Project Proposal: History (Comps) in the Digital Age

“Hey John, we’re all getting together to study for our comprehensive exams every Saturday evening for the next two months. Can you make it?” This question may be the ultimate blessing to any graduate student. Unfortunately, John’s worries about his exams are not alleviated. “I can’t,” John responds. “I work every Saturday night. Is there any other time we can get together?” The study group has already been formed, and no one is willing to budge on the day or time. “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” Mary says with a smile on her face. “Why don’t we just post our practice papers and notes online so John, and anyone else who can’t make it, can still be a part of the group.”

Comprehensive Exams (hereafter often referred to as “comps”) for history graduate students can be a daunting experience. It’s a pass or fail situation, and failure can alter your life’s plans in significant ways. Professors and universities understand how intimidating comps can be, and often provide packets of study materials to aid their students. They also encourage students to form study groups so they can learn from each other and organize their thoughts. While this can be an important tool in aiding comp study, not all students have the schedules that enable in-person discussion. In the digital age in which we live, there is no reason why these study groups cannot be formed online. In addition, creating a website that allows students from different universities to share their own notes, book reviews, and practice essays may help to create an immediate cross-departmental cohort of future historians. While it could be argued that historiography (the subject of comprehensive exams) is generally taught the same throughout the nation, experience has shown that university history departments across the nation place emphasis on different ideas and schools of thought according to their own teaching models. By opening a cross-departmental dialogue to graduate students at the very beginning of their studies, historycomps.com (or a similarly titled website) will help in educating students beyond their universities’ walls.

Universities, like American University, currently offer classes that help students as they study for comprehensive exams. In the Colloquium classes at AU, students are given a list of historiographically significant books within different subfields. Of these lists, which often include twenty to thirty works per week, students are assigned three to five works to read and write reviews on throughout the semester. This ensures that each week five or six students present their own book reviews to the entire class. While these reviews give students some understanding of the historiography of that particular field, many books are left unread and are never discussed in class. If the class were expanded to include students across the nation, the chances of finding book reviews of these previously “silenced” works increases. Thus, historycomps.com will allow students from colloquium class across the nation to post their own book reviews of works they’ve read, and read those reviews posted by other students.

The idea of online study groups is nothing new. Various websites offer students the ability to create their own groups, including rcampus.com, cramster.com, and grouptable.com. Unfortunately, most of these websites cater to undergraduate studies, often focusing on specific classes. In regard to comprehensive exams, most universities (and sometimes individual professors) provide study guides to their students (i.e. HistoryProfessor.org, WCU’s Guide). Sometimes sample and past questions are even given to help students write practice essays (like these questions from American University). While these tools are useful, especially the ability to write practice essays from previous comp exams, allowing students to share what they’ve written with each has many benefits. One obvious benefit beyond simply learning the historiography is the ability to read how others conceptualize the historiography.

In order to make this website valuable to history graduate students, a number of features need to be implemented. Historycomps.com will provide a listing of important scholarly works divided by a historical subfield whereupon students will be able to click on those works directing them to a page that includes 1) a link to scholarly book reviews on JSTOR and 2) a link to graduate student reviews that have been uploaded. Students will also be able to upload their own book reviews to share with others. One may wonder why student book reviews would have any value if students could go straight to scholarly reviews. Since graduate students typically write their reviews for classes that require explicit discussion of the historiography, these reviews play an important role in studying for comps. Of course, not every student review will have comparable value. Thus, students will be able to grade reviews they have read on a scale of 1 to 10 (from useless to useful) such that uploaded student reviews will be listed in order of usefulness.

In addition to book reviews, historycomps.com will also provide a list of sample comprehensive questions that students can answer in practice essays which they can later upload to the site. Students will be able to click on the individual questions which will direct them to individual pages designed for those questions. Each question’s page will include 1) a list of books (in alphabetical order) to consider when answering the question and 2) links to student-uploaded answers to those questions. The list of books will be obtained from the question’s subfield listed above. Students will be able to add books from their own university-suggested lists so that no important work will be left out. By sharing practice essays between history departments throughout the country, students will be able to view a wide variety of responses. Since different departments create their own questions to comp exams, students will also be able to post their own department sample questions. This will ensure that no single department’s focus is prioritized. It will also provide a wider variety of possible comp exam questions for students to consider in their studies.

Since this website depends on student participation, it will need to be marketed directly to university history departments. Once the website has been created (most likely using something like wordpress), department chairs will be notified by email so that they can forward the site’s address to their students. In addition, Google AdWords allows for specific marketing using key words (like “comprehensive exams”) so that students searching for help online can easily find historycomps.com. Given the scope of this project, it will be started with a focus on American history comprehensive exams and, if successful, it can be expanded to include European history, Asian history, etc. The success of this project can easily be evaluated in time based on the number of uploads, including both student reviews and practice essays.

2 Replies to “Project Proposal: History (Comps) in the Digital Age”

  1. I think this is a great idea, but it needs more. The real indicator of the success of this project is going to be the involving of faculty, not just students. The colloquium classes have, for me, not just been valuable because of the reading material but because it is taught by the writers and graders of the exams. It's not just the reading lists but what they think, what they mention as being important, and the little hints they drop about what they look for when grading. I like your notion about marketing it to the Department, but someone has to be on site to get the faculty aware, involved and up to steam with it. This is especially true with some of the faculty here, who seem to have an almost pathological aversion to technology ( I won't name any names.)

  2. Great proposal. I was particularly fond of your introduction to the problem. I think you are right in suggesting that this kind of a thing could really support collaboration both inside and across institutions. In thinking about it a bit, it is kinda like Goodreads but strictly focused on historical book reviews.

    It is cool to see how you have already started running with the site using wordpress. Glad to see you were able to get this working with disqus too. You might also think about using the OpenBook wordpress plugin to get book covers on your pages. http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/openbook-book

    In your site's current setup it was a little difficult to navigate because of the adds. You might think of trying a few different plugins, or at least try to come up with a way to get the comments block above advertisements block to help clarify how it works.

    As you run with this I think it would be really valuable to try and convince some of your classmates to ceed the site with a few reviews of a few books. This kind of example would be invaluable for helping to provide guidance to other folks for exactly how this is supposed to work.

    Once you get it going you could also think aboutYou might also think about starting a twitter account and putting up short tweets and links to blog posts there. At this point there is a fairly standard approach to this. If you create the twitter account, include a link to your project and start putting out regular tweets. Once you have that set up you go out and follow a ton of people that you think might be interested in the project. (For this you could take a pass at the people I follow on twitter who are largely history folks, you could also use one of the sites like wefollow that will give you a list of people by topic ex http://wefollow.com/twitter/history ) hitting up a bunch of the H-net lists. Also, consider starting a twitter account for the project.

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