Teaching Division 2010

Prepared by Patricia Nelson Limerick

The following individuals served on the Teaching Division in 2010: Patricia Nelson Limerick (Univ. of Colorado at Boulder), vice president; Cheryll Ann Cody (Houston Comm. Coll.-West Loop Campus); Timothy M. Thurber (Virginia Commonwealth Univ.); and Barbara L. Tischler (Horace Mann Sch.).

In 2010, the AHA Teaching Division pursued its assigned work, benefiting in every step from the guidance of AHA Assistant Director Noralee Frankel, and engaged in one notable adventure. The Texas State Board of Education gave us the occasion for that adventure: an experiment in communicating, without combativeness or condescension, about an imperial revision of curriculum standards, made by an elected body whose convictions about history differ dramatically from that of professional historians, including members of the AHA.

Here is an inventory of the Teaching Division’s activities during 2010:

  • We continued our engagement with George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media National History Education Clearinghouse workshop at the AHA annual meeting.

  • We have finalized two teaching sessions for the 2012 annual meeting on these topics: the future of the textbook in history education (coordinated by Division Member Tim Thurber), and the Texas State Board of Education’s historical standards episode in retrospect (coordinated by Division Member Cheryll Cody). With the assistance of Noralee Frankel, we will get the word out in calling attention to deserving sessions like these.

  • We have two other 2012 sessions in mind that are taking longer to be finalized because they rest on the participation of two prominent speakers. The first is a session with Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, a recent and widely discussed book offering an approach to teaching drawn from closer observations of successful teachers. The book is a great inspiration in very concrete ways, even though the cover of the book suggests that it is relevant only to K-12 instruction. To the contrary, the book’s findings carry unmistakable relevance to teachers of undergraduates and even graduate students. Our hope is to have Doug Lemov present at a session, and then to unleash respondents who would apply his approach to particular case studies from history. At the further reach of our ambition, we hope that we might secure Doug Lemov’s permission to allow the Division to prepare a pamphlet laying out ways to use his insights to improve our teaching of history.  The second pending proposal is a session with evolutionary biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson. Both of Olson’s major documentaries—Flock of Dodos and Sizzle—offer a sharp and very helpful commentary on the ways in which academics communicate with wider public audiences. While he has focused on the contest of evolutionary biologists with advocates of intelligent design and the struggle between climate scientists and global climate change deniers, Olson’s work has direct bearing on the approach that professional historians take to issues of public controversy. Olson, who finances his films from the revenue from his speaking engagements, has generously offered to waive his usual $5,000 fee. But his visit to the 2012 Chicago annual meeting would still require funding for his travel and accommodations. There is some hope for a collaboration with the American Economics Association, meeting in Chicago at the same time as the AHA, since economists have even greater need than historians for guidance from this gifted communicator. We also had a plan in play for a session on “the tyranny of coverage” in semester- or year-long historical surveys, but we will return to this idea for 2013.

  • We agreed to endorse an undertaking from the California History-Social Science Project at the University of California Davis to create a “History Blueprint.” But this endorsement came with an important condition attached. All members of the Division felt that the California proposal was written with opaque jargon, familiar to experts in educational theory, but daunting and discouraging for people who are just trying to teach history. So our endorsement of the proposal comes with a request that the project participants commit themselves to a more intelligible and accessible language when it comes to declaring their findings. While this may seem a small matter, it is a valuable experiment in finding ways to use leverage and incentives to resist the drift toward the unintelligible in much of the best-intentioned advocacy for wiser approaches to social studies education.

  • Our colleague in the Teaching Division, Cheryll Cody, is serving on the Two-Year Faculty Task Force. We very much appreciate her willingness to take on this added obligation, and we will be eager to act on any recommendations she brings us.

  • Members of the Teaching Division participated in the selection committee to review the submissions for the Boston annual meeting mini-conference, “Religion, Peace, and Violence,” inspired by the success of the mini-conference at the 2010 annual meeting in San Diego. The Research Division has taken on the activity of evaluating the idea of mini-conferences, an undertaking in which we are happy to assist. The dilemma posed by the politics of the hotel owner in San Diego provided a very different context for holding a mini-conference, and without that external challenge, we had noticeably less to guide us in appraising proposed sessions. In hindsight, it was clear that we should have consulted with former Division Vice President Karen Haltunen to learn about how she handled the San Diego mini-conference plans; this recent history surely offered plenty of lessons. When we reviewed this experience at our June 2010 meeting, we considered the interesting possibility that having a theme for a mini-conference, and forswearing a theme for the convention as a whole, might be an idea worth presidential consideration. We also were pleased that one of the mini-conference sessions would showcase K-12 teachers working in their roles as research scholars, a cause we would like to advance.

  • And, as already noted, we made a plucky try at engaging the Texas Board of Education in a dialogue over their questionable revision of the Texas curriculum. Cheryll Cody did the hard work on this project, reviewing the proposed standards with an eagle eye and an open mind and preparing an insightful and well-aimed draft. Cody and Patricia Nelson Limerick reviewed the draft standards with the goal of finding a disarming and congenial way of saying that while we thought there were significant problems with the proposed standards, we were certain that people dedicated to the well-being of students could deal with and correct these problems. We very much appreciated commentary from the other members of the Teaching Division, and from the Council in general, and we especially appreciated the widespread willingness to sign this document. It was a particular encouragement to have long-time Texas resident David Weber, vice president of the Professional Division, register his hearty support of our enterprise. But was this experiment a success? Or, more to the point, did many people read our diplomatic and unexpected pitch? We discovered that diplomacy was not necessarily compatible with brevity, as our draft grew in length. But more to the point, we recognized  that we should have made every overture we could think of to the op-ed page editors in Texas and around the country, since one highly visible placement of our letter could have made a big difference in its impact. 

The following tasks are still on the Division’s horizon:

  • We spoke on occasion of evaluating the current AHA Teaching Division web site, and then brainstorming ways to clean it up and energize it. Division members will pay more attention to this in 2011.

  • We are interested in pursuing a collaboration of some sort with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, but we have not pinned down the nature of the collaboration. Patricia Nelson Limerick mentioned great appreciation for the common cause between the AHA and the Gilder Lehrman. During the summer of 2010, Gilder Lehrman Director Lesley Herrmann briefly discussed with Limerick the relationship between the two institutions, and Executive Director Jim Grossman has had a similar conversation with Herrmann. The doors are open for this dialogue to continue. At the very least, we would like to ask The Gilder Lehrman Institute to let us use their list of local teachers who have participated in Gilder Lehrman summer seminars to invite their participation when the AHA annual meeting is in their area.

  • At all of our meetings, we discussed the fate of the Teaching American History (TAH) grants from the Department of Education, and raised the question of whether or not there are actions that the Teaching Division should take in order to see that program continue. The Obama Administration has proposed to Congress a reorganization that would subsume the TAH grants in a larger program, with history competing for resources against other disciplines. Congress has not yet acted on the proposal. There is, as well, a very large and open-ended question about the evaluation of these grants and the design of measures of their effectiveness, a puzzle for which neither we nor anyone else has invented a solution. And yet, there must be a way that AHA members, as citizens and constituents, could play a role in these decisions. Historians with personal ties to senators and congressmen (and more important, their staffers) could be of some value in communicating with our delegates on the future of the Teaching American History grants.

  • Noralee Frankel has kept us apprised of the work of the National Council for the Social Studies in seeking a more secure position for social studies in federal programs and in state curricula. In states where social studies joins fields like mathematics in having a standardized achievement test, the field acquires and maintains resources in a much more reliable way. Patricia Nelson Limerick gave a plenary talk at the Denver convention of the National Council for the Social Studies in November 2010, an occasion that led to a better recognition of the vulnerability of social studies in states without a “high-stakes test” for the field. Perhaps the AHA could play a useful role by looking at testing in historical perspective, and in using that longer-range thinking as a route to imagining the most beneficial form testing can take to affirm rather than interfere with actual learning. Thus, the Division is thinking of a possible session on this subject in 2013; it is a particular hope that we might persuade Nicholas Lemann to revisit his investigation into standardized testing on that occasion.

  • Cheryll Cody brought to our attention the fact that her home institution offers a competitive grant-giving program, the Chancellor’s Innovation Initiative. We began a discussion about whether there might be some compatibility between this initiative and the AHA, particularly in the direction of holding a conference of community college teachers of history. But preparing the proposal for such a project would, in our judgment, put too great a burden on Cody to carry alone.

  • Noralee Frankel let us know of an initiative that might come to fruition, in which professors who hold joint appointments in departments of history and colleges of education would pull together a gathering to reflect on the insights that this shared affiliation has brought into their thinking. If this plan moves forward, we would hope that the results might be rich and innovative in the bringing together of historical content with the freshest understanding of how students learn.

  • We have discussed possible topics for essays that might appear in Perspectives on History. Teachers of history at every level are doing their best to adapt as productively as possible to the changing modes of cognition among young people living in such a connected and digitized world. Still we also hold to a loyalty to the lasting value of face-to-face interaction in seminars and lectures. But we should be willing to experiment: If Power Point presentations are punctuated with cartoons from The New Yorker and The Far Side (surely two of the best guides for thinking deeply about Western American history!), will that keep students in a large lecture class from drifting out of attentiveness? If offered the chance to join their professor and a guest speaker for an after-class, face-to-face conversation, will more than three or four students find that appealing? Have gifted people designed animation that conveys fundamentals of sentence structure in a few delightful moments of screen-time? Are there technological reinforcements for that useful advice, “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said,” that might actually abbreviate that tedious process? We would like to have an essay that could provoke a useful exchange among AHA members on ideas such as these. As another topic for a possible essay in Perspectives in History, we have discussed the theme of service learning. At the Center of the American West, and also at newly elected Division Member (for a term starting in 2011) Anne F. Hyde’s Hulbert Center for Southwest Studies at Colorado College, various programs have delivered very gratifying results by engaging students in “applied history.” And, of course, the election of Bill Cronon as president-elect of the AHA for 2011 brings another prominent practitioner of applied history into our circles. Additionally there was a session on civic engagement at the Boston annual meeting (Session 245: “Civic Engagement in the Classroom: Strategies for Incorporating Education for Civic and Social Responsibility in History Courses”),  which will hopefully lead to a forum in Perspectives in History.

I am grateful to the AHA Nominating Committee and to the membership of the Association for entrusting the office of vice president of the Teaching Division to me. It is my informed guess that I have had predecessors in this office who have “hit the ground running” in a more dynamic way, identifying goals and setting off to reach those goals in an expeditious way. And yet I seem to have been more of a devotee of the platitude, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” In truth, I have been cautious about using the platform of this office to endorse causes that may hold my loyalty, but may not represent the Association’s priorities. In the next two years, I will hope to scope out—in close consultation with the other members of the Teaching Division, with the Council, and with the executive director—possibilities and prospects for entering more visibly and audibly into the world of public discussion about the value and significance of history in our schools, colleges, universities, as well as our city councils, county commissions, state governments, and, should I prove to be as thick-skinned as I think I am, in Congress and the executive branch agencies.