Advice from Cosmic America to an Incoming Grad Student

I came across Keith Harris’s advice to a prospective grad student today, and I admit I found it interesting reading.  Before long, I may add some insights of my own, because now I’ve seen life as a professional historian from a number of perspectives, each with its own special insights.

For now, however, what I can say is that each step of my education from eleventh grade (or, as we call it at the Phillips Exeter Academy, upper year) accelerated my preparation for the next step.  During my last two years at Exeter I worked extensively in primary sources, and wrote several papers based on those sources.  So from the beginning I was not simply rehashing what I found in secondary sources.  I then attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate, and, having tested out of the survey course due to my performance on the AP exam, I immediately started into upper division courses.  Here I encountered something interesting and valuable.  You see, UVa really hadn’t developed a series of upper division undergraduate courses.  What the department did instead was to merge those courses with graduate reading courses.  Thus the first history course I took was HIUS 509 on the early republic, and the first book I read was Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic … all 675 pages of it.  Being in a graduate level readings course my first semester as an undergraduate was a mark of distinction among my undergraduate peers, while the graduate students almost accepted me as one of their own once they learned that I was not one of their own.   In years to come the only time this became a sore spot was in Russian history, for my graders in a survey course were my classmates in a graduate course on Soviet foreign policy, and they were a bit abusive grade-wise (I got higher grades [and higher grades than they did] in the grad course than in the undergraduate course, which taught me never to take a course to be with your girlfriend, especially when she’s busy swooning over Dr. Zhivago).  In the following years I simply took my graded bluebooks to the professors and highlighted where I believed the graders were wrong, and my instructors always agreed with me.  Of course.

My undergraduate experience as a history major was exceptional.  I forged relationships with professors and graduate students who are now my professional peers, notably Michael F. Holt and Bill Link.  I was exposed to literature and a way of thinking about that literature that simply transcended what was already a challenging and enriching experience.  By my last year, I was reading microfilmed editions of various manuscript collections and publishing my first article, the outgrowth of a rather large honors thesis.  I was doing history, which is so much different than reading history.

Then it was on (to) Wisconsin to work under Richard H. Sewell, with Allan Bogue soon joining as my second reader (how many times do you get the president of the OAH as a second reader?).  Again my preparation served me well.  In my first semester I discovered that I had already read most of the books on the reading list for a course on the United States between 1789 and 1877.  This actually led to some awkward moments, because at times I held back from contributing, until Dick Sewell basically popped off at me in class one day when I quietly smiled (smirked?) at something he said (no doubt looking like a smartass).  Later during office hours I explained why I had grown uncharacteristically silent: Sewell told me not to let the “dead turkeys” get me down.  In truth, my particular class was not filled with promising prospects, and I’m aware of only one other fellow who received his Ph.D. and then left the profession, a fellow with the quintessentially nineteenth century name of Thaddeus Seymour.  However, in other classes talent abounded, including David Blight, Joe Glatthaar, and Daniel Feller; in years to come they would be joined by other brilliant scholars, including Nancy Isenberg and Leslie Schwalm.  The only thing that delayed my opportunity to race through preliminary exams was my decision to write a longish master’s thesis, which was eventually published years later as The Political Education of Henry Adams.  (True story: I presented that book, along with my then-new short Civil War text, for my promotion to full professor at ASU, even though I had completed the manuscript for The Reconstruction Presidents.  So I was promoted to full professor based on my master’s thesis.  Having earned my doctorate and eventually tenure due to a manuscript rooted in my undergraduate thesis, perhaps I should not have been surprised.)

I enjoyed my time at Wisconsin.  I did so in part because I did other things (I played a lot of ice hockey), and I could afford to do other things because I seemed to be one step ahead of the game.  At both Virginia and Wisconsin I also got an extended preview of departmental politics, the hiring process, and the promotion and tenure process, all of which served me well in years to come.  But I also came away from Wisconsin aware that because the challenges of the seminar room (with its pale imitation of Paper Chase) sometimes led to exchanges that resembled a weekend political pundit show than a true search for knowledge and understanding, one was more likely to learn one’s craft outside that experience.  Not that I found those discussions particularly challenging: after one learns that one can put someone else away or slaughter the work of one’s predecessors with overwhelming force and great precision, one sees that the true challenge is to appreciate the work of others and see what you can learn from it (since, sooner or later, even the best of us are fodder from some young punk who does not yet understand how the cycle works). It’s hard to escape the Oedipal experience that is at the foundation of the reading seminar, but it’s essential if you want to be, not just a historian, but a good historian.

What one needs to understand, however, is that graduate school is professional school.  You don’t go because you like history: you go because you want to be a professional historian who makes his/her living in the academy or in the world of public history.  In turn, many of us are one day faced with the care and feeding … and training … of graduate students, but that’s a tale best told at another time.

2 thoughts on “Advice from Cosmic America to an Incoming Grad Student

  1. Keith Harris July 20, 2011 / 3:27 pm

    Thanks for this post, Brooks (and thanks for the link as well) I think your last paragraph was particularity illuminating. I should have mentioned that in my post. At any rate I will be sure to pass the post on to the crew. Take care

  2. David Rhoads July 21, 2011 / 6:01 am

    I went to graduate school in history because I liked history. I found the training to be rewarding and broadly applicable, but I also realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, so I didn’t continue on for a Ph.D after I completed my M.A. Fortunately, I didn’t have to take on any debt to earn the M.A.

    These days, I sometimes daydream about going back for the Ph.D, not for career purposes but purely as an end in itself. Not practical, of course, but it would be fun to be a credentialed amateur.

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