Grad Degrees and History Pedagogy

The Tenured Radical had an interesting post today about the History PhD. Her take: joint programs and digital scholarship.

Here is my proposal: that we stop discouraging students from taking graduate degrees in history and start pushing them towards programs that will actually give them a career; and that, while we must keep the pressure on to create and preserve full-time, university-based positions in history, we begin to imagine that some of those positions will be aimed at teaching and practicing digital preservation. This would involve the following:

Discouraging colleagues and students from elaborating further on the romance of classroom teaching.

That we begin to incorporate these new cadres [of digital specialists] into history departments even in the absence of a center for new media.

Go public about the fact that many of the people who are graduate school stars, and get a tenure track job, find out to their dismay that they don’t really like what they are doing.

Stop talking about what “counts” for tenure and start talking about what counts.

I commented that this should not really be an innovation at the PhD level, but at the undergrad and MA levels.* This gets to my larger point that we need to rethink the role of skills in the whole discipline of history. We can read; we can think critically, and we can write clearly — this is how I would sum up our abilities (or at least our ambition for our students). While these are pretty solid and central skills, we have really focused on textual communication (especially in the long form), which is now only one of many ways to communicate ideas. Historians have little training in visual culture (but sometimes if they’re interested in art history) and no skills in visual production. Same for aural communication — we can take oral histories but we can’t really put them together concisely unless you’ve been through a documentary program.

Potter is right that historians have been slow to embrace the digital and adapt our disciplinary work to the job market. But historians have been pretty slow to adapt to most of the recent technological and communications innovations even in teaching or doing our traditional research. This frustrated me a great deal once I moved out of a grad program in history because I saw what opportunities for non-academic service and new lines of inquiry and presentation there were when I was surrounded by a more technologically savvy cohort. (This certainly strengthens Potter’s argument for joint programs). However, rather than making or allowing grad students to play catch-up on programming or GIS or video editing, we need to ask what skills historians are providing to undergrads, to MA students, and to PhDs — every level. Then an MA student who has had a programming class in undergrad or one in database design can take those tools out of their toolbox and go to work on whatever raw historical material interests them. Within the walls of academia (as generally Potter bounds her discussion), it is also useful to have some inkling of what other disciplines and departments are all about, because then historians (and grad students) are able to help shape the way that discipline treats history. In so many cases history and historians are simply inputs into a project, rather than agents of change within a project, because we don’t understand the language of technologists or the underlying assumptions of the data managers. Driving this exposure earlier in the history education can also result in more active and effective engagement (interdisciplinary or otherwise) in later stages.

I should offer the meta note that, in arguing for a greater emphasis on skill-building, I am not in the least proposing a careerist or vocational set of goals. The increasing job orientation of higher education is highly annoying to me and, as it is often operationalized, counter-productive, and seems to end up giving us ever more business majors who want comfortable salaries. I am really a booster of the possibilities of capitalism (adequately restrained and guided) and emphasize that one is better served developing a core set of competencies and a set of values that informs a broad view of the world. At a conference on architecture a few years ago, I heard a speaker on the challenges of mega-urbanism say that designers needed to develop their design and planning skills to a fine edge so that whenever they had the opportunity to contribute to a meaningful project, they did not lack for expertise or experience — he basically said, you’ve got to be a damn good architect who’s got a bigger vision about your agency and effect in order to make a small contribution to the big problems of urbanism. I want historians to have these sets of skills in order to make contributions in urbanism, in politics, in communications, etc., AND to create more effective modes of communication for higher-level scholarship. Building some of these skills early on will make sure students are valuable to any kind of organization–private, public, non-profit, for-profit, whatever, and not have to worry about snatching up lucrative opportunities because they worry about getting a living.

*Note, I think it’s often a great idea to do a joint program at the PhD level, but this is not the best solution to the problems of interdisciplinarity, public engagement, or the job issue.

**See also.