Tuning in to the History Major
James Grossman, April 2012
Historians understand the tensions inherent in the desire to live in the world and yet somehow not be entirely of it. We study and teach about how people have struggled with this apparent paradox. Yet I wonder whether we are better at understanding how these tensions animated conflict and change in the past than we are at comprehending its implications for our work in the present.
The breadth and purpose of the historical enterprise includes the ways in which historians engage the past, and the relationship between the past and present. For many of us, that engagement has traditionally meant considering the public primarily as an object of study, as well as an audience. Historians in the academy remain wary of sharing authority with that public, although over the past generation, the notion of "shared authority" has gained currency among many in our ranks. We have learned that as historians we cannot create exhibitions without listening to the voices of our subjects or those who claim their cultural inheritance. Nor can we ignore those voices even when careful research generates a narrative different from their recollections and perspectives. We have learned how oral history confers upon the historian obligations that perhaps (and I emphasize "perhaps") differ from a scholar's relationship to an 18th-century diarist. But we remain wary of sharing authority in our classrooms, and in the formation of the curriculum frameworks within which our teaching takes place. This caution is justified by the history of public intrusion into higher education, a history that crosses time and space. Academic freedom is essential not only to what we do, but also to how we do it.
But what then of shared authority? Do we say that it is OK (even essential) for historians who work beyond the academy, but something that can be ignored inside university walls? What of the increasing demand among students and parents for degrees that can be translated into jobs and—better yet—careers? What of our claims that history majors graduate well prepared for active citizenship? Can we prepare our students to be productive members of our society, polity, and economy if we don't listen to voices from those circles concerning the skills and knowledge that our students need? How do those voices help us to enhance the quality of education without undermining scholarly authority or intruding on classroom autonomy?
These questions cannot have simple answers. Pressures and voices from outside the academy spring from sources more diverse than politicians who consider the humanities mere frills or dismiss college professors as elites committed to the indoctrination of the nation's youth, or accrediting agencies that seem determined to dictate metrics of student learning, without regard for traditions of faculty governance.
Employers want to know what it means when young applicants show up for entry-level positions with "history major" on their résumés. Admissions officers in professional schools and career center staff no doubt make assumptions—often uninformed—about what our graduates can and cannot do. For many recent college graduates—particularly those without diplomas from nationally known colleges—the major represents what a marketing maven might call their "brand." And our colleagues who practice historical work beyond the academy want to help us integrate the skills and knowledge useful to employment in the many worlds of public history, where our students can carry their love of the discipline into occupations that do not require PhDs but do require skills that historians who have spent their lives in the academy might not appreciate or understand. Historians working outside the academy are also especially well situated to help faculty see how historical thinking and learning relates to contemporary public culture and its institutional contexts.
Might our approach to the undergraduate history major benefit by an experiment that seeks to mesh these imperatives of faculty governance and public engagement with new ideas about outcomes-based learning? With support from Lumina Foundation for Education, the AHA is exploring how college and university faculty might reconsider the history major on their campuses to more effectively harmonize with the missions of their institutions and the expectations of a wide variety of stakeholders—including students, parents, civic culture, employers, and alumni. We draw on a process called "Tuning," which originated in Europe in part because of the imperative of facilitating the movement of students across a broad terrain of academic institutions lacking even a common method of measuring progress towards degrees. In the process, our European colleagues also learned that much of the discursive distance between university faculty and employers and others beyond the academy could be narrowed simply by working hard (and it was hard work) to develop a common vocabulary to describe the competencies generated through study in a given discipline. To a considerable extent, our project is likewise an exercise to develop shared vocabularies.
The AHA project is an exploratory experiment. "Tuning" has already been adapted to the context of American higher education on a more local level, with particularly striking results in Utah and Indiana. But this is the first time it is being tried nationally with the leadership of a disciplinary society. With the help of a small handful of consultants in areas such as assessment, public history, theories of teaching and learning, and other aspects of history education, a group of 60 faculty members from a diverse range of institutions will commit themselves to exploring this process on their own campuses. Nobody will be told what to teach. Nor will anyone be told how to design an assessment framework. Participants will learn, for example, how engagement with public history resources can facilitate their students' understanding of the relationship between history and public culture; how conversations with employers and career advisers on campus can create a common vocabulary about skills; how defining desired outcomes can generate assessment tools appropriate to their institutions and their student bodies.
We knew that this experiment would provoke controversy. Our project seeks to weave together important principles of faculty autonomy and academic freedom with ideas about public engagement that might at first glance stand in tension with those principles. We have been encouraged by the level of interest and excitement. As news leaked out before we were able officially to announce the program, our colleagues began contacting us for information, asking how their campuses might participate.
We also have heard skepticism from various directions. Is the AHA becoming an unwitting tool of intrusive accrediting agencies and others who wish to impose their values and priorities on higher education? Why are all of our "Tuners" members of college and university faculties? Is the AHA caving into a deeply problematic campaign to make all of higher education subject to externally defined measurements of quality? Is the AHA creating centralized definitions of history or history education?
These are legitimate concerns. Moreover, in reading, hearing, and discussing these questions with historians across the country, our staff and the leadership of the AHA Teaching Division have learned much that will enhance the texture and focus of the project. But the goal remains. The project is directed toward faculty-generated curriculum, informed by desired outcomes for student learning that are well defined and easy to understand. Those outcomes will be amenable to assessment that is faculty-driven, and framed according to the mission of each participating institution.
This project is likely to remain controversial. Historians believe that civil debate and constructive disagreement are essential to good historical work. Initiatives such as the Tuning project will be controversial in part because of the importance—and the uncertainties—of our discipline's engagement beyond the academy. This broader perspective is good for our students, our impact on public culture, and perhaps even the satisfaction we take from our work. In this case, we ask how we can expect our history majors to live in, contribute to, and earn a living in a world beyond the academy if their curriculum does not emerge from conversation with that world? The history curriculum should be developed by historians; but if we do not engage with other constituencies in crafting and articulating that curriculum, our students will graduate from history classrooms bearing the burdens of our insularity.
James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.