Tag Archive | history

Thoughts on History – 2/13/2012 – State of the Field

Two articles were delivered into my email yesterday on the state of the field of history.  So, I thought I would write about them, having gone through the dissertation process myself (without completing it) and teaching history now.  I certainly have my own opinions, and I’m sure that will come through here.

What’s Been Lost in History (As a note, I got this off of some place that allows me to read the full article.  You have to have a subscription to read it on the Chronicle’s site.)

This is a fairly common-sense recounting of the problems with the job market for people pursuing a Ph.D. in history.  He notes that the typical history department prepares students for a single profession, that of being a professor in a tenure-track job, doing research and a bit of teaching as necessary.  If you do not aspire to that, the current state of history graduate education is not designed for you.  While I did not go through the program looking for a nonacademic job, as this article focuses on, I still was an outsider, as I quickly discovered that I was much more interested in teaching than research.  In fact, I spent 5 1/2 years in a Ph.D. program trying to convince myself that I could do enough of the research side of things to get through with the Ph.D. and hopefully get a teaching job somewhere.  In the end, I left with a good amount of teaching experience, so I am thankful for that, but the emphasis on producing researchers was undoubtedly the only acceptable focus in my experience, just as this article discusses.  As he says, “I do not have solid evidence on this point, but I think the notion of academe as the only suitable outcome of doctoral education is a myth generated by the highly untypical period from the mid-1950s to about 1970. My sense is that the historical profession (and the human sciences generally) became much narrower and more academic in the decades after World War II.”  I think it is stuck in a rut, just as I’ve been talking about with other aspects of teaching in this blog so far.  Why do we get taught this way in doctoral programs, because that’s the way they were taught.  We even talked about the comprehensive exams as an archaic hazing ritual, done because that’s what our professors had to do.

His solution is to make the history degree more of a “pre-professional degree” than just one that leads to an academic research career.  Acknowledge that many people who go into history will get a law degree or a museum placement or (like me) a teaching job.  He advocates linking up history with “public affairs, business administration, international relations, social work, and journalism” as well, which would strengthen historical thinking and reasoning across the professions.  Make it into something that people have more options with.  When I left my undergraduate institution with a degree in history, I never got any real guidance on what I could do outside of going to grad school.  Nobody ever talked about other options, and I went to grad school largely because I really didn’t know what else to do.  There were no real connections to other fields, outside of one class that was only tangentially connected to the history department that looked at public history.  I also got an internship at a museum in the summer before my senior year, but it also never really led to anything.  All paths pointed to grad school, with no real alternatives given.  So, there I went.  And there was a very focused program with little ideas outside of research.

As he says, “Doctoral training in history as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership; in the first half of the 20th century, history was at the core of civic professionalism, partly because the social sciences generally were then historicist.”  I will go even further to say that it is not just doctoral history, but history at all levels.  This is something that I have been struggling with here in this blog because it has to do with the relevance of the subject that I teach directly.  Is history just the memorization of facts at the undergraduate level or the research of some minutia that somebody else hasn’t found yet at the graduate level?  I hope that it is more than that, and I like the civic aspects and the preparation for other careers that are discussed as alternatives in this article.

I guess that the more I look back on it, the more disappointed I am in my undergraduate and graduate education in preparing me for what I am actually doing now.  Perhaps that means I was not suited to do history as I did, but I love teaching it, and I’m not sure how else I could have gone through the process without getting the teaching experience ahead of time to be able to get the job I did get.  It just seems somewhat hollow when I look back on it.  One of my friends in grad school said it best — everything he wanted to do in history you could do without a Ph.D., while everything you did to get a Ph.D. in history was not anything he wanted to do.  Yet, idealistic people keep going in, with the hope that they will be the ones to buck the system.  Hopefully one of them succeeds, but for now, I will try to do my best from a lower rung in the academic ladder.

‘Tuning’ History

Coming out of the American Historical Association (I should probably join this again at some point) is apparently a new effort to define what it means to get a history degree at the “associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral” levels.  Right now, there is no definition of that at all, and each institution’s degree is fundamentally different from each other one (I might even argue that each student’s experience in each program is fundamentally different).  Of course, at my community college, you can’t even get an associate degree in history at all, so that’s a fascinating concept in and of itself.  And, most importantly, this effort will not be about what is taught (the specifics), but about the competencies that one would expect to come out of a degree in history.  In other words, this is another in the line of the assessment push now.  It will be interesting to see how this turns out.  Is it going to be a hollow change that ends up not meaning much, or will it provide some legitimacy and direction, much as was discussed in the previous article.

I don’t know that anything that I saw here will fundamentally change what I’m doing in the classroom, and it was interesting to see that the competencies here were basically the exact things that I already try to emphasize.  But some commonalities would be good, especially if you could combine what was in this article with the previous one.  I do think it would be even more valuable at the higher levels, as the graduate level is often even more amorphous.  Some structure and variety in instructional ideas and techniques could have the potential to bring about changes.  I guess I’m less optimistic there, but you would hope that things would change at some point to open up a field that is so singularly focused.

 

Thoughts on Teaching History – 2/9/2012

We had a presentation today from one of the major publishers, and in the process, we had an impromptu conversation about teaching history as well.  It got me thinking about my own assumptions about teaching history, so I thought I needed to sit down and work out some things here.

What got me going was something that I have already encountered before and that really irks me, that history teachers at the college level can’t manage to cover the material that is in the assigned history course.  We split up our American history course at 1877, but I seem to be the only instructor that actually tries to cover the time period of the course.  As far as I can tell, the rest of the department usually gets to around 1850 in the first half of the course and to about 1950-60 in the second half.  To me, that is outrageous, but I seemed to come off as some sort of traditionalist fuddy-duddy (if that’s really a word) for raising the idea that we ought to teach the period that we are assigned to teach.  I cover the first half of American history to 1877 and get to 2001 in the second half of the course, and I just assumed that should be what everyone should be aiming for.  Instead, everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that teaching American history that covers a certain period of time does not mean that you have to actually cover that period.  And the easy acceptance of that has me thinking if I’m somehow wrong in my own thinking.  I remember having surveys that didn’t complete the time period going all the way back to jr high/high school, when we ended in around 1850 and started up in 1877, meaning that I did not have anything on the Civil War or Reconstruction.  In fact, since I didn’t have to take the surveys, I didn’t actually take a course that covered that period until I took the actual Civil War and Reconstruction course at Rice.  To me and my fellow history majors, this always seemed like a big joke that a person couldn’t cover the finite ground of American history and bother to actually complete the course, and I made that a priority in my own teaching that I would always make sure that the students got the full coverage.  And this is not just because I feel that they should hear about everything, although that is something that I do believe, but that I think that if students are going to understand how history is relevant to their lives, you can’t just take a few bits here and there and leave out the rest and expect them to get a full picture of how the history of the country has affected how their own world is today.  Yet, I seem to come off as naive in my department for believing that actually covering the Civil War and Reconstruction period or the period after 1960 is somehow relevant and something that the students should have as part of their course sequence.  Some of them do argue that they cover all of it because they do assign all parts of the textbook and quiz them over the chapters that are not covered in class, but that seems to be a quite limited argument at best.

I was reminded that the current state standards for history don’t actually say anything about the subjects we are supposed to cover, but instead look at communication, social relations, and other aspects.  So, maybe I am the one that is backward.  If nobody but me believes that you should actually cover the material, then maybe I am the one who is wrong here.  So, as I said to start here, I’m trying to think about why it is that I believe in full coverage in the survey.  To me, it is just what you do, so it is hard for me to get my mind around not completing the course, so I am having quite a bit of trouble here.  I especially am troubled by the fact that when others don’t complete the course, and I then get them, I am referring to material that they are then unfamiliar with, as they didn’t get that coverage in another course.  But that is a fairly irrelevant argument really, as we all teach the class in different ways, so the emphases will always be different from one class to another.  There’s also the argument that if we are more concerned with teaching critical thinking, writing ability, and the like, then the actual specifics of the subject we teach is irrelevant.  But then, what am I doing teaching history at that point.  I’ll just teach a critical writing and thinking course with a few historical examples instead and call it a history class.  Is that where I’m supposed to be going?   If that’s the implication, that the actual history we study is irrelevant to the teaching process, then I have really been doing it wrong over the years.  When I say that I want to move beyond the lecture and flip my class, I am not talking about ditching the history all together, but that seemed to be the implication today, that you should just do your best to cover the material, but that the intention of turning the students into thinking people afterwards was more important than covering the material.  I don’t know if I’m characterizing what I heard incorrectly, but I am just troubled by the implications of it.

Here’s an illustration of what I find a problem.  This is from my syllabus, where I lay out the course objectives for my first half of American history course:

Course Objectives for HIST 1301

  1. Students will understand the following historical themes:
    1. colonization of the New World
    2. formation of the English colonies
    3. development of a unified colonial America
    4. creation of a revolutionary ideology
    5. development of a slave system
    6. creation of a national identity
    7. development and changes in religious, cultural, and social identity
    8. development of a divide between the North and South
    9. causes of the Civil War
    10. consequences of Reconstruction
  2. Students will understand the development of an American nation and how it is relevant to the world they live in today.
  3. Students will learn how to analyze historical evidence for validity, reliability, and bias.
  4. Students will understand how to use evidence to prove an argument.
  5. Students will understand the concept of historical significance, allowing them to put an event, idea, or person into historical context.
  6. Students will learn how to write coherent, well-thought-out material that presents their ideas and evidence in an organized manner.
  7. Students will be encouraged to question the standard assumptions of American history and use the history studied in this course to evaluate the place of the United States in the world today.

So, in what I understand about what I am trying to do in teaching American history would remain largely the same.  I’d just lose 9 and 10 from the first learning objective (and pieces of the others as well).  Is my course lesser because I don’t cover that material?  Am I doing my job if I don’t cover those parts?  I think so, personally, but, again, I seem to be in the minority.  This whole thing makes me very uncomfortable.  As one of the instructors in the room today said, there may be 17 chapters in the first half survey, but he only does 13 of them because he spends the first month going through the idea of “what is history” with the students, and that the time he has left over only allows him to get through Chapter 13 out of 17.  When I objected to this, I felt like I was belittled because I found it important that the instructors cover all 17 chapters.  But that’s really not it, it’s not that I think all 17 chapters are important, and I leave out a hell of a lot when I do teach a survey, as we all do.  But, when these are things that I have identified as fundamental to what the students should do in the course, then I can’t help but question whether I’m wrong or what.

I’ll have to come back to this when I have had more time to think about it, as I’m still a bit bewildered at the moment.