Promoting Progress: A Report on the Fifth Workshop for Directors of Graduate Studies

David Darlington, October 2007

On August 2 and 3, 2007, the AHA conducted its fifth workshop for department chairs and directors of graduate studies, under the theme of "Promoting Progress." Thirty participants gathered for the event, which was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and was held in Rosslyn, Virginia.

Proceedings commenced on August 2 with a reception and dinner for participants, followed by a keynote address by Gabrielle M. Spiegel, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and president-elect of the AHA. Speaking on the theme, "The Coming Crisis in Graduate Education and Other Challenges" Spiegel addressed what she felt were structural problems that might soon overtake the university—namely, problems in recruitment, distribution, funding, and placement. Spiegel identified a growing disparity in levels of funding between well-endowed institutions and "the rest," most obvious at the level of recruiting graduate students. Some institutions can offer relatively large stipends, funding for summer research, and waive teaching requirements, while others cannot, which concerned Spiegel because she believes recruits would "follow the money" rather than go to a school that best fit their academic aspirations. Spiegel worried also about a "mimetic effect" among universities, where schools felt pressure to outspend each other on frivolous things to get the best graduate students or teachers, thus locking out schools with smaller endowments and creating a sense of entitlement or gamesmanship in the recruitment pool. Likewise, Spiegel expressed concern that richer departments are better able to handle historiographical changes in the field, such as the rise of global and transnational history. Obviously, new avenues of inquiry are the sign of a healthy profession, but Spiegel argued that many departments are ill-equipped to deal with shifts in historiography. Large institutions are at an advantage, she said, because they can hire scholars in new fields while still retaining coverage in traditional Western history.

Spiegel also expressed concern about the emergence of a post-degree, pre-employment "gap year" in the graduate experience. Because many departments require the completion of a degree before considering hiring a candidate, Spiegel was worried that candidates who received their degrees in May, for example, would not go on the job hunt until the following fall, be interviewed at the AHA annual meeting the following January, and not start teaching until August or September a year later. During this "gap year," candidates are without an income or health care support from their PhD institution. The postgraduate, pre-hiring year "is purely structural," she said, and "this means that we are going to have to figure out how to cope with this structural shift in hiring, either by granting visiting scholar positions to our recent PhDs, and almost certainly by trying to offer some kind of medical insurance for them. The trend is not necessarily universal but is very strong and very harmful."

The second day of the workshop featured three panel sessions and a "working lunch" for participants. The first morning session addressed the issue of preparing students for PhD work. Maritere Lopez, a DGS at California State University at Fresno (a masters-level program), described how she prepares her master's students for PhD programs at other schools. Her recently revamped master's program, which now requires student work typically associated with a PhD-level program, is designed to make her students a "triple threat": of academic excellence, scholarship, and citizenship/leadership in the profession. Regarding academic excellence, Lopez said that the department uses methods and theory courses at the master's level, writing labs, research opportunities, and training, as well as the traditional GPA and classwork yardsticks to measure student progress. Her graduate students also need to show they are excellent with presentations and publications (the scholarship aspect) to demonstrate a level of professionalism. The department provides funding for travel to conferences, while the graduate students run a journal and hold their own symposium. Lopez admitted the "triple threat" idea was labor-intensive for faculty as well as students, and faculty need to be convinced to put that much work into master's students. Nevertheless, Lopez seemed pleased with the results so far, and said that the department can measure its success both by the number of students who receive full funding when they go on for a PhD and also by the ease with which they tackle the scholastic requirements of the doctoral program.

David Watt of Temple University addressed the issue from the perspective of a PhD school, namely, what Temple expects its incoming PhD students to have accomplished prior to admittance. Temple's PhD program is an accelerated program, Watt said, which can rarely provide more than six years of funding, though the typical PhD at Temple takes eight to nine years to finish. Therefore, he said, the emphasis is on getting students through quickly. Watt said he looks for new students who can "identify a presently existing scholarly discourse and make an argument that influences it." He said he does not expect his new PhD students to "write like angels," be up-to-date with historiography, have presented papers, or have done thesis-length research. Rather, Temple expects its students to know the foreign languages necessary for their specialization before admission (because they cannot advance quickly if they are still taking remedial language instruction) and show broad training in the humanities, namely history, anthropology, cultural studies, literature, religion, and epistemology. "History is not about telling charming stories," he said, but rather "an unnatural thing" for people to do that must be learned. At the end of his remarks, Watt also expressed concern with stratification in the history profession—the differences between an elite institution and one like Temple, for example—and about whether or not historians can generalize about "best practices" in recruitment, retention, and training.

Group discussion after the session focused on what institutions looked for in incoming graduate students. Typical answers included good writing (original research), good letters of recommendation, a high SAT verbal score (for native English speakers), and, interestingly, students who had previously written to the faculty member(s) they wanted to work with, indicating ambition and professionalism. Attendees discussed the merits of various culminating MA experiences—namely thesis papers, comprehensive exams, or other projects—and which experiences should be required (if any) and were the best route to the PhD. Attendees also agreed departments should explain to students what the admissions process looks like, and encouraged the AHA to inform faculty on how to write good letters of recommendation (see the essays on Letters of Recommendation by Grafton, Darnton, et al.).

The second morning session focused on the recruitment and retention of women and minorities for graduate work. Both presenters—Elizabeth Lunbeck of Vanderbilt University and George Sanchez of the University of Southern California—painted sobering pictures of diversity in the history professorate. As Perspectives has reported elsewhere (see, for example, Robert B. Townsend, "The Status of Women and Minorities in the History Profession," Perspectives, April 2002), the history profession remains one of the least diverse in academia. Lunbeck argued that women in graduate school would benefit from mentoring more senior female faulty members. Many women enter graduate school with a sense of equality with the male counterparts, she said, but gradually become disillusioned by the time they become professors. Women in general are more likely to feel dissatisfied about their position in academia than men are, largely because of the social climate, she said. Senior faculty mentors would help tremendously with recruitment and retention of female graduate students. Lunbeck suggested that the mentorship could be formalized in some cases, so that it is more than a casual friendship or another form of faculty advising. Likewise, ameliorative measures from the department or the school, like "stop the clock" policies for childbirth, onsite childcare, and maternity leave, would enhance women's position in academia. Lunbeck also encouraged placing female faculty in the graduate classroom and monitoring the numbers of women in the department. Often, departments fail to notice that female students are "washing out" before the problem is serious.

George Sanchez called the number of minorities in the history profession a "national crisis." According to a Woodrow Wilson Foundation study, he said, African Americans make up just 5 percent of history faculty (versus 13 percent of the population) and Latinos comprise just 3 percent (versus 14 percent of population). History classrooms are nearly as homogenous, he said, which means the next generation of history academics will remain relatively non-diverse while the rest of academia continues to get more diverse. Sanchez said that according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, one-third of all PhD institutions granted no PhDs from 1973 to 2005 to African Americans. Only a handful of PhD institutions are actively recruiting minority candidates, so the lack of diversity is entirely the profession's fault. The non-diverse history field is essentially replicating itself, he said, especially at elite institutions. As such, one of Sanchez's solutions is for departments to recruit minority students at the undergraduate level. Those who succeed should be encouraged to think about becoming faculty and paired with a faculty member—echoing Lunbeck's argument—to mentor them through graduate school. This mentor relationship is critical, Sanchez, said, because fewer students are willing, at present, to become minority trailblazers in departments. Sanchez also said graduate programs should seek to forge relationships with undergraduate "feeder" institutions that consistently produce exceptional minority scholars (see also the essay by Sanchez in this issue, and the document produced by the Committee on Minority Historians, "Equity for Minority Historians in the Academic History Workplace: A Guide to Best Practices").

An issue that arose during the discussion following this session was that of the "leaky pipeline" of the academic career track for women. While women earn roughly 40 percent of all PhDs and have a slight advantage at first hire, only 18 percent of full-time, tenured full professors are women. Attendees discussed weak points (such as tenure review) and reasons for women dropping out of academic careers, and the relative merits and disadvantages of having children while pursuing an academic career. Most present agreed with both presenters that mentor relationships would help with the retention of women and minority students, but some cautioned that directors of graduate studies should not assume that all faculty would naturally be "good" mentors.

Following the working lunch was the final session, on the retention of graduate students. Mack Holt of George Mason University (GMU) spoke about retaining students at the master's level. Holt spoke of designing MA programs that reflect, first and foremost, the needs of one's local market. Departments need to think about the needs of their students, he said, not about validating the department's existence. GMU, for example, generated more MAs in history than any other program in the United States from 1995 to 2000, and is one of the largest MA programs in the country, since it is the only part-time program in the Washington, D.C., area. About 10 percent of GMU students go on for a PhD in history and slightly more (20–25 percent) are teachers. Many are public and applied historians who already work full time for the government. The largest cohort, Holt said, are those who "just love history" and take master's-level classes for personal enrichment. As such, GMU has built a curriculum to meet the diverse needs of the students in its program, with an emphasis on giving students several paths to follow toward earning the master's, only some of which require a thesis paper or comprehensive exam. For Holt, the keys to student retention were knowing what constituted a department's constituency (future academics, full-time teachers, public historians, or just history lovers), identifying student needs, and recognizing when that constituency's needs change over time. Holt said that one the problems he faces is tracking the students in GMU's program, especially in identifying which students are no longer active. Full-time professionals taking history graduate courses often disappear for a semester or two during their studies. Holt said it is important to recognize when students have dropped out permanently, and find out why, which could perhaps identify an institutional problem.

James Palmitessa of Western Michigan University spoke about retention at the PhD level. Palmitessa said that the problem of retention could be addressed in part at the admissions level. His department does not admit any graduate student who doesn't already have a faculty member who has agreed to supervise her or him. This professor is in the student's specialization and helps to mentor the student through the program and to prevent "student drift." Furthermore, Palmitessa's department enforces a graduate college requirement, a four-page paper written after 18 hours of classwork, that forces the students to examine where they are in the program, what they have to do to complete the program, and then to develop a plan of action toward completion. Each student is also subject to an annual performance review, similar to faculty performance evaluations, to be signed by both the student and the supervising professor and tied to continued funding in the program. The department also requires public presentations of master's theses or dissertation prospectuses before students can become doctoral candidates, as a public display of student progress.

Discussion following this session focused on other ways to assess retention. Participants debated the merits of exit interviews, frequent program reviews, and the reliability of department records. Some wondered how easy it was to identify which program reforms contributed to a higher graduation rate, and what exactly was meant by "a successful program."

At the conclusion of the workshop, it was announced that the AHA would revive the e-mail listserv for directors of graduate studies to enable them to continue discussions of these and other issues during the 2007–08 academic year.

—David Darlington is associate editor of Perspectives.