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Re-envisioning Teaching Graduate Seminars—Anton Rosenthal (2005)


The convergence of three experiences cause a history professor to take a new approach to teaching graduate seminars.


In some disciplines there is an unstated template for graduate seminars: select a series of readings, discuss those in the class sessions, and have students write a cumulative 20- to 30-page paper that reviews the literature or researches a particular topic. I was dissatisfied with this pattern in my own department, and when I got the chance to teach a seminar titled “The Global City,” I decided to investigate different ways that a seminar could be taught.

An examination of seminar teaching also ties into another aspect of the Department of History: it has been chosen to work with the Carnegie Foundation as a partner institution in a national initiative to re-think and re-envision the PhD. During 2003-05, our department has held discussions that have revealed that we want to diversify the skills we develop in graduate students, revise our curriculum, and alter the comprehensive examinations we give to our graduate students. Because the traditional seminar format has been viewed as a process to move the graduates closer to their comprehensive examinations, this discussion gave me another reason to re-envision the way I teach seminars.

The Faculty Seminar at the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at KU and a Carnegie Foundation workshop at Stanford University provided me with ideas that centered the changes I am making in the seminar. In the CTE seminar, I learned about backward design, which encourages teachers to determine—before they do any other class planning—what it is that they want the students to be able to do when the course is over. At the Stanford conference, we discussed different methods of learning. I think that I had always expected students to fit into a “one size fits all” mode, an idea that might mean some very promising students are frustrated when that size does not fit them.


By establishing an explicit set of enduring goals in the beginning, I had a better map for what I needed to accomplish in each class session. I created multi-week units that addressed the goals and decided on a variety of mid-length (five to six page) papers, and then chose a reading list, an uncomfortable change for me as I was used to picking the readings first. The six varied assignments are linked to an assortment of readings that are different in type from what I have selected for previous graduate seminars. I have included a variety of visual materials, such as still photographs, postcards and videos, all of which provide another way of looking at the past life of cities.

Each assignment has a writing component and the final project is now a cumulative project instead of a paper. In this project, the students create a teaching unit for an urban studies course in their own discipline. By doing this work, graduate students improve their teaching skills, which is important because many of them will do much more teaching than research when they accept a professional position.

The variety of disciplines represented by the registered students made for interesting discussions, but one surprise was that no history graduates were enrolled. The course was cross-listed in sociology and international studies, a factor that increased the diversity of students. This meant that I had to carefully find ways that they could make the course serve their disciplinary needs and not lean it too heavily towards my area. But because knowing "the other" is useful in defining disciplinary borders and identities, I believe it helped social sciences and literature students to understand what is involved in the methods, sources and conceptions of a historical project.

Student Work

A close look at four student prompts and examples from each-the Travel Account Essay, Voices of the Street Essay, Analyzing Street Photographs, and Teaching Unit-indicated students had more positive than negative results in this course. The first paper, the Travel Account Essay, required students to use a primary document, an attempt to highlight the problems of cross-disciplinary work. It was not as successful as I hoped, but still very constructive. The Voices of the Street Essay was a pleasant surprise. Students showed very creative methods of research, sometimes even creating documentation, as a means of revealing daily life in the city. Analyzing Street Photography required students to do comparative analysis, one of the main goals of the course. Students were really interested in using photographs as primary documents, an area I thought they might have some difficulties with as they are used to written texts as primary documents. I thought their work was well done.

The cumulative unit required the students to create a teaching unit based on “The Global City.” I made three revisions to the prompt after the semester started, and I believe those changes added to the success of the student work. Instead of creating a final paper based on semester readings, the students had to create a teaching unit that would be applicable to their specific discipline. It required students to review the intellectual work of the semester and transpose that into materials that freshmen and sophomores could access.

Student evaluations also added to my knowledge about the impact of the course. I created an evaluation form that asked questions specific to the course units, and I believe that including paraphrased student comments from those evaluations provides a good balance to my observations.


In a lot of ways, the course worked better than I would have expected it to. I did not know how well students from other disciplines, especially those focused on their own research, would make the leap into something called “The Global City.” This topic may not have been the primary interest for half of the class, yet they did excellent work throughout the semester. Also, I was impressed with their willingness to look at things from new perspectives and to wrestle with new ideas. In most cases, that worked out well. These two points suggest to me that a great deal of what we did throughout the course had positive benefits for the students.

Teaching this course has led me to think more deeply about five pedagogical areas. These areas are research topics, amount of writing, oral presentations, coverage, and impact on teaching. Regarding student learning, I noticed improvement in several skills, such as writing, inclusion of material from scholarly journals in their research, and ability to do research and comparative analysis. These skills should be transferable to other areas of learning, and I am pleased at the intellectual growth of my students.

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I was dissatisfied with the way I was teaching graduate seminars. The model for our department was somewhat unstated but dominant: select a number of readings relevant to the topic, bunch those books and articles together in topical groups, sit around and talk about them on the assigned class day, and have students write a 20 to 30-page cumulative paper, usually on how history is written or what the debates are on a current topic—basically a historiography. I went to a file of syllabi that the department maintains to see if my hunch for this model was accurate, and it was. In theory, the end result of this method is to move the students closer to their comprehensive examination. For an example of this type of course structure, please see my syllabus (pdf) for the 2002 version of my course.

This idea of re-thinking our approach to learning led me to try to create a seminar that would do different types of things to prepare our graduate students for their professional life. The graduate seminar that I taught Spring 2005 was titled The Global City (pdf), a course that was offered for the first time. It was broader in scope than most seminars; for instance, few graduate history seminars go across geographical lines to investigate more than one area. Instead, they generally look deeply at on