The Graduate Course, and Other Mythical Beasts

I’m just preparing a graduate course that I am scheduled to teach next year. Through the years, I have taught a great many graduate courses of various kinds, but I have never explicitly addressed a basic question: what actually is a graduate course, what should it do, and how does it differ from undergraduate offerings? If you are a professor involved in teaching such courses, you might find these remarks too obvious to be mentioning, but I think the background to college teaching has changed in ways that make these questions worth addressing.

Based on my own experience, I am talking here about courses in History and also Religious Studies. Arguments would certainly differ in other disciplines.

Students pass through a series of courses from introductory undergraduate offerings, to senior level, and to graduate. The main differences involve the amount of background and expertise that we reasonably expect from those students, and how far we are trying to convey a body of knowledge, as opposed to setting them up to take the lead in their own education. Yes, all these elements should occur at all stages, but they are more obvious at some levels than others.

If I am teaching an introductory course on Western Civilization, I have a specific body of information and approaches that I want to pass on to students. As an essential part of that process, students have to read selected materials that suggest to them how history is made and how we know what we think we know. Obviously, we are trying to encourage them to think about those materials and to interrogate the conclusions that historians usually offer. In later undergraduate courses, the basic goal is still to convey a body of information, but students’ role in the process expands dramatically as (ideally) they read a lot more and address questions of sources and methodology. That is especially true if they are going beyond reading and using a wide variety of other potential sources of whatever kind – popular culture, visual materials, music, or whatever.

Related to this is the question of how historians form their opinions, and how they debate. You have a body of information, but how do you interpret it? How can different scholars retell the very same story in such radically different ways? Why do historians disagree, what do they disagree about? How do those ideas and debates change over time? Even if you never mention the word “historiography” in a class, the concept has to be there.

Ideally (again) every History course should at least to some degree address the question of how and why history is done. Of course there are other goals, such as investigating the value of past events in understanding human behavior, of showing how our world was made – of how the past has baked our loaf. But that question of “how we know what we think we know” is critical.

For many years, I taught an undergraduate course on the Second World War. At every stage, we face not only specific debates over events and strategies, but the more fundamental point of why we tell the story in the ways we do. Why do we spend so much time looking at this country or battle front, and why not on another? By what criterion do we say that this element matters so much, and this so little?

Why, it’s almost as if there are multiple histories competing at once … as of course there are.

So how does a graduate course differ from an undergraduate? To some extent, this is a question of degree (pun intended) or proportion. By the time you are dealing with graduate students, you expect them to have a foundation in understanding how history is written and understood, and also to be able to undertake independent work. The role of the professor should fade to that of a coordinator and organizer, who sets goals and directions, while the students undertake the bulk of the enterprise. The professor identifies the broad scope of the course, and within that describes particular topics and topic areas, suggesting readings and sources. Thereafter, the main responsibility passes to the class.

For example, in a US history class about a particular period, the theme for one segment might be “cities,” with one main text, and then a lot of ancillary material around that, and the main lessons emerge in mildly guided discussion.

I like the passage in the Tao Te Ching (the Laozi), which talks about different sorts of rulers, from the very authoritarian down. The absolute best of these, says Laozi, is a shadowy presence to his subjects.

When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’

And no, I don’t think a professor should be any sort of ruler, but you see what I mean.


This image is in the public domain

The other crucial difference in graduate courses is the nature of research which forms the basis of a core project. This must be original work in the sense of dealing with primary sources, although these need not be either archival or manuscript. If they are, that’s fine, but much depends on what opportunities exist at or near a particular institution. These days, it is vastly easier to access archives digitally.

This can actually be a hard distinction to get over to a class, to point out the difference from (say) a really good undergraduate paper that is nevertheless based totally on secondary sources. But somehow, working with primary sources should be a basic component of what a graduate course should be.

So much is familiar, but there are a couple of matters that have become massively more significant in graduate teaching in recent years, which again need to be in pretty much every course to some degree. One is that of professionalism, of learning to work within the academic world, and preparing for an academic career (which might take various forms). If a student takes a course on Topic X, they should ideally be laying the foundation to teach within that area if and when they find an academic job, at whatever level. One outcome of the course, then, is that a student should leave it knowing the outline of that field, understanding what it entails, what the main issues and debates are, who the main figures are. It is preparing the way to state accurately and honestly in a job interview that Yes, I am qualified to teach Topic X, and all the better if that topic area is one that is not overrun by other applicants. No, one course in itself does not give that expertise, but it should be the foundation.

The harder jobs are to find, the more essential this component of graduate teaching becomes.

Also, a course in humanities must to some degree teach about writing and publishing, even if there is no simple equation between the volume and quality of publication and the likelihood of finding a tenure track job. So much of the course involves reading and discussing books and articles, but these must never be seen as if they dropped from the skies. At every stage, readers have to ask how and why this particular author got a book or article into print, and why in that particular outlet.

In every graduate course I teach, I prescribe a list of readings, and one component on every syllabus is the following “Note on Reading Required Books.”

I offer the following list of questions that apply to any and all of the prescribed books – or indeed, to some extent, to any academic book that you might encounter:

  1. First, obviously, what is the book about, and what is its central theme or point?
  2. Does the author make his/her case well and clearly? Is the book well-written and well-argued? (the two points are not necessarily the same!) If not, why not?
  3. The fact that the book was published indicates that somebody thought it made an important and innovative point – there’s no point in just rehashing old familiar arguments, or so we would think. What’s new about this book? Is it a controversial study?
  4. What did the book tell us that was not previously known? What can we learn about how the book fits into the existing literature, yet advances beyond previous knowledge? What earlier or established position is it arguing against?
  5. Why are people studying this kind of topic right now? What does this tell us about the state of historical writing and scholarship?
  6. Does the author push the evidence to make it fit into contemporary concerns and obsessions? How?
  7. What major questions and issues surface that relate to the topics of the present course?
  8. Is the book of any interest or significance beyond the immediate scope of the study addressed?
  9. Are there questions that you would like to ask that the author does not deal with, or covers poorly?
  10. What can we learn from the footnotes and acknowledgments about how the author went about his/her research?

In a recent course on Global Christianity, I also started off with this:

As you will see, this is also a course about different ways of doing history. We will explore a variety of different studies, which are both top-down and bottom-up in their approach. Some concentrate on vast global trends, others on the micro-history of particular communities. Some are highly theoretical, others strictly nuts and bolts in their approach. Some are more popular, other more academic. Some of the authors will be reading explicitly think of themselves as historians, others are sociologists or political scientists. We will discuss how historical fiction can be used as a means of debating historical and theological truth.

So whatever else it does, a History graduate course is above all about understanding the very diverse meanings and definitions of history itself.


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