How the (history) sausage is made: Fun with grad school orals

Still mad busy with orals studying, my friends. I have a *bit* more for you today, though. I figured I’d show you a little bit of the process that goes into studying for those kinds of exams in grad school, at least for me!

Now, it’s different for everybody. At some schools for some professors, you take written exams in addition to the oral components, sometimes they make you write essays, and so on, and so forth. Me, I think my professors are treating me pretty well. I don’t have to take written exams, I just have to do a lot of studying for 3 professors who’ll ask me 2 hours worth of questions on 3 subjects: International slavery and abolition (a half hour’s worth of questions), 20th century American history (another half hour’s worth of questions) and 19th century American history (an hour’s worth of questions–my majors field).

Here’s the thing, though. Whatever differences there may be in the various exams history grad students at different schools may take, they generally have two things in common. The first is that we gotta read a LOT of books, and that applies to me. I got 70 books for the International Abolitionism list, 61 for the 20th century American list, and 117 for the 19th century American list, for 248 in all! Pretty impressive, but I’ve already gotten through more than half of all of those…which is good, cause my final orals exam is in exactly a month from now, on April 20! T_T

The second thing all us history grad students generally have in common is this: We don’t just study the facts and minutiae of history, though that stuff’s important. What we really concentrate on are things like historiography (how historians throughout history–heh–have written about history), theory (how historians process and think about evidence), and interpretations (the varying ways they’ve used that evidence over time). We place a lot of emphasis on not just memorizing facts from the massive number of books we read, but also thinking about how we might use them in college courses we might teach, AND how they relate to each other.

So to help me for this pursuit, my 20th century American history professor told me to come up with questions a historian (or historiographer) might ask when working his way through the reading list. I thought you guys might be interested in the questions too, so I’m posting them here for your perusal! They’ll refer to the sections of my 20th century Amhist reading list that have to do with World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary American conservatism. Here they are:

1: General teaching question: Imagine you were teaching a very brief 2-week Spring Break course on World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, or the modern right. Choose 1 book from each of those sections you think would be the very best to assign as reading (not necessarily in full) for your students.

2: This question focuses on the New Deal/WWII Era: How have historians characterized the construction of the New Deal Coalition and the more general political shifts of Roosevelt’s administration, and how have they assessed the New Deal’s social effects, both immediately and in the long term?

3: For the Cold War section: What connections have the historians you’ve read found between American foreign policy and American domestic legislation? Also, have they found any connections between the larger “struggle against communism” and American religion, gender roles, and race relations?

4: For the section on Civil Rights Movement: What role does the concept of “intersectionality” play in the histories you’ve read? How have historians assessed the interplay between religion, race, and gender in both the struggle against segregation and the attempt by its defenders to maintain it?

5: Finally, for the section on the New Right: How have historians characterized the rise of the New Right, i.e where do they place its intellectual origins, sources of its appeal, and initial growth? How do they differentiate it from right-wing politics earlier in American history?

I think these questions are pretty good from the historiographical/interpretive/teaching standpoint grad students are supposed to think about, but I can only hope my prof agrees…I’m meeting with him on the 25th 😀 Until then, wish me luck!!!


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