By Tina Cormier
“You get out of it what you put into it,” says Simon Shachter, workshop co-coordinator and second year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. “When you become part of this workshop community and begin to understand how colleagues think and how they approach their work, your own research gets better.”
Since its founding in 2015, PHS has become known as one of the most rigorous and intellectually inclusive workshops organized within the Department of Sociology. The PHS workshop provides a venue in which graduate students can discuss their research through a structured model of critical engagement with other students and faculty.
Presentations span topics in political and historical sociology and are usually given by graduate students, although faculty and invited guests occasionally share their research-in-progress as well. Papers can be at any stage, from proposal to dissertation chapter to papers ready for publication. The highly-interactive sessions are student-centered, with faculty participants asked to hold comments until the second half of workshop.
“The idea is to encourage students to speak up and take the floor,” says Shachter. “Often the most meaty feedback comes from the discussant. They dive deeply into the paper and lay a good foundation that guides the rest of the discussion.”
The format of each 90-minute discussion is demanding, requiring the presenting author to circulate the paper prior to the workshop and the attendees to engage closely with it before arriving. Sessions begin with the presenter spending a short time putting the work into context, followed by prepared remarks delivered by a graduate student discussant. The remainder of the time is discussion, and participation from every person in attendance is not unusual.
“PHS workshops offer a model of classic ‘Chicago’ criticism: well informed – everyone reads all the papers with a fine-toothed comb – and unsparing, but in the spirit of making the paper better,” adds Marco Garrido, professor and one of PHS’ faculty sponsors. “The feeling is that we care about the paper and intellectual work broadly, and thus engaging it critically is the highest compliment.”
PHS provides students with a supportive, vibrant research community, and invaluable experience in approaching the research process; effectively presenting work; and offering, accepting, and incorporating critical feedback.
“These practices contribute to a culture of collegiality among the students and serve as a reminder that the ultimate audience for research is larger than the few members of one's dissertation committee,” says Elisabeth Clemens, the William Rainey Harper Professor of Sociology and the College and regular attendee at the fortnightly workshop.
Presenters are engaged in a broad variety of work, all encompassing a mixture of political, social, historical, and/or comparative elements. The result is a diverse and far-reaching core of members from within Sociology and beyond. Recent workshop titles include “Parties and Political Careers in New York, 1777-1821” and “Moralizing Matchmaking: Institutionalization of Organ Donation in Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.”
Hanisah Binte Abdullah Sani has presented multiple times as a PhD candidate. Preparing to defend her dissertation this July, she has seen PHS evolve. “I presented twice, and my work was at very different stages each time. The feedback I received pushed my writing, helped me consider different angles, and overall improved my work as a scholar. It catered to what I needed at each stage of my research,” she says.
As beneficial as the workshop is to presenters, it is just as important for participants. As a new graduate student last year, Shachter says that watching his peers go through the research proposal and dissertation process – how they approach research design and take their work out into the world – has been particularly useful as he prepares for his own journey.
The vibrant community that has grown up around PHS is precisely what makes the workshop so special in the eyes of its participants, both students and faculty alike. A strongly student-led group, graduate student organizers are granted the unique freedom to take charge, invite presenters, and control the direction the workshop.
“It’s a home we’ve built over the past few years – it’s a place for us to come together and collaborate,” says Shachter.
The PHS workshop is held on alternate Tuesdays from 5:00-6:30 pm in Social Sciences 401.