Letters to the Editor

On Professional Boredom and Teaching History

Robert Blackey, May 2012

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be e-mailed (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives on History, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

President William Cronon's column in the March 2012 issue of Perspectives on History triggered some thoughts that might interest readers. Let's start with his theme: professional boredom (or at least with a variation on the theme). I regularly give presentations to middle school children as part of a program my campus has been conducting for almost three decades and whose purpose is to interest those children in attending college when a great many potentially qualified students in our service area do not. Typically I begin by asking the students to tell me the single word they would use if they had to describe their history class to their friends. More often than not that word is "boring." What I then try to do is show them how fascinating history can be; I share both my passion and my knowledge. It seems to me, therefore, that part of what we historians who teach must do—at any level, but especially when teaching those who are not our majors—is hold students' interest (as the History Channel and museum exhibits often do) without compromising our academic integrity.

Artificial, if not demeaning, distinctions between "scholars" and "teachers" should be eliminated. As a university historian, am I not a teacher as well as a scholar? And don't those secondary school historians who publish also qualify as scholars? Perhaps we should try to improve on our choice of terminology, both to be fair as well as to make it easier for the AHA to improve its efforts to become more inclusive of those who work in our field, broadly conceived.

The "Teaching Column," which I edited for some 15 years, sometimes publishes pieces by secondary school teachers. In fact, I began my stint as editor of a special Advanced Placement column before it (and I) merged with the general teaching column and became what was called, for a while at least, "Teaching Innovations." I'd like to see this column appear more frequently and be edited in such a way as to bring in a wider and more imaginative array of columns (e.g., with editors actually soliciting historians to write specifically focused articles); I would also welcome the return of forums on controversial and/or critical issues to which several historians could contribute.

Lastly, it might be time for our newsmagazine to republish "Redefining Historical Scholarship: Report of the American Historical Association Ad Hoc Committee on Redefining Scholarly Work." It offers a broad range of historians' pursuits, including many of the activities of public historians (such as participation in film and other media projects), research and writing in history education, and collaborative content-based projects with schools—all of which would support what I believe President Cronon was advocating. (Full disclosure: I served on that committee in my capacity as AHA's vice president, Teaching Division.)

—Robert Blackey
California State University, San Bernardino