Monday, May 2, 2011

"Wise Choices": Caplan on Choosing a Dissertation Project

The April 2011 issue of the AHA's newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, is now available to non-subscribers. I particularly enjoyed the Art of History column, by Jane Caplan (University of Oxford). Caplan takes on the topic of how graduate students should choose a dissertation project. Here's a taste:

Enthusiasm alone . . . is not enough. A pleasure in the past may be a necessary motivation, but it is not sufficient to launch graduate research, however elegantly it is articulated. Undergraduates heading to graduate school often need some prodding to grasp this and detach themselves from the subjective expressions of fascination with the past and their grandparents’ stories that powered their college applications. They must learn how to locate these pleasures and motivations in the collective intellectual endeavours they are about to join, which is also the first step towards seeing themselves as writers of history, not just consumers.

Choosing a dissertation topic is more weighty than any subsequent research decision, because it is the means by which graduate students will try out whether life as a historian suits them. And whatever decision is made will accompany them for the next five to ten years of their lives as either welcome partner or intolerable incubus—and it had better be the former. To be sure, the heavy hand of disciplinary reproduction is at work here, claiming initiates as they cross the threshold into the profession. The constraints on imagination that this can impose also need to be resisted by the freshness and intellectual curiosity of new recruits that will help to remake the intellectual agenda.

Read the full column, titled "Wise Choices," here.

Other highlights from the issue: Thomas H. Appleton, Jr., investigates the history of the qualifying exam; Catherine Kelly writes about getting published digitally; and Krista Sigler makes the case for the teaching potential of Twitter.