Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Passion, collaboration, and isolation in graduate school

One of the sessions I went to yesterday at the AHA was on cultivating and maintaining passion in graduate school. It was a roundtable discussion with several professors who are or have been graduate department heads (meaning they were responsible for their department’s graduate programs, as opposed to its undergraduate courses), and was attended mainly by graduate students themselves.

A lot of the discussion was around fairly practical things that good programs do to promote a sense of cohesion and community among graduate students.

  • Having office space for graduate students, and providing support for dissertation groups.
  • Having graduate students actually engage in research before the dissertation: we’ve moved away from original research papers, and do more historiographic reviews, shorter writing assignments, etc..
  • Having weekly colloquia. These can be events with outside speakers, but there are also times when grad students present on their research, or faculty talk about their projects.
  • Remove extraneous requirements, and refocus only on the stuff that really matters for graduate training, rather than making the students jump through hoops.

Many of these recommendations are aimed at two things: creating spaces in which students can pick up the informal or tacit knowledge that constitutes a lot of professional practice and identity; and illustrating that the life of an historian is a public, collective thing, not just something that’s lived privately.

To some degree, it also serves to offset the fact that the practice of doing archival research and writing history is a much more solitary and isolating activity. You can share dissertation chapters and that kind of thing, but really, when you’re writing, you’re alone.

Now, this is quite different from most professional schools, and even the way graduate training works in most of the sciences: there, collaboration and group work are the norm. So I asked a question: would you consider creating a course for first- or second-year graduate students where they do group projects– where they collaborate on a significant piece of research?

Some of the panelists reacted as if I’d just drunk a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and belched the “Star Spangled Banner.” One of them said it was “a really weird idea,” which I actually thought usefully revealed how different historical scholarship is from other kinds of scholarship. (Update: Actually, he said “wild,” not “weird.” My mistake!) Fortunately, Anthony Grafton stepped in and saved me with a riff from Carl Schorske’s autobiography about how he and his fellow graduate students took to forming “cells” while at Harvard in the 1930s. (Someone who’s not an historian, and doesn’t know about Schorske’s towering reputation in the profession, may not appreciate just how precisely this was the right response to keep the subject from being dismissed completely, but trust me– it was perfectly pitched.)

But it is an interesting contrast: in many graduate schools, group work is course work. Business schools love group projects, in no small part because they assume that their graduates are going to be working in groups. But more fundamentally, all knowledge-production has a collective quality to it, and it’s just a question how far down into the mechanics of scholarship or research those collaborations go. Historians today are unusual in that collaborative research and writing is not the norm, and I suspect that in the long run that’s a structural weakness, and in the short run that creates psychic burdens that we all have to bear. To put it in the language of economics, the isolating quality of scholarly practice creates an externality that the profession itself doesn’t have to account for.

One final thought. One way for a program to measure the “passion gap,” and to know if it’s doing a good job of giving students a strong identity as scholars, is to look at what its non-academic Ph.D.s do. My graduate program turned out a number of people who aren’t professors, but still converted their dissertations into books, and have crafted scholarly identities for themselves. Looking back on it, I credit an intense socialization process that taught us how to be scholars, not just how to do scholarship.

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1 Comment

  1. The initial response to your comment was sadly predictable, though I continue to be amazed at just how stuck in its old ways academia can be. For people who are purportedly producing knowledge, you’d expect them to be a bit more open to change. Unfortunately, it seems like a bit of an evolutionary problem. By rejecting collaboration, there are more and more people who are socially awkward etc. that are bred into academia, which creates less willingness to even entertain ideas about an environment that fully integrates collaborative work, like the rest of the world.

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