Issues in Graduate Education

Rethinking Graduate Education in History

Jonathan Rose, February 2009

In September 2006, the Drew University administration pronounced a death sentence on our doctoral program in history—but left open the possibility of a reprieve. The admission of new PhD students was indefinitely suspended; so if nothing changed, the program would eventually wither and die. But (we were promised) if we radically redesigned our program to make it more innovative, distinctive, and useful to society at large, it would be revived with greatly increased funding.

Perhaps every graduate program should be forced into that kind of self-examination every 20 years or so. With our minds concentrated wonderfully, my department deconstructed and reconstructed the entire business of doctoral education. We took apart our existing program, closely examined every component, and (with a fine disrespect for tradition) asked how we could do things better. We surveyed our current and past students to find out what worked and what didn’t work for them. We ultimately retained some features of the old program and seriously revised others, but everything was open to debate and nothing was taken for granted. What emerged from this process of reinvention was a new MA/PhD program in history and culture, which won the approval of external consultants as well as of our university administration, and which will admit its first doctoral students in 2010.1 In many ways it will be a unique academic enterprise, but we hope it may inspire other departments to undertake a similar kind of reevaluation.

In developing the history and culture program, we arrived at nine basic principles, which other graduate programs are more than welcome to borrow, adapt, or steal:

  1. Small Is Beautiful. Drew University is something almost unique in higher education: a small liberal arts institution with a doctoral program. And when we surveyed our past and present students, they identified smallness as one of our most attractive features. Some of them had come or transferred to Drew because they didn’t want to feel lost in a big research university, and they appreciated the individual attention we could offer. Perhaps for that reason, student attrition in small history programs is significantly lower than in large programs.2 When we checked the job placement rates at comparable institutions, we were surprised to find that they were quite good, usually close to 100 percent. In the academic years 2001–07 our program produced 13 new PhDs who seriously pursued academic employment, and all of them have found full-time (though not necessarily tenure-track) teaching posts at colleges or universities. So we intend to remain small and highly selective.
  2. Small Is Innovative. There are those who argue that a few large research universities can train all the new historians we need. But what would our culture be like if we relied entirely on big Hollywood studios, big Broadway stages, big television networks, large metropolitan museums, and mass-circulation periodicals? Surely there is a vital role for indie filmmakers, fringe theaters, cable television, avant-garde galleries, and little magazines. Small graduate programs can serve a similar function. They are nimble and adaptive to changing terrain. They don’t have the resources or coverage of large programs, but they are less bureaucratized and hence more ready to experiment. In the early 1990s Drew moved into the then new field of book history, and thereafter some bigger universities followed us. Now we are carving out a niche in the study of the 1960s. One of our long-range plans is to develop a Colloquium on Experimental History, which will keep our faculty and students abreast of the newest frontiers of historiography.
  3. End the Exploitation of Teaching Assistants. Large universities must employ armies of teaching assistants to service big lecture classes. Happily, small institutions like ours can avoid that. Our doctoral students will work as classroom assistants, observing undergraduate survey courses and assisting the instructors with grading and tutoring, but only for one year. Then they will move directly to teaching their own courses, under faculty supervision, either at our university or at local partnering four-year or community colleges. That will do more to teach them how to teach—and it will make graduate student life somewhat more bearable.
  4. Don’t Let Them Take Forever. Our answer to the problem of the “perpetual graduate student” is to design an MA/PhD track that can be completed in five years. We aim to accomplish that by making our students’ teaching load less onerous (see above) and by providing full financial support for five years (and not one day more). We found that many of our students bogged down when they tried to write an MA thesis, so we will replace that with a required second-year tutorial devoted to producing a publishable research paper. As Robert Townsend reported in the May 2008 Perspectives on History, 28 percent of students in small PhD programs complete their degrees in five years, compared with half that proportion in large programs, perhaps because they get more individual attention and (hence) have higher morale.3
  5. Do Away with Examinations. Every doctoral program must make its students read a fairly long list of scholarly literature and then test them on it, and so will ours. But rather than take comprehensive examinations, our students will develop portfolios that will include historiographical essays, which are a much better means of measuring their professional competence. After all, once you garner your PhD, you will never again have to take a sit-down, closed-book, four-hour examination, but you will have to master new bodies of knowledge and criticize them on paper. And that is what we should be testing.
  6. Involve Other Departments. On any given college campus, a majority of the historians are not teaching in the history department. They may be historians of art, music, science, religion, politics, philosophy, or economics. They may be historically trained classicists, sociologists, anthropologists, or librarians. And they may be quite eager to contribute to a doctoral program in history. They might want to limit their involvement to serving on the occasional dissertation committee. But some will be willing to teach courses of their own, or to open their upper-level undergraduate courses to your graduate students. They can provide a small department with the additional faculty resources needed to make a doctoral program viable. They can also give that program a distinctive interdisciplinary mix and crossfertilize it with new questions and methodologies. (Let’s remember that most of the innovative movements in historiography over the past 50 years—“cliometrics,” psychohistory, ethnohistory, the “new social history,” the “linguistic turn,” book history—have borrowed heavily from other disciplines.) When we surveyed our own graduate students, they singled out interdisciplinarity as the most attractive feature of our program.
  7. Serve Other Programs. If your campus has other related graduate programs, try to integrate yours with them as far as possible. For example, Drew University has programs in arts and letters (an interdisciplinary graduate program in the liberal arts), Master of Arts in teaching, the history of religion (based in our theological school), and medical humanities. Students in all of these areas will be invited to take courses in the history and culture program, because we have found through experience that they contribute to creating the critical intellectual mass that makes seminars exciting. Doctoral students do not profit from talking only to other doctoral students in their own field of specialization.
  8. Play Only to Your Strengths. Only the largest universities can hope to maintain graduate programs that cover many fields and periods of history. Conversely, there are quite a few smaller departments that have distinctive strengths in one specialization, and could therefore support a very good doctoral program limited to that specific area. At Drew University, our forte happens to be the intellectual and cultural history of modern Europe and America, so our graduate program will do that one thing and do it well. One advantage to this kind of specialization is that it relieves the bane of graduate student life: isolation. Because all of our students are working broadly within the same field, they take courses together and readily organize themselves into a mutually supportive community.
  9. Train Your Students to Be Public Intellectuals. The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. incited a crackling debate over the role of historians as public intellectuals. Not many of us will ever have an office in the White House, but we all address the public sphere in some way. When we write a book review for a lay magazine or an op-ed for the town paper, when we talk to senior citizens’ groups or evaluate a grant proposal for a foundation, and when we try to write a book that a trade publisher will sell to a mass audience, we are working as public intellectuals. It would make sense, then, to give our graduate students some training in this role. At Drew University our public humanities project will require all our doctoral students to hold internships at intellectual arenas outside the university: museums, foundations, publishing houses, schools, and magazines. In partnership with these institutions, our students could apply their knowledge by designing humanities programs that directly serve the public, such as a museum exhibit or a high school curriculum. We will also sponsor a workshop on writing for a lay audience, taught by a professional author. Thus our program will prepare students for careers in both academia and the nonacademic “knowledge industries”—and some of them will probably choose the latter path.

We offer this as a 21st-century model for graduate education in history. No doubt large research universities will continue to produce most new history PhDs, but we believe they should coexist with an array of microprograms that carve out distinctive scholarly niches. We are convinced that history doctoral students can learn something indispensable from students and faculty outside their departments. We recognize that we must train those students for something more than careers as college-level teachers. And we have to move those students briskly to graduation without exploiting them as cheap academic labor. The vitality of all human institutions can only be preserved by undertaking serious reform at least once in a generation, and the proposals outlined here will, we hope, contribute to a general rethinking of the business of training historians.

—Jonathan Rose is William R. Kenan Professor of History at Drew University.

Notes

1. For a more thorough description of the program, see www.drew.edu/grad-content.aspx?id=39815.

2. Robert B. Townsend, “Challenges for History Doctoral Programs and Students: Rising Admissions and High Attrition,” Perspectives on History (May 2008).

3. Ibid.