Comments on "Building Careers and Cohorts: Graduate Students and Electronic Communication"

Presentation by Gretchen A. Adams

AHA '99 January 8, 1999, Washington, D.C.

"Preparing History Graduate Students for the Digital Age: Research and Teaching in the Twenty-First Century"

Wendy Plotkin,

8 January 1999

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In her presentation, Gretchen Adams, a graduate student and editor of H-Grad, describes two primary ways in which Internet communication and resources can assist the graduate student in history: e-mail communications, especially with one's advisor, and creation of an intellectual community with those interested in the same specialty areas. Although she emphasizes the enhancement of communications that occurs when one is working at a distance from one's advisor, I'd argue that even if one's advisor is close by, e-mail communication has the advantage of thoroughness, rigor, and automatic recording of conversations that is lacking in personal or telephonic communications. Of course, the advisor and student must agree on their method of communication, and in some cases, the advisor may be more comfortable with traditional means such as personal meetings and telephone calls than the Internet. Thus, the graduate student cannot assume that his or her advisor will be comfortable with the electronic communication that has become second nature to him or her.

The second, more all-encompassing advantage of the Internet that Adams identifies is the intellectual and professional networking that it serves so well. Anyone who has either participated in an H-Net or other on-line discussion list, or who has arranged panels with scholars across the globe, has experienced the broadening of the geographic and disciplinary circles within which scholars and students communicate as a result of the Internet.

Adams describes the special services offered by H-Grad. It is my sense that this is one of the most useful services that H-Net offers, along with the lists on teaching. I have not participated in H-Grad solely due to the time I've committed to H-Net and H-Urban. Thus, I would be interested in hearing from H-Grad subscribers about how they have benefited from this network.

Adams argues that the Internet is weakest in providing primary research sources for graduate students. While I agree that there is a tremendous amount to be added to the WWW in the way of primary materials, I'd argue that there is already excellent content one can use in one's work. Sites such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives have put up valuable primary material and maintained high standards for fidelity and accessibility. For example, the Library of Congress's American Memory Project provides access to full texts of almost 24,000 pages of documents from the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and the 1st and 2nd Federal Congresses -- a key resource for early federal history. It also has a wealth of material including rare books and documents of African-American history and almost 170 books, pamphlets, and other artifacts of the National American Women Suffrage Association. [1] In their comprehensiveness, the National Archives' on-line finding aids provide a history of hundreds of federal agencies and commissions, including information on the statutes that created them and their missions over time. [2]

Even secondary information on the WWW has proven worthwhile, although one has to carefully assess sources. A WWW site sponsored by the Martin Luther King Papers project was just announced, and it features a long scholarly article by Clayborne Carson,, the editor of the papers. I've discovered other essays on the WWW that were quite useful in my dissertation or leading me to sources of which I would not otherwise have been aware. Thus, I think that the WWW should be thought of as research resource as well as a place to find out information about respositories of such information, as Adams describes. [3] .

Many graduate students teach or are teaching assistants. Thus, Adams describes how graduate students can use WWW sites both in disseminating information about courses and in "teaching critical thinking" to their students. I'd like to ask whether Adams has used this approach in asking students to assess more traditional sources of primary materials, for I believe that one of the more useful aspects of using the WWW in teaching is in focusing new interest on pedagogy overall.

With a focus on future job seeking, Adams describes how WWW sites created by graduate students in their teaching can be used as on-line portfolios to submit to prospective employers. While I agree with her about their value for this purpose, I'd raise the caveat that one cannot assume that the rest of the scholarly world shares our passion for the electronic world. While some institutions will most likely be impressed with WWW sites, it is my guess that many of the most esteemed institutions will be most interested in the scholarly accomplishments of their applicants, including traditional publications, and good evaluations on teaching. I would like to hear from Adams and others anecdotal information on whether expertise in electronic communications has made a difference in job opportunities.


[1] The Library of Congress American Memory on-line collections list is at Its "A Century of Lawmaking" collection is at Its exhibit "Votes for Women" is at
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[2] The NARA site is at
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[3] For a recent paper I presented on the value of on-line primary documents, see "Serendipity, Sociology, and Cyberspace: Classic Texts On-Line" at
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