Collaborative Conundrums

Imagine a historian.

What do his/her surroundings look like? Is he/she surrounded by coworkers in a bustling work environment? Or is he/she sitting alone at a desk, kept company by stacks of books?

If your imagination conjured something closer to the latter image, you’re not alone. PhD students, and historians in particular, often work in isolation. Unfortunately, this feeds into the perception (and, let’s face it, occasional reality) that academics aren’t comfortable in social situations. It would be one thing if that perception only extended to friends and family thinking we’re a little bit odd, but it’s also a problem for PhDs seeking employment, especially outside of academia. Realistically, how many jobs can you think of where the ideal candidate prefers as little interpersonal interaction as possible?

It may surprise you to learn that being a PhD student/professor is also not one of those jobs. In fact, the American Historical Association has identified collaboration as one of five key professional skills that, while important to careers both in and outside academia, are under-emphasized in graduate education. (You can see the full list here.) I mostly agree with this assessment. In my experience, though, there are a great number of opportunities for collaboration as a PhD student; it is already a more or less essential part of an enriching PhD experience. I’ll share two examples based on things I’ve been working on this past week.

On Wednesday morning I spent more than two hours in a meeting. Not exactly what springs to minds when you think of “PhD student,” is it? This meeting was organized by Annie Janusch, UChicagoGRAD’s wonderful Fellowship Specialist, for those of us applying for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) fellowship to workshop drafts of our ten-page application essays. This meeting – attended by Annie and five of us applicants (one of whom Skyped in) – gave us the opportunity to offer constructive critiques of each other’s work (which we had all read beforehand) and to discuss strategies for writing a compelling essay. It’s incredible how difficult it is to distill your research plans into ten pages, achieving the appropriate balance of specificity and generality. Given this challenge, receiving feedback from scholars who, like the grant committee are hearing about your project for the first time, is simply invaluable. I have to admit, it’s not easy to hear about the shortcomings of your own work or to point out the weak points in other people’s work while simultaneously acknowledging the really great work they’ve already done (as was true for everyone in the group). But isn’t that a challenge that people in all kinds of professions face?

This week I’ve also been working on a report for our History Graduate Students Association. The basis for this report is a survey about different aspects of graduate student life that we administered between February and April. (Designing the survey itself was a collaborative process.) We decided that it would make the most sense to split the work of writing the report into about half a dozen sections. In order to spread out the work and ensure multiple viewpoints are represented, we have, as much as possible, assigned multiple people to work on each section. I’m working on sections related to coursework and funding. We’ll submit the report to the department for discussion at their annual priorities meeting and also discuss it with the department’s Graduate Student Affairs Committee.

There are many more examples of PhD collaboration I could talk about: coordinating and participating in a workshop, teaching, publishing in an edited volume, organizing conference panels, etc. My point is that getting a PhD isn’t an inherently anti-collaborative process. Actually, there are plenty of occasions where collaboration is both possible and really necessary. So why is it an issue?

I think the fundamental problem is that as PhD students, in history as in other fields, we are judged largely on the basis of our individual accomplishments. In the case of the fellowship working group, what ultimately matters is our individual performance on the application. No one is going to evaluate us for our work helping others improve their work. But at least participating in the group was part of helping me improve my own application. The HGSA report is simply departmental service. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that no one who evaluates my performance as a graduate student (i.e. a potential employer) will ever care about this work. Speaking more generally, I don’t know any graduate student who has worried about being asked to leave the program because he/she isn’t a “team player.” Instead, the only meaningful ways in which PhD students feel they will be evaluated are on highly individualistic terms: seminar papers, oral exams, dissertation proposals, dissertations, interviews, job talks, etc. Given these pressures, it is all too easy to assume that any collaborative work we do must serve our “own” work or else be resigned to filler on the back end of our CVs.

Now, I know this isn’t the whole story. I know that employers both in and outside academia do care about service and collaborative experience, and I appreciate the work the AHA is doing to raise awareness about this. From the perspective of a graduate student, though, I’m not sure awareness is enough to change the shape of graduate education. The reality is that graduate students are not immediately beholden to our future employers, whoever they may be, but rather to our own departments and advisers. They are the ones who are really in a position to effect systemic change in graduate education. They can signal their intent by including collaborative experience as a key component of graduate admissions, annual evaluations, and faculty job postings.

I remember that when I was writing graduate school application essays I had to think about how I could contribute to the departmental communities to which I was applying. The irony is that in five years of PhD study, I can’t remember a single time my current institution has asked me to evaluate myself along these lines. If we want conversations about the value of collaboration to be anything more than preaching to the choir, then maybe it’s time to change that.

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