In teaching about race at a community college in introductory American history courses, you get used to students saying that they are learning things that they had never encountered before in their previous history classes. This is even more true for issues of race in American history, especially in teaching at a majority white institution (although that has actually become less true than when I started 14 years ago).
I wanted to give an example here of one assignment that I give my students in my hybrid courses. It introduces students to a portion of American history that is usually left out. I will admit that I had not even heard about it through my own undergraduate and graduate education. However, I have come to believe that you cannot understand any of the ongoing racial issues in our country today, especially those between African Americans and police, if you are unaware of what happened in the period after emancipation and especially after Reconstruction.
As a side note, for those of you who might not be interested in looking at a full assignment, I urge you to go and either watch the documentary Slavery by Another Name and/or read the book Slavery by Another Name. It is such a fundamental part of understanding American racial history, but I find that I am introducing it for the first time to most people who I mention it to. So, even if you don’t want to delve into what I have below here, do yourself a favor and go watch it. I cannot link it directly, as PBS has made the decision not to offer it streaming on their website anymore. However, a quick YouTube search will give you numerous places to watch it. I am not endorsing bypassing the source of the documentary itself, but I have never understood why they can’t offer their documentaries on their website for viewing, especially one as fundamental as this one. I had our library purchase it so that my students can always have a stable place to see the documentary.
For those of you who would like to see what one of my assignments looks like for my hybrid course, I have included the one that is based around Slavery by Another Name here. This is what my students see for their first week of my HIST 1302 hybrid course. I am leaving out the link to the documentary that is in the assignment, and you can see the previous paragraph as to why.
Week 2 Activity
Skills for Week 2
For Week 2 of HIST 1302, we are going to start with a continuation of the last topic in HIST 1301. We will look at what happens in the South with the end of Reconstruction and how slave-like conditions would continue well into the twentieth century.
Week 2 is aimed at the following core competencies for history as developed by the American Historical Association:
- Build historical knowledge.
- Gather and contextualize information in order to convey both the particularity of past lives and the scale of human experience.
- Recognize how humans in the past shaped their own unique historical moments and were shaped by those moments.
- Develop a body of historical knowledge with breadth of time and place—as well as depth of detail—in order to discern context.
- Develop historical methods.
- Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past—one that historians create in the present from surviving evidence.
- Practice ethical historical inquiry that makes use of and acknowledges sources from the past as well as the scholars who have interpreted that past.
- Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments
- Recognize the provisional nature of knowledge, the disciplinary preference for complexity, and the comfort with ambiguity that history requires.
- Describe past events from multiple perspectives.
- Explain and justify multiple causes of complex events and phenomena using conflicting sources.
- Use historical perspective as central to active citizenship.
- Apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues.
Overview of the Week’s Assignment
For a period of nearly eighty years, between the Civil War and World War II, Southern blacks were no longer slaves, but they were not yet free. Generations of black Southerners lived in the shadow and under the threat of being forced to labor against their will.
Legally, slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, “except as a punishment for crime,” and even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, many Southern states began enacting a series of laws intended to re-subjugate newly freed blacks and provide cheap sources of labor. Vagrancy, loitering, riding the rails, changing jobs, even talking too loudly in public — these behaviors and more — all became crimes carrying stiff fines or sentences. Although these statutes made no mention of race, Southerners knew that they were intended as instruments of white control. The result was a huge increase in the numbers of blacks arrested and convicted.
Peonage or debt slavery, an illegal but widespread practice, flourished. Many black men were picked up for these minor crimes or on trumped-up charges. When faced with staggering fines and court fees, these men were then forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them.
Others were victims of laws that made it a crime to leave employment for another job, keeping many blacks working under intolerable conditions as sharecroppers or elsewhere, rather than face the terrifying possibility of being arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. In other cases, workers would become indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans) merchants (through credit) or company stores (through living expenses). The workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves continuously forced to work without pay.
Convict leasing, a form of forced labor that was legal, occurred in concert with Southern state and county governments. These governments realized they could lease their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue. Soon markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases.
The victims of forced labor were disproportionately black and poor. Ostensibly developed as a social solution to prison costs or insolvent debtors, in reality, forced labor was tightly bound to systems of racial oppression, and its abolishment accompanied the growth of a greater public concern for fairness and equality.
Additionally, the history of forced labor in the South is connected to a number of major events in American history ranging from Reconstruction to the New Deal. Today, forced labor, in various forms, continues to exist around the world.
While all of Chapter 18 is assigned for reading this week, the Weekly Activity is specifically focused around the sections on the South. You should reread and concentrate on pages 356-61 as a general background before viewing the video linked below. You also should read the lecture for this week, especially the first three lecture points, “The End of Reconstruction,” “The New South,” and “Jim Crow.”
For more specific background on the ideas discussed in the video, you can also refer to the following webpages for more information:
Here is the documentary: (documentary link removed)
The documentary is 90 minutes long and will stream directly through your browser.
While you are watching the video, I would like you to consider the following questions. You do not have to submit answers to these questions to me, but they will help you be prepared for what we are going to discuss in class.
- In what forms has forced labor been practiced in the past?
- How is the forced labor that was practiced in the American South after the Civil War connected to broader American history?
- What impacts did the use of forced labor have in the American South? Do these impacts continue to affect us today?
Before-Class Writing Assignment
To prepare for class, you need to submit a 250-word response to the Canvas classroom. You can find the submission link on the Week 2 Assignments page. You can either enter the response in the text box or upload a response in one of the following formats: .txt, .rtf, .doc, or .docx.
Access the following short videos to guide you in writing your submission:
- Reflections on Peonage – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Kate Willis and her cousin Susan Burnore, descendants of John Williams, a plantation owner who practiced peonage. In this clip Willis, who wrote a high school paper about peonage and her family’s connection to it, defines the practice as well as discusses how it operated and how it differs from slavery. The clip is about a minute and a half long.
- Reflections on Robert Franklin – This video is from a StoryCorps oral history that features Robert Corley, a descendant of Robert N. Franklin, a white shop owner who benefited from forced labor. Here, Corley, an historian, talks about how he felt to find out about his great-grandfather’s role in the illegal practice. Corley discusses John Davis, a 23-year-old black sharecropper who after encountering Franklin, was fraudulently charged, imprisoned, and subsequently forced into labor while traveling in Alabama. As an historian, Corley also provides context regarding forced labor and racial attitudes of the time. The clip is about five minutes long.
- The System at Work – In this book excerpt from the book Slavery by Another Name, author Douglas A. Blackmon writes about how an intricate system of forced labor, supported by local criminal justice systems, operated in the American South, by examining the inner workings of the farm of John Pace, who used forced labor. The audio excerpt is about two and a half minutes long.
Using the materials presented here, your response for this week is on the following topic: I am fairly certain that you have never heard of any of this before, as it is not a topic generally covered at all (outside of sharecropping). What is your initial reaction to it? Why do you think it is something that is generally not discussed or remembered? How has it affected racial relations in the American South through today? Please use specific examples from the background information, documentary, and/or supplementary videos to illustrate your thoughts.
We will discuss the following:
- What was the system of peonage and contract labor like?
- What conditions in the South led to the development of the system?
- What have the consequences been for the US through the period of time we will be studying and through today?
- What does this change about the way we think about the US and the American South?
- How does it help us understand racial issues that still face the US today?
I am going to talk about teaching about race as a relevant topic in today’s world. Teaching about race has been a primary part of my own American history classes and of both my undergraduate and graduate studies.
I was first introduced to discussions of race in American history during my time studying history at Rice University. The courses taught by Dr. Edward Cox there opened my eyes to a whole new sense of the world that I simply did not have from my K-12 experience. Although I went to diverse schools overall in K-12, being in the honors/gifted program meant being primarily around whites. I had never even thought of why that was or what might be wrong with that model until my undergraduate studies.
Courses in the history department at Rice in the African American experience, in Caribbean and Latin American history, and in the history of the Civil Rights Movement all served to provide me with a broader understanding of the history of race. History put me on that path to understanding, and it is a path that I am still on today.
While Dr. Cox was certainly not the only one at Rice from whom I learned about the history of race and racial issues, his courses were so crucial to my growing understanding that I still look back fondly on him and his classes today (over 2 decades later). I took every class that he offered while at Rice and only wish I could relive some of those classes now, knowing what I do, as I think I could get even more out of them in the current era.
In graduate school at Penn State, I did not have as much exposure directly to African American history or the history of race overall, but I still was able to read a diverse set of materials in my classes, and the Civil War focus of a number of my graduate courses did give me a good background in the ideas of slavery and emancipation.
While I had many strong history professors as a graduate student at Penn State, the one who still sticks out to me is Dr. Thavolia Glymph, who is now at Duke University. Her Slavery and Emancipation class was transformative for me. It was certainly one of the most difficult classes I had at Penn State, with a reading load that was astoundingly high on a weekly basis (think between 600-800 pages a week with over 1000 pages a week a couple of times). It was also a strange class, as there were five of us in the class, all white men from the South and West, who were taking a class on slavery from a black woman. I admire her patience and understanding with us, and I still remember the class today as a key one in my education. The amount of information in the class was so high, that I do wish that I could go back and take the same class a second time, this time without the time pressure and cramped setting of a full graduate semester, just so that I could delve deeper and understand the concepts, theories, and ideas with more time for consideration.
I did not set out to be a historian of African American history (although I strongly considered that as a focus while an undergraduate), and I still am learning all the time about issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. I feel moderately educated in African American history, and I have often regretted not going into that as a specialty going into graduate school, as it has become more and more of a field of strong interest for me. I am still woefully undereducated in many other fields of the history of race, have taken almost no courses on Mexican-American or even broader Latin American and South American history. I also never once took a course on Native American history or many other specific ethnic groups in the American history experience. So, for much of what we might consider the history of non-white American history, I am still very much a beginner.
I wish I knew more, but I bring what I do to my courses and to my life. In the context of a national conversation about race, I do my part by staying current and applying the lessons of history to what is going on around us today. I hope to show some of these things about how I think about and teach race in American history as I move forward in this series.
OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:
What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?
My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.
I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.
From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.
Your Course Today
Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?
Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.
My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.
My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.
What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?
The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:
- Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
- This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
- Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
- The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
- Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
- Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
- Poor writing skills
- The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.
Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.
The second full day (third overall day) at the conference (Texas Distance Learning Association) started early for me. To beat traffic, I got here quite early. There was no scheduled breakfast, but, luckily, there were some basic muffins and drinks, so that carton of yogurt hours earlier got a supplement before the session started. I have taken advantage of the quiet time of getting here early to clear some stuff out of my inbox and do some general grading for my classes, so it was not a waste of time by any means. Today looks like a fuller schedule of sessions than yesterday, and more of them appear to be directly focused on the teaching side of things. So I am hoping for some good content today.
Roundtable: Instructional Design: Solutions and Resources
A general discussion and networking opportunity – no focused guidance but an open-ended discussion
First major question raised – standardization vs. instructor freedom in design
TXDLA putting together a MOOC on teaching people how to teach online. Also proposing a certification track for instructional design. Question also about do they need their own certifications or should they be a repository of what is out there and worthwhile.
One of the things discussed was the question of instructional design when most of us who teach were never actually taught how to teach. We are experts in our subject, but we are not taught how to put together things like student learning outcomes, cross-course competencies, and the like.
Another funny thing, of course, is that I’m in the room with instructional designers who are talking about the struggles they have with faculty and such, and as I just noted, we don’t actually have instructional designer at all. So, it ends up being a funny conversation because people are talking about having instructional designers and how to make it a priority for instructors to get instruction on how to teach, especially to teach online, as we simply do not have it.
Assessments that Rock
Presenter – Sheree Webb – Instructional Designer – Tyler Junior College
OK. It has not started yet, but here’s a good sign – there’s a history assessment up on the screen before we get started. This might be directly relevant in the best way.
The question of what our students actually retain out of our classes – assessments chosen well give you the best ability to choose what students retain. Since they are so focused on what is on the test, giving them assessments that aim at what you want them to get out of the course makes it more likely they will retain that information.
The question of the assessment not matching the learning outcomes. The example given were the traditional history multiple choice tests that are so incredibly poor at focusing the students on what they should learn. Who cares if they can recall random facts in history. Recall (or as I call it in my class, memorize, regurgitate, and forget) questions are poor assessments of student success. Are we really so poor in teaching history that what we want the students to be able to do out of the class is recall random irrelevant facts or do we want them to be able to do higher-level learning? I just get so frustrated at the way history is taught, like multiple choice exams matter. That we should care whether they can recall the facts has always seemed to me to be a base level of teaching history. Of course, the argument on the other side is that you have to understand the facts to be bale to make the connections. But, I just wonder if any of us really believe that the students completing a multiple-choice exam actually shows that they do understand that material, or have they just memorized and forgotten?
Assessment level – you want to give frequent assessments – Frequent assessments keep students engaged in the course and help them gauge how they are doing. Recommendation – at least one formative assessment a week. Formative means – quizzes, short essays, debates, discussion forums, short case studies, reflection questions, questions or problems with the answers posted. Keep they engaged on a regular basis and have them be assessing their progress as they go along.
Authentic Assessment – Real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills. Could be – performing a task, real-life situations, construction/application, student-centered, and direct evidence. This doesn’t mean you can’t do traditional assessment – selecting a response, contrived, recall/recognition, teacher-centered, and indirect evidence. You need a combination of the two, but you need to have authentic assessment, which is often left out.
You Have Me at Hello
Presenter – Dr. Wendy Conaway – Ashford University – Assistant Professor
This one is intended to discuss the introduction forum in online classes and how it can increase student engagement. This may not go well, as there seems to be technical issues in getting going here. This has happened more often than not in my sessions here, as everyone seems to be having some sort of problem getting the provided computers to do what they are supposed to do.
I wonder at what point you give up on a session? Is there a 15-minute rule on a 50-minute session?
Discussing first impressions – how we connect with students throughout the course. We represent us, the course in general, and for students who are in a course with us the first time, it can shape how they feel about the whole college. We represent all of the courses if we are the first ones that we encounter. It also can give you the benefit of the doubt with the students later in the semester.
Instruction Forum – a place to create social presence – creating a persona and creating a connection between you and the students.
Introduction forums promotes a sense of community – opportunity to share and learn about each other. People here require their students to respond to others – getting to know them. I can’t imagine doing this. I have eliminated mandatory responses in my classes, and I certainly would not include it here.
Introduction forums help student engagement – it helps to alleviate anxiety and can be motivating to participate. Helps with student retention as well, keeping the students in the course.
I am going to break here for lunch and go ahead and post this one up for the first half of the conference. I will post the second half at the end of the day.
This week was my first experiment in something different in my classes. I have had discussion days before, so that was not the real difference here. What was different is that I had a day designed purely to explore a single topic in great detail with the students doing all of the preparation work outside of class and coming in simply to discuss that issue. In this case, I set up the material for the discussion by covering the three main tendrils of history that led into the topic — immigration, unionization, and Progressivism. Each of those had been covered in lecture in the days before this class, and so each student should have had a general idea of the historical context in which the incident took place.
In designing my “In-Class Activity” day, I had gone on the web to look at what resources were out there, as I wanted to give the students something that they would not access in a normal class. I did not want a traditional discussion where you have the students go out and read some primary sources and then come back and talk about them. I wanted something different, something that would engage the students in a different way, and yet accomplish the very goals that I always try to reach, having them connect the historical events to the modern age. As well, I wanted them to be confronted with an event that happened to people like them but 100 years earlier so that they could relate to them. Traditional “great man” history does not speak to them in many ways, but getting down to average Americans working hard just to get by speaks well to students, especially the non-traditional ones you find in a community college setting who have been out and worked in the real world.
What I had the students do was go out to the PBS website and watch the American Experience program on The Triangle Fire of 1911. They also were to access a couple of the other resources there, including an introductory essay, biographies of some of the participants, and a few informative pictures in a slideshow. The combination of that material was what they had to do before class, and it was open and available from the first day of class. To get into class on the day of the discussion, the students were required to bring a 1-2 page response to the material. I did not guide them in what they were to write specifically, but left it open to them as far as what they wrote.
It was an experiment in something new, and I really had no idea how it would go. Would they do the work ahead of time? Well, about 80-85% of the students who showed up brought a 1-2 page response. I did not let the rest stay in the class and told them to leave with a 0 for the day. Of those who had a response, I would estimate that about 10-15% of them really didn’t do much of the assigned work. On the other end, about 10-15% went well beyond the required viewings and did their own research. And, another 10-15% couldn’t get all of the resources to work for one reason or another. Of those, a gratifying few did go out and research on their own to find the information. One even told me that the same video was on Netflix streaming, which tells me I should check next time to offer that as a place for students to check.
The next question is, would they engage the material and have something to say about it? I say it was an unmitigated success in this regard. I began the discussion with the most general question possible, “What did you think about the video?” In both of the discussions I’ve had so far, people stopped having a response to that question after about 30 minutes. So, we had 30 minutes of discussion, with me saying quite little except for guiding who would speak next, on just a response to the video. I took notes during that time and did the rest of the discussion off of the topics that they brought up the most. We easily filled the rest of the class period (75 minutes total) with no problems and very few gaps where nobody had anything to say. Of course, some of that is because they were being graded on the discussion, but they really were responding well to the material and had a lot to say at all parts of the discussion. In both classes, I have the feeling that we could have filled much more time if we had it, but that we really did dissect the issues at the time well, while also relating the experiences from that time to the modern day well. I also get the feeling from the responses that I heard that they will remember this event and the discussion we had about it much longer than they probably will the individual things that I lecture on each day.
What do I take away from this? I consider it an overwhelming success on a thing that I wasn’t sure would work. The response was excellent, and students did the work ahead of time, which was something I was very worried about. But why did it work so well? I think some of it has to do with the form of media. There’s something about watching a documentary, especially when you can watch it on your own time rather than being forced to sit there in class and watch it that can be quite engaging. This was a very well done one, which does help as well. Also, it is not “traditional” history. One of the first responses I got, before I even really started the discussion was that almost all of the students had no knowledge of the incident before. They had never heard of it, but they were interested in it. The subject reflects on topics that are relevant in the lives of people who would be at a community college, in that it is primarily about working-age people, mostly women, who are struggling in a system that seems set up against them. The students brought up personal experiences a number of times as they attempted to relate what they had seen there to their own lives, and I did not have to guide them to do this. In fact, I like that word guide, as I felt much more like I was just a guide in the discussion then that I was a leader of the discussion.
I have one more section that will do the discussion tomorrow, and I hope it goes just as well. It’s days and assignments like this that energize me as a teacher and keep me going as an educator.
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.
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.