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Changing the Discourse on Graduate History Education: Lessons from the Crossroads


Jordan M. Reed is a PhD candidate at Drew University specializing in the authorship of American history textbooks. Leanne M. Horinko is PhD candidate at Drew University researching 1960’s counter-culture.

March 11 and 12, 2016 we hosted Crossroads, a conference on the future of graduate history education at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. In sum we welcomed 112 conference attendees including leading experts, faculty, and students from 50 different institutions. It is no secret that the traditional job prospects for history graduate students are in dire straits. Crossroads sought to add to the existing discourse on the current job climate and non-academic career initiatives. The final program consisted of sessions on the digital humanities, interdisciplinary trends, shifts in curriculum, terminal M.A. programs, public history, and issues of diversity. In the weeks following the conference we found ourselves coming back to a few key discussions.

The first was on the state of the history master’s degree. Current trends in graduate humanities are dominated by doctoral-level interests. During his keynote, Rob Townsend of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented a fresh set of data related to the identity of the history M.A. Townsend described history departments’ view of the degree as a the “swiss army knife” in a graduate program’s offerings. Seventy percent of department heads characterized it as a “general purpose” degree with many graduates finding success in pre-collegiate education and public history. While faculty and administrators struggle to identify the role of the M.A., master’s level students and terminal M.A. program alumni were outspoken about the importance of the degree.

Greta Bell from California State University-Fresno and Katrin Boniface from the University of California-Riverside provided a view of a purposeful future for the M.A. degree. Together, Bell and Boniface argued that a new master’s degree focused in professionalization can retrieve the M.A. from what a 2005 AHA report termed the “dustbin of history.” Programs can focus on skills needed in all careers outside academia. Skill specialization is essential to future marketability for M.A. graduates whether in the digital humanities, oral history, or teaching.

As the humanities face declining enrollments and the need to provide diverse career preparation, the M.A. may provide a malleable area for addressing these issues in the immediate future. However, administration and faculty must first rethink and clearly identify the role the degree has in the big picture. The American Historical Association’s Career Diversity for Historians Initiative is a great start, but we cannot expect all the lessons from pilot programs focused on the Ph.D. to trickle down to M.A. programs. If the institutional contexts of Ph.D. programs are varied, the M.A. is more so. Master’s degrees reside at R-1, R-2, and third tier universities with Ph.D. programs, in addition to schools where it is the sole terminal degree. These terminal degree programs have fundamentally different administrative structures, priorities, and support systems. Departments need to discuss how they can best reassign value and purpose to the master’s degree.

Another area of discussion came up in the conference’s AHA plenary session—the need to change the way we talk about Ph.D. students and their achievements. As a discipline, we need to stop thinking of a Ph.D. as something that is produced by an institution. Rather, it is something that is earned by a student. Student empowerment is fundamental to success after graduate school. Leonard Cassuto argued this point during his keynote by calling for graduate students to be the CEO of their own education and graduate school experience. As graduate students, this is particularly prominent in our minds. Members of all parts of the historical profession must begin to think in terms of earned Ph.D.s and student empowerment. Advisers need to be cognizant of their students’ right to work towards a degree and a career outside of academia. They must be a resource to help their students realize that goal. Graduate faculty are no longer the gatekeepers to the ivory tower—the center of production. The future of history requires them to adapt to trends and enable personal and professional growth.

One final subject needing more attention was captured in the AHA plenary session: gendered trends in the pursuit of academic and non-academic careers. Noticeable gender disparities in participants in career diversity related sessions raised questions as to whether or not women are being ushered into non-academic career paths while men remain committed to pursuing tenure track employment. Earlier during Crossroads, one of our colleagues in Drew’s History and Culture Ph.D. program, Patrice Reyes, brought up the subject in one of the opening sessions featuring Maren Wood of Lilli Research Group, Jennifer Polk of From Ph.D. to Life, and Heidi Scott Giusto of Career Path Writing Solutions. Noting that all participants were women, she asked if their client bases and fellow career coaches are predominantly women. Wood and Polk noted that their client bases tend to be female, but were unsure whether that was because they themselves were women, they had inadvertently used gendered language to promote themselves primarily to other women, or there were external societal factors at work. Conversely, Scott Giusto noted a more even gender split.

Having attended the previous day’s discussion, Jim Grossman asked the AHA Career Diversity panel—comprised of all women—if the pilot programs have a gender bias (the discussion starts at about 1 hour 19 minutes in this recording). While the panels affirmed that the faculty leadership in these initiatives is gender balanced, there was anxiety that the gender disparity in student participation may be creating a gendered track that pushes women towards non-academic careers. With the exception of the University of Chicago’s program, most Career Diversity sponsored workshops are attended primarily by women.

To date, there has been little public discussion of the gender dynamics in the future of graduate history education. While these career diversity initiatives are still fairly new, it is important that the profession as a whole begins to ask the questions Reyes asked during the conference. Graduate programs—administrators, faculty, and students—need to make an honest assessment of their current efforts to promote career diversity. If there is a gender imbalance, program leaders need to diagnose the reasons and adjust accordingly.

We are proud of the contribution Crossroads has made to the ongoing exchange. The community of humanities professionals who attended provided countless insights; however, the conversations did not end in the sessions. In his opening remarks at the conference, Robert Ready Dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University, reminded us that crossroads are “places travelers meet, exchange greetings and cease to be separate strangers…We greet each other..speak of the dangers here, the great possibilities here, move on with an enriched understanding and imagining of where we need to be and the will to get there.” It is incumbent upon all of us, whether we are graduate students, faculty or administrators, to evaluate our programs and project a vision for the future.