Can We Teach Grad Students in the Humanities to Collaborate?Historians in the News
tags: teaching history, graduate education
Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University who writes regularly for The Chronicle about graduate education. His latest book, written with Robert Weisbuch, is The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, published in January 2021 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jay Cook was “tired of hearing humanists complain” about the decline of their fields. When he became chair four years ago of the University of Michigan’s history department, the country’s largest in that discipline, Cook pushed his colleagues to “make the case for the humanities in the public square.” He wanted academics to “speak to broader publics” — including the parents who now warn their children not to major in the humanities.
On the graduate level, Cook encouraged Michigan’s history professors to move beyond “sexy topics” courses that — however intriguing and provocative their themes — mostly reiterated “our standard models of training and assessment.” So he convened two task forces, each with a mix of faculty members and graduate students: one on public engagement and the other on career diversity and transferable skills.
The practical goal, Cook said, was to train graduate students in a more holistic way and give them “the tools to make a difference in the wider world.” The overarching goal was likewise ambitious: to change the department’s workplace culture from within.
From that seedbed grew a new kind of graduate teaching. The department’s professors and students went looking for a way to prepare students for different professional options while also preserving the scholarly content of the discipline. They didn’t want to water down the curriculum or displace content with practical skills; rather, the intent was to make those skills part of the content.
The answer they arrived at: graduate lab courses in the humanities. The first one — “HistoryLab: Collaborative Research With the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum” — organized teams of graduate students to write content for the museum’s online educational program. Taught by the history professors Rita Chin and Jeffrey Veidlinger in 2019 and 2020, the course — which most recently enrolled nine graduate students — has an instructive origin story.
That story begins with the professors’ reflecting on the American Historical Association’s five core competencies for historians: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. Chin and Veidlinger came together over a shared concern that graduate students in history weren’t being taught enough about collaboration. Historians “do everything alone,” she said. The archival work, the thinking, the writing — all are structured as solitary pursuits.
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