History dept. may broaden

Yale may have one of the best graduate history programs in the country, but even department administrators said it can still be improved.

The History Department here will consider encouraging more curricular breadth in its graduate program in response to an advisory report released by the National History Center and the Teagle Foundation, a philanthropic organization that focuses on education, Director of Graduate Studies Steven Pincus said this week.

The report surveyed the history departments of 55 universities nationwide and focused on increasing diversity in student curricula, improving course sequencing, increasing seminar opportunities and emphasizing teaching as a major component of the history program.

Pincus said the most compelling aspect of the report was its emphasis on breadth. It is important to train graduate students as not just historians of their own narrow sub-discipline, Pincus said, but in the larger context of history and the liberal arts in general. Yale, Pincus said, could do a better job of requiring breadth of its graduate students.

Many of those students agree, though for slightly differing reasons.

“I think that this is a step in the right direction, as most historians focus far too narrowly on their own specific sub-field … and are oblivious as to what happened in other parts of the world during the century they study,” Megan Lindsay GRD ’11 said in an e-mail message.

The report also discussed breadth as way to better prepare history students for employment. Very few history PhDs go on to be tenured professors at Ivy League schools or other institutions where they are able to teach within their specific field of interest, Sarah Kinkel GRD ’12 added.

“At a lot of other institutions, you have to make some compromises,” she said. “And breadth is helpful there.”

Current departmental requirements build in some curricular diversity for doctoral students. During their first two years, students are required to take twelve graduate seminars, four of which can come from outside the department. Curricular regulations also require students to expand beyond the time and geographic location of their field of study, although students may opt out of the latter through a thematic substitution.

As an improvement, Pincus tentatively suggested adding another requirement for students to complete two graduate seminars in another discipline. Or, he said, the department could offer seminars co-taught by history faculty as well as faculty in other departments, such as anthropology and political science.

But at the same time, he said, he wants to maintain the educational standards of Yale history and avoiding instituting a new requirement that students simply complete to get their degree. Forcing students to take a required course — and forcing faculty to teach it — seems ineffective, he said. Several professors interviewed expressed similar sentiments.

“Graduate training is a very individualized process, and it’s important not to set too many rules,” history professor Francesca Trivellato said.

Pincus said it is unlikely that new policies will be implemented as a direct result of the report. He will submit a memo based on his conclusions to the chair of the History Department this week. A departmental discussion of these issues will follow, but a date has not been set.

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