The American Historian

How History Departments Can Help Narrow the Achievement Gap

Michael H. Creswell

Education has long been deemed the great leveler. We have been told that through focused study, guided by capable and caring instructors, students from every racial, ethnic, and national background have the chance to enjoy all the benefits of American society. Yet this noble aspiration remains unfulfilled, as we continue to see great disparities in educational outcomes among the country’s racial groups. African American, Latino, and Native American students lag far behind their Asian and non-Hispanic White peers on the academic performance scale. This divide is reflected in the differing rates these groups enter college and university, how well they perform while they are there, and the percentage that complete their programs of study. Narrowing this achievement gap is one of the great challenges academia currently faces.[1]

In this essay, I recommend what history departments should do to recruit minority graduate students, improve their academic performance, and help them complete their program of study in a timely fashion. This blueprint should enable history departments to learn what works best for students and establish a solid foundation on which to build more ambitious plans for narrowing the achievement gap. I also want to give an account of my department and university’s (Florida State University (FSU)) response to this challenge, a response accelerated by the nationwide racial unrest that began in the spring of 2020.

FSU History Department’s Initial Response

On June 4, 2020, several Black faculty members at FSU issued a statement in the wake of the national turmoil over the issue of racial equality. The statement included ten recommendations the signatories wanted FSU to adopt and prompted an exchange of emails in the history department.[2] The initial email suggested that the department immediately move to adopt two of the recommendations—completing the eight-hour National Coalition Building Institute training and crafting a diversity and inclusion statement.[3] In late August 2020, my department created an ad hoc Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. Directed to work with the university’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Office, one of the committee’s goals became to “establish an understanding of the importance of equity, inclusion, and diversity to fulfilling the mission of the division or department and a short description of the process taken to develop the [university’s] strategic plan.”[4]

However, the director of the EDI Office told the committee not to look backward, but instead to develop a plan to move forward.[5] But that likely meant that some of the invidious racial practices and attitudes that have long plagued the department would remain in place. Failing to place things in context, which violates one of the core principles of the historical profession, would almost certainly limit what the committee could achieve. Knowing what happened in the past—and why—is a prerequisite for moving forward.

Narrowing the achievement gap requires history departments to inquire into their own practices with regard to race. So far, the four faculty members who compose our history department’s DEI Committee have agreed that the department’s culture needs to change to make it a more welcoming place for minorities, even as it attempts to diversify. Bringing minority faculty and students into a department that will treat them unfairly is shortsighted and does nothing to advance equality. To that end, the committee plans to request from FSU’s Office of Institutional Research detailed information about the department’s historical demographics, pay structure, rates of promotion, retention rate, teaching awards, graduation rates, and related topics.[6] Based on the information the committee receives, it can identify unfair policies and practices and make recommendations to ensure that the department operates in a way that treats everyone fairly. This amounts to a clear recognition that progress first requires that we understand the past.

What Other Departments Can Do and Drafting a Plan

The success of any plan to narrow the achievement gap depends to a great extent on how it is crafted. To reduce opposition and broaden support, the plan should be drafted in an open manner with contributions from representatives of the administration, faculty, staff, and students. Listening to a wide range of voices is a key to success.

The plan should be founded on a few bedrock principles, such as a commitment to creating an inclusive learning environment, improving the academic performance of minority graduate students, and increasing the probability that they will achieve their postgraduate goals. Furthermore, the plan must be flexible so that it can be implemented and modified according to new circumstances. Yet the plan should not create an overly complex goulash that is hard to grasp or lacks appeal. Beginning with an easy to understand document that articulates broadly accepted principles should be the first step.

Before the drafting process begins, a history department should closely examine the university’s overall strategic plan for improving minority recruitment and retention. Harmonizing the plan’s methods and goals with the university’s strategic plan will produce a more coherent approach. If no university strategic plan exists, this is an opportunity for history departments to not only suggest one, but present concrete recommendations. This effort will highlight the role that history departments can play in improving the quality of life at the university.

No Tolerance for Racism

Departments must draw a line in the sand on this issue. Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against graduate students of color must lead to disciplinary action. The policy and process for dealing with accusations of racism and demonstrable bias should be straightforward and well-publicized, and everyone should be reminded of them at the start of the academic year. Faculty should also consider including a rubric in their syllabi underscoring the absolute need to avoid any use of racist slurs, symbols, or actions in their courses.

However, many faculty members must confront the sensitive issue of how to deal with racist language in a historical context. Interpreting primary sources is fundamental to the craft of history, but some of these are racist in nature. This challenge can be especially acute for White faculty. One suggestion is to avoid reading aloud quotations containing racist slurs, but instead put them on a screen or on paper. This method can defuse some of the sting and awkwardness in discussions about material that includes hateful words.

Though many history departments already have in place a process for dealing with racism, these protocols are primarily intended to protect undergraduate students. Unfortunately, protections for graduate students of color are sometimes overlooked. For example, graduate teaching assistants (TAs) may experience racism from students in undergraduate courses, but there may be no clear guidelines to either remedy or prevent the problem. History departments should maintain an official and firm stance against racism directed at graduate students, as well as clear lines of protocol for reporting incidents.

On this latter point, all new faculty, staff, and students should be briefed about the grievance process. One reason people fail to officially complain about discrimination directed at them by other members of the university community is that new members to the university are typically bombarded with all kinds of information, on top of learning how to navigate the campus and the surrounding community. It is difficult to remember it all. Universities must therefore emphasize whom to speak to in cases of racial discrimination and also issue periodic reminders.

Improving the Grievance Process

History departments should work with Human Resources to ensure that words align with actions and grievance claims are dealt with seriously, and that those who make such claims are protected from retribution. However, fear of legal jeopardy, as well as reputational loss, can cause university administrators to avoid admitting the existence of discrimination on campus. But greeting legitimate complaints with silence, evasion, or skepticism breeds distrust and poisons any effort to resolve problems. Ignoring, minimizing, or casting doubt on genuine complaints is not the way to move forward.

To create a climate in which complainants feel their concerns are taken seriously, universities must learn how to properly respond to accusations of discrimination. The best initial response is to listen. Avoid correcting the accuser’s statements or injecting your point of view until you have earned his or her trust. Administrators should make sure the person knows that the university is serious about getting to the bottom of the issue. Adopting this strategy allows administrators to avoid prejudging the issue and helps complainants feel they are being heard. This approach helps discussion proceed on a basis of trust and respect.

Foster Knowledge about Race

Ironically, many history students, as well as some history faculty, know little about the history of race. This ignorance can lead to unproductive conversations when the topic of race is broached. To correct this problem, departments should consider supplementing regularly offered courses in American history with courses specifically on American political history and constitutionalism, as well as courses on the history of colonialism. Taking such courses force students to grapple with the history of race in both a national and an international context. Such reflection could lead to fruitful discussions about race, and this in turn will demonstrate to students of color that the history department acknowledges these areas of study as meaningful and provides opportunities for all graduate students to learn about this history.

Expanding the Pool

One challenge that academia faces is increasing the number of minority students in graduate programs. One major obstacle is the cost: acquiring a graduate education is typically a very expensive endeavor. Departments need to ensure that this cost is not an insurmountable burden for students of color, as studies show that Black, Latino, and Native American students typically carry a much greater student loan debt than White and Asian students.[7] Departments should therefore make admissions fee waivers transparent, easy to obtain, and well-advertised. One step in this direction would be to ensure that a department’s advertising is in media that graduate students of color are likely to see.

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (MMUF) offers a second way to increase the pool of students of color. MMUF awards fellowships to underrepresented sophomores and juniors interested in select Ph.D. programs who also are striving to join the professoriate.[8] History departments should also consider taking part in initiatives such as the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, which is “designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.”[9]

History departments should also consider starting feeder programs from local/regional Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This initiative could involve establishing targeted scholarships for promising history students from HBCUs to do graduate work in the department. Departments could institute a BA/MA arrangement, whereby the prospective students could obtain credits toward both degrees in their senior year. In this way, feeder programs could establish close and fruitful ties with HBCUs and increase the number of graduate students of color in the department. Departments can make fundraising in this specific area a priority, so that they have more funds available to support students of color specifically. To be most effective, these programs should be well publicized

Many minority students might be the first members of their family to apply to graduate school. As such, they may very well have no one with the experience to shepherd them through the graduate admissions process. To help alleviate this problem, I wrote a short article that provided a step-by-step guide to applying to graduate history programs.[10] The article has since become a permanent part of our department’s admissions page, as well as on the pages of history departments of other universities. Such information can be of great benefit to minority applicants, who generally have less experience in this area than their White and Asian counterparts.

Mental Health

To reduce the incidence of mental health problems among minority students, history departments should alert them in advance to the university’s counseling center and the services it offers. Faculty or staff may be among the first ones to notice signs of distress in a student, and they should be prepared to respond to these signs. For example, students at FSU who are suffering from mental health problems or who see one of their fellow students exhibiting signs of such problems, the primary campus resource is the University Counseling Center (UCC). In addition to providing counseling, UCC offers “Mental Health First Aid,” which is “an 8-hour course that gives people the skills to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.” UCC also runs Noles C.A.R.E. Suicide Prevention, which is a one-hour training session, plus a number of other training sessions.

In addition, departments should also extend mental health training to graduate students, who typically spend more time with their cohort than they do with faculty and staff. Graduate students are thus well positioned to identify sudden changes in the attitude or behavior of their colleagues. Teaching them what to look for and how to respond can help prevent emotional and mental health problems from arising or resolve them before they worsen. For example, the firm Kognito provides mental health awareness training. Kognito offers an At Risk University for Faculty & Staff as well as an At Risk Mental Health for Students simulation.[11]

Mentoring

Students of color would greatly benefit from having a reliable guide to walk them through the graduate school process. Studies show that good mentoring is a strong predictor of graduate school success.[12] History departments should assign a peer mentor to students of color to help steer them through their graduate program. The mentorship need not be formalized. Often, a few scheduled contacts per semester are more than sufficient for students of color to create a plan to successfully navigate graduate school and “decode” the formal and informal expectations they must meet. Peer mentors can also act as sounding boards for students of color, who may simply want someone to talk to in an informal setting. Such a program would help normalize the graduate school experience for minority students, making them feel that they are heard and accepted. Just because students of color don’t lodge official complaints doesn’t necessarily mean they have nothing to complain about.

Regular Assessments

Waiting until the student’s final year is too late to provide guidance. Graduate students of color should instead receive guidance early and often as a part of their graduate program. This aspect of the plan is different from peer mentorship, which is an informal relationship between an experienced graduate student and one who is new to the department. Beginning with orientation, graduate students of color should be informed of the benchmark requirements for the graduate program and the resources available to aid them in achieving their academic goals. Structured follow up guidance with the student’s major professor and the director of graduate studies should be offered two or three times annually (or more often if the situation warrants it).

These regular assessments are important for the success of graduate students of color, many of whom often find it difficult to reach out. Some of them fail to ask for help to avoid being seen as struggling or as a “problem.” Regular, formal assessments also give students of color a sense of how they are faring in their graduate program. These assessments can identify problems early on, before they become serious.

The mentorship provided by peers is a valuable compliment to the regular structured assessments provided by faculty and advisers. Taken together, they offer comprehensive support to students of color through formal and informal guidance.

Preparing Future Faculty

History departments should also think about inaugurating a Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program. PFF seeks to instill in its participants a sense of professionalism by teaching them aspects of their chosen vocation that might otherwise remain a mystery, such as how to network, give a job talk, or present at a conference.[13]

To increase the effectiveness of the program, encourage all graduate students, and especially students of color, to attend PFF sessions. Allow students to enter at any point in their graduate career between matriculation and the defense of the dissertation. While it is recommended that students complete the entire program, those who fail to do so still benefit. Acquiring the skills needed to gain employment and enjoy a thriving academic career is a major benefit of the PFF program.

Among the many topics that can be discussed in PFF sessions are the crafting of effective cover letters and curriculum vitae, strategies on publishing, the value of service to both the department and the profession, and what to expect in both an American Historical Association conference interview and the on-campus interview. To increase interest in PFF, ask students and faculty to suggest topics they think it would be useful to cover. The department should encourage faculty members to be available to share their professional experiences and to give advice on the spot. Inviting recent graduates to speak at PFF sessions about their experiences on the job market is especially valuable, as students might find it easier to relate to them.

PFF can bring tangible benefits to graduate students of color, such as improved job placement and increased participation in the life of the department, while not overtaxing available resources of time and money. History departments should also investigate what resources other departments on campus are offering to graduate students of color. For example, the campus EDI office usually offers various educational opportunities which can supplement those included in PFF.

History departments must first increase the ranks of minority students and then encourage them to take part in PFF as a way to enhance their ability to secure a job upon graduation. History departments might also consider inviting undergraduate students, as well as students from other departments, to attend PFF sessions, which in turn could boost the numbers of minority students who take part. Another step to diversity PFF would be to partner with nearby HBCUs, which is encouraged by the national PFF office.

Exit Interviews

Strong institutional biases tend to encourage positive self-assessments, even if such assessments are unwarranted or problematic. A history department may think it is doing a good job educating students of color and preparing them for the world of work when in fact it’s doing a poor job of it. Because department budgets are often wedded to performance, admitting to failure or incompetence can be a recipe for being sanctioned.

One positive counter to institutional bias is the exit interview process, particularly when it comes to graduate students of color. The experience of these students leaves them well positioned to make valuable suggestions concerning how to improve EDI efforts and to recommend what aspects of department diversity programs should be maintained or eliminated. With diploma in hand, graduate students of color are free to speak candidly with few fears of repercussions. This process would also reinforce the idea that students of color are accepted as important members of the history department graduate program and that their views matter. The responses should provide information valuable to the effort to improve the graduate education of students of color.

To learn whether my department has a history of racial neglect or discrimination, I contacted a few of the history department’s minority alumni, and posed questions to them, such as: Did you encounter any problems of a racial nature? Were people welcoming to you? Did the department place obstacles in your way? Did you receive proper academic, financial, and social support during your time in the department? What would you change to improve the graduate education of students of color? Has anyone else from the department ever asked you these questions?

This small sample has thus far produced a mix of responses. Some minority alums are pleased with the way the history department treated them, while others expressed minor concerns. Two of them expressed great displeasure with the way they were treated by some faculty and students. One alum said that while the history department did not discriminate overtly against Black graduate students, neither were they embraced. Regardless of their experience, all of the alums warmly thanked me for reaching out and asking questions that no one from the department had previously asked. They also urged me to continue my efforts to contact minority alumni. I have asked the department to reach out to minority alumni in a more systematic and formal way, and with the permission of the alums to create a permanent record of their responses. The department has been receptive to this suggestion.

To obtain candid responses and reduce fears that the information alums provide could be used against them, it is vitally important that the department choose an interviewer who has a reputation for trustworthiness. Any lack of credibility could ruin the entire effort. For those who do not wish to go on record, departments could conduct anonymous surveys to provide a greater level of protection. Regardless of the method chosen, such information could be very valuable in improving the culture of the department.

Social Media

Complementing the use of exit interviews is the use of social media to stay in contact with alums of the department. Departments should therefore create Facebook pages. One page could be just for the department’s alums. The moderator should regularly post job openings, fellowships, current happenings in the department, news about our current and former students, and history in the news. This is a good way for minority alums to remain connected to the department. Another Facebook page could be dedicated to keeping everyone up to date on what is going on in the department.

Departments should also open Instagram and Twitter accounts. These social media outlets can promote professional opportunities and allow us to remain in contact with both current and former students. This engagement can be especially beneficial to people of color associated with the department—by expanding their professional and social networks, keeping them apprised of professional opportunities, and highlighting their achievements.

History departments should also invite alumni who are not academics to return to campus to take part in “Careers for Historians” workshops. Panelists can explain to current students how they were able to use their history training to build successful careers outside of academia. Departments should be sure to invite minority alumni to speak, both to highlight their work and to underscore for current students the department’s commitment to a diverse student body. Such speakers can also provide current students with real-life success stories they can try to emulate.

Eliminate or Repair SETs

In the course of their programs, many graduate students will find themselves serving as TAs and teaching their own courses, where they will encounter a well-known ritual: Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) or Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT). This exercise provides students the opportunity to turn the tables and “grade” their instructor. The intent of SETs is to offer instructors feedback so they can improve the course. SETs also give the administration and departmental colleagues a sense of how effective an instructor is in connecting with students.

But many scholarly studies tell a different story. They document the inherent bias of SETs against instructors who are people of color.[14] Because SETs are used to make funding and reappointment decisions, they need to be modified to cancel out the biases or replaced by another form of evaluation that is fairer to instructors of color. Some history departments have already begun to implement new and fairer teaching evaluation regimes.[15]

To persuade the history department at FSU to rethink the use of SETs, in the fall of 2019 I read into the record at a department meeting a statement by the American Historical Association recommending that history departments eliminate or substantially modify SETs.[16] The statement’s recommendations were:

  • Questions on SETs should focus on student experiences rather than an opportunity for formal ratings of teaching effectiveness.
  • SETs should be part of a holistic assessment that includes peer observations, reviews of teaching materials, and instructor self-reflections.
  • SETs should not be used to compare individual faculty members to each other or to a department average.
  • If quantitative scores are reported, they should include distributions, sample sizes, and response rates for each question on the instrument.
  • Evaluators should be trained in how to interpret and use SETs as part of a holistic assessment of teaching effectiveness.

The history department initially decided to retain the use of SETs because, according to the chair, it was unable to devise a workable alternative. Although the chair of the history department initially agreed to revisit this topic at a future department meeting, this has yet to occur, as there seems to be little enthusiasm in the department for this initiative.

Faculty and Campus Buy-in

Any plan will be much more effective if faculty participate enthusiastically. If faculty members take part in the plan grudgingly, that augurs poorly for its success. Departments should therefore accord greater importance to service outside the classroom as part of annual salary reviews. Service on committees that are tasked with helping minority students must be seen as equally prestigious to serving on other, better known, and more established committees.

Conclusion

This article is not the final word on the topic. Departments can alter its recommendations or add their own to meet specific situations. The plan alone will not completely close the achievement gap; that would require change in areas of society beyond the walls of the university. However, the suggestions contained here offer an improvement over the situation prevailing on most campuses, which is, frankly, marked by neglect and microaggressions. The plan is unlikely to engender significant opposition, particularly because its implementation does not require spending a lot of money. The plan also does not call for lowering academic standards, nor does it exempt students from putting forth their best effort. And because many if not most of its recommendations can be extended to all graduate students, it is likely to attract wide support.

*I thank Corey Gray, Sally Hadden, Jon Harrison, Max Paul Friedman, and Richard Mizelle for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article.

Author

Michael H. Creswell is an associate professor of history at Florida State University and an executive editor at History: Reviews of New Books. He is currently writing a book about some of the challenges facing the history profession and how it might respond.

Notes

[1]Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, https://cepa.stanford.edu/educational-opportunity-monitoring-project/achievement-gaps/race/#first; Cristobal de Brey, Lauren Musu, Joel McFarland, et al, “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018” (NCES 2019-038) (2019), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2019/2019038.pdf

[2]https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Hatqcl22HgoZxlDmYwKPTRRHw8zWWgWJ/view

[3]https://ncbi.org/.

[4] https://strategicplan.fsu.edu/

[5]Meeting with committee, October 5, 2020.

[6]https://www.ir.fsu.edu/

[7]Jason N. Houle and Fenaba R. Addo, “Racial Disparities in Student Debt and the Reproduction of the Fragile Black Middle Class,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5 (Oct. 2019), 562-577.

[8]https://www.mmuf.org/

[9]https://mcnairscholars.com/

[10]Michael H. Creswell, “Navigating the Admissions Process,” Perspectives on History, 47 (Dec. 2009), 33-35.

[11]https://kognito.com/products/at-risk-for-college-students

[12]David L. Brunsma, David G. Embrick, and Jean H. Shin, “Graduate Students of Color: Race, Racism, and Mentoring in the White Waters of Academia,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 3 (No. 1, 2017), 1 –13.

[13]https://preparing-faculty.org/

[14]Colleen Flaherty, “Even ‘Valid’ Student Evaluations Are ‘Unfair,'” Inside Higher Ed, February 27, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/02/27/study-student-evaluations-teaching-are-deeply-flawed

[15]AHA Signs onto ASA Statement on Teaching Evaluations (September 2019), https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/aha-advocacy/aha-signs-onto-asa-statement-on-teaching-evaluations

[16]Ibid.