What’s Next for Humanities Graduate Education?

Below are some thoughts in response to the pre-meeting questionnaire for the Scholarly Communication Institute’s fall meeting on graduate education. They’re certainly not fully formed, but they represent a look at how I enter this conversation.

No one will argue that the current state of graduate education in the humanities is without its problems. There are significant challenges posed by changing employment opportunities, communication practices, and information access. We can meet these challenges, but we need to base our responses on a shared understanding of the goals of graduate education. Though this is a thin description, students pursue graduate education to achieve mastery existing scholarship and methods so that they can produce new scholarship that adds to our collective understanding of the world. Once this basic goal is achieved, students need adequate preparation to enter the world as teachers and/or public humanists. Both of these elements require attention to and adaptation for contemporary conditions.

What is going well?

Perhaps the most traditional element of contemporary graduate education is that students are required to gain control over the existing scholarship in their field. Unfortunately, I am certain that without some significant investment in updating our research methods courses, we are going to fall behind in preparing students to participate in the creation of new knowledge. They will simply be unable to cope with the scale of data available to them—what Roy Rosenzweig termed “the problem of abundance.” We need to prepare students to use the new digital tools (text-mining, visualization tools, geospatial tools) to work with the ever-expanding deluge of materials available for study.

At George Mason, the History doctoral program has required students to take both a traditional methods course and a pair of courses that deal with new media. Through the course of the program’s ten-year history the content and focus of those new media course has changed with technological and methodological developments (See this Zotero group for links to the range of syllabi.). Currently, I talk with students about the first semester of the course—-Clio Wired I: Theory and Practice of Digital History-—as being an extension of their traditional methods course. During the semester, we try to focus on using the available research tools to ask and answer questions that are important to historians. William Cronon’s essay “Getting Ready to Do History,” (pdf) from the collection, Envisioning the Future of Doctoral Education: Preparing Stewards of the Discipline (2006), is an excellent summary of the disciplinary commitments of historians. He offers a long list, but some include forming conclusions from evidence, an attention to the particularities of context, and a recognition of multiple perspectives and multiple causation in our efforts to understand the past. All of these elements contribute to the doing and teaching of history, and they need to remain central to our graduate curriculum and professional development.

Furthermore, the GMU history program has an emphasis on open scholarly communication and attention to audience that offers some lessons that more traditional programs would do well to take to heart. Students in the program have the opportunity to pursue a PhD with an emphasis in one of four areas of career focus: college and university teaching, new media and information technology, public and applied history, and professional development (for those already established in a career). Three of these four areas might commonly be considered alternative career goals for the PhD candidate, but at GMU these have been standard and equivalent from the beginning. So, in theory, the majority of our students should be thinking about how to address a public audience with their work from the start, and training that focuses on new technologies paves the way for success in that arena. These structural differences in GMU’s History PhD make it successful at addressing the changing landscape of graduate education, but my sense is that other programs are not moving forward with similar options that validate advanced scholarly work outside academe.

What is going less well?

Despite the promising signs of progress and adaptation in programs like Mason’s, we’re doing less well in other important areas.


We’re not actively creating experiences that allow students to learn to collaborate. Collaboration is especially important to those students who are pursing careers outside of traditional academic positions, but even those who land in tenure-line jobs will increasingly be called upon to work intensively with other faculty and staff. In particular, digital projects almost always require a team of collaborators. The problem is that collaboration is remarkably hard to teach with out hands-on experience and modeling. As a result, we need to consider implementing more experiences that imbed graduate students in functioning teams, through apprenticeships, internships, residencies and mentoring programs where this cooperative work is already taking place. We have lots of effective models for this work from non-humanities departments (science labs; medical school internship, residency and rotation programs, etc.) and from more humanities-based ventures like Preparing Future Faculty program. I think we need to think seriously about building on these models as we work to create opportunities for graduate students to participate in collaborative work, digital and otherwise.

At GMU, we offer these opportunities for graduate students in two ways. First, each year a number of students serve as graduate research assistants at the Rosenzweig Center. This means that for twenty hours a week, they actively work on digital history projects. As much as possible, the faculty and staff at the Center try to integrate the GRAs into the project teams so that they do meaningful historical work, learn about the digital tools that we use, and experience the ways that we work together to product projects. Some of the GRA positions are funded by the History Department, and some of them are funded through sponsored research funding. Often this work leads to summer wage positions for the students, so they get an even more thorough immersion in our process. Second, we are in our first year of an experiment with a Digital History Fellows program. For three years, a cohort of three graduate students will receive fellowship funding to pursue Digital History work at GMU. These students participate in a credit-bearing internship course for two years that allows them to learn about the Center and work intensively with one of the three divisions (education, research, or public projects). If all goes well with this initial cycle of funding, we hope to make it an established feature of the History PhD program.

Unfortunately, even with these programs, we don’t have the funding or the capacity to offer everyone a spot at CHNM who would like one. Only with more stable institutional support would a more broad-based integration of these experiences be possible. Obviously, not every humanities department is going to have a center like CHNM within its purview. More often than not these centers are external to departments, either standing as independent units within a college or as part of a library. That makes the question of capacity even more pressing, since those centers would be hoping to work with and train students from many humanities departments.


We’re not doing nearly enough make sure that students become effective teachers. Open access and public humanities venues increase daily and each one of them offers a staging ground for formal or informal education. This focus on teaching might seem misplaced given the narrowing possibilities for employment in traditional academic jobs, but I actually think that a focus on teaching is more important in the current conditions. Not only do our graduate students need the tools to create new knowledge and contribute to humanities scholarship, but they also need the tools to communicate that work, and on most days this takes the form of some kind of teaching. They need a much better understanding of the cognitive science on learning so that they can work to create more effective teaching and learning experiences, both in formal and informal learning settings.

I see this focus on effective teaching as intimately related to core disciplinary principles. Some of the best cognitive science on how people learn is generalized, but in order for it to translate into effective teaching and learning the work needs to be communicated in disciplinary specific terms. In my opinion the key starting place here is How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000) from the National Academies because it offers both general principles of cognitive science and specific disciplinary examples. This initial research has been followed upon by a great deal of exciting work, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary. Graduate programs need to consider implementing teaching practicum and course work on the scholarship of teaching and learning that will provide their students with the tools to craft effective pedagogical strategies that build on the existing cognitive science.

What’s Next?

Moving forward to addressing all of the difficulties with the current state of graduate education, we need to be building on insights from the range of good work done under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, especially that which came out of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. Taking this work into account, individual graduate programs have a responsibility to address the gaps in their program planning and curriculum. However, they will be unable to do so without significant support from administrators. Resources need to be allocated to train mid-career faculty in new methods, to create lab environments for students to work collaboratively, and courses need to be redesigned to account for not only new methodological approaches, but also for the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Comments 2

  • Nice post, Sharon. I agree with your assessment of our program. A couple of thoughts, as a student in the program and a graduate of a museum studies M.A. program, re: the weaknesses you cite:

    Re: collaboration, agreed collaboration is important in public history, and as you said, increasingly academic history. I also agree with what you say about imbedding students in collaborative settings.

    GW’s Museum Studies program tried to instill collaboration skills through group work in classes. From my student perspective, I’m not sure that was particularly successful, both for practical reasons and pedagogical. Many of us were working, at least part-time, and living in different parts of the metropolitan area–a phenomenon even more pronounced in GMU’s program. I know online tools are helping more than they were even in 2006, but I’m still relieved not to have had so much group work in my 3 classes at GMU thus far. On the pedagogical side, we ended up not developing certain skills (e.g., exhibition design software) because of the group work environment–none of us really got the hands-on engagement with the tools that individual projects would have given us.

    But as you mentioned, it’s not always possible to imbed students in collaborative work settings–not only with spaces, but since many of us are working full-time already. I wish I could suggest a better solution–I’d be curious what others have to say on that count. Perhaps multi-semester group projects?

    Re: teaching, I couldn’t agree more, and as I mentioned on Twitter, I’m taking up your suggestions on books. Along the lines of considering Clio 1 the second methods course, perhaps the department should add a third required methods course, on pedagogy. This would cover not just pedagogy for academia, but also public history as well as digital (although I realize we already have a course on that). So then there would be a research methods course, digital methods course, and pedagogical methods course–required for everyone, not creating separate tracks. What are other places offering along those lines?

    Great post, Sharon–thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s gotten me thinking more about what I’m looking for out of my degree. – David

  • Lots of good stuff here, thanks, Sharon!

    I would even expand the collaboration to be professional development. There is definitely a challenge with modeling collaboration and what it means to collaborate within institutions. I also would like to see more PhD programs borrow from MA programs by encouraging, allowing time, and giving credit for external internships where students learn about processes, organizations, and collaboration/working across departments.

    One idea is to borrow from a teaching practicum, and offer a one credit class, similar to GMU’s Colloquium, that focuses on learning about institutions and departments. This mini-course might offer some workshops and maybe require some small hands-on group projects that teach collaboration and how to be a good colleague by learning what it’s like to work on a committee or co-author a grant proposal. How often do faculty members talk about what kinds of things they must do when they work on different committees? How often do students have to work through a budget? If it is planned by more than one department with involvement from more than one office, the mini-course might also serve to model collaboration itself.

    I think that there is potential to reshape grad education with some of your suggestions, and totally agree that there needs to be institutional support that encourages this endeavor. But if key faculty are willing to take on at least one of the challenges, w/ support from their departments, some great progress could be made in the next 5 years.

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