Reading as a Graduate Student

Why Reading Matters

Karen Wulf of the Omohundro Institute has a nice post at the Vast Early America blog on “reading” in graduate school.   If you are studying for your comps and find yourself awash in a sea of monographs, this piece is very helpful.

I’ve seen graduate students struggle with a heavy reading load, and I’ve seen them use various methods to try and lighten that load.  One is to not make it through the reading, which is obviously not ideal.  (Understatement.)  I’ve also seen some use book reviews as a substitute.  Also not ideal, but for reasons I’ll explain below.  And I’ve seen students sacrifice a lot to make it through every last page, and sometimes (often?) that trade-off (especially with sleep and general health) wasn’t a wise one.

The reason students do this are many, but among them are a sense of anxiety about their ignorance.  I don’t think they believe me when I say that the more you know, the better perspective you’ll have on just how little you know.  Plenty of clever people have found ways to phrase that.  Earlier this month astrophysicist Adam Frank described for NPR how important ignorance is in a world that seems increasingly casual about expertise and “alternative facts.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, he noted, but by exposing the limits of our own and others’ knowledge it clarifies where expertise lies and has been achieved.  Get used to being ignorant because it’s not only okay, it’s the natural state when you’re leaning.  The helpful bit here for graduate students is the same, I think, as it is for me.  It’s not to say that we will never achieve knowledge, even expertise, but that there will always be limits to it if we’re curious about the world.  If we think that learning is not only important but exciting and interesting then–yay!–we’re in for a lifetime of acknowledging our (relative) ignorance.

Click here to learn about her “TICCN” strategy.

What Might a Ph.D in History Look Like in 2022?

Professors

Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, has a vision.  In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, he imagines what an orientation for new doctoral students might look like in 2022.

Here is a taste:

As academe moves (slowly but surely) to rethink doctoral training, I’ve been mulling the direction and implications of change.

Today, a new vocabulary has emerged in Ph.D. humanities education. Doctoral degrees are “malleable.” Their recipients are “versatile.” A discourse of “career diversity” will enable new cultures of “connected academics.”

Most graduate students today encounter that wider perspective of doctoral training as they near the finish line, yet they also inhabit an academic culture steeped in traditional norms of success and failure. Even graduate-program directors committed to a broad view of Ph.D. career options might include in their welcome messages the 40-year-old jeremiad about the narrowed academic job market — implying therein a standard of success. In a well-meaning attempt at transparency, they might include a reference to “placement rates” — underscoring the tenure track as the normative pathway even amid the rhetoric of “alternative” careers.

With resources from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, new projects aimed at changing graduate-school training and culture are emerging — some initiated by scholarly societies like the American Historical Association (the organization I direct) and the Modern Language Association, and others led by humanities centers, graduate deans, and even individual departments.

With these expanded visions gaining traction, I am ready to indulge in fantasy: What might a graduate orientation for entering students in my discipline — history — look like in five years? Let’s pick up where we left off with our hypothetical director of graduate students in 2022 …

Read the entire piece here.

New Summer Online Graduate Courses Through Gilder-Lehrman

The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History has just announced their summer graduate course offerings.  These courses can be applied to an M.A. in Humanities (American History concentration) at Adams State University.

They are:

America in an Age of World Wars: World War I (Michael Neiberg, Army War College)

Historiography and Historical Methods (Multiple scholars)

Lincoln and Leadership (Michael Burlingame, University of Illinois-Springfield)

State Histories (Richard Loosbrock, Adams State University)

Learn more about these courses here.

Nancy Tomes Wins the Bancroft Prize

TomesI can now say that I am a student of a Bancroft Prize winner!

I am very excited to learn that Nancy Tomes, one of my graduate school mentors and one of my favorite people in the profession,  is one of three winners of this prestigious prize in American History.

Here a taste of New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler’s article on the winners:

Books on the 1971 Attica prison uprising, the enslavement of Native Americans, and the health care system have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

Andrés Reséndez, a professor at the University of California, Davis, won for “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which argues that it was mass slavery at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, rather than epidemics, that devastated the Native American population.

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at the University of Michigan, won for “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy” (Pantheon), which drew on extensive documentation, including some that had never been seen before by scholars, to reconstruct the violent retaking of the prison and its decades-long legal aftermath.

Nancy Tomes, a professor at Stony Brook University, won for “Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients Into Consumers” (University of North Carolina Press), which examined the origins of the notion that patients should “shop” for health care.

I took two research seminars with Nancy while doing my doctoral work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  In the first seminar I wrote a paper that was eventually published as “Wheelock’s World: Letters and the Communication of Revival in Great Awakening New England,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (1999).  The second seminar paper I wrote for Nancy resulted in a chapter of my doctoral dissertation on religion in eighteenth-century New Jersey.  Later she served as a member of my dissertation committee (which was directed by Ned Landsman).  Her support and encouragement of my work was invaluable to me as a graduate student hoping to make it in the history profession.

Congratulations Nancy Tomes!

In Defense of Faculty Scholarship at Small Christian Colleges

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In the last six months I have had conversations with at least four different professors at four different small Christian colleges in the United States.  These professors were all lamenting the fact that the administrations at their colleges had recently made decisions to cut funding for faculty scholarship.  One school had severely limited the number of sabbaticals offered each year.  Another school had cut internal grant money for faculty working on scholarly projects.  Two professors said that administrators told them that their primary job was teaching and if they wanted to do scholarship they were certainly welcome to pursue such a course, but it would need to be done on their own time.  According to another professor, an administrator told him/her that faculty scholarship is not a bad thing, but in an “age of prioritization” the funding for such scholarship needed to be cut because, in the long run, it doesn’t put students in the seats.

The emotions of these professors ranged from angry to sad.  They all had really interesting research projects, but they did not have the resources or support to pursue them.  One professor had to turn down an external grant because the administration could not afford to have him be away from the classroom for an entire academic year.

I am sympathetic to the idea that faculty books and articles do not attract prospective students. (Although I am sure that if a faculty member at a small Christian college won a Pulitzer Prize the PR department and the administration would not hesitate to bring attention to such an achievement!).

I also understand that many small schools need to make serious budget cuts in order to keep the doors open.  But to cut funds and opportunities for faculty scholarship at small, largely teaching, institutions is a short-sighted approach that ultimately hurts students.

In the past year or so I have had other kinds of conversations with other colleagues in my field.  They have told me stories of students at small colleges who have won entrance to graduate school or landed jobs precisely because faculty at their institutions had published books and articles that gave the school academic and intellectual credibility.

This is especially relevant for small Christian colleges.  Since many prestigious graduate programs–especially in the humanities–are overwhelmingly secular in orientation, many of the faculty in these graduate programs tend to be suspect of Christian college graduates.  This is unfortunate since many students at Christian colleges are more than capable of doing work at the best graduate schools in the country.  But it is also a reality.  Let’s face it, an absolutely outstanding student at a small Christian college with high test scores needs to have a great vita and letters of reference if they are going to compete for a spot in a graduate program with an above-average student who went to college at Harvard or Yale.

Having said that, it doesn’t take much to convince faculty at prestigious graduate schools that Christian college alums are legitimate.  When graduate committees at these schools are familiar with the scholarly work of faculty at these small Christian colleges it legitimizes the academic quality of such colleges and the students who graduate from them.  I can think of many Messiah College history students who were accepted and funded at top schools around the country because someone in the history department at those schools knew about the scholarly work of one our faculty members.

Just this week I was talking to a history professor at a small Christian college who landed one of his students at a high-powered and very competitive graduate program because one of the graduate faculty in that program had read one of his books and cited it in his own scholarly work.

Also this week I met a student who just got accepted to one of the best graduate programs in his field.  When I learned about this I approached the student to offer my congratulations.  (I should add that I did not write a letter for this student.  I have never taught this student.  I had no idea he was even applying to this particular program.  And to the best of my memory this was the first time I had ever actually spoken more than a few words to him). When we chatted he told me that he was very nervous during his campus interview.  He was was worried about how his Messiah College degree would be received at this elite institution.  But during the course of the interview the director of the graduate program told him that he was familiar with my work and followed me on Twitter.  I have no doubt that this student was accepted to this program on his own merits, but the fact that the director knew the academic reputation of Messiah College certainly helped him. I hope he left the conversation thankful that Messiah supports faculty scholarship. I know I did.

Faculty do scholarly work for a number of reasons.  Some feel called to make contributions to knowledge.  Others may do it to pursue personal glory or prestige at their institutions or in their disciplines.  Still other do it as way of climbing the academic ladder, landing a better job, or securing higher speaking fees.  But we rarely frame faculty scholarship in terms of what it might do for our students. When it is framed this way, scholarship becomes less about the career or even professional development of the individual scholar-teacher and more about an act of service to the young men and women we encounter everyday in our classrooms.

How Does and Undergraduate Course in History Differ From a Graduate Course?

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Philip Jenkins, writing at The Anxious Bench, discusses the differences.

A taste:

So how does a graduate course differ from an undergraduate? To some extent, this is a question of degree (pun intended) or proportion. By the time you are dealing with graduate students, you expect them to have a foundation in understanding how history is written and understood, and also to be able to undertake independent work. The role of the professor should fade to that of a coordinator and organizer, who sets goals and directions, while the students undertake the bulk of the enterprise. The professor identifies the broad scope of the course, and within that describes particular topics and topic areas, suggesting readings and sources. Thereafter, the main responsibility passes to the class…

So much is familiar, but there are a couple of matters that have become massively more significant in graduate teaching in recent years, which again need to be in pretty much every course to some degree. One is that of professionalism, of learning to work within the academic world, and preparing for an academic career (which might take various forms). If a student takes a course on Topic X, they should ideally be laying the foundation to teach within that area if and when they find an academic job, at whatever level. One outcome of the course, then, is that a student should leave it knowing the outline of that field, understanding what it entails, what the main issues and debates are, who the main figures are. It is preparing the way to state accurately and honestly in a job interview that Yes, I am qualified to teach Topic X, and all the better if that topic area is one that is not overrun by other applicants. No, one course in itself does not give that expertise, but it should be the foundation.

The harder jobs are to find, the more essential this component of graduate teaching becomes.

Also, a course in humanities must to some degree teach about writing and publishing, even if there is no simple equation between the volume and quality of publication and the likelihood of finding a tenure track job. So much of the course involves reading and discussing books and articles, but these must never be seen as if they dropped from the skies. At every stage, readers have to ask how and why this particular author got a book or article into print, and why in that particular outlet.

Read the entire post here.

David Barton and Christians in Graduate School

yale

Over at The Pietist Schoolman,  Chris Gehrz, a Ph.D in European history from Yale, responds to David Barton’s “mini-tirade” against my supposedly pagan training in a secular graduate program.

Here is a taste:

…But in the spirit of seeing logs instead of specks… I want to take seriously Barton’s critique of Christian professors like John, Jared, and myself. Are we “just like” the Ivy League-trained scholars who trained us? Have we become Christians who “don’t think right”?

Though only a couple of the historians who trained me had been educated at Harvard and Yale, I’m probably even more guilty in Barton’s eyes: I received my master’s degrees and doctorate from Yale.

It was twenty years ago that I started that phase of my education, so it’s worth reflecting on how that experience shaped me. And I can’t dismiss Barton out of hand, for there is much about graduate schooling that is formative.

Grad schools don’t tend to make the same kinds of promises (“Transformational! Whole-person!”) as the Christian liberal arts colleges where John, Jared, and I work. But they do far more than deepen the knowledge, sharpen the skills, and expand the networks of their students. Graduate programs shape beliefs, values, and virtues (and vices).

How could it be otherwise? I started grad school two months before my 21st birthday, at a stage of life when I had considerable intellectual, emotional, and relational development left to complete. It was intimidating and intoxicating, as I found myself surrounded by people smarter than me, conducting cutting-edge research at a world-class institution. Far more than happens in most of those colleges that promised “low student-to-faculty ratios,” my peers and I were thrown into intimate pedagogical settings — tiny seminars held over meals in professors’ houses, one-on-one mentoring by dissertation directors. And because this stage of schooling is less about general education than professional preparation, we were seeking models of what it looks like to do what we so badly wanted to do with our lives.

Not that anyone actually emerges from that experience “fully trained,” but it’s not unreasonable to expect that we’ll look something like our teachers. In some ways I do, and am largely grateful for it — John Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and my other professors are brilliant historians and conscientious teachers who taught me to seek truth as part of a community that spans borders and eras.

But here’s where Barton clearly doesn’t understand the graduate education of Christian history professors, perhaps because his own seems to have been quite different. In terms of my formation as a Christian scholar, graduate school did shape me — but not in the way Barton thinks.

Read the rest here.

Applying to Graduate School in History: A Guide and Timeline

scribesYesterday we did a post on choosing a public history graduate program.  Today I want to call your attention to Michael Hattem‘s excellent “Applying to Graduate School: A Guide and Timeline.” Hattem is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale writing a dissertation titled “Past and Prologue: History Culture and the American Revolution, 1730-1800.”

Needless to say, I will be sharing this with my students who are interested in graduate studies.  Thanks, Michael!