Jay Cook was “tired of hearing humanists complain” about the decline of their fields. When he became chair four years ago of the University of Michigan’s history department, the country’s largest in that discipline, Cook pushed his colleagues to “make the case for the humanities in the public square.” He wanted academics to “speak to broader publics” — including the parents who now warn their children not to major in the humanities.
On the graduate level, Cook encouraged Michigan’s history professors to move beyond “sexy topics” courses that — however intriguing and provocative their themes — mostly reiterated “our standard models of training and assessment.” So I have agreed to two task forces, each with a mix of faculty members and graduate students: one on public engagement and the other on career diversity and transferable skills.
The practical goal, Cook said, was to train graduate students in a more holistic way and give them “the tools to make a difference in the wider world.” The overarching goal was likewise ambitious: to change the department’s workplace culture from within.
From that seedbed grew a new kind of graduate teaching. The department’s professors and students went looking for a way to prepare students for different professional options while also preserving the scholarly content of the discipline. They didn’t want to water down the curriculum or displace content with practical skills; rather, the intent was to make those skills part of the content.
The answer they arrived at: graduate lab courses in the humanities. The first one — “HistoryLab: Collaborative Research With the US Holocaust Memorial Museum” — organized teams of graduate students to write content for the museum’s online educational program. Taught by the history professors Rita Chin and Jeffrey Veidlinger in 2019 and 2020, the course — which most recently enrolled nine graduate students — has an instructive origin story.
That story begins with the professors’ reflecting on the American Historical Association’s five core competencies for historians: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. Chin and Veidlinger came together over a shared concern that graduate students in history weren’t being taught enough about collaboration. Historians “do everything alone,” she said. The archival work, the thinking, the writing — all are structured as solitary pursuits.
Chin said that one question — “How should we teach collaboration?” — led to another: “What if we used a client and they gave us the project?”
Veidlinger, a board member of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, knew that Leah Wolfson, the museum’s director of campus-outreach programs, was looking for collaborators. The two professors wrote up a proposal in 2018 for a team-based graduate course. Its aim would be to augment Experiencing History: Holocaust Sources in Contextthe museum’s online collection of curated, contextualized, and annotated primary sources.
The two professors also arranged for the course to count as a required “research seminar” for graduate students. That curricular detail turned out to be important for the museum, too, said Wolfson, because it demonstrated that the department “was invested” in the project — that it wasn’t just something “they were trying to squeeze in on the side.”
Such skepticism was valid, given that the idea was “an experiment for all concerned,” Chin said. At that time, Michigan’s history department had tried just two lab courses at the undergraduate level, but none for graduate students. On the other side, the museum had never collaborated with a university in this way. Wolfson described the course as “a pilot” — a chance to involve students in “what we really do.”
The museum proposed two ideas for online collections: “American Support for Nazism” and “The Appeal of Fascism in Europe.” Early on, Chin said, the coursework centered on narrowing those two ideas down to “an answerable research question.” She said “students had to make decisions on how to define ‘American support’ and ‘Nazism’ for one collection, and ‘fascism’ and ‘Europe’ for the other.”
This reflection on definitions led to name changes for the two collections: “Nazi Ideals and American Society” and “Everyday Encounters with Fascism.” For Chin, the work taught students “how to define the research question” and identify its “first principles.” The students learned how archives are created and organized, how best to search an archive for the documents you’re looking for, and, once you find them, how to develop and annotate primary sources.
The students worked in two teams, one devoted to each collection. Their preliminary annotations went through group editing. Class time was spent “poring over documents, deciding what to highlight, writing descriptions,” Veidlinger recalled. Wolfson often attended remotely, and she, too, remarked on the collective experience: “Everybody got their hands dirty together.” Both professors and students were “editing as we were talking together,” said Chin. “Faculty were guiding, but we were also part of the research teams.”
Both teams presented their collection proposal — “a short explanation of how the collection would be defined,” said Chin — in the fourth week of the course. That timeline differs radically from the usual history seminar, which leaves a student’s big research paper and presentation until the end of the semester. And in this case, students presented their proposals not just to their professors but, more importantly, to Wolfson and other museum officials. A month later, the students visited Washington (at the museum’s expense) to present “a more refined collection statement,” Chin said, “and a list of proposed documents” to include in the collection.
The end product was both a final collection description and a list of contextual annotated descriptions of each document in the two collections — and that’s what you can see on the Experiencing History website today.
The course broke down the traditional hierarchy of “faculty as imparters of knowledge, and students as recipients,” said Chin. “We were discovering together.” Ph.Ds are trained to assume a specialist’s position — to teach as an expert in the content of their courses. To depart from that practice can be daunting, but also rewarding. Chin found herself having a “dialogue with students in a different way,” not one where “you already have the answers.”
Wolfson, who has a Ph.D. herself, described the meetings as “unheard of in grad-seminar land.” The meetings also stood out for the students whom I interviewed by email. “Learning directly from, and together with, these public-history experts how to think about content and content delivery for a public-history exhibit was so valuable!” said Richard A. Bachmann, a second-year graduate student at Michigan, who added that students “felt like respected and trusted members of the team.”
The visit to the museum archives also proved valuable, said Emilie Duranceau-Lapointe, a fourth-year student: “We put our archival skills to use, and we discovered a bunch of new objects to add to our collection.”
Meanwhile Chin and Veidlinger saw their students learning how to present their intellectual work effectively to an audience outside of academe. The professors realized, Chin said, that they were teaching “much more than collaboration.” For Veidlinger, the course gave students “skill sets more suited to the work we as academics really do.” Rather than historiography — how interpretations of historical events change over time — “we were really teaching nuts-and-bolts history,” said Chin.
Students and professors alike praised the usefulness of the course. “Students want to be taught how to do this,” said Chin, and the students roundly agreed. But “useful” is a vexed word in many humanities circles because so many scholars see it as the first verbal step onto a slippery slope that will turn the humanities into a collection of service disciplines that teach basic courses and not much else.
That threat is not imaginary, as some post-pandemic program cuts have already made clear. But the idea of doing useful work shouldn’t be the enemy. Professors in the liberal arts have to embrace the idea wherever it’s viable, not circle the wagons against it. The advantages are clear: We and our students want to do our work in the world, and have it matter.
Humanities lab courses, like the one Chin and Veidlinger designed, are useful in the most important ways:
- They’re useful for students. Veidlinger, a specialist in Holocaust history, observed that the main takeaway of the lab course wasn’t necessarily Holocaust-related. “The most important expertise is in source analysis,” he said, especially “what questions to ask” about a source, and “how to present it to the general public.” Students agreed. The course “made me reconsider my approach to research and writing,” said Richard Bachmann. It likewise helped graduate students sharpen their teaching skills. “I completed this course before I had to teach undergraduates, said Paige Newhouse, a third-year student, but “I learned a lot about undergraduate pedagogy from this experience.” Working directly with primary sources for a general audience made Newhouse ask questions like, “What is the pedagogic use of this source and what will a student take away from it?”
- They’re useful for professors. Lab-based pedagogy opens new possibilities for the faculty as well. This was “a different way of doing history,” said Veidlinger. “I learned a lot about collaboration.” Cook reported that his colleagues of him are already imagining research projects for themselves that harmonize with the lab format (such as oral histories). The department has also been pushing successfully for changes in tenure and promotion standards to value these new kinds of work.
- They’re useful for the world. Lab courses, said Veidlinger, allow professors to “learn from the public and engage the public as well as teach them. We need to be listening to others a lot more.” That’s certainly true, especially if we expect them to listen to us.
Collaboration isn’t a new concept in the lab sciences. But for the humanities, this curricular experiment offers two important lessons: (1) Doctoral students and their professors can collaborate without betraying the core values of our disciplines, and (2) we should design graduate courses based on what students need to learn, not just around the specific research we happen to be doing.
At Michigan, the discussions that birthed Chin and Veidlinger’s course were supported by a grant (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) from the American Historical Association. The professors also received an internal grant from Michigan’s graduate school, and the Holocaust Museum paid for the students’ presentation trips. Funding can get you those perks.
But the basic idea of a humanities lab course is inexpensive, easily replicated, and portable. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to do this,” said Chin. Indeed, further lab courses have thrived at Michigan without attached frills. At this writing, more than a dozen have been given, or will be offered this year. And the courses are popular. “They have waiting lists,” Cook said.
The bottom line: These lab courses are fun and transformative at the same time. “All of the things we do by ourselves, I enjoyed doing with students, learning from them, working with them,” said Veidlinger. “It was a fun course to teach.” For Chin, it was “super rewarding” to step outside of her own specialization to “appreciate the questions historians share.”