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The Future of Graduate History Education: The View from 35,000 Feet

wyattWyatt Evans directs the History & Culture graduate program at Drew University where he teaches U.S. history at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He is very involved with developing digital humanities and literacy initiatives at Drew, and is a 2015/16 fellow with the Council of Independent Colleges’ Senior Leadership Academy. Prior to re-entering academe, Evans served thirteen years in the U.S. Army and as a construction project manager.

When two of our graduate students proposed a conference on graduate training and career prospects in history, my initial reaction was frankly lukewarm. I envisioned a rerun of the familiar story of degree overproduction, declining job prospects, student indebtedness, and that history degree holders must branch out into non-academic areas. Partway through their pitch, I even saw floating in my mind’s eye the articles examining these points published when I was a graduate student fifteen years ago! But as I listened further, the depth of their interest took hold and they made an argument impossible to ignore: our History & Culture graduate program was designed to address the shortcomings leveled against humanities graduate education. Excessive time to degree, degree requirements lacking application to the real world of teaching and scholarship, insufficient training for alternate career paths: these are the pitfalls we work to avoid in preparing our students. Clearly, a conference on the subject was in our bailiwick.

The conference also struck me as an opportunity to address a broader set of questions concerning the place of historical thinking and historical discourse in the contemporary world. And so, we launched Crossroads with two purposes in mind: to dialogue on the issues facing history graduate education and consider the intellectual and real-world developments impacting the practice of history in the global/digital era. Scheduled for March 11-12, 2016 at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey (30 minutes from Newark International and 45 by train from midtown Manhattan) the deadline for paper and panel proposals is November 15. Full conference details and the complete call for papers may be found here and here. The initial conference announcement generated quite a response among a wide spectrum of historical practitioners including faculty across the U.S., public historians, grant recipients of the Mellon Foundation’s career diversity initiative, and the community. The topics listed in the call for papers range from big picture questions such as the place of historical discourse in the 21st century to the nitty-gritty details of support and student funding. Between these two poles, we also want to address how digitization has impacted teaching, learning, scholarship, careers, and public history. We plan to end the conference with a student-led round table on graduate student experience, careers, and the alternate academy.

The focus we want to bring to the conference reflects History & Culture’s program mission. Broadly speaking, our course of study deals with cultural production, with how human beings in different times and places fashion their webs of meaning and cultural practices. If we want to address the ground-level issues impacting our students’ training and career prospects, we need to understand how history—as one kind of cultural production—functions in the contemporary world. What does it mean to think historically in the present age? How do different forms of historical discourse (written, spoken, museum displays, movies, re-enactments, political rhetoric) stand up in the contemporary public sphere? Do they carry the same influence on policy makers and the general public as they have in the past? As for the digital revolution, beyond the evident changes to how we practice our craft, how has it impacted history as a field of knowledge and the social purposes history has long held?

Our aim is to join the broader viewpoint, the view from 35,000 feet so to speak, to the ground-level issues mentioned at the beginning of this post. To be absolutely clear, Crossroads makes no claim to originality in this regard. Graduate students and practicing historians have been exploring and adapting history’s further ends for some time now. Our goal is to provide a forum where different points of focus can come together. Doing so, in my opinion, is the only way we can develop the insights to help us re-imagine history in ways most likely to promote its relevance in the global/digital era. This in turn is the only means to solving the chronic issues bedeviling graduate study and career prospects.

Of the big picture questions, a major point of focus concerns the digital revolution. Those of us engaged in the history endeavor—as teachers, researchers, and public historians—know how substantially the digital revolution and associated institutional transformations have impacted our practices. Among other things, digital culture has imposed a new set of variables in the classroom. Mobile computing gives students instant access to information, altering our traditional role as content experts. On the research side, the digitization of historical resources and digital humanities methods have transformed our field beyond what most of us could have imagined even a decade ago. More people have more access to quality archival materials than ever before.

Given the research, analytical, and representation potentials now on hand, it seems probable that the long reign of the narrative historical monograph is nearing its end. How does this impact the training we provide our students? What should the balance in the future be between training students in traditional elements such as historiography and preparing them in new methods including the digital humanities? Must history graduate students become more technologically adept even at the risk of forsaking traditional degree requirements? Must they (and we) become more entrepreneurial to better leverage the rapid changes in digital media and methods?

The second point of focus concerns the impact of the early 21st century’s political, environmental, economic and humanitarian crises on history as a way of knowing and explaining the world. The events of the present era should cause us to reflect upon history’s functioning as a social discourse and the impact this has on how graduate students pursue their training.

Specifically, how does professional history, whose birth coincided with the rise of the western nation-state, fare as the latter loses power to global mega-capitalism and fractures along ethnic lines? There appears to be a continued shift in academic job postings away from national foci to regional and identity-based lines. Other than the cultural conservative critique that current historical practice fails to sufficiently celebrate the national past, what are the implications for teaching and scholarship of this shift? An allied set of questions concerns historical narrative’s ability to

represent the global tragedies now underway. The problem of representing historical mass trauma has been addressed by historians and scholars in other fields, but the question now concerns teaching and narrating the past in a contemporary environment of proliferating genocide, terrorism, environmental catastrophe, and population upheavals.

Secondly, how does history, as a way of knowing and representing the world, function in a global culture of nostalgia, on the one hand, and the destruction of humanity’s cultural and natural heritage, on the other? Is nostalgia “a predictable and often-pleasurable product of modern life” or does it represent a “betrayal of history”? What role do various forms of historical discourse play in furthering or opposing nostalgia? Finally, how does history function in a climate of increasing skepticism regarding knowledge? Just as many people in advanced societies now use technology but don’t believe science, historians face similar skepticism regarding their methods and intentions.

Developing effective programming in any discipline requires periodic updating of the real-world needs and opportunities for the profession. In some ways history remains remarkably stable as a field of cultural production. Demand from the general public and educational institutions for select narratives of the past remains remarkably strong. In other ways, however, the combination of technological, intellectual, and real-world developments may signal a fundamental shift in history’s functioning as a field of knowledge and cultural practice. We owe it to our programs and most particularly to our students to consider both scenarios.