Rethinking How We Train HistoriansHistorians in the News
tags: teaching, education, historians, academia
Rita Chin is professor of history at the University of Michigan.
History is often seen as a lonely discipline. And this idea contains a kernel of truth: when historians have the chance to research and write, they primarily do so alone. But this image hardly corresponds to the lived experience of academic historians, who today are required to work in collaborative contexts like graduate student training, departmental service, fellowship award decisions, faculty governance, and conference program committees. Despite this disconnect, most doctoral programs continue to train students as if their careers will hew to the lone scholar model.
But what would it look like, my colleagues at the University of Michigan and I wondered, if we took a different approach? What if we designed a graduate course that accounted for the conditions of the job market and history as a discipline? What if we taught students how to undertake the work of historical scholarship in a collaborative manner that more closely resembles the way labor is organized in today’s society, both inside and outside of academia?
Finding answers to these questions was among the most challenging tasks of the faculty and graduate student working group that I led for the U-M history department. Our purpose was to develop priorities and initiatives around what the AHA calls “career diversity.” This effort strives to provide history graduate students with crucial skills—such as communication, collaboration, digital literacy, quantitative literacy, and intellectual self-confidence—that will help them compete for academic jobs as well as expand their career opportunities. Our group understood career diversity as a moral imperative for our department and our discipline. And we hoped that our recommendations and experimental programs might transform the way we train graduate students in history at the University of Michigan.
So, how would we teach collaboration in a discipline that measures success on the basis of single-authored articles and books, hidebound by a template of solitary reading and writing? We started with the idea of a team-based project that would show students how to approach historical research, analysis, and writing collectively. We knew that students generally choose courses with the goal of deepening their intellectual expertise. It would be no easy task to identify common research topics that satisfied all members of a student team. But what if we let an outside institution determine the intellectual content of the project?
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