listener, even as learner. This was on-the-job training for teaching assistants.

Evaluating the Course

At the end of the semester, it was time for evaluations:

JPM: This class ended up being a reading seminar, a research seminar, a teaching colloquium, and a historical methods course, all rolled into one. We ended the semester not only better informed about the past through study of primary sources but also improved in research skills, teaching experience, and critical powers. We left the seminar not only with original insights and fresh perspectives but also revived in the love for history, which attracted us to graduate school in the first place.

MV: As each class ended, we badly wanted to arrive at a conclusion. Since we read books that have a neat and tidy argument, we are conditioned to write papers that pinpoint the historical "truth." We quickly discovered, however, that slave narratives contradicted one another, antislavery movements seemed loosely and ambiguously connected to others—how can such inconsistency yield "truth"? Then I realized that slave narratives are contradictory because the institution itself mandated different responses at different times; there was no single antislavery movement because there were so many different and conflicting antislavery arguments. Our inability to pinpoint individuals, movements, and institutions reflects the very nature of their ambiguous, contradictory reality. I can now relish the inconsistencies of history, for that is what history is all about.

WWF: When seminar participants come to their own sense of what history is all about, based on their own reading and discussion of verbal and nonverbal primary sources, something worthwhile has happened. While the students created most of what was worthwhile in that classroom, I did not feel irrelevant. In my lunchtime session with that day's presenter, I could help mold what would happen that afternoon; and with occasional questions in the classroom, I could facilitate a more pointed discussion.

So too, the students anointed me class leader on our field trips, one to the University of Kentucky Art Museum to analyze an exhibit on southern landscape painting, another to Lexington's Hunt-Morgan House to study period architecture and material culture. Here I constantly asked students what they saw instead of telling them what I saw. They swiftly caught on to the teaching tactic and used it themselves in our seminar and with their undergraduates. They also passionately responded to these nontraditional primary sources and to the thought of the nontraditional employment opportunities that nonverbal sources might offer.

Still, this seminar minimized the mentor/disciple ideal: the more experienced historian transmitting a lifetime of accumulated insights to less experienced novices. But the tradeoff seemed salutary: more creative engagement with the past's surviving relics, more emphasis on materials relevant to new historical careers, and more awareness of images, vital in historical writing.

MV and JPM: We hardly think that all graduate reading seminars must be exactly like ours. But no one need teach the pure version of our course to incorporate its best features. Our little experiment is like one of those American third parties, giving off ideas that the major parties can swiftly incorporate. More use of primary sources, less emphasis on historians' intramural brawls; more nonverbal source materials, less professorial lecturing; and more preparation for alternate historical careers, fewer questions aimed at securing the "right" answers—all this can be (and sometimes has been) worked into traditional reading courses. May some of these proposals prove helpful in graduate teaching—and may some lucky students and professors enjoy the exhilarating shock of the whole experiment.

—William W. Freehling is professor of history and Singletary Professor of the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. Marian Vischer and J. Patrick Mullins are graduate students in history at the university.