Issues in Graduate Education

Promoting Progress: The AHA Workshop for Directors of Graduate Studies

David M. Darlington, October 2006

The AHA held a workshop—with the rubric "Promoting Progress"—on August 3 and 4, 2006, for directors of graduate studies and others interested in graduate education. Approximately 30 directors of graduate studies (DGS), representing both MA and PhD degree programs, met in Rosslyn, Virginia, to discuss and identify solutions to such common problems as dealing with administrations, moving graduate students toward their degrees, preparing graduate students for future employment, and managing the relationships between professors and teaching assistants.

Effecting Change in Graduate Education

The workshop commenced on August 3 with a dinner and opening remarks by George Walker of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Walker said the purpose of the workshop was to get directors of graduate studies together to discuss their ideas and passions in a stress-free environment. Arguing that no idea was off the table, he outlined some strategies for effecting change in graduate education. He urged the directors to be agents of change inside graduate history programs, and advised them to seek out like-minded individuals in their departments. He also identified several myths that hamper reforms in departments, including the ideas that "you can't make changes without money," that "you can't learn from other disciplines," or that "graduate students can't possibly be real department leaders." Dismissing the last myth in particular, Walker suggested including graduate students in discussions of the doctoral program because their presence helps prevent the creation of an "old guard" mentality among the faculty. He also encouraged the assembled directors to think counterfactually about why their departments behave as they do, asking them, "what would you do to reach your programs objectives if you couldn't do what you are currently doing?"

Promoting Graduate Student Progress

The first session on Friday, August 4, was about graduate student progress, and focused on such questions as how to get students through the program in a reasonable amount of time, how to help students who are unable to do the work, and what the role of the department or graduate director was in this process. Cindy Hahamovitch of the College of William and Mary facilitated the discussion with the session's two speakers, R. Emmet McLaughlin of Villanova University and Daryle Williams of the University of Maryland at College Park. McLaughlin identified three main problems he faces as DGS at Villanova University, a terminal MA program. The first was uneven prior preparation for incoming students. His department has a lot of nontraditional students, he said, so his incoming graduate students are not equally prepared for graduate work. Villanova University has instituted graduate school workshops (for writing, research, and so on) to help students get up to speed and student mentor programs where older graduate students (usually a year ahead) assist new students, and has encouraged faculty diligence to look for gaps in prior preparation. The second problem was that students, especially the part-time ones, easily disconnect from the program as jobs, families, and other interests compete for attention. Sudden drops in grades and skipping a semester are indicators that this is going to be a problem with a particular student, he said. The third and biggest problem was having students adequately plan for and fulfill all the course and graduation requirements, especially the master's thesis. Students typically underestimate the amount of work required for the thesis and get bogged down, he said, so the department instituted a thesis proposal requirement. With the thesis proposal, a student does nearly half of the thesis paper before it is even vetted by three faculty members (with the instruction to "be mean") and approved. Students are given clear timelines and limitations, and are required to have frequent, planned, face-to-face meetings with their thesis adviser and report on work done to both the adviser and the DGS. McLaughlin said the thesis proposal system has met with success, as all students completed their theses on time in the second year of the program.

Daryle Williams noted that the University of Maryland is geared toward the training of academic historians, so it has fewer of the issues relating to nontraditional students that face Villanova University. Still, he said, student progress was an issue. He encouraged the creation of multi-year study programs so students know they are on the right track. At his university, for example, students are allowed to take nine years on the PhD, but the department expects them to be done in five, as financial packages only last five to six years. Williams also encouraged DGSs to be aggressively inquisitive about their own programs, gathering such data as job placements, local cost of living, peer funding (how the department compares to its nearest competitors), and the number of graduates and students, so that the department knows its strengths and weaknesses and incoming students can also know exactly what they are getting into. Williams spoke of several reforms worth considering, such as first-year reviews so students know where they stand in the department, and annual self-evaluations thereafter. Echoing a point made by McLaughlin, Williams felt self-evaluations were especially important for post-comprehensive exam students who are not on campus as much and therefore at greater risk for "disconnection."

The debates continued after the first session (as smaller group discussions involving the participants sitting around the various tables) and addressed many of the same issues raised by the two presenters: How can the DGS ease the transition from undergraduate to graduate work? How does one gauge (and nurture) progress in students who are not, or are no longer, on campus daily? To what extent can faculty be urged to enforce student deadlines and moving students through the program? One suggested solution was to make it clear to students that graduate school was professional training. That meant exposing the student to many different kinds of professional historians, being firm and clear on deadlines and requirements, and, perhaps more controversially, not giving good grades to students who do not have "it," so there are no surprises when it is time to work on the dissertation. In fact, much of the discussion focused on how long an underperforming student should be allowed to remain in a program, whether or not DGSs had an ethical obligation to move students along (or out), and how to balance those considerations with the prestige of having a big department that produces many PhDs. Other ideas included creating rewards for faculty who move students along, such as a point system for advising or serving on a thesis committee that would translate into release from teaching a class.

Preparing Students for Jobs as Historians

The mid-morning session on Friday was entitled "Preparing Students for Jobs as Historians." Brad Austin of Salem State University addressed secondary teaching. Using data from the report of the AHA's Committee on the Master's Degree (Retrieving the Masters Degree from the Dustbin of History), Austin noted that 50 percent of history MAs are earned at schools that do not have PhD programs, and the majority of these MAs are secondary education teachers who get the degree because they have to. Furthermore, 65 percent of history PhDs teach at schools without a PhD program (and elite schools feed elite schools, as noted in Robert Townsend's article in the October 2005 Perspectives), so graduate departments need to engage secondary education teaching.1 Austin recommended that a graduate program faculty member should become familiar with teacher licensing and assessment in the state, to serve as the department's go-to education person. Failing that, Austin said, history programs should establish connections with campus education departments so they are better acquainted with K–12 education and those who teach it. He also recommended making a methods of teaching history class part of every master's student's training, and personally encouraged a second class just for secondary education methods, because the National Council for the Social Studies requires a second class for certification. He also suggested incorporating pedagogy training into other history courses—by having students create a unit plan with primary sources, for example, and getting advanced students involved with grant writing so they can link to public history more effectively.

Speaking about preparing students for public history work, Laura Croghan Kamoie of the U.S. Naval Academy noted that despite the tremendous growth of public history as a field over the past 20 years, difficulties remained; but, she said, DGSs could help. Public history programs, she said, should have at least one permanent, preferably senior, faculty member who can provide stability for the program, give credibility and confidence to incoming students, make sure the program's requirements are reasonable, and advocate for funding of the program while having the backing of job security. Kamoie also asserted that history and public history students should receive the same grounding in history by sharing the same background courses. "Public historians should be historians first," she said. Public history is an equally, if not more, demanding field than academic history, she argued, because, in addition to traditional academic work, public historians also need to develop the skill sets of writing position papers, grant writing, presenting, and law.

Daniel Cohen of George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, who spoke about the digital revolution in the study of history, argued that digital skills will be critical in the future study of history. Cohen said history students should be encouraged to go to library seminars on searching. Calling digital skills "highly fundable," Cohen said departments should identify students with technical prowess and encourage them to write programs for the department, design web sites, and look for grant-funded research that will allow their skills to develop.

Table discussions after the second session focused on the "divide" between public history and academic history. Some participants felt that many academics regarded public historians as failures and that the separation of public history into a separate field continued that stigmatization. Others expressed concern about graduate students who thought they were on the academic job track, but ended up as public historians. The directors present seemed to agree that incorporating aspects of education and public history preparation into graduate programs was a good idea. One DGS also noted that a strong public history program can be a tremendous draw for new students even in the midst of general cutbacks in humanities.

Graduate Students as Employees

Following a "working lunch," where the DGSs gathered at their tables to discuss recruitment of students and dealing with administrative requirements, a final session was devoted to the issue of graduate students as department employees. Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University began the session by regrouping participants around tables sorted by MA-only institutions and by PhD-granting institutions in the hopes of spurring deeper discussion. The session's main speaker, Eve Levin of the University of Kansas, related her experiences in dealing with research assistants (RA) and teaching assistants (TA). Levin argued that it is good for students to be TAs, as they can then discover if they actually enjoy, or are any good at, teaching. Levin discovered that students who receive funding as an RA or TA actually finish their degree faster than those who are on fellowships or are unfunded, probably because they are on campus more and are reminded of their responsibilities to the department (echoing the "disconnection" theme from earlier in the day). Levin listed four issues for DGSs to consider: (1) the type of work assigned to graduate students, and the number of hours they are expected to work each week; (2) the criteria for retention, where faculty and students often have differing ideas, with students favoring classroom performance and faculty favoring "my students" or potential stars; (3) compensation; and (4) the contribution of graduate employment to professional development.

Levin said departments must remember teaching assistants are professional historians too and treat them as such, although TAs also needed to remember that regular faculty are senior. She also said that while compensation was often out of the department's control, where possible, they should try and ensure that TAs received a living wage.

Following the presentation, DGSs discussed how to teach TAs to be good teachers, broaching topics such as what to do with unreliable TAs, TA fraternization with students and faculty, and what constitutes a fair workload for TAs. There was general consensus that expectations and guidelines for conduct should be made clear to both faculty and students, and that the DGSs should have the authority to implement the guidelines. It was suggested that graduate students should use their university's center for teaching education to eliminate bad classroom habits, including fraternization with undergraduates, which could undermine their authority.

The question of what to do with unreliable or poor TAs was more complex. Departments can refuse to rehire bad TAs for the following semester, but they would still remain in the program, leading to a potentially awkward situation. As for fair TA workloads, the suggestion was raised that, in order to decrease burdens on TAs, part-timers could be hired to cover classes at similar cost. It was also suggested that faculty not assign any more work in classes led by TAs than they would if they led the classes themselves. The DGSs recognized that often they were the only recourse for TAs who had poor relationships with their faculty advisers.

The participants in the workshop left with many new program ideas heading into the fall 2006 semester. To keep the discussion going, the AHA has created an e-mail discussion list for directors of graduate studies (for details about this discussion list, please contact Noralee Frankel).

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives.

Note

1. Robert B. Townsend, "New Study Highlights Prominence of Elite PhD Programs in History," Perspectives, October 2005.