Directors of Graduate Studies Meet at Washington Workshop

Noralee Frankel and Pillarisetti Sudhir, October 2005

Directors of Graduate Studies in history departments play a role that is complicated and often thankless, but always vital. To help discuss and clarify the issues they face, and to facilitate mutual support for their work, the AHA arranged a two-day workshop this summer for directors of graduate studies and others interested in graduate education. The workshop, inspired by recommendations made by the AHA Committee on Graduate Education in its report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, was held on August 4 and 5, 2005, in Washington, D.C., and attracted more than 50 participants from around the country. Despite the brief span of the workshop, the participants collected a great deal of new information about graduate education, discovered that they shared many of the same challenges, learned about innovative ways of meeting academic predicaments, and even discovered that there were looming problems they had not even begun to consider. It was, as one participant put it enthusiastically, a revelatory experience, and one well worth the long trip he had made, he said.

The program began on Thursday, August 4, with a reception and dinner, followed by a keynote address by Charlotte Kuh of the National Research Council, who spoke on the council’s review of graduate programs.

The first session on the next day was devoted to consideration of models for best practices in graduate education. David Quigley (Boston Coll.), in discussing the Preparing Future Faculty (PPF) program at his institution, noted that it was based on three principles: (1) looking at different programs to introduce students to diverse classroom situations that they may meet elsewhere; (2) training students to deal with multiple mentors; and (3) engaging a range of institutions—from local colleges to universities (that is, not just PhD-granting programs). The PPF program sought to promote "an open-ended culture of collaborations," Quigley said.

Edward Balleisen (Duke Univ.) described how his department was generally skeptical initially when signing onto the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate and how faculty members soon discovered how helpful it was to the department to be a part of a national project of rethinking the PhD program and the discipline of history. Attempting to answer questions with both local and global import—Where is the discipline going? Where does the department fit into the larger world of the discipline? Is hyperspecialization a problem? Is the traditional thesis the only possible format for a graduate program?—has been salutary and useful, Balleisen suggested.

The second session, which focused on training for research and teaching in a global context, dealt with many different issues of concern for those directing graduate studies. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks (Univ. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) described her department’s new PhD program in which one of the concentrations is on "global history," and for which students are expected to "cross geographic, disciplinary and conceptional boundaries, question or perhaps challenge existing regional or chronological frameworks, and develop new approaches to understanding global developments and interactions." Wiesner-Hanks showed how the department was using local Wisconsin history as a springboard to help students think about comparative connections with aspects of global history. Sonya Michel (Univ. of Maryland at College Park) described an AHA project (which was conducted jointly with the American Council on Education) that discussed ways of situating a U.S. survey course placed in a world context. This would enable graduate students to connect their research more closely to the U.S. history survey course, which is the course that most students take, often because it is most often required. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) talked about the traditional American reluctance to globalizing regional history, and how it is being overcome in the move toward internationalizing the curriculum. He said that doctoral students can write dissertations on comparative or world history topics and still be competitive for more traditional nation-state bound jobs at research universities, but admitted that we would know about the truth of this assertion only when such students entered the job market. T. Mills Kelly (George Mason Univ.) considered the impact of new technologies on the profession. Arguing that the globalization of knowledge has to be taken seriously, Kelly lamented the seeming indifference of historians to digital technologies—only 6 percent of U.S. history survey courses link to digital materials, he said—and declared that historians should begin more widely to use technology (weblogs, instant messaging) that students use on a daily basis.

The third session was devoted to a discussion of the various analytical tools that are available for planning and assessment in graduate programs. Norman Bradburn (Univ. of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center) discussed various data (from 1948 to 2002) including bachelor’s degrees in history, and history degrees as a proportion of total degrees. Robert Townsend (AHA) noted the number of history programs, degrees conferred, as well as information concerning history PhDs. Paul Tate (Council of Graduate Schools) pointed out various programs of the Council of Graduate Schools that could be helpful to directors of graduate studies.

The workshop ended with an informative session on Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which was particularly useful because of the ongoing debates and controversies about the wisdom of bringing oral history—the indispensable tool for many historians today—under the purview of the review boards. In this session, Linda Shopes (Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission) outlined the problems that history departments face in dealing with IRBs. Felice J. Levine (American Education Research Association) and Sandria Sanford (George Mason Univ.) provided practical information about working with campus institutional review boards. Freda Yoder (Office for Human Research Protections, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) summarized the federal regulations affecting IRBs. Given the complex nature of the subject, and the fact that the ramifications of the federal government’s policies have not yet had an impact on every department, more questions on this emerging and thorny subject were left unasked and unanswered.

The participants took full advantage of the time set apart for discussion in every session, and in a clear demonstration of the interest the workshop generated, even turned some of the coffee breaks into mini group sessions to continue exploring the issues that could only be touched on by the speakers.

— Noralee Frankel and Pillarisetti Sudhir