OK, Let's Teach Graduate Students Differently. But How?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

January 08, 2012

A couple of months ago, Anthony T. Grafton and James Grossman made a "very modest proposal" that wasn't very modest at all. As president and executive director of the American Historical Association, respectively, the two mounted history's official disciplinary pulpit to endorse a new way of looking at graduate education in the field.

"Many of these students," the authors wrote, "will not find tenure-track positions teaching history in colleges and universities"—and it's time to stop pretending otherwise. The job market "is what it is." We face no "transient 'crisis,'" but rather "the situation that we have lived with for two generations."

That's a refreshing assertion, and an encouraging sign that the graduate-school-industrial complex is beginning to embrace not just the not-so-new economic reality—which has, after all, been apparent for a long time—but also what that reality means for the future of graduate programs.

"A Ph.D. in history opens a broad range of doors," wrote Grafton and Grossman, and graduate programs should prepare students for an "array of positions outside the academy." It's not the first time such ideas have hit the open air, but we need to consider who's airing them. This is an important statement for the official leaders of a discipline to make, and a necessary one.

Grafton and Grossman's statement has generated plenty of response since it first appeared in October in Perspectives on History. (It was also reprinted in this newspaper, along with a follow-up essay by the authors.) Most of the response centered on outcomes—that is, the implications of the fact that most Ph.D.'s won't become professors, and the authors' call to prepare historians for a range of employment.

But Grafton and Grossman made a second, more ambitious exhortation that has been mostly ignored: History professors, they wrote, need to "examine the training we offer. ... If we tell new students that a history Ph.D. opens many doors, we need to broaden the curriculum to ensure that we're telling the truth." Right now, Grafton and Grossman observe, graduate school in history is designed "to produce more professors." If graduate programs embrace the idea that they should aim to produce other kinds of historians as well, it follows that students' training must change.

What should graduate teaching look like when it aims to prepare students for a range of careers? That's a welcome question, but it's not an easy one, because we're still inside the box that we want to teach outside of.

I'll take up the problem in two parts, this month from the individual faculty member's perspective, and next month on the curricular level (that is, from the point of view of departments and programs).

In history (and other disciplines), the idea that graduate students should perforce become professors arose relatively recently, during the postwar expansion of higher education. Thomas Bender, a history professor at New York University and author of the 2004 report of the AHA Committee on Graduate Instruction, wrote to me in an e-mail that "the most immediate issue is to remove the stigma" that graduate students feel if they don't become professors.

Bender has been making that point for a while. He wrote in the 2004 AHA report that we must "escape the expectations inherited from that so-called Golden Age" of nearly full employment in the post-Sputnik era. Any movement away from those assumptions must begin with a concerted "refashioning" of what it means to be a professional historian.

But graduate students aren't the only ones in need of refashioning. "We need different kinds of training ourselves," declares Leora Auslander, a history professor at the University of Chicago. To move students away from thinking about their possible futures in purely professorial terms, Auslander suggests that graduate-seminar leaders "teach from unconventional stuff." She particularly stresses the need to get beyond books to other media, which she has been doing in her courses, but she also admits that teaching to a new set of goals involves "things I can't think about yet."

Edward Balleisen, an associate professor of history at Duke University, has been thinking about those things, and in practical terms. His ideas aim to reconceive the boundaries defining discipline and authorship. He suggested in an e-mail that we "imagine interdisciplinary seminars around a given theme," in which history graduate students would work "with grad students from other disciplines, as well as professional students."

The very nature of that idea points to its applicability to other disciplines. Its value goes beyond cool-looking seminars to the cultivation of a wider professional ethos. Such courses would allow graduate students to imagine their work outside of the contexts of their own specialties. In fact, the central virtue of the whole approach lies in its endorsement of a move away from the sort of niche specialization that creates scholars whose work is far deeper than it is wide.

Balleisen himself will be teaching such an experimental seminar this coming spring with Jonathan Wiener, a Duke Law School professor, on "Regulatory Governance." The course, says Balleisen, will have "readings from sociology, political science, economics, and cognitive psychology, as well as history and law."

The work in such seminars challenges the idea of solitary authorship that prevails in the humanities and some of the social sciences. In particular, Balleisen wants graduate students to collaborate on projects: "perhaps a global history syllabus or a Web site of some kind, which would cultivate technical skills as well as historical analysis and innovative presentation," he suggests, "with some consideration of how to reach out to nonscholarly audiences."

Michael Elliott, an English professor at Emory University whose scholarly interests encompass public history, anticipated Balleisen's framework in a graduate course on "Historical Tourism" that he taught a few years ago. Elliott departed from the traditional seminar-paper requirement and instead assigned collaborative projects to be performed by student groups on a historical site.

"I formed the groups from their stated interests," Elliott recalled in an e-mail, "and allowed them to come up with the format." The results were wide-ranging: "One group produced a Web site on the World of Coke; another produced a curriculum for high-school teachers on using a historical cemetery as a teaching school; a third worked on an article together; another wrote a series of short papers that could have been a conference panel."

Such different responses suggest some of the myriad possibilities that can ensue when teachers give creative intellectuals the opportunity to think in new ways. "I enjoyed these projects much more than the usual batch of seminar papers," Elliott said, "and I think the students learned more about research and design that could be transported outside of the academy."

Balleisen further suggests that departments create the option of pursuing an outside field that would orient graduate students toward nonacademic careers. He notes that the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke has been considering a "policy history" track as an option not only for its own Ph.D. students, but also for history Ph.D. students. "It would allow them to put together a cluster of courses, some unambiguously involving history, and others involving 'policy' methodologies from economics and other disciplines," said Balleisen, "possibly including some kind of internship experience with a policy institution." I'll have more to say about such possibilities next month.

Professors in other fields can, and should, carve out their own versions of the path that history is trying to blast here. The approaches will naturally differ from discipline to discipline. Graduate students in the lab sciences will need little indoctrination in the spirit of collaboration, for example, because their research already works that way, but the problems for those fields may center on how to contour specialized graduate instruction to the needs of overlapping (and thus more general) audiences.

One thing is certain: In the words of Auslander, "If we continue to behave like ostriches, we're dead." Forget the idea that "it will be better tomorrow," she says. If there is to be change for the better, professors must be "willing to be influenced."

We need to connect the way we teach to what our students will actually be doing with their degrees. I invite readers to send me accounts of their plans and experiments, and I'll keep reporting on them. Teaching, after all, is another of the collaborative arts. Let's start thinking together.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories—including descriptions of the kinds of innovative graduate teaching described in this article—at