What I Wish I had Known About Coursework

By August 8, 2017

I spent too much of coursework worrying about coursework. Of course, that’s easy to say now that I’m studying for comprehensive exams. Reading several hundred books has a way of putting things into perspective. You realize that there is a LOT of great work out there and that it is very difficult to publish a book. Nary has an acknowledgments section gone by without mentioning that the author reached a point where they nearly gave up or had to rely on their “people” for encouragement. However, something else struck me—very few of the books I’ve read mention anything about the project growing out of a paper written during coursework.

I had two years of coursework in religion from the University of Virginia and two years of coursework in history at the University of Utah. At both institutions, I had (and have) valuable mentors speak to me about the need to put your coursework to, well, work. Think about historiographical papers as preparation for a dissertation prospectus. Think about research papers as articles-in-embryo or dissertation chapters. Think about your writing style. Think about footnoting. Think about how your work speaks to broader fields. Think about how you position yourself on the job market.
This type of advice greatly benefited me in some ways, but has really hamstrung me in others. As I’ve written about before here at JI, I am a meticulous planner. I’ve thought about my professional goals for a long time in a series of goals that are designed to help me find either a tenure-track job, or something else in which I could use my talents. Advice that was meant (I’m sure) to help me think rather than giving me a list of objectives to accomplish ended up freezing me. This was perhaps especially true in course work, where I thought that I should have a thorough understanding of the historiography in a number of classes that ranged a topical range from twentieth-century cultural history to Augustine’s The City of God. Needless to say, I did not have that understanding during the semester. I stressed about not accomplishing what I thought everyone was able to do walking into graduate school (understand longstanding conversations and be able to identify weaknesses in arguments). I can look back and say that some of this stress pushed me to do better and to do more–and it did. But still, I wish I had seen coursework in a different light.
Worrying so much about not knowing everything there was to know about historiography, theory, and method caused me a whole lot of anxiety that looking back I wish I could have avoided. In addition to worrying about the future, I also worried too much about the immediate judgments of the present. I wish that I had simply thought about each book as a part of a conversation, instead of thinking about “how can I talk about this in class?” I wish that I hadn’t worried so much about whether my classmates or my professor was impressed with what I knew or whether mastering a single book would prove to be the trajectory for my entire career.

That seems really silly to type right now. The reason it feels silly is because I learned to finally relax in coursework. And, as you might expect, suddenly I began connect ideas across historiographical fields and I was able to think more clearly about what I’d like to write about in my dissertation. Some of this was just getting used to the idea of seminars and becoming familiar with historiography. Some was no longer bearing the intellectual burden of not being the person with the least experience in the room. But I really think that the biggest part of learning to enjoy coursework was that I began to see it as part of a larger process rather than a fixed exercise. I recognized that I was in courses to learn, discuss, and connect rather than to spit out information. I learned about the seemingly magical tools of book reviews (which helped me see check if I had extracted the main arguments of the book) and Interlibrary Loan (which helped me stress less about books costs). I learned to see reading and writing as gaining “reps” like athletes perform exercises to build their skillsets and strenths. I recognized that participating in classes was more important than knowing every detail of every book. It made my life a lot happier and made reading much more enjoyable.
Bottom line: please don’t be like me and overthink every single book and seminar meeting and essay. You can read and write without everything being part of some vast “long con” that will help you get a tenure-track job. Learn to relax, listen, take feedback, and become a better thinker. With few exceptions, every single person that you’re around in school is a part of your “team.” They are there in part to help you succeed like you are there to help them succeed. Enjoy the time you have to read and discuss ideas. Trust the process of learning to read and write that has worked for tens of thousands of graduate students before you. Enjoy the journey.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Joey. This post brought back a lot of memories about my years of coursework at BYU and then TCU. Coursework was a highlight of my graduate education. I loved the experience of marching through a semester, one week at a time, and the camaraderie of meeting with like-minded students and professors. I agree that the best advice for students entering grad school is to enjoy the experience, work hard, and try to keep long-term goals in mind (like comps and the diss), but don’t overstress about it.

    Comment by David G. — August 12, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

  2. Thanks much for this post! Great advice.

    Comment by Daniel — August 14, 2017 @ 11:21 am


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