The Preparation of Historians

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  • 1.  Brief statement of principle and opening invitation to participate

    Posted 10-22-2013 03:46:00 PM

    I create this "community" and invite widespread participation in it in the conviction that too little attention is paid to the preparation of historians.


                In holding to this view, I do not condemn any of us individually.  Most faculty members who prepare aspiring historians at research universities are deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled, and well intentioned.  In following educational conventions long proven of general utility, they are being responsible to their students.  And yet much of what we do to prepare historians we do without great reflection, and the single institution that could most appropriately, in addition to individual history departments, take an interest in the matter-the American Historical Association-doesn't do so.  In recent decades, most departments have done their best to diversify their faculties and have greatly expanded their graduate course offerings and dissertation advising along subject lines, so that most graduate students are now exposed to a wide array of topics in a large universe of general fields-social, cultural, and intellectual history as well as the more classic histories of politics, institutions, and foreign relations.  Most departments have also included at least some coverage of what goes under the general name of public history.  No one can argue successfully that these developments haven't been to the good for the discipline as well as for its practitioners and students.


                And yet little sustained, disciplined, discipline-wide reflection has been given to the contents, structure, and methods of graduate training in history.  In a recent book, I've tried to assess the general state of the discipline as well as the preparation of young historians.  While trying there to avoid outright argument and prescriptions for change, I've suggested ways in which we fall short of adequately preparing aspiring historians for the professional world in which they'll find themselves today.  But surely what I've written there cannot and should not be the last word; others are likely to differ with me both in what I describe, what I criticize, and what I implicitly prescribe.  What I do, however, firmly believe is that it is well past time to evaluate whether our conventions, contents, protocols, approaches, design, and methods of graduate training are sufficient to the circumstances of historians in the early twenty-first century.  I happen to think that they are not-and are not along a broad front of professional activities.  But mine should not be and must not to be the sole voice enunciating such concerns, assuming that others share my concerns, which they may not.  More of us-and the AHA, too-should be involved in assessing the state of the discipline periodically.  More of us-and the AHA, too-have a responsibility to evaluate what better each of us might do and what better our history departments might do to prepare young people for the circumstances of their careers as professional historians.


                I would be gratified if the AHA were to convene a group of historians to assess the state of graduate training in history today and to propose what changes in that training the group's members thought desirable.  But if the AHA doesn't do so, there's no reason why individual historians cannot exchange views as to what might better be done and thereby perhaps alter their own practices and influence those of their colleagues and departments to do so even if the discipline in general doesn't adapt better to changes circumstances, as I believe it must do.  I thus invite the discussion to begin.  There is much that I can learn, many things that I no doubt have never considered.  Perhaps if all of us venture with open minds into a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses in our current approach to graduate student training, the discipline will be the stronger for our discussion.  I very much hope so.

    James Banner
    Washington DC

  • 2.  RE:Brief statement of principle and opening invitation to participate

    Posted 10-25-2013 11:06:00 AM
    Many thanks for prompting a discussion on this very important issue. In fairness to the AHA, the Association did devote a massive amount of time and energy to these questions a decade ago, and produced The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century. The end product might have been a bit too conservative, and the recommendations a bit too vague, but I do think the committee made a sincere effort to explore the issue. It does seem rather telling, however, that as we approach the tenth anniversary of the report it seems largely forgotten. As a prompt for discussion, perhaps it would be useful to go back and revisit the report, and consider why (if?) it had such a limited effect.

    Robert Townsend
    American Academy of Arts & Sciences
    Washington, D.C.


  • 3.  RE:Brief statement of principle and opening invitation to participate

    Posted 11-05-2013 02:50:00 PM
    Both Jim and Robert have heard me speak at length on this subject. The fact that so few historians have responded to Jim's call for participation may underscore the lack of interest among graduate faculty in altering their training programs in any way, yet I believe the discipline is doomed to a slow death by attrition if the only accepted career path for Ph.D. historians is teaching at (preferably) a research 1 university.

    I believe faculty should help their students assess and be able to articulate the skills they learn in graduate training and bring to professional life.

    (1) research--how to find out information quickly, how to assess the value of sources, how to organize information into notes and bibliographies (e.g., Zotero), what value different kinds of evidence (e.g., artifactual, documentary, photographic) may offer.

    (2) writing--how to explain the threshold concept of history--i.e., that there is never just one "true" history but multiple narratives from different points of view; how to identify different audiences for whom one is writing; how to marshal research and writing time to produce the best possible "product," whether a paper, a website, an exhibit, or a book, within a given time and research budget.

    (3) adapting to different professional situations--how doing history in the private sector and government differs from doing history in academia; why writing histories for hire does not necessarily mean compromising one's integrity as a historian; why one cannot impose an academic point of view onto a private sector or government entity without taking into account factors beyond the individual author's desires.

    (4) a critical philosophy of history--what it means to take a historical approach to any subject; what differences and similarities exist among history, journalism, and public relations writing; what biases historians may harbor themselves (and which ones are valid and which ones are not).

    These things would make a good start.  For professors who have never worked outside the academy and know only classical history department reward systems (i.e., what it takes to get tenure), adding such training to a graduate history program would be a challenge but one that would greatly benefit their students.

    Some years ago, the AHA  published a report on public history that  could be useful in this endeavor.  Here's the link to that report:

    Victoria Harden
    Silver Spring MD