Ds Scholarship

How Do We Teach Graduate Students in the Humanities to Collaborate?

Jay Kook is tired of hearing humanists complain about the deterioration of their domains. When he became chair of the University of Michigan’s Department of History four years ago, the largest in the country in the discipline, Cook pushed his colleagues to “prove the importance of the humanities in the public arena.” He wanted academics to “speak to a wider audience” – including parents who are now warning their children Not Majoring in the humanities.

At the graduate level, Cook encouraged Michigan history professors to move beyond “exciting subjects” courses that—however interesting and provocative their subjects were—often repeated our “standard models of training and assessment.” So he formed two working groups, each with a mix of faculty and graduate students: one around public engagement and one around career diversity and transferable skills.

The practical goal, Cook said, is to train graduate students in a more holistic way and give them “the tools to make a difference in the wider world”. The overarching goal was also ambitious: to change the department’s workplace culture from within.

From that seed a new type of graduate teaching arose. The professors and students of the department looked for a way to prepare students for different career options while also preserving the scientific content of the specialization. They did not want to tone down the curriculum or replace the content with practical skills; Instead, the intent was to make these skills part of the content.

The answer they came up with: a graduate of laboratory courses in the humanities. The first – “HistoryLab: Collaborative Research with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum” – organized teams of graduate students to write content for the museum’s online educational program. Taught by history professors Rita Chen and Jeffrey Feidlinger in 2019 and 2020, the course – which was recently enrolled by nine graduate students – has a useful origin story.

This story begins with the reflection of professors at the American Historical Association Five core competencies for historiansCommunication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. Chen and Fiddlinger came together on a shared concern that graduate students in history were not adequately taught about collaboration. She said historians “do everything on their own.” Archival work, thinking, writing – all organized as single endeavors.

Chen said this question – “How should we teach cooperation?” – led to another: “What if we used a client and he gave us the project?”

Fiedlinger, a board member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, knew that Leah Wolfson, director of outreach programs on the museum’s campus, was looking for collaborators. The two professors wrote a proposal in 2018 for a team-based graduate course. Its goal will be to increase The Experience of History: Sources of the Holocaust in ContextThe Museum’s online collection of curated, curated, and interpreted primary sources.

The two professors also arranged the course to be a required “research seminar” for graduate students. Wolfson said the curriculum details were important to the museum, too, because it showed the department had “invested” in the project—it wasn’t just something they were “trying to push aside.”

Such suspicions were valid, Chen said, given that the idea was an “experiment for all involved.” At the time, the Michigan Department of History had only tried two lab courses at the undergraduate level, but neither was for graduate students. On the flip side, the Museum has never cooperated with a university in this way. Wolfson described the course as ‘pilot’ – an opportunity to engage students in ‘what we really do’.

The museum proposed two ideas for online collections: “American support for Nazism” and “the allure of fascism in Europe.” Early on, the coursework centered on narrowing these two ideas down to an “answerable research question,” Chen said. “Students had to make decisions about how ‘American support’ and ‘Nazism’ define one group, and ‘Fascism’ and ‘Europe’ define the other,” she said.

This thinking of definitions led to changes in the names of the two groups: “Nazi ideals and American society” and “Everyday Encounters with Fascism.” For Chen, the work taught students “how to define a research question” and identify its “first principles.” Teach students how to create and organize archives, how best to search an archive for the documents you are looking for, and once you find them, how to develop and comment on primary sources.

Students worked in two teams, one assigned to each group. Their initial annotations have undergone mass editing. Veidlinger recalls that class time was spent “examining the documents, deciding what to highlight, and writing descriptions.” Wolfson often attended remotely, and she, too, commented on the group experience: “Everyone got their hands dirty.” Chen said the professors and students were “editing while we were talking.” “The faculty were directing, but we were also part of the research teams.”

Both teams presented the group’s proposal — a “brief explanation of how to define a group,” Chen said — in the fourth week of the session. This schedule is radically different from a typical history seminar, which leaves a large research paper and presentation for the student until the end of the semester. And in this case, the students submitted their proposals not only to their professors but more importantly, to Wolfson and other museum officials. A month later, the students visited Washington (at the museum’s expense) to present a “more accurate collection statement,” Chin said, and “a list of suggested documents” for inclusion in the collection.

The final product was a final description of the collection and a list of annotated contextual descriptions of each document in the two collections – that’s what you can see on Experiencing History today.

Chen said the course broke down the traditional hierarchy of “faculty members as transmitters of knowledge, and students as receivers.” “We were finding out together.” PhD holders are trained to take a specialized position – to teach as an expert in the content of their courses. Breaking out of this practice can be daunting, but it is also rewarding. Chen found herself having a “dialogue with the students in a different way”, rather than “you already have the answers”.

Wolfson holds a Ph.D. herself, she described the meetings as “unheard of in alumni land.” The meetings also featured students I met via email. “Learning directly from these experts in public history, and in collaboration with them, it has been very helpful to think about the content and provide content for the public history exhibit!” Richard A. Bachmann, a second-year graduate student in Michigan, said the students “felt respected and trusted members of the team.”

A visit to the museum’s archive also proved worth, said fourth-year student Emily Duranso-Lapointe: “We used our archiving skills, and discovered a bunch of new things to add to our collection.”

Meanwhile, Chen and Fiddlinger saw their students learn how to effectively present their intellectual work to an audience outside the academy. Chen said the professors realized they knew “much more than cooperation.” For Veidlinger, the course has given students “skill sets that are more appropriate for the work we do as truly academics”. Rather than historiography—how interpretations of historical events change over time—Chen said, “We’ve actually been studying the history of nuts and bolts.”

Students and professors alike praised the usefulness of the course. “The students want to learn how to do this,” said Chen, and the students agreed completely. But “useful” is a confusing word in many humanities circles because many scholars see it as the first verbal step on a slippery slope that would turn the humanities into a set of service disciplines that study core courses and not other things.

This threat is not illusory, as some cuts to post-pandemic programs have already demonstrated. But the idea of ​​doing useful work should not be the enemy. Liberal arts professors should embrace the idea wherever it is applicable, not circle the wagons against it. The advantages are clear: We and our students want to do our work in the world, and that counts.

Humanities lab courses, such as those designed by Chin and Veidlinger, are useful in the most important ways:

  • It is useful for students. Veidlinger, who specializes in Holocaust history, noted that the main takeaway of the laboratory course was not necessarily related to the Holocaust. “The most important expertise,” he said, “is source analysis,” especially “what questions to ask” about the source, and “how to present it to the general public.” Students agreed. Richard Bachmann said the course “made me reconsider my approach to research and writing”. It also helped graduate students hone their teaching skills. “I completed this course before I had to teach undergraduates, but I learned a lot about undergraduate pedagogy from this experience,” said Paige Newhouse, a third-year student. Working directly with primary sources for a general audience, Neuhaus asked questions such as, “What is the pedagogical use of this source and what will the student draw from it?”
  • It is useful for teachers. Laboratory-based pedagogy opens up new possibilities for faculty as well. This was a “different way of doing history,” Veidlinger said. “I learned a lot about collaboration.” Cook reports that his colleagues are already imagining research projects for themselves that fit into the lab’s format (such as oral dates). The department has also been successfully lobbying for changes in acquisition and promotion criteria to appreciate these new types of work.
  • It is useful to the world. The lab courses allow professors to “learn from the audience and engage the audience as well as teach them. We need to listen to others a lot,” Veidlinger said. This is certainly true, especially if we expect them to listen to us.

Collaboration is not a new concept in lab science. But for the humanities, this methodological experience offers two important lessons: (1) PhD students and their professors can collaborate without betraying the core values ​​of our disciplines, and (2) we should design graduate courses based on what students need to learn, not around the specific research we do with it.

In Michigan, the discussions that generated the Chen and Fiddlinger course were supported by a grant (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) from the American Historical Association. The professors also received an internal scholarship from the Michigan Graduate School, and the Holocaust Museum paid for the students’ presentation trips. Financing can give you these perks.

But the basic idea of ​​a humanities lab course is inexpensive, easy to repeat, and portable. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do that,” Chen said. In fact, additional laboratory courses in Michigan flourished without frills. As of this writing, more than a dozen have been submitted, or will be introduced this year. Courses are common. “They have waiting lists,” Cook said.

Bottom line: These lab courses are fun and transformative at the same time. “I enjoyed all the things we do ourselves with the students, learning from them, and working with them,” Veidlinger said. “It was a fun course to teach.” For Chen, it was “very rewarding” to “step out of her own specialty” to “appreciate the questions that historians share.”



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