Modern graduate studies and the value of historiography

According to this article at Inside Higher Ed about an AHA roundtable last Sunday, “A Learning Process:  Revisiting the Role of Graduate Coursework in the Making of a Historian,” graduate courses should be “more relevant to training their students for their teaching duties.”  Sounds good, right?  Well, how that’s actually supposed to happen is a little unclear.  On the one hand, Kathleen Canning of the University of Michigan decried what she called the old model of “[p]ick your favorite books, hold forth, and wait for the graduate students to do the same.”  On the other hand, faculty shouldn’t just “‘pick the latest, hottest, coolest books and throw them at students with no background,’ without a ‘sense of where these books have come from.'”  Instead, faculty should strive to

frame the entire course around books they haven’t previously read or taught. The goal is not just to pass along “truncated knowledge,” but to “enter the defamiliarization of the students and experience it with them.” Also along those lines, Canning said she makes sure that her graduate students are asking the first questions, and offering the first opinions in class. “I’m not letting them rely on me to be the interpreter,” she said, even if, as the course proceeds, she shares plenty of information and ideas. “I’m trying to model the kind of professional participatory skills and ethics they need.”

I realize that most of us with Ph.D.s have only one graduate institution–and therefore can’t know what graduate training is like at other institutions in any detail–but this doesn’t strike me as a particularly new model of graduate education.  This sounds like just basic, thoughful instruction at the graduate level–like the graduate education I received nearly 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.  Our profs assigned a few classics–in my area of specialization, books like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, and Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black, and perhaps signal works by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, but nothing more than 25 years old at the time.  Otherwise, we read mostly new to newish contributions to the historiography (in 1990-93, I read books that were overwhelmingly published between 1980-93).  Maybe Penn was just an incubator of brilliant graduate advisers and self-confident grad students, but professors rarely “led” discussion–it was more like they had to duck out of the way of the volley of impassioned comments from scary smart graduate students.  (I’m talking about my classmates–Historiann was too young and out of her league, and by far the dumbest in the class.) 

Moreover, while there was some gratuitous beating on the books, there were always students and faculty members who spoke up for books and defended their many insights and clever innovations–I don’t recall ever being invited to participate in a ritual dismemberment of a book.  The tone in our discussions was passionate sometimes, but always respectful.  We weren’t there because we wanted to sneer collectively at books and their authors–we were there because we admired historians and the books they wrote, and we were hoping to emulate them some day.  Sure, there were one or two classes that I thought weren’t all they could have been–but by and large, I was invited to learn at the feet of masters, and I was grateful.  I’m even more grateful now to hear that I was the beneficiary of such cutting-edge graduate training, 16-18 years ahead of the curve!

One innovation noted at this discussion is Ann Fabian’s description of a graduate course at Rutgers “on the teaching of history, in which students are assigned to prepare two syllabuses: one for a survey course and one for an upper level course. Students must prepare a lecture that they would give in a course, participate in programs on using and teaching students to use digital resources, and discuss how to handle the epidemic of student plagiarism.”  That surely is very helpful for their students–there was lots of talk about inventing a course like this on teaching methods at Penn in the early 1990s, or at least building more mentoring into our TA-ships, but nothing ever came of it in my years.  I think a course like this is really necessary now, because the expectations for teaching (as for research) are so much higher these days.  When I finished my degree 12 years ago, PowerPoint was a new gadget that few scholars knew how to use well.  (I sat through a lot of meetings and lectures at my former university where people used it very badly–they put together a bunch of boring slides and read the slides verbatim in the meeting although they had handed out a xeroxed stack of the same boring slides so that you could follow along while they were being projected onto a screen and read out loud for you.  I wish this were exaggerated for comic effect, but it’s not!)  But the days when new lecturers were permitted to flounder around talking from notes cribbed hours before from a few library books are over–now you have to have the PowerPoint, the embeds, the BlackBoard, the BlackBerry, the web 2.0 at your fingertips, and be an expert at using these technologies too, in addition to being an expert in your field.

But other than a class in teaching methods–what’s wrong with historiography being the backbone of graduate education?  It’s historiography that makes us professional historians.  The lede of the IHE story is a comment by Fabian to the effect that graduate education “used to be focused solely on knowledge and historiography, and was largely disconnected from the future careers of young academics.”  But historiography, and lots of it, is what we need before we can stand before a room and profess about differing schools of thought on the significance of the Nullification Crisis, the debate on whether or not there was a “Great Awakening” at all in the eighteenth century, or the evolution in thinking about the Investiture Controversy.  Historiography invites questions of epistemology–how do we know what we (think we) know?  Reading in-depth about these problems and asking further questions enlarges graduate student brains and worlds.  Historiography is crucial to professionalization–it’s what we need before we can begin to think about getting a crummy conference paper accepted, let alone published some day.  In some ways historiography is a “secret handshake” we’re given as part of our initiation in the profession–but it’s also a respectful acknowledgement of the valuable work of our predecessors. 

We had a discussion here last summer about “Centers for Teaching and Learning” and their implicit message that reading deeply and widely in one’s field is less important to quality teaching than workshops that purport to teach us how to teach.  I want to defend historiography along similar lines:  I don’t understand why professional historians would want to devalue historiography, when after all, it’s what we do, and it’s what no one else does.

What was (or is) your graduate training like?  (Can I be the only person who feels that she was well served by her graduate mentors?)  Do you want to join me in taking up arms to defend historiography, or do you think there are dramatically different ways to train professional historians?  I’m listening!

0 thoughts on “Modern graduate studies and the value of historiography

  1. Great post! Wowza, Historiann, I love this one!

    I adored my graduate mentor, who gave me the best graduate training ever: basically, she taught me how to teach myself, which is really what you need in order to conceive questions, brainstorm, research and publish.

    As for your comments on historiography, I couldn’t agree more. It’s what initiates us into the profession, what gives us all, as an international community of researchers, a common language. While I appreciate the suggestion that there could be more attention to a teaching methods course, that certainly could never replace historiographical training. Luckily, it’s not a zero sum game.


  2. Thanks, Squadratomagico. It’s reassuring to hear from you on this–out here on the lone prairie, I thought there might be something going on in graduate education on the coasts that I’ve missed.

    I think you’ve got it right: historiography is key, and a key aspect of learning how to teach yourself. If you think of history as a process rather than a product, or a journey rather than a destination, then historiography is a map of the known universe that will help you when you’re ready to chart unknown territory. (To beat a metaphor to death!)


  3. Historiann noted, “Maybe Penn was just an incubator of brilliant graduate advisers and self-confident grad students, but professors rarely ‘led’ discussion–it was more like they had to duck out of the way of the volley of impassioned comments from scary smart graduate students. (I’m talking about my classmates–Historiann was too young and out of her league, and by far the dumbest in the class.)”

    Oddly enough, I was at Penn at roughly the same time as you in a “nearby” department. [It’s quite possible you took courses from the professors in my department.]

    Oh, the “self-confident grad students” thing rings a bell or two. Sometimes the confidence ran straight into arrogance, depending on home department, previous degrees, and level of funding, and I sat through many “seminars” essentially run by blowhard “colleagues” who loved to talk out their butt while the often-yawning deadwood looked on with bemused pride. Too often, though, in my hell-hole of a program [which is now defunct a decade too late…am I bitter?], the faculty did precious little to prepare us for much of anything, let alone doing well in the course we were enrolled in. To this day, I have zero idea how I would even teach a course in the discipline for which I have a Master’s degree [not that such courses even exist].

    Even at both other schools where I was in “grad level” programs, I found this lack of preparation for future instruction to be rather common. They would often just toss you into teaching with little more than a few sample syllabi. “Sink or swim!” “Too bad if you drown!” “You just can’t cut it!”

    I think at about the time you graduated, Penn had finally started to incorporate a mentorship agenda to all TA-ships, and some of my spuriously-funded friends actually received some decent help learning how to teach by the end of the late 90s. But Penn was at the forefront of such training. I am not at all surprised that there is a call for this sort of thing to become required and ubiquitous, especially since there’s the lovely trend of [bad] students blaming their [often spuriously trained] grad student/adjunct/VAP/new TT for their failing grades. After all, Snowflake is innocent and it’s the big, bad teacher who expects too much!

    Also, slightly off-topic, this post reminded me of a great article I read in WORKPLACE: A JOURNAL FOR ACADEMIC LABOR called “The Professionalizing Graduate ‘Students'” by Michael Gallope []. If I recall properly, Gallope’s major argument is that graduate students are, for all intents and purposes, employees of the university whose labor as both students and instructors serves as professional training, and thus grad students should be provided the same resources as full-time faculty [like pay, insurance, office space, etc.]. The part I liked most was how Gallope noted that grad coursework usually seems to require students to teach each other, often with little instructor input. Meanwhile, grad student instructors must often teach themselves the content of the courses they are teaching because their own coursework has not served as prep for it. The article is worth checking out, mostly because I think there was a change in how courses got taught at some point, and it seems sometimes the STUFF gets annexed in favor of theory and method.

    Not being a fully trained historiographer, I am not quite sure how these ideas might play into this difference between grad students being trained in historiography vs. being trained how to teach history. The former is obviously necessary, but what would be so bad about incorporating one required course and a few projects scattered throughout a curriculum in the latter?


  4. I think this is a wonderful, cogent, and altogether convincing defense of historiography. The bookend to it is, of course, the actual experience we gain in applying it once we start our dissertation research.

    My experience with the historiography seminar was pretty similar to yours – except I was just a little farther north, at Cornell. Ours took place in our first semester, all of the first-years took it together, and we read a bunch of smart, mostly recent books. I think the oldest book we read was Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

    One thing I really liked was that our historiography seminar was team taught. By coincidence, Itsie Hull (my adviser) was one of the two instructors. Mary Beth Norton was the other, and she eventually ended up on my committee, too. They were terrific both separately and together. So yeah, I was very well served by my mentors.

    While I know and like Kathleen Canning, I’m not sure if I agree that the prof should be struggling through a whole term’s worth of brand-new books. I think that might asking a lot of people who are still pre-tenure, in particular, and who are struggling with lots of other things. For me the question is, well, academic, since I’m now teaching in women’s studies, but were I to move back to history someday, I’d have plenty to juggle without committing to the sort of process Kathleen describes.


  5. Like Historiann, I had a great experience at Penn, largely because of a wonderful cohort of fellow students and experienced, humane advisors who set a good example and high standards, and then mostly stepped out of the way, encouraging us to work through things both on our own and as a collective. Classes were a joy. The dissertation was where the typical grad student angst really took hold.

    Drew Faust did end up teaching a graduate course on teaching in maybe 1994 or 1995 — somewhat along the lines of what Fabian describes: we read stuff on various aspects of pedagogy (Gerald Graff on teaching and the culture wars and an article by Judith Butler on the erotics of teaching are the only ones I can remember off the top of my head) and created annotated syllabi along with a paper explaining the choices we made, our goals for the course, and the themes and techniques we would use. We didn’t discuss plagiarism or the real mechanics of teaching, but focused on issues of managing power relations and various kinds of identity politics in the classroom. Apparently there was some resistance from the rest of the department (or maybe Drew just had better stuff to do with her time), because it was never offered again.

    I agree with Historiann’s point that historiography really is important — there’s more to teaching than that, of course, but the idea that historiography and teaching are somehow mutually exclusive categories seems deeply wrong to me. As an undergraduate, I found learning about historiography revelatory — understanding how history is interpreted, how evidence is weighed, what kinds of new evidence can be brought to bear on old questions, and how new questions can be asked of old evidence opened up a door to a whole new kind of knowledge for me. It historicized history, and allowed me to envision myself as part of an ongoing, evolving conversation rather than simply a consumer of information and ideas. Of course, I’m a huge geek (I actually spent the summer before grad school reading all of those historiography books they suggested in the acceptance material), so my sample is kind of biased.


  6. The_Myth–I’m not against a course in pedagogy and technology for grad students–I think the Rutgers course described by Ann Fabian looks great, and is rather necessary now in ways that it wasn’t just 10 or 12 years ago. I’m just arguing that the majority of preparation for historical research and teaching is reading and mastering historiography/ies. I’m sorry you were frustrated by your experience at Penn. My grad career wasn’t a bed of roses, to be sure, but that wasn’t because the coursework and training I got was deficient. (And yes, the 1 or 2 courses that weren’t so hot were taught by people outside of History–there was one course in particular where the faculty member played the game of “I am looking for the ONE right answer, and it’s up to you to guess what it is” during most class sessions.) My fellow classmates were aggressive about arguing their points about a book or an issue–but none of them were unkind in class to others.

    And, Sungold–I’m glad you feel well served by Cornell. (I’ve never heard a bad thing about it, or about being a Mary Beth Norton student!) My argument, though, wasn’t just about those “intro to historiography” courses that seem to be de rigeur for first-year grad students, although they’re included in my general defense of historiography. I just think that being forced to read and begin to master a field or several different fields of study is the only real preparation for, as Squadrato put it, teaching yourself, which is something that historians do most days, months, and years of their professional lives (as in the work we do to write new lectures, develop new courses, revise old lectures, expand our research interests, solve new problems, etc.)


  7. It’s funny, these comments sound like reader’s reports, and in truth, the post could go straight to print, so I’ll add mine. One sentence has to go: the one about “…out of her league, … by far the dumbest in the class.” It would never get past the fact-checkers for the _New Yorker_ OR the _William and Mary Quarterly_, and where else would you want to place it? So it just has to go.

    Historiography is obviously the soul of the enterprise, and the defense of it here is indisputable. But historiography can be a bit of a double-edged sword, too, especially with relative novices. It can provide a sort of too-coherent grid for how to think about either the messy reality of the past or the phenomenon of its interpretation. And it can be really self-reifying and render a lot of beginner scholarship pretty tributary. After the five hundredth “middle ground” was announced, and shortly thereafter the 750th “imagined community” was discovered, the concepts began to lose their edge, but nobody had the heart to tell the young’uns that it was time to call in that particular pack of hounds. This is probably inevitable, and thus a tolerable problem. But setting forth into the chaos of evidence on the ground with too solid of a grip on the interpretive framework you plan to use can drive you right past the most important but seemingly uncategorizable phenomena out there. It’s also the case that when historiographies begin to develop, like celestial phenomena, they draw all the attention in toward themselves, like looking for the lost keys under the lamppost, and leave a lot of other areas untouched.

    So, how to find the right balance I guess is the teaching scholar’s dilemma. One approach would be to have a proseminar of the sort that Sungold describes from Cornell, and by all means, team taught. Then kick everyone out for the spring and ensuing summer and say don’t come back until you’ve found something you’d keep working on even if the historiography all died. And then figure out how to marry the two dimensions of practice together. [This would drive the “time-to-completion” metricizers completely crazy, which would be both the downside of the approach itself and also half the fun of it, all at once].

    We read Kuhn’s _Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ too, which, when you think of it, makes you realize that historiography itself is a pretty fragile and provisional instrument, “normal science” at both its best and worst, but what else are you going to use?

    Notwithstanding these quibbles, I’d run this baby as a special issue. As long as we got rid of that annoying sentence in Paragraph Three. I know whereof I speak. [That picture is a little suspect too. Is that some little-used room on the third floor of College Hall?]


  8. Also — I learned a lot about teaching through TAing. It helped me learn the subject matter, obviously, but the people I taught for (who did not really have reputations as particularly grad student friendly folks) took their responsibilities seriously and included the TAs in designing the course (in one case one might say foisted the task off on the TAs) and met with us weekly to exchange ideas about how best to approach whatever we were teaching that week. Again, this had at least as much to do with the interaction with fellow students (more experienced TAs, in particular) as with the professors directly, but at least they had the good sense to let it happen, and even facilitate it.


  9. Bravo for defending historiography! We have an entire graduate course on historical methods which is about getting students to think about their discipline in new ways and the same goes for me when I’m teaching them this subject. We’re not covering the greatest hits of Tudor/Stuart history in that classroom: far from it. In the classroom, we’re tackling 19th century American history, comparative histories of empires, 20th century Germany and eighteenth century France, to name a few. That approach keeps all of us hopping!

    Speaking of teaching about historiography, I can’t say enough good things about Miles Fairburn’s “Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods”. I use this in the M.A. seminar and love it to bits for giving the students a sense of rigour when it comes to critique. Once they’ve worked their way through this text, they have a lot more eloquent ways to frame praise and criticism of their other readings.


  10. JJO–the course you took with Faust looks really fascinating! That’s just the kind of thing I think would be extremely useful. (Stupidly, I didn’t take a Civil War historiography class with her when she offered it in the winter of 1991. The class was HUGELY overenrolled, and I just wasn’t that committed to the field, so I decided to withdraw–a decision that doesn’t look so great in hindsight, but which was perfectly reasonable at the time.) My experiences with TA-ing were the same as yours–for the most part, the people I worked for wanted to talk to us and mentor us a little–Lynn Hunt was great. I think I learned more from her than from anyone else about teaching.

    Indyanna–I hear you on how historiography can frame things too rigidly–but isn’t that how we all start out? Don’t we need those “training wheels” in order to gain the confidence to say, “this paradigm doesn’t fit–I’m gonna rent a barn and put on my own show?” And–I didn’t say I was objectively dumb, just the dimmest bulb in a pretty blinding chandelier of fellow students. I was the admissions mistake–I’ll cop to it, but I’m over it now.

    And, Janice–thanks for the recommendation–I’ll have to check that out for the next grad class I teach.


  11. This is so funny! I was discussing this the other day with someone who knows you from grad school. I’m going to bring in a slightly different perspective here. I think that, for lots of people, Historiography is really important. It’s especially important for modernists and Americanists. Not so much for us pre-modern people, though. Yeah, we need to know the big names and the big arguments, but I’ve never been at a conference where people lost too many points for not knowing the historiography well enough. But OMG — if you don’t know the primary sources in the original Latin (or Greek, on occasion), you’re screwed. It’s bad enough if someone nails you on a mistranslation, but if you miss out on one of the major sources? Oy. It’s one of the reasons I am glad I use charters — no one is supposed to know all of them!

    However. Even I am glad that I took a couple of courses that focused on historiography. And those courses — Early Modern, mostly — were very useful. If nothing else, they taught me to think about lit reviews! seriously, though, they also taught me to teach a history that doesn’t have one right answer, and it’s good to be able to articulate that to the students and show them how history doesn’t always have one interpretation.
    I was lucky, too, in that Grad U had some real training for grad students in History in place when I got there, and then later, in my 6th yeat, they instituted a program of teacher-training across the disciplines in the Grad School. But honestly, I’m not so sure what the two have to do with each other. We have to do research, and we have to teach. Many of us don’t get a chance ot teach our research, but Pretty much all of my grad courses, and my research somehow informs our teaching. More practically, my undergrads also learn about historiography, even if they aren’t majors in the seminar. It’s kind of important.


  12. Coincidentally I just spent the day putting the finishing touches on a grad syllabus for an “Early American History” class that I conceived as a service course to prep students for research and teaching. One of the major assignments is to prep a lecture based on a few weeks of reading (I encourage students to think about ways to translate arguments into instruction, and to focus on teaching historical thinking vs. memorization). In terms of readings, I went for “major” interpretations with complementary articles, a mix of classics, possible future-classics, and eclectic b/c I want to read them selections. I think I’ve read about one-half of the books for the class.

    Here’s a question: what do you do on the first day of grad seminar? I am loathe to waste it solely on introductions, but I don’t want to require a book for the first day. I settled on a couple of wide-ranging historiographical essays. Does anyone have essays they particularly like for the first day?


  13. ADM–good points on the particulars of pre-modern history. (And, tell our mutual friends that I’ve changed! Really, I have! Actually, I’d love to know who they are, so if you’re so inclined, e-mail me their names.) In your field, courses in paleography and specialized things like that might be more useful. But, still–there’s a heck of a lot of great medieval historiography produced in the last 30 years or so that students need to know, right?

    And, notyettenured: I agree with you about not wasting the first class, and I’ve done something like that with the first day. In a similar course I’ve taught at Baa Ram U., I’ve assigned Joyce Chaplin’s JAH article from 2003 on “Expansion and Exceptionalism in early American History” and others like that–there’s a new article by Claudio Saunt in the October 2008 WMQ called “Go West,” on the fact that “early American history” has been unnaturally fixated on the Atlantic littoral and has ignored the history of the vast majority of North America. A colleague of mine teaches this course the way you do, with a combination of books and articles–it’s a good way to expose students to a variety of viewpoints, when they may have only one semester to focus on pre-Civil War or pre-1820 American history.


  14. So exactly how many of us are from Penn? I think there’s a couple other variables here that haven’t come up that I’d like to through into the mix. The first is the nature of a department’s curriculum. When I was at Penn, the classes seemed almost to be taught at random. There was certainly nothing like a “core curriculum,” and if professors were on leave or had a reduced teaching load, the department didn’t always worry about coverage. Some of this had to do with circumstance–one professor retiring, another moving up into administration, searches that seemed to last forever–but the upshot is that classes were often catch as catch can. (In fact, I ended up getting a PhD without ever once taking a class from my adviser, which is a decidedly unusual situation.)

    This is in marked contrast to my current institution, where we require students to take a four course sequence (we are on the quarter system) in US history. These courses have exciting names like “US History to 1787,” “US History 1787-1896,” and so on. All students in US history need to take all four courses, so we always make sure that the courses are offered regularly enough so that they can. This changes the composition of the class in comparison to what I had at Penn; our seminars are a little bigger (since they’re required), with a more diverse group of students, chronologically and thematically. (Interestingly, the seminars are often less diverse geographically; the Europeanists and Asianists have their own core courses to take.)

    The differences here are related to an issue that hasn’t come up yet: comps. I think this is quite relevant in the sense that the books I read in my graduate seminars were really only a small portion of the books I studied for my oral exams. I think it’s very important to remember that grad students learn much–most?–of their historiography outside the classroom, on their own time. But considering my experiences since I’ve starting teaching grad seminars and in talking to my colleagues from other institutions, I would suggest that there is more variability in the examination system from institution to institution than there is in the seminar system. (Like: how many exam fields? Major and minor fields? Orals and writtens, or just orals? How many books/articles on each list? And so on.) The seminar format looks pretty rigid in comparison.

    Some of the discussion here also presumes a certain approach to undergraduate teaching, particularly upper level teaching. I may be unusual here, but I don’t assign any historiography to my undergrads. As corny as it may sound, I just want them to learn “what happened” in, say, colonial America before 1765. I teach them that history is an interpretive enterprise, not some kind of “objective” one. But I do that not by exposing them to dueling historiographic visions–like profs I had as an undergrad and TA’d for as a grad student–but by having them write papers based on primary sources. (Ha! Let them figure out if Anglicization occurred or not!) I’m not sure how I arrived at this pedagogical strategy, since my training would seem to have pointed the other way.

    Anyway, this is just my random two cents. I, too, assign articles on the first day of classes; since we are on the quarter system, you need to hit the ground running. For early America: Breen’s “Creative Adaptations” from the Greene and Pole collection provides a wonderful overview. Warner’s “What’s Colonial About Colonial America” from Possible Pasts also works. There is also an Introduction from a *very* handsome looking collection of essays on comparative European colonization in the Americas, but modesty prevents me from mentioning the author’s name.


  15. John S.–it is very strange that I took more classes from your adviser than you did! (That number is still just 1, but even so, it was a memorable course, and almost entirely student directed. He would sit there writing copious notes, and then talk for the final 15 minutes of the seminar. Not infrequently, he would tell us that our discussion was totally off-base, and something we had worked up into a consensus was wrong-headed and dangerous!) Penn’s grad curriculum was rather random, and aside from that first-year proseminar, there were no required courses. Your experience at Penn just a few years after me makes me feel even more fortunate to have been there when I was–at the time, people commented that “so and so’s actually offering a grad course,” as though it were unusual for so-and-so to teach grad students. I just took it for granted–but then, my entering class and the one the year before it was unusually large, so maybe there was more of a push for star faculty to teach grad students in courses proper.


  16. Ha! Historiann’s description of that particular prof’s pedagogical method is all too familiar — he actually taught our proseminar. Including independent studies, I must have had three or four classes with him.

    Not to get too Penn-ful here, but there was a lot of turnover in the department beginning around 1995 or 1996 that changed some of the dynamics, as new people worked out new courses and new ways of dividing/sharing responsibility for various fields. (There was also the debacle in the proseminar with a new faculty member, but that doesn’t need going into here.) I kind of spanned the eras, but my coursework was more in line with Historiann’s era than the one that followed (and still continues, I guess).

    I should probably out myself to John S., since I shared an office with him at the MCEAS in the former frat house on Locust Walk.


  17. Two points:

    As a medievalist, I don’t agree that historiography is less important for medievalists. Yes, you need research skills, but not at the expense of being able to frame your work in the context of how the field has developed.

    While a course on the teaching of history may be a good idea, pedagogy can also be integrated into standard seminars in useful ways too. For example, the two US history core proseminars at my institution require a syllabus as the major work product. The syllabus needs to reflect knowledge of the historiography studied in the course. I have taught a grad seminar on medieval England, which covered both sources and historiography, in which the main assignment is a lecture (which may be written or delivered orally) accompanied by an essay explaining why you made the choices you did about the approach taken in the lecture. Both of these assignments, it seems to me, ask grad students to do things that will be more professionally useful to them than writing a lit review paper (a genre that you will likely never use again after the dissertation).


  18. I don’t teach much historiography directly in undergraduate classes, but it does inform my teaching in important ways. It helps shape the parameters and themes of the classes I teach — the most obvious example being the increasingly transnational focus of the Colonial America class — and helps me explain to students why and how this perspective matters. I don’t explain the details of the historiography, but I do contrast what we’re going to be doing in class with whatever passing impressions they’ve received of the colonial era from popular culture or (many) high school classes.


  19. Ruth–thanks for your comments. However, I disagree that literature reviews are professionally useless. Review essays covering several books are more and more popular (esp. it seems in the Journal of American History, anyway, and of course, Reviews in American History.) I’m writing a lit review essay right now for History Compass, as it happens–but maybe this genre is more important in American history, because of the surfeit of tomes produced in English in these fields. But even if a grad student or new Ph.D. never writes another lit review in her entire life, being able to summarize and describe the merits and lacunae of various chunks of historiography is a necessary skill when researching dissertations, articles, and books. But, I still like your idea of having students put together a syllabus as a project for a grad class. Students can’t ever be asked too early in their careers how they’d go about teaching.

    And, JJO–yes, it appears that I enjoyed a veritable “Golden Age” of stability, harmony, and a plethora of grad seminars from which to choose! Thank goodness.


  20. And just a brief addendum — were there a focus on historiography, perhaps graduate students would be able, in preliminary interviews, the question: “what new questions and perspective does your research add to the literature?” Which stunningly, many can’t — or perhaps don’t see the need to. I thought the greatest common flaw in the 25+ people I have interviewed this year in two fields was the inability to make a case for their own scholarship.



  21. Fascinating, TR–and truly strange. Historiography was the focus of my whole prep for my years on the job market–because of course there wasn’t a Historiann school of thought on gender and early American history that was terribly well known in the late 1990s. (I thought it would be more effective to talk about historians that other people had heard of–Laurel Ulrich, Carol Karlsen, Kathleen Brown, and Nina Dayton, for example.) So, what I wonder was the purpose of the panel last Sunday, if students are not doing historiography in grad school?

    What kind of classes are they taking, then?


  22. Historiann–I agree with you only partly. A review article on several books in a field is something that people may frequently be asked to write, and the state-of-the-field essay on a broad theme is also a very important genre and one that students should be able to write (when I assign this genre I tell students to look at History Compass for good examples). [begin rant] The lit review as it appears in the first chapter of a dissertation, or as an assignment in a grad seminar which prepares students for the dissertation, is all too often narrowly focused, its purpose is usually to show that the student has done her homework and hasn’t missed anything. The goal of completeness means that the relevance of all these works to the dissertation itself gets buried under the sheer weight of summary. In the move from a dissertation to a book this is one of the parts that has to be completely rewritten so as to restrict itself to the historiography that forms an important intellectual context for the work at hand. [end rant]


  23. Wow — you know you’ve got a great post when the comments are all this long!

    I can see ADM’s point that for medievalists, there are a whole host of other skills — languages and palaeography, in particular — that can outrank historiographical knowledge, so to speak. For research fields that don’t require these kinds of specialized skills, I suppose knowledge of historiography has no “competitors,” so to speak, as a way of demonstrating immersion in the field and competence within its norms. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that historiography is of only minor importance to the premodern fields, not by any means. Knowing the history of one’s historical field, its vicissitudes, evolving models, and debates over time, is one way of learning how to frame a question and how to present one’s evidence in a persuasive way. As TR notes, it’s a way of figuring out how your own research can challenge, adjust, or confirm an existing consensus. In my view, good scholarship is nearly always in some sort of dialogue with the great scholarship that has come before.
    In my own undergrad. classes, I teach a little bit of historiographical debate, usually through paired articles at the very end of the term. The smart, engaged students love it; the others, not so much.


  24. I am late to this party. Nonetheless, it seems peculiar to disavow historiography (if anybody is actually doing that (and I’m not sure that was the case exactly)). As historians, it seems that we should, you know, be curious about the history of our own field and be able to talk about it concretely.

    To my mind, historiography is also critically tied to methodology and theory (things that historians are still hesitant to discuss). The discipline has seen trends come and go. For new students, it seems critically important to understand which innovations survived and which fizzled out.

    Finally, I also want to give a plug for grad students actually being able to discuss a chronological narrative that is so important for teaching. Is it constructed and/or imposed? Yep — But, regardless, I have been surprised by a number of students who can talk deeply about particular books, but have trouble arranging events into the order in which they actually happened.


  25. This thread could almost issue three graduate credits of its own by now! Hard to know what to take. Penn’s famously free-ranging curriculum was even more free range when I started, almost total smorgasbord. No proseminar, just some very general distributional guidelines, no dissertation prospectus, no defense. I took one course from the person who ultimately signed my diss., but that on a subject that only very belatedly became specifically relevant to anything that I actually “did.” It was just intellectually stimulating, and fun, and thus inspiring. In fact, I never took a course at any level, graduate or undergraduate, on anything that I ever ended up teaching or working on. I wouldn’t recommend this approach, but it’s do-able. (You once drove up the road once a week to take a seminar at Another Famous University to address a question of advisorial leave, didn’t you, Historiann?).

    The one thing that I’d say about historiography (besides that the word itself may become a bit overloaded, definitionally, to work precisely here) is that I noticed several points in the early posts about it being all very recent–whatever passed for “recent” in any given year. Nobody wants to teach the old tomes that they rolled their eyes over when they were back in school, but for historical practice, this presumed obsolescence and short shelf life is a bit odd, isn’t it? At a party once at the home of (I presume) John S’s advisor, there was a famous Irish historian who had studied with the guy only a few years before I got there. And he regaled us with how they had to read all of those dusty four-volume mega-narratives (Andrews, Osgood, half of Gipson) on the Old British Empire. It sounded painful, but it didn’t prevent the guy from becoming a fantastically well published famous Irish historian. My cohort had to revolt in a colloquium with a very different prof. to get past the bottomless reams of political and social science “theory” (as it was styled back then) and on to the delicious-looking “new” histories on the second half of the syllabus. Of which, I’m still trying to write one. Great post!


  26. GayProf–I wondered about the intent of this panel, too. According to the reporting, people were complaining about a straw man called “historiography,” but then the courses they described sounded very historiographical. I was hoping that maybe someone who had actually been at the panel would chime in to explain or correct any misimpressions, but that hasn’t happened (so far.)

    I think you’re right too about methodology and theory–although strangely, it seems like the stuff I was reading in the early 1990s is still the stuff that grad students are reading today (Judith Butler, toujours Foucault, and I even hear the names Bordieu and Bakhtin thrown around too.) Then the whole “return to narrative” and “return to biography” happened, and historians happily reverted to less theoretical models of scholarship. (But, you’d have to have some historiographical background to know this!)

    Ruth–I agree with you on the limited value of lit reviews that just summarize historiography. But I always ask my grad students to interject their informed opinions–what have scholars done right in this field, and what opportunities have they missed? Who is doing it right, and whose work is deficient, etc.? I’d pass out from boredom if students (or anyone) wrote up summary after summary without editorializing!

    As for the comments on teaching historiography to undergrads (by JJO, Squadratomagico, and others)–I guess I do, although I don’t call it by that name. I just mention that there are (for example) different interpretations of family life in colonial America, or that historians have different interpretations of Native American history and its importance in early American history. I don’t drop names, because they won’t mean anything to undergrads who haven’t read the relevant books, but I use those moments to help them see what the author we’re reading this week is up to with her book, and (in part) the broader background that might explain why she’s trying to answer these particular questions in this article or book.

    I think that if you’re interested in questions about power–as are most of us trained in the 1990s and reared on a steady diet of Foucault and his Fine Feminist Friends–then you probably are fascinated by historiography because of what it has to say about power and prestige operating in the historical profession.


  27. Indyanna–One of the things I like about historiography is that there are so many ways to do it! Some profs will assign books no older than a decade, others like to assign “(Andrews, Osgood, half of Gipson) on the Old British Empire,” or the analog to their relevant fields, while others will focus more on theory. I certainly would not prescribe a homogeneous diet of my particular vision of historiography as I teach it–I’m a true liberal, in that I think that we should let a thousand flowers bloom…if students are reading broadly and deeply, and if those readings give them a sense of the historical profession generally and of their subfields more specifically, then it’s all good, right?

    I was asked to read Ivy Pinchbeck and Alice Clark in one class (early 20th C historians of early modern English women’s history) and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, while in another class that same term it was all Butler, Foucault, Mary Douglas, etc. Meanwhile, I was big into the Marxist historians like Lyndal Roper and Marcus Rediker that term, too–and it was great to be forced to make sense of those clashing titles and historical eras.


  28. Indyanna’s comment about “recent” historiography is a very good one, and raises a tough issue. Seminar time is a limited resource. To use a concrete example–I was torn as to whether or not to assign Morgan’s _American Slavery, American Freedom_ or Brown’s _Good Wives, Nasty Wenches…_ when we covered colonial Virginia in class. My solution–why not both?–did *not* go over well. (Students, shockingly, don’t like to read that much for a week.) And while I would have loved to have spent two weeks on early VA, we had eleven weeks for the entire term, and I just couldn’t. The question is further complicated when you commit to expanding the “boundaries” of the class–how do you cover “classic” and “modern” New England while including New Mexico, for example? I suppose this, too, depends on whether or not grad seminars are supposed to emphasize coverage (which ours are) or not.

    And yes, “recent” versus “modern” is so very subjective. I remember declaring in a grad seminar that I lumped all books into two categories: those written before I was born, and those written after I was born. In some ways I still go by that rule–I think I assigned one item written before I was born last time I taught our grad proseminar–but I shudder to think what implications this rule will have when I begin to teach grad students born after my first publication. (We’re still a ways away from that, that god…)


  29. I feel I was very well served by my graduate studies and mentors. While I do think it may be worthwhile to offer a pedagogy type class, I do not think there should be a shift away from historiography in the least. How can one be a historian without the historiography? I am a high school history teacher and one might think that historiography would have little use in my career however I would disagree. By offering different interpretations of events I not only engage my students but I challenge many of their ideas about history (ie: there is one narrative).


  30. Well, this is what I get for spending yesterday flying across the country. A fascinating discussion. I think historiography is critical; one of the things that is very difficult for many beginning graduate students to do is to “get” what a historian is doing with an argument. One of the many difficult transitions of graduate study is to read not just for “wow, here is some fascinating stuff about linen weaving in the 17th century”, but seeing that the organization of that material is part of an ongoing discussion/argument about the development of the 17th c economy or whatever. . .

    But doing historiography when you don’t know the basic chronology/issues is really hard. Which is often an issue outside of the US history fields, unless it’s a really big grad program which can offer lots of seminars. The best sequence I had in grad school (before there was a common first semester course) was a pro-seminar/research seminar sequence: I was lucky that it was in my field. THe first semester we read two books a week, setting up the arguments right off the bat. The second semester we all did research papers. If you’d done the first semester, then you could build your research paper off your historiographical paper. Mine was an argument for why you should study women. (ok, I’m old.)

    It seems to me that the point of seminars is to give student the tools — interpretive, historiographical, theoretical, and methodological — to enter the conversation of historians. And historiography is part of that. (Though I also agree with Ruth, that a lot of the lit review is CYA rather than really substantial. But of course, I read footnotes and get really cross when I should be cited and am not. CYA wouldn’t be bad for those authors!)


  31. Ruth and Squadratomagico — I didn’t mean to imply that historiography wasn’t at all important, but I’m going to stand by my assertion that it isn’t as important as knowing the sources and the historiography of the sources themselves — I’ve never been at a conference where a scholar asked a question of another scholar that invoked, say, Duby or Bloch. But I’ve been at plenty of panels where someone said, “Wait, how does that fit in with what Zosimus says happened at Adrianople?” (Ok, maybe only one or two where Zosimus was invoked re Adrianople, but you get the idea)

    I’m not saying we don’t need to know the historiography — after all, that’s why we have to read a shitload of books for comps. But I do think it tends to be more integrated into our coursework. My advisor’s seminars almost always had us spending about half the time reading monographs, half sources. He would typically divide 3-4 monographs among us, and then give us questions that forced us to weigh and analyse the different arguments. By the time we got to comps, it was pretty clear that we were supposed to be able to identify major theories and arguments, and we did. Historiography by osmosis, really.

    And I use those skills for the lit reviews I do for every project, whether or not I intend to publish that part of it. But with a few notable exceptions, I can’t think of when it’s been that important to use the historiography in anything except a contextual way. That’s why I think that, for pre-modernists (and more and more the earlier you go), there are other things that take priority in coursework.


  32. I am a day late and a dollar short. I really liked the article and the comments. Its hard to add anything, but I would like to make a comment on my own experience and a suggestion to people teaching grad students.

    First, while I had some really great cutting edge exciting grad courses, historiography was not one of them. Historiography was the core intro class all grad students had to take, but nobody wanted to teach it. I took it twice (once for the MA program and then when I started a PhD at another school). Both classes were pedagogical afterthoughts and fobbed off on the old silver backs in the department. Now, the codgers did try to engage the ‘post structuralists,’ gender, and the like, but both profs were social and political historians of the old school. So when it came to explaining the significance of Foucault and other people they had lumped into the po-mo category, the profs were downright uncomfortable. What could have been stimulating was stultifying. Now don’t get me wrong, when these guys were on their home turf, they were great and the class was very helpful, but the last few weeks of each semester was painful.

    Second, I would say that the time I appreciated historiography the most, was after my dissertation was done. After spending several years ‘in the weeds’ and doing my own research, I really valued the way other scholars were able frame their projects as part of a larger debate. So maybe there needs to be a historiography class for students starting and another one for freshly minted PhDs. Nothing would be more stimulating than to go look at that literature again and to think about the direction of the whole discipline.


  33. I’m newly ABD in U.S. history at Rutgers. I wasn’t at the AHA panel, but I’m surprised to hear that there are grad programs that don’t focus on historiography. What other way is there?

    At RU there is a three-semester U.S. history sequence in which we typically read cutting-edge books and articles for class and write a few short reviews of classics (or works with less traditional methodologies). Then (often) you do a three-hour mock comp or a longer historiographical essay. So there are quite a few weeks when you do read two books per class session. Of course, no one reads those “extra” books all that carefully, but in my first semester I swallowed American Slavery, American Freedom and Good Wives, Nasty Wenches the same week. Other favorites included The Whiskey Rebellion and Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions. Unfortunately, tear-it-down discussions were rampant.

    Curricular approaches for other classes vary by professor, but even in the most out-there courses there is almost always a short book review, a long historiographical essay, and an in-class presentation.

    Primary source analysis is typically saved for research seminars.

    The teaching methods class that Ann Fabian mentioned is a 1.5-credit semester-long joke. They say it’s required to graduate and/or teach your own class, but I know people who’ve never taken it. On the other hand, it forces you to lecture in front of 100-200 people and get two syllabi ready to go. If you pay attention, you might be able to spit out some bullshit on pedagogical philosophy in a job interview. So not a total waste of time.

    Reading these comments, I’m thankful for what I got from RU.


  34. Thanks for all of your comments–I’m glad to have provided a space for us all to appreciate historiography and/or our educations! It’s good to hear from nicole and BPM that they feel historiography still serves them well. (BPM–I don’t think most History search committees are interested in terribly detailed or lengthy “statements of teaching philosophy,” which were all the rage 15 years ago. Historians tend to be pramatists in the classroom–whatever works for you should be your guide, but that takes time to figure out, and a course like the one you describe might give you a 6- or 12-month jump on thinking about teaching that otherwise you wouldn’t have. And I think it’s always good practice as a grad student to get up and lecture to hundreds of undergraduates. It might be terrible–but if you’re asked to lecture on a job interview in a few years’ time, it won’t be the first time.)


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