Historians in Classrooms: Schools, Colleges, and Universities

Overview of the Field

Probably the most common image in the public imagination of someone introduced as a “historian” is that of the college professor, standing in the front of a classroom equipped with maps and a chalkboard, delivering lectures to an audience of undergraduates. Even though many historians enjoy fulfilling careers outside of the classroom, there remains an important core of truth in the notion that historians have a fundamental calling to teach about the past. Indeed, most historians do teach about the past in a variety of settings. But a classroom remains the place in which many people first learn to call the study of the past “history.”

This chapter examines the many kinds of formal classrooms in which historians share their knowledge and love of the past. Those wishing to pursue historical careers as classroom teachers face a variety of choices covering the entire spectrum of American educational opportunities and the institutions that offer them. Each position brings with it a different set of training or educational requirements in preparation for that career, wide variation in the types of jobs available and the activities that historians in those jobs do, and a range of resources for further information.

The first element defining different paths toward a career in teaching history is the distinction between primary and secondary education and higher education. Those who teach history at the pre-collegiate level are further subdivided between those who teach in the more general curriculum of the primary grades, where history is only one among many areas of knowledge the teacher must master, and those who teach in secondary-level classrooms where they can be specialists in history, or perhaps in history and another of the social sciences. Pre-collegiate teaching is also separated between the education offered in private schools and public school systems that are supported and regulated by a system of state laws and statewide educational goals.

Higher education also offers a wide range of possible career patterns for a historian with teaching jobs at two-year community colleges, four-year undergraduate institutions, and comprehensive universities that offer graduate training up to the M.A. and the Ph.D. level. Like pre-collegiate education, higher education is further divided between public and private institutions. At larger state universities history faculty may have fifty or more colleagues, and can be highly specialized in the subjects they teach and research. At the other end of the spectrum, historians in community or smaller private or denominational colleges may be part of a general social sciences or humanities department. As one of only a few in their discipline, they are expected to teach almost any aspect of the broad history of world civilizations.

If you are interested in a teaching career you will not have to choose among these options at the outset. But you should be aware of the different settings and remain open to the possibilities through which a love and knowledge of the past can contribute to immense career satisfaction.

Scope of Training

Each of the educational levels at which history is taught has a different set of requirements and expectations.

Primary and Secondary Education

Preparation for teaching history in either private or public schools at the kindergarten through twelfth grade (K–12) levels requires at least a bachelor’s degree. For careers in public schools, that degree can include a major in history but will also require a substantial concentration in education courses that prepare candidates to meet teaching certification requirements. These differ somewhat from state to state but are universal in that all states have such requirements. Programs of undergraduate study that meet those requirements commonly include specialized courses in psychology, human development, and teaching techniques, as well as a supervised period of practice teaching.

For primary school teachers, the curriculum required to meet K–6 certification standards will include a broad general overview of introductory courses in a wide range of fields, and may not permit the luxury of accumulating enough history undergraduate courses to qualify for a history major. At the secondary level, the emphasis on social studies as a composite field including anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology may mean that students must take sufficient introductory courses to qualify in a number of these areas and as a result will not be able to take more than a few advanced history courses. It is desirable, and possible, for teachers to have a strong undergraduate background in history in order to teach it at the secondary level.

If you are interested in public school teaching, seek the help of knowledgeable advisors to insure you balance your historical interests with the certification requirements in the locality in which you want to teach. History teaching in private schools may be less constrained by requirements for specific kinds of education courses, but typically requires the same breadth of knowledge.

Both public and private pre-collegiate educational institutions encourage (indeed often require) teachers to continue their own education after entering the profession. Continuing education opportunities can include a combination of in-service short courses, summer workshops and institutes, and formal graduate degree programs. Those with an interest in a particular historical period or topic can take advantage of Advanced Placement summer courses, workshops, and seminars sponsored by state humanities councils and the National Endowment for the Humanities, or special “focus on teaching” sessions at the annual national meetings of professional organizations like the AHA and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). It is not uncommon for teachers in public and private schools to hold an M.A. or Ph.D. in history, and quite a few take an active role in professional historical associations.

Higher Education

Graduate work in the discipline of history is a requirement for teaching history at all levels of higher education. In the past some community and two-year colleges, and a few small private or denominational four-year colleges, have employed holders of an M.A. degree in history on a permanent full-time basis. While it is still possible to teach individual courses in such institutions on a part-time or adjunct basis before completing a doctorate, a Ph.D. in history is almost a prerequisite for permanent, full-time positions at colleges and universities. Occasionally a candidate may be offered a tenure-track faculty position before all work on a dissertation has been completed, but continued employment and promotion in such cases typically requires swift completion of the degree.

In most doctoral programs in history, the emphasis is on developing a body of historical knowledge and the skills necessary to plan, research, and carry out the scholarly writing needed for advancement within the historical profession. The general knowledge and specialization a graduate student acquires is often a factor on the job market. At all levels of history higher education, the last decade of the twentieth century witnessed an increasing demand for historians able to teach courses in world civilization, or to offer broadly comparative courses organized around thematic issues rather than national histories. There has been a marked increase in introductory and advanced courses in Asian, Pacific Rim, African, Middle Eastern, Atlantic world, and Latin American history, as well as an increase in courses on issues of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and political economy. Students designing their graduate curriculum can enhance their career and employment potential by choosing to develop their historical knowledge in these areas.

In addition to course work, history graduate students usually have opportunities to become graduate teaching assistants, either as discussion leaders for small groups within a large survey lecture course, or (usually near the end of their graduate study) as independent lecturers responsible for all aspects of a course. Graduate students should also participate in professional activities of service and scholarship by becoming active in departmental, regional, or national graduate student history organizations; serving as a graduate student member of departmental or university committees; and preparing and delivering scholarly papers at regional or national professional meetings. While all of these activities can be an important part of preparation for an academic career, and can enhance the résumés of job candidates, they have varying weight in the job market.

Types of Jobs

History Ph.D.’s may teach at a variety of higher education institutions. What follows is a brief discussion of the three main types of institutions, their missions, and the tasks a historian-teacher may be called on to perform in each setting.

Community and Two-Year Colleges

The mission of these colleges is primarily to teach. While some advanced courses may be offered, often related to understanding and interpreting the history of the college’s local community, the bread and butter for historians in this academic setting is teaching introductory or survey courses, which touch on many topics, typically over a widely accepted historical period, from, say, the Greeks and Romans to 1789 for a Western civilization course or prehistory to 1865 for an American history course. The number of courses a historian teaches each term may be higher than at universities with graduate programs, making it difficult to find time to carry out research and publication activities even if they are not actively discouraged. These activities may also be less essential in hiring and promotion decisions. Moreover, because the most recent survey suggests that nearly 60 percent of those teaching history at two-year colleges are employed only part time, faculty hired in full-time appointments in these institutions bear a disproportionately high responsibility for the advising, committee, and administrative tasks that are a normal part of an academic career. Demonstrated experience in teaching, a commitment to community service, and skill in administrative tasks can all be important parts of training for community college careers.

Undergraduate Colleges

The mission of these colleges, which award only baccalaureate degrees, is also primarily teaching. Most historians on these faculties teach survey courses in American history, Western civilization, or world civilization, but they also have opportunities to develop advanced courses in their own area of interest or specialization. Such colleges pride themselves on small class size, which many teachers favor. On the other hand, depending on the size of the student body and the financial situation of the college, the number of courses a faculty member teaches may be quite high. Research and publication, and other scholarly activity, are usually valued and encouraged, but the time for these activities may be limited. Advising, committee, and administrative tasks can also be an important part of faculty workload. Preparation for careers in four-year institutions should thus stress ability to work with individuals or small groups of students. As in community colleges, demonstrated experience in teaching, a commitment to contributions and service to the college community, and skill in administrative tasks are also important parts of career training.

Graduate Universities

Graduate universities offer baccalaureate degrees, as well as graduate degrees such as the Ph.D., M.A., and M.S., and perhaps other specialized degrees such as the M.A.T., M.S.Ed., M.P.H., J.D., and M.D. Faculty at these institutions, both private and public, teach at multiple levels. They offer introductory survey courses, sometimes in small classes, but more often to large sections that can have as many as 400 or 500 students. They teach upper-level undergraduate courses in their own specialization. They are responsible for graduate reading and research seminars where group discussions based on readings or the Socratic method replace prepared lectures. They also supervise M.A. theses and Ph.D. dissertations, and serve on the graduate academic committees of other students in the department and university. University history departments also depend on their faculty to serve on committees, take on administrative tasks, do general graduate and undergraduate student advising, and may also encourage scholars to take on leadership roles in regional and national professional associations.

As important as teaching and service are, however, a primary purpose of the comprehensive university is the advancement of knowledge. As a result, research and publication (in articles, books, and scholarly presentations at professional meetings) are essential for initial employment, promotion, and tenure. Scholarship remains the most important criterion for advancement in the university and the profession, so career training and preparation must include as many opportunities for gaining such experience as students or their departments can create for graduate study. If you are interested in teaching at this level, you should choose a university based on its curriculum, placement record, provision for practicing both teaching and scholarly skills, and the fit between your specific research interests and the publication record and reputation of the graduate faculty in the department.

Recent Trends in the Job Market

Recent trends in the job market vary for each of the general categories of pre-collegiate and higher education employment.

Primary and Secondary Education

During the early 1990s, public and private schools nationwide experienced a tightening of the job market, a shortage of positions felt particularly in the social sciences. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, most regions of the United States are experiencing teacher shortages. Although a publication such as this cannot have the most recent information for the nation or a particular region, in general the next decade should provide excellent employment opportunities for well-prepared students of history with the necessary educational credentials for their locality. Advisors in placement offices and departments of education at a local university, as well as regular annual reports appearing in the publications of professional associations (see “Resources” section below), can provide more detailed and up-to-date information.

Colleges and Universities

Perspectives, the AHA’s newsletter, reported in December 2001 that “the number of history jobs in academia reached its highest point in 30 years, as a continuing wave of senior faculty retirements opened new opportunities for junior historians and recent Ph.D.’s.” A month earlier, in November 2001, another detailed statistical study in published in Perspectives reported that “undergraduate history majors at four-year colleges and universities rose for the second year in a row, marking a clear reversal of the extended declines experienced throughout the mid- to late 1990s.” Both of these reports contain good news for those interested in academic careers as historians. At the same time, however, other studies suggest that administrators in many colleges and universities are relying increasingly on part-time or non-permanent full-time instructors as part of a general cost-cutting approach to carrying out their institutions’ teaching mission. There is an ongoing discussion in the publications of the two major American historical professional organizations—the AHA and the OAH—about the long-term oversupply of history Ph.D.’s relative to the tenure-track or permanent academic positions available.

If you are genuinely interested in an academic career as a historian, this “mixed message” should not discourage you. There have been, and will continue to be, many full-time permanent positions available at all levels of higher education for history Ph.D.’s, but securing one of those positions will continue to be highly competitive. Keep all your options open and examine whether you want a career as a historian, specifically as an academic historian. The remainder of this publication suggests ways in which nonacademic historical work can draw on many of the same interests and training, while providing a satisfying professional career.