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HistoryLabs: Collaborative Research Seminar (HIST 717) An Affirmative Answer for the Humanities

The Challenge

Graduate student training has not kept pace with the realities of a challenging academic job market, the collaborative practices of the contemporary workplace, or the rapidly changing landscape of digital technologies. Our training has not always met the needs of students eager to address audiences beyond academia.

Our Approach

U-M HistoryLabs are designed to bolster student portfolios and teach transferable skills such as collaboration, compelling verbal and written communication, digital literacy, and practical interfacing with a variety of non-academic stakeholders.

Partnering with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington D.C., Professors Jeff Veidlinger and Rita Chin launched our first graduate-level HistoryLab in Winter 2019. Two teams of five Ph.D. students worked with the faculty instructors and museum professionals to build digital modules of primary documents for USHMM’s Experiencing History project, an online teaching platform on the Holocaust for global audiences and educators.

Our goal in developing this course was to offer a new, collaborative approach to historical research that would complement the department’s traditional graduate research seminar. Veidlinger and Chin worked intensively with the students to teach them how to approach historical research, analysis, and writing as teams (rather than as lone scholars).

What We’ve Learned

The collaborative course with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was a great success. The immediate outcome was two curated collections of primary sources that are now live on the Experiencing History website.

Over the course of 14 weeks, U-M History graduate students learned how to:

  • organize weekly team meetings apart from class time;
  • determine a division of labor for each major task;
  • develop a system to track progress and manage workflow;
  • write and edit documents collectively;
  • prepare presentations and assign specific speaking roles;
  • offer each other feedback on sources and writing;
  • address disagreements and conflict;
  • share responsibility for the products their team created.

“This course helped me develop my collaborative research skills,” reported graduate student in Slavic Languages and Literature Michael Martin. “I had no idea how the fundamental aspects of research, such as defining a research question or establishing a justification for the material we had gathered, could be complicated by working with other people.”

Collaborating with an institutional partner introduced other valuable experiences unfamiliar in an academic setting:

  • a highly compressed work schedule (e.g., writing deadlines of one week, rather than the entire semester);
  • an expectation of brevity (e.g., source descriptions of no more than 300 words, rather than essays of 25,000);
  • a need to apply research, analysis, and synthesis skills to unfamiliar topics (e.g., producing scholarly-informed statements, rather than brand new research based on exhaustive knowledge)

USHMM was so pleased with the results of the HistoryLab pilot that they have asked Professors Chin and Veidlinger to repeat the course in Winter 2020.

The most pressing barriers we face are financial and temporal. It is not always easy to find institutional partners with the necessary resources to cost-share and collaborate on major projects. A second challenge is to establish longer-term collaborations when some of our partners’ needs may be bound to temporary projects. Given the time required to develop such partnerships, we hope to define projects that can run for at least two to three different semesters (and teams of Ph.D. students).

Next Steps

We are currently in negotiations with several possible partners that have expressed great interest in our HistoryLab initiative. For example, we are now finalizing an agreement with the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to work together on a “virtual fieldtrip” of the world-famous Rivera Court. We also hope to partner with the London-based Victoria and Albert Museum, which is planning a major exhibit on the history of global black music, set in 12 different cities around the world (including Detroit and Chicago).


Department of History


Melanie Schulze Tanielian, Associate Professor of History


To learn more visit the U-M HistoryLabs page.