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Some Reminiscences and Reflections on Graduate Education in History

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 36, Number 3, September 2008
pp. 468-484 | 10.1353/rah.0.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What has been the role and purpose of graduate education in American history? More to the point, how has its rationale, focus, and structure changed during the past half-century? I have recently had personal reasons, of several sorts, to contemplate just such questions. First, there is my own retirement from teaching at the end of 2007. Second, there have been engaging questions about organizing a graduate seminar from my son who has embarked upon a new job in a cognate field, comparative government, at a foreign university. And third, every autumn I routinely receive inquiries from potential applicants to the Ph.D. program at Cornell, wanting to know how our graduate set-up actually works and whether it would be a good fit for them given their prior educational backgrounds and particular interests in research, teaching, and quite often, their consideration of alternative career paths in history.

Before proceeding any farther, I should warn the reader that my ruminations are not exactly based upon quantitative survey data. They reflect the experiences, reactions, and in some respects the second-guessing of himself by just one individual who has taught almost entirely at a single institution, an Ivy League school that in some respects is more like a state university, perhaps, than any of its Ivy counterparts. Nevertheless, unlike most state universities, graduate study at Cornell occurs exclusively through a Ph.D. program in which the M.A. is routinely awarded in due course after two years. A terminal M.A. is only awarded for the few early departures who fail to meet expectations. Although much of what follows may be idiosyncratic (and highly subjective), I hope that elements and aspects of it, at least, will reflect some of the broader trends that have emerged within academe over the past forty-plus years.

Early in January 2008 my wife and I visited our younger son and his family in Singapore, where he recently began teaching in the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS). A specialist in the politics of Indonesia, he received his Ph.D. in comparative government and taught briefly in New Zealand, Indonesia, and newly independent East Timor, and worked with the U.N. Truth and Reconciliation Commission for East Timor. At the time of our visit Douglas was schematizing a partially historical graduate seminar on the politics of Southeast Asia for the new semester and pondering the kinds of issues that arise when participants in a seminar include Ph.D. students needing to undertake a major research paper along with M.A. students who basically earn the degree through coursework alone, although some undertake a lesser thesis project. Designing a dual track course that would combine substantive readings and coverage of connected topics with sufficient time for research posed various sorts of problems.

The timing of our conversation could not have been more fortuitous because one month earlier I had taught my very last classes at Cornell after forty-two years there, while he was making a fresh start at a high-powered but multitiered, state-supported institution. Most of the M.A. students at NUS, for example, work full or part-time and have families of their own. While the doctoral students all have full financial support, most of the master’s candidates do not; and the ethnicities of the students are as diverse as you might imagine for a university located in Singapore, a nation with four official languages. So the process of responding to his questions and various options prompted me to reflect on what I had learned from half a century of experience: first as a graduate student in American history at Harvard (1958–64), and then from teaching at Cornell, for one year at the graduate and post-graduate level at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (1980–81), and as a visitor at Yale (2005–06).

In the course of our conversation Douglas and I contemplated specific issues that he faced in shaping a viable syllabus for a thirteen-week semester. In the days that followed, however, and especially during the lengthy series of flights that lifted me home to Ithaca, I had...



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