Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pulling back the curtain...

A few years ago, during my office hours, a student asked “So, what are you? A senior history major?” I realized that many of my students didn't know much about what I was doing or how certain structures of the university operated. And really, why should they know? Quite often the other parts of our academic life are very separate from our teaching. How could our students be expected know what graduate school is like, or what a Ph.D. is for, or what academic careers are like, or how colleges and universities operate? Lately I have been thinking about whether our students should know, and whether or not we as graduate students and teachers should play any role in that.

I've found that pulling back the curtain on certain aspects of my graduate life has created opportunities to connect with my students that I hadn't anticipated. The semester I was taking my comprehensive exams, I made the conscious choice to tell my students what would be occupying my time that semester. I was TAing for the second half of the U.S. survey, and I found myself talking to my students about what I was reading when it was relevant. Surprisingly, they were interested in what I was reading, and what this exam was about, and why I had to take it. When they came to my office hours the day after my exam, before they asked questions about their final exam, they wanted to know how mine had gone and what it had been like. The past might be a foreign country, but so was grad school to my students, and they wanted to explore.

Pulling back the curtain on things like comprehensive exams is one thing, and perhaps not very controversial, but my thinking about this issue was actually prompted by a few articles that have been floating around the internet lately. One, in the New York Times, discussed the relationship between a student's grades and the amount of financial support that student was receiving for their education. Amy Lewis' November 2012 piece on Inside Higher Ed used the recent “Manifest Destiny” Gap t-shirt disaster to make an argument for the relevance of the humanities to those seeking a degree in business. “The Adjunct Project,” hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other online forums for tracking the pay and conditions of contingent faculty around the country have been getting increased attention. The controversy rages over the “worth” of the humanities, with states like Florida pondering tiered tuition systems that privilege more “valuable” majors. What colleges and universities do with their money, what students are learning, and what they should be learning are all incessantly debated by people inside and outside of the academy. I know that my fellow graduate students and I discuss these articles and issues, and I can only assume the faculty do as well.

Do our students know about these things? If they don't, should they? Is it ever appropriate for us to introduce them to some of these issues? Our students remain with us as a group of people, but cycle through as individuals fairly quickly, and perhaps we assume they don't have a vested interest as a result. But when we're talking about how our institutions operate, do our students need (or want) to know how the sausage gets made? Do they need to know just how much the rest of the country can't stop talking about undergraduate education? And do we as historians defend the importance of historical thinking simply by modeling it, or is it ever appropriate to give our students contemporary examples of situations where it matters in the “real world?” 
I am thinking about bringing up the “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt issue with my class when we discuss the concept as part of a larger discussion of American imperialism. It seems like a good way to get at what the concept meant to different groups of people. But I don't know whether I'll give them Lewis' essay. I like a lot of what she says about the role of the humanities in the education of a business major, but I don't know whether bringing up those issues is appropriate, necessary, or desired.

I'd love to know how my colleagues have dealt with these sorts of situations and what they think about bringing up these kinds of issues with our students. - Erin

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