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Classes, Assistantship, etc.

Final Thoughts on Graduate School

Do not let the scenic views fool you, grad school is alot of work

On May 4, I graduated with my Master’s degree after two years of hard work. Over the past two years, I have written about the courses I have taken and the books I have read, but in this post, I will try to wrap everything up and offer some advice to those interested attending graduate school in the near future.

One of the first things I learned at James Madison University was that graduate courses are very different from undergraduate courses. Of course, I was told this by all my professors at Missouri Southern State University, but there is really nothing to prepare you for the change. The work is more intensive and the expectations are much higher. The courses are also structured differently as most are seminar style in which a different book is read each week. Grades are handled differently as well. An “A” is still an “A”, but an “A-” might be considered a “B.” A “B” indicates that something was wrong, and anything below a “B” is a failure. In fact, at JMU if you received two “C’s” during the two years, you were placed on academic probation.

Writing is more intense as well. Papers are longer and expected to be more polished. This means that writing a paper the night before is no longer an option. I liked to allow myself several days for proofreading and editing.

With the increased reading and writing, it is important that you be very disciplined and have the ability to make the best use of your time. Most professors will give you a full semester schedule on the syllabus with due dates for all assignments and outline the readings. For me, I liked to keep a copy of each course calendar at my desk and from that I would make a to-do list for the upcoming week. This ensured that I had enough time to go through a book, look up a few reviews, and explore the author’s information. With papers, this gave me plenty of time to research, write, and edit my papers before they were due.

One thing to always include in a schedule is to make time for yourself. Free time is the best stress reliever. Whether you spend the free time at the gym, watching tv or a movie, or going out with friends, it is important you make this time for yourself. Graduate school is hard work and if you devote every waking moment to it, you will burn out quickly. Graduate school is not for everyone. There is a good chance that some of the people you start with will not be around at the end. Do not let that discourage you, however.

Article and Books – the readings for one semester of grad school

Then there is the capstone project….the thesis. Not all majors have this a requirement, but I had to write one. Most students enter graduate school with an idea of what they would like the research and who they want to work with. This will make things much easier moving forward. If possible, try to have a topic picked by the end of your first semester. Talk to your advisors and a possible director to determine the feasibility of your project. That will give you the second semester to begin gathering sources that you will then go through over the summer before your second year. I was lucky at JMU because we had HIST 673 in our second semester, and this allowed us to “test” our thesis topics. Use the summer before your second year to read the secondary literature and begin exploring the primary. Chances are, you will have to write a prospectus shortly after you return in the fall of your second year. In your third semester, you should begin to outline your thesis and put the pieces together. By Christmas break, having at least one chapter done is optimal, but each director has different deadlines and expectations. For example, I had three of my four chapters done before January 1. After you have written all your chapters, you will have a few weeks to edit. Hopefully your director is a punctual as mine was. I always had my chapters back quickly, with comments. The editing phase will be stressful, but you want to submit as complete a thesis as possible to your committee. This will make your final edits much easier. After the text is written, you will then have to put all the parts together along with a title page, table of contents, etc. All of which will be strictly outlined by the Graduate School. After you finish formatting you will feel an immediate release of tension!

As if the the thesis was not enough, there was one last test before I could graduate….the Oral/Comprehensive Exam (JMU’s comprehensive exam was oral, but some schools will have written exams). This consisted of sitting in a room with three professors of my choosing and discussing everything from my thesis to two years of course work and readings. It is certainly difficult to prepare for. Comprehensive exams is why you should take good notes in class and also as you read each book. Most comprehensive exams last about an hour and a half, and they will cover a great deal of information. Some of the information covered depends on who you choose for your committee, however. Some opt to have their comprehensive exam committee to be the same as the thesis committee. I did not go with option because I never had class with them. My thesis director was on my comprehensive exam committee, but the other two members were professors with which I had several courses. This gave them more information to pull from and gave me more to talk about for nearly two hours. The concept of oral exams seems terrifying, but once you are seated in the room, you will get comfortable because you will realize, as long as you studied well, that you know the information well enough.

I almost forgot to mention that while you are juggling courses and writing your thesis, it is very likely you will have an assistantship as well. Teaching assistantships can vary in their degree of difficulty. You may only have to grade and work with students, but some programs require that you also teach discussion sections. This means preparing for two mini-lectures per week. Again, this is all part of the concept of time management. I really enjoyed my TA positons with World History in the fall semesters and working with History Day it the Spring. Whether you have a teaching assistantship or a graduate assistantship, you will have to budget time for that as well.

One of the greatest aspects of graduate school is the people. You will become good friends with a number of the professors, but more important is your cohort. At some schools, the students in your cohort are competitors, but not a JMU. We were encouraged to work together (again, HIST 673 helped with this). It is important to remember that they are going through the same processes that you are, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, and you will, it is very likely they are as well. One of my favorite stress relievers was going out with them and having a drink or two and playing a game of darts. Again, have some fun. Do not let the school work take over your life for two years.

The last two years were full of ups and downs. There were weeks I was overwhelmed with everything, but there was always of the gratification of completing whatever task was causing my stress. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the last two years was walking across the stage and being hooded at commencement on May 4. I feel that over the past two years I have grown as a historian, but more importantly, I have grown as a person. And I would not trade the experience for anything. 


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Course Reviews: Spring 2012

I realized that I went this whole semester without writing about my courses from my final semester of grad school. As always I will describe each course, list the professor, and provide a book list with links to the book’s page. I will write a separate post in which I will discuss the past two years and my thoughts on grad school. For now, here are the courses from Spring 2012:

HIST 533

The United States, 1960 – 1980 met three times per week with a mix of grad students and undergrads.  As with all 500 level courses, we have a separate fourth hour meeting with the professor to discuss our addition work/readings.  For this course, we used fourth hour to watch various documentaries and for grad-only book reviews.  The course had 12 books, but they were optional. We took a midterm and a final, both of which could be easily taken as long as you attended the lectures. The course is taught by Dr. Steve Guerrier, who was recently named one of the 300 best professors in the country by The Princeton Review. His teaching style centers around lectures, a skill at which he is highly adept. His lectures are extraordinary detailed. A course that was supposed to cover events through 1980 only got through the 1968 election, but I learned more in his class than in most seminar style classes. I took this class because I had worked with him on History Day last year and had heard he is a great professor. I certainly recommend Dr. Guerrier to any JMU student with an interest in History.

Books: The Movement an the Sixties, ‘Takin’ it to the Streets:’ A Sixties Reader, Dispatches, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1995, The Struggle for Black Equality, Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, The Presidency of Richard M. Nixon, The Presidency of Gerald R. Ford, and The Presidency of James Earl Carter, Jr.

HIST 605

The Seminar in Recent American History. HIST 605 changes from year-to-year depending on who teaches it.  This year the course was taught by Dr. Kevin Borg and focused on his area, industry, consumption, and the environment. The reading list for this course was pretty extensive with one book per week. A few weeks we had breakout books where the class was divided in half, or, for one week, into fourths. The course began with the Industrial Revolution and trace the development of American business, environmentalism, and Liberalism. The course was setup in a seminar style with each of us taking turns leading class discussion. I led the discussion for Nancy Cohen’s The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914. For this course we had to write a book and a synthetic book review in which we compared and reviewed two to three books. We also wrote two 7-10 page historiographical essays on a topic of our choosing. I really enjoyed the discussions in this course. The strength of this course was certainly its reading list.

Books: The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940, Mass Destruction the Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, 1865-1914, Labor’s Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912-1921, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, and Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies.

HIST 700 

For my thesis, this semester was the most stressful. I wrote chapters 1, 2, and 3 before the beginning of the semester. In fact, I wrote chapter 2 while I was at home over Christmas break. The only things I had to finish after Christmas break was chapter 4, my introduction and conclusion, the abstract, table of contents, and I had to think of a title for the damn thing. My thesis adviser, Dr. Christopher Versen, was very helpful and very detailed in his feedback and was very helpful. I finished the rough draft of my a week before spring break. Dr. Versen read and commented on the draft, and I spent Spring Break rewriting, revising, and conducting some additional research. It was a nightmare! But I submitted the thesis to my committee before the deadline.

As with last semester, I meet weekly with Dr. Versen, and we discuss what I had read, what I had written, and where the project was going.  The members of my thesis committee, Dr. Chris Arndt and Dr. John Butt, provided excellent feedback, and I submitted my thesis to the graduate school a week before the due date.

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Course Reviews: Fall 2011

I realized that I never wrote about my courses for this semester, so I will do that now.  The semester is now half over and I am counting down until Christmas break!  Instead of writing a separate post for each course, I will give a brief description of each course in this post.  You can find my book list post, HERE.

HIST 590

Gender in Latin America meets twice a week with a mix of grad students and undergrads.  As with all 500 level courses, we have a separate 4th hour meeting with the professor to discuss our addition work/readings.  For this course, however, we have a 4th hour, but no additional readings.  Our only additional work is a reading review each week.  The course has 15 books, but we do are not reading one per week as you might expect.  We are reading in chronological and generally read chapters from 3-4 books per week.  Overall, it is not a bad course and it fulfills my requirement of an out-of-concentration course.  The course is taught by Dr. William C. Van Norman.

HIST 600

The Seminar in Early American history changes from year-to-year depending on who teaches it.  This year the course is taught by Dr. David Dillard and focuses on his area, Southern history.  The reading list for this course is pretty short, but the course layout is very different.  The course is broken up into three blocks of three-week segments.  The first week, the whole class reads the same book.  The second week we break apart and read different books from the historiography.  Finally, the third week we discover how the history of the period is viewed by the public via museum, movies, television, etc.  It is a unique course design and I really like it as it allows me to incorporate a little of my Public History training.

HIST 700 

My thesis research is going well and I have been working toward my thesis since early this year.  Over the summer I did a great deal of secondary reading and gathered all my primary sources.  I have moved past the research phase and am now into writing.  My first chapter is due October 24, and I have about 12 pages so far.  My goal is 20.  After writing chapter 1, I will skip to chapter 3 and have it done by Thanksgiving break.  Before I leave for Christmas break, I hope to have Chapters 1 and 3 completed and substantial progress on chapter 2.  The entire project is due the middle of February.

I meet weekly with my thesis advisor, Dr. Christopher Versen, and we discuss what I have read, what I have written, and where the project is going.  The other members of my thesis committee include Dr. Chris Arndt and Dr. John Butt.

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Reading List: Fall 2011

On Wednesday I posted the list of courses I am taking this Fall.  After looking over the list of textbooks, I was surprised to learn that there are so many this semester! The number of books required for this semester totals 25.  That is not including additional readings that will be assigned once the class begins.  For example, for HIST 600 it is likely we will be assigned books to report on to the class.  These are the books that I will have to purchase (for more information on each book, click on the title to be taken to the book’s Amazon page):

HIST 590 – Gender in Latin America – Indian Women of Early MexicoGender & Disorder in Early Modern SevilleInfamous DesireCase of Ugly SuitorChica Da SilvaLives of Women: New History of Inquisitional SpainWhat Is Gender History?Marriage, Class & Colour in 19th Century CubaTrading RolesFaces of HonorPeople of the VolcanoWomen Who Live Evil LivesMoon, Sun & WitchesLaboring Women, and Public Lives, Private Secrets

HIST 600 – Seminar in US History: Early Period – Roll, Jordan, RollLincoln, and Midwife’s Tale

HIST 700 – Thesis Research – NONE ASSIGNED

GHIST 101 World History to 1500 – AnalectsKoranBhagavad GitaWays of the World, Volume 1Trial & Death of Socrates: Four DialoguesEpic of Gilgamesh, and Inferno

Do not be fooled by HIST 700, however.  I have already read several books this summer for my Thesis and have many more primary source documents and secondary source books to go.  Once again I will have my work cut out for me!

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Courses: Fall 2011

It is that time of year again…classes at James Madison University start again on August 29.  Like the last two semesters, I am taking three courses and I am a Teaching Assistant once again.  The courses I am taking this fall include:

HIST 590 – Gender in Latin America.  Instructor: William C. Van Norman

HIST 600 – Seminar in US History: Early Period.  Instructor: Philip David Dillard

HIST 700 – Thesis Research.  Instructor: Christopher Versen

In addition, I will TA for GHIST 101 World History to 1500 taught by Michael Seth.  I took a course last fall with Dr. Seth (HIST 653) and had a great time.  In fact, the only professor this semester that I have yet to work with is Dr. Van Norman.  Dr. Versen is my thesis director, and I worked with Dr. Dillard on History Day in the Spring.

I am looking forward to beginning the second, and final year of my Master’s degree.  I will post the list of books for each course in the coming days, and, as always, I will describe each class in detail once the semester begins.

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Reflections on the First Year of Grad School

After completing my first year of grad school, I thought I would reflect briefly on what has transpired since last August.

The most important thing that I have gained from grad school is a more in depth understanding of the history field itself.  The courses I have taken have broadened my understanding of history and of Public History.  Learning about the historiography of history has been very important.

JMU’s Quad at Twilight

I have gained an even greater respect for the professors I have worked with, not only at JMU, but at Crowder and MSSU as well.  The professors I have worked with at JMU not only teach classes, but direct thesis committees, oral committees and still find time to conduct their own research.  I have also had a little insight in to the world of teaching when I was given the opportunity to prepare a lecture for my TA course last Fall.  I only prepared one 50-minute lecture, but it took over 2 hours to prepare.  Keeping the material fresh and engaging students are not easy tasks and I am glad to have had that experience.

Finally, some advice, grad school is every bit as challenging and involved as everybody said it would be.  There is a massive amount of readings, and not only for courses, but for thesis research as well.  This summer I have a list of approximately 50 books to look over for my thesis research.  My advise for handling this work load is creating checklists.  I create a checklist each Thursday of things I need to have done before the end of the following week.  This allows me to not only see what needs to be done, but also helps me budget my time.  More importantly, however, is giving yourself time for things you enjoy.  I make time to sit and watch the race each Sunday or watch the newest episodes of my favorite TV shows.  It is important to take time for yourself.  If all I did was school work all day, I would have gone crazy last September!

I have found that I have grown as a professional and a person by moving to Virginia and taking on grad school.  I look forward to my second year and what will follow.

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COURSES: HIST 593 – Historic Preservation

The final course of the semester is Historic Preservation.  Taught by Mr. Nash, we are learning about the preservation of historic structures.  In order to learn how to preserve the structure, we are first learning how they were constructed.  We have discussed the construction methods for a wood framed house and a brick house.  Next week we are going to start discussing the interiors of the house.

There is A LOT of reading for this class.  In addition to the two text books, Everyday Architecture of Mid-Atlantic (By Dr. Lanier) and Twenty Buildings Every Architect Should Understand, we are also required to read several books on reserve in the library and the National Park Services’ Preservation Briefs.  These are how-to guides for restoring and preserving aspects of historic structures.  There are 47 of these briefs available and we will read them all by the end of the semester.

We have not papers for the class.  We do have weekly presentations, however.  He paired each of us with another student and assigned a book or article important to the art of preservation.  We have to create a presentation to give in class that must last no longer than 30 minutes.  He has several goals with this project.  The first is to expose the class to these important works, but the other is to give each of us experience with presenting information.

“General Jones” House

The most important project of the semester is our “project house.”  The class was divided into two groups and we are each researching a house as if we were going to place it on the National Register of Historic Places.  The grad students are in charge of the group and we work with our group as well as oversee the work of the undergrads.  My group is working on the building that currently houses the Shen-Valley Band Company and is rumored to once be the home of Confederate General William E. Jones, who was killed in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.  There is no evidence to support this claim, so it is up to our group to dig through Sanborn maps, deeds, and genealogy records to find out.  I will write more about the house itself at a later date.

This class has really gotten me excited about historic preservation and I think it is something that I might be interested in pursuing after I finish my Master’s Degree.  I am looking into summer internships and would really like to work in the preservation field.  It is a combination of the this course and Dr. Lanier’s Public History course that have led me to this conclusion.


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