Terminal Does Not Mean Dead: Why the History MA Deserves Our Attention

tags: teaching history, graduate education

Lauren Braun-Strumfels is an associate professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College; she tweets @braun_strumfels. Tim Herbert is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a history teacher at Proviso West High School; he tweets @HerbsinHorto.

The history MA demands our attention. From 2002 to 2018, federal data and the Survey of Earned Doctorates show that universities conferred, on average, 10 master’s degrees in history for every three PhDs granted. Students in high schools, colleges, and universities, as well as the broader public, are far more likely to interact with a historian who holds an MA than one with a PhD. Yet there is little consensus about the degree and almost no broader conversations taking place about the MA, despite its clear significance to the field. Terminal MA students report feeling unseen, while faculty focused on the MA degree in PhD-granting departments similarly feel ignored. After graduation, MA holders struggle to connect to the discipline even though they are often on the front lines of teaching and learning history. Why is there such a disconnect between students, departments, employers, and the discipline at large when it comes to the master’s degree? Are we pretending that the terminal MA is a dead end?

In 2005, an AHA committee headed by David Trask investigated the state of the MA. The committee reported that the degree, after over a century of conferral by American universities, “remains ill-defined” in its purpose, scope, and impact. While the discipline has carefully studied BA, PhD-track MA, and PhD programs, students, and graduates, we contend that inattention to the terminal MA has worsened over the last 15 years. At a time when historical thinking is essential to public life, how MA historians understand the habits of mind and use the tools of our field undoubtedly influences who studies history and the reach of the usable past. The lack of consensus on how to train the large terminal MA cohort threatens to undermine the work that all historians do and to erode further a stable future for our discipline. 

While the AHA and organizations such as Lumina Foundation and the Mellon Foundation have focused their resources on innovative projects to clearly articulate the value of a history BA and encourage career diversity among recent PhDs, the unique needs and skills of the terminal MA have too often been deemphasized. The AHA’s significant efforts in professional development and curricular design, primarily through the Career Diversity for Historians initiative and the Tuning Project, do not focus on the master’s degree, with a few notable exceptions. Inspired by the influence of Tuning on undergraduate history education, we suggest solutions to questions vital to the significant population of historians with MAs, the faculty who train them, and the colleagues who hire them.

Our interest in the terminal MA comes from our own professional and personal experiences. Braun-Strumfels works as the adjunct coordinator responsible for hiring and mentoring in the history department at Raritan Valley Community College. She has found that historians with a terminal MA tend to struggle to articulate their understanding of and orientation to the field in job documents, which can limit their prospects and constrain their effectiveness as teachers. Herbert served as a Career Diversity fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a large Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) cohort, and he himself has started a career in K–12 education. His Career Diversity work has shown him how important it is to include all graduate students—including MAT students—in a department’s graduate culture.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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