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UI professor: History department given short shrift in task-force report

BY CONSTANCE BERMAN - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 08, 2010 7:30 AM

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Let me weigh in here, as I have attempted to do elsewhere, on the recent report from the UI Task Force on Graduate Education.

First, it’s biased: The entire exercise is one that has a built-in bias against the humanities — and history in particular — despite protestations to the contrary. Whatever the accuracy of the data used, the metrics used to evaluate graduate programs will always strongly favor non-humanities programs. To decide to use them, while ignoring national rankings of programs, is to decide before you start that you want to limit humanities programs to undergraduate teaching. This is not the tradition of this institution, where the graduate program has strongly supported humanities graduate programs. Let me explain why.

Selectivity, one of the evaluation criterion the task force used, is based on entering GRE scores, something that may not reflect the more important indicator in our view: the writing sample. An individual can get a double 800 on her or his GRE exam and not have the slightest comprehension of what history is, how it is practiced, or the insights about sources, argument, and interpretation that are vital to history.

We also have made considerable efforts to incorporate the under-represented (women, minorities, international students, those with disabilities) into the practice of history by recognizing that GRE exams are culturally determined and that they privilege the privileged and disadvantage those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That such students often want to write histories of those groups has opened the field of history — but the sources for those groups are often those least easily available, requiring longer collection of materials and numerous consultations of archives.

This affects a second criterion: years to degree. For any historian, the time to degree will be longer than, say, any computer scientist precisely because of outside support for graduate students. History — and the humanities more generally — are fields for which there are no outside grants. I would be happy to apply for outside institutional support for my current five graduate students if there were any to apply for. They do apply for dissertation-writing grants from AAUW or research grants from the Fulbright Program, DAAD, and other institutions.

But the best that is available is a one-year grant, gained in competitions for which the odds are 20-1 or worse.

That there is such bias towards all humanities programs in this study is a particular sham in the case of history, for we have a wonderful graduate program because of the way it has changed the very nature of history in the United States. History was once strongly biased toward traditional political histories recounting the accomplishments of men and governments. Our department has been a leader in establishing the histories of women, minorities, the disabled, the disempowered, and the non-mainstream.

Our students are employed by thoughtful departments of history because they are researching and uncovering the history of new groups. History once over and done with is never written for once and all, but is like the sciences — constantly subject to new interpretation, newly uncovered evidence, and new interests.

Our program is an outstanding one that has been given too little attention at the UI.

Constance Berman is a UI professor of history.


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