Research and the Classroom: A View from the Community College
Emily Sohmer Tai, November 2006
Editor's Note: The following article was written in response to a decision of the AHA's Teaching Division to focus attention on the unique and specific challenges faced—and met—by historians with advanced degrees who are teaching in community colleges. The author, herself a professor at a community college and a member of the Teaching Division, interviewed 15 faculty members at community colleges across the nation to gather their impressions and experiences for this article.
Over the past several years, two committees of distinguished historians, convened under the auspices of the American Historical Association and supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation, have critically examined graduate education in history. Members of both committees, while differing in some essentials, have agreed that a historian's training should include preparation not only in scholarship but also in pedagogy. Authors of The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century, the report of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, stress that historians in research-oriented doctoral programs should be familiar with the scholarship of teaching and learning alongside specialized literature in their own field.1 Authors of "Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History: A Report to the Members of the AHA" (submitted by the Association's Committee on the Master's Degree in History) meanwhile identify "the ability to think like a historian," evidenced by the composition of a "substantial research project," as an important component of training at the master's level—often represented as the best preparation for historians who wish to pursue a career in the classroom or in public history.2
What Is the Best Preparation for Classroom Teaching?
The intersection between the two visions suggests that both committees believe effective educators in the field of history should demonstrate a mix of competencies in historical research as well as in historical exposition. One question that arises from this conclusion, however, is whether, and to what degree, research training might contribute to effectiveness in the classroom. Are proficiencies in research and teaching mutually exclusive? Or can "doing" history help teachers teach better?
One group within the AHA membership that may be uniquely qualified to shed light on these questions is that of a small but growing component of doctoral-trained historians who teach at community colleges. As of 2002, PhDs in history made up about 45 percent of the full-time faculty teaching history at the nation's community colleges.3 These historians constitute a prominent component of the 20 percent of American community college faculty who hold doctorates in an academic field of specialty.4 According to the 2004 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, their appointments moreover represent the second most common destination for professional historians (after doctoral universities), as community colleges now employ approximately 30 percent of all historians nationally.5
Since 1999 various publications sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians have described the challenges these faculty embrace in choosing community college teaching: students of often fragile preparedness, whose enrollments in college are likely to be sustained alongside extensive work and family commitments and heavy responsibilities for advising and teaching students in as many as five or six courses per semester. Despite these responsibilities, many community college historians maintain active programs of research, not only in cutting-edge scholarship of teaching and learning, but often in fields of history to which they have contributed as the authors of numerous scholarly works.6
The 15 community college historians interviewed for this article reported varied experiences in advanced degree programs. Some acquired their earliest training in pedagogy at the master's level, others in their doctoral programs. Some continue to pursue research in their field of doctoral training. Others have found new areas of scholarly interest in fields they discovered as teachers. Yet most agreed that the experience of writing a dissertation—and pursuing research thereafter—had enhanced their effectiveness in a community college classroom—sometimes even more than they themselves had anticipated.
Pedagogy in Master's and Doctoral Training
Several of these historians began their teaching careers with master's degrees that emphasized pedagogy. For Judith Jeffrey Howard, former professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College and now a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a master's degree at Teacher's College of Columbia University taught her how to talk about history to "nonspecialists." James Baer (MA and PhD, Rutgers University), a professor of Latin American and world history (also at Northern Virginia Community College), similarly praised his master's degree training as a source of two rules of classroom discipline: "Never walk into a class without knowing exactly what you want the students to learn during the next 50 minutes" and "always be clear for the students' sake."
Community college historians who proceeded to a doctorate reported deepest satisfaction with programs that afforded opportunities to continue their pedagogical training. Kevin Reilly, a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, praised mentors at Rutgers University like Peter Stearns for their commitment to guiding doctoral candidates through the rigors of course development as readily as through those of writing a dissertation. Carol Keller, one of five doctoral-trained historians at San Antonio College, the largest community college in Texas, wrote her dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin on the history of Unitarianism, but credited her program's concurrent emphasis upon excellence in pedagogy with her earliest exposure to Geographic Information Systems, an internet mapping tool that can be used to teach geopolitics and history. Over the past decade, Keller has won significant grant support to pioneer the use of GIS in the classroom through mapping projects that enable undergraduates to recreate historical problems such as the partition of Palestine and India.7
Several community-college faculty nonetheless reported that their appetite for research had also been whetted by the experience of writing a master's thesis. Fred Greenbaum (PhD, Columbia University), professor emeritus at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, began a career of research on American labor during the Progressive Era with his master's thesis at the University of Wisconsin. Carol Bucy (PhD, Vanderbilt University), an associate professor of history and the department chair at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, made her first forays into legal history with a master's thesis (on Hugo Black's supreme court) at the George Peabody College for Teachers.
Most of the faculty interviewed for this article believed that their expertise in pedagogy had only been enhanced by research experience. "There is an art to good teaching," Howard explained, "but the more formal training you have, the better your frame of reference." David Trask (PhD, University of Nebraska), a professor of history at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina who served on the commission that examined the master's degree, sees historical research as a "process" that "promotes historical thinking." Instructors at community colleges often find themselves obliged to summarize complex historical developments in sweeping generalizations as they teach the introductory surveys that remain the staple of community college curricula in history. Experience of historical research—ideally at both the master's and the doctoral level—helps faculty to nuance these formulations with what Trask has called "the apparatus … of historical perspective."8
Some historians were led to community college teaching by an interest in historical perspective as a historical problem. "I'm not sure that writing a dissertation per se is a requirement for becoming a good teacher of introductory courses," wrote Amy Kinsel of Shoreline Community College (SCC) in an e-mail. Kinsel's dissertation, written at Cornell University, nevertheless examined a problem of historical perception: the changing significance of the Battle of Gettysburg in American popular culture. As Kinsel has taught a wide range of courses at SCC, she has often found herself confronting the same problem she studied: how to help students distinguish between fact and interpretation; getting students, as Kinsel put it, "to understand that the study of history is an approach to primary sources, rather than a given."
The Doctorate as Teaching Tool in the Twenty-first Century
It is this emphasis upon primary sources as the center of a historian's focus that may be playing a role in the welcome many PhDs are finding on community college campuses: the shift to problem-based teaching and "discovery learning" strategies that invite students to master disciplinary skills through practice. A project-based history lesson might set the daily lecture aside, at least on occasion, in favor of assignments in which students, or groups of students, read primary or secondary source material together and share their findings with instructors and one another.9 Amy Kinsel praised the wealth of primary source material now available on the Internet as a rich resource to aid in this new way of teaching history. "When research becomes possible," Kinsel said, "history can be exciting!"
Several community-college historians described successfully drawing upon their own experience with primary sources and research to elicit this excitement. "I frequently bring my research experience into the classroom," Mark Van Ells (PhD, University of Wisconsin), a specialist in the social history of the American military at Queensborough Community College, wrote in an e-mail. "For example, in discussing various wars in American history, I make reference to soldier's letters." Evelyn Edson (PhD, University of Chicago), a professor of history at North Piedmont Virginia Community College, shares the ancient and medieval maps that are the focus of her research on the history of cartography with students, often with wonderful results. "Even in the widest of surveys," wrote Kenneth Pearl (PhD, Graduate Center, CUNY), who also teaches at Queensborough Community College, in an e-mail, "the historian deals with the historical narrative, primary sources, and historiography that were central to our graduate training."
If the dissertation—and subsequent research—can be seen as a learner's project, historians are also increasingly being valued for the writing, research, and critical thinking skills they model for students in the context of these approaches. Such competencies have emerged as more important to community college students and prospective employers as many regional economies shift from industry- to service-oriented areas that demand proficiency in information discovery and management, such as health care, retail sales, or primary education. Market demands may also be fueling the rising number of students—sometimes as high as 66 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—who enroll in a community college but declare intentions to transfer to four-year institutions before or after completing their associate's degree. Although currently only about 21 percent of these students ultimately obtain the four-year degree within six years, this is a statistic many community colleges hope to improve.10
All of the faculty interviewed for this article were deeply committed to helping their students beat these odds, and believed that their own training as historians could help. "You grade writing better after writing yourself," explained Carol Bucy, author of several books on local and women's history. Jonathan Pollack, an assistant professor of history at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, sees both the experience of writing a dissertation at the University of Wisconsin at Madison while juggling responsibilities as a working parent, and his own area of specialty, the labor and ethnic history of Wisconsin, as useful avenues to understanding the struggles his students face and the things he can do to help them. "Our students need that little bit of extra," Pollack explained.
Beyond empathy in the classroom, community college historians with PhDs believe that the academic demands they make on their students contribute to higher rates of successful transfer and job placement. "We send students on where they can actually do the work," said Maureen Murphy Nutting (PhD, University of Notre Dame), chair of her department at North Seattle Community College. Nutting, Edson, and Baer all spoke of "empowering" students who proceeded to success, at rates above the national average, in Seattle and Washington, D.C.-area colleges. Others believe the study of history can prove useful even beyond the classroom. "Teaching students writing," asserts Charles Evans (PhD, University of Virginia), another professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College, "helps students focus upon an argument and issue and helps them with the practical business of job-seeking." Like Keller, Evans has also received NEH support to develop computer modules for teaching primary sources online, many in Russian history, Evans's own area of specialty.11
Several of the historians interviewed for this article reported that the breadth of the courses they were often required to teach in community colleges—broad surveys and sophomore-level electives—had "cross-fertilized" and enriched their research. "Teaching survey courses," James Baer said, "has helped me to see connections between Latin American history and everything else!" Greenbaum found that teaching the history of early modern Europe inspired an article in which he connected the struggles of the 16th-century Dutch Republic to the American Revolution.12 Carol Bucy has merged research interests with teaching expertise to write sections of the Tennessee social studies curriculum.13 Community college historians also described deriving "inspiration" from students who persisted with their own studies despite daunting obstacles, and from promoting an appreciation of history among students who may never specialize in the subject, nor complete four-year degrees. "We engage large numbers of people, across generations and skill levels," Maureen Nutting summed it up. "And we know that we're not just doing well—we're doing good."
The Teaching Division would like to solicit further feedback on the role historians believe research may have played in preparing them as teachers. If you have comments on this point, please consider attending a roundtable at the forthcoming AHA annual meeting in Atlanta "Research and Teaching: Imagined Divide?" (Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 3:00 p.m., Marriott, International Meeting Room 2).
—Emily Sohmer Tai, who teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, in New York, is a member of the AHA's Teaching Division. She wishes to thank the various faculty members who responded to her questions.
1. Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, Colin Palmer, and the AHA Committee on Graduate Education, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 100–101.
2. Philip M. Katz and the AHA Committee on the Master's Degree in History, Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History: A Report to the Members of the American Historical Association (Washington, D.C., 2005), 53.
3. Robert B. Townsend, "New Data Reveals a Homogeneous but Changing History Profession," Perspectives (January 2002).
4. Tronie Rifkin, "Public Community College Faculty," in About Community Colleges at the web site of the American Association of Community Colleges (2003), at http://www.aacc.nche.edu.
5. Robert B. Townsend, "Federal Faculty Survey Shows Gains for History Employment but Lagging Salaries," Perspectives 44, no. 3 (March 2006), 3–8.
6. For all this, see the articles in Nadine Ishitani Hata, ed., Community College Historians in the United States: A Status Report from the Organization of American Historians Committee on Community Colleges (Washington, D.C.: Organization of American Historians, 1999); available at http://www.oah.org/pub/commcoll/; David Arnold, "How I Learned to Quit Whining and Started to Enjoy Teaching at a Community College and Why You Might Want to Consider Doing the Same," Perspectives (November 2005) .Evelyn Edson, "The Historian at the Community College," Perspectives (October 1996), 17; Emily Sohmer Tai, "Teaching History at a Community College," Perspectives 42, no. 2 (February, 2004), 31–33.
7. For links to some of these modules, see the San Antonio College History Department web site at http://www.accd.edu/sac/history/keller/publish.htm.
8. David Trask, "The Survey Course: The Specialty of the Community College Historian," in Community College Historians in the United States, 6. See also David Trask and Philip M. Katz, "Why History Needs the M.A.," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, July 20, 2005, available at http://chronicle.com.
9. Note Michael Henry, "Constructivism in the Community College Classroom," The History Teacher 36, no. 1 (2002): 65-74, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1512495 (3 Apr. 2006). See also Elizabeth Foote, "Collaborative Learning in Community Colleges" (June, 1997) at http://www.ericdigests.org/1998-1/colleges.htm.
10. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Community College Students: Goals, Academic Preparation, and Outcomes, NCES-2003-164, by Gary Hoachlander, Anna C. Sikory, Laura Horn, and C. Dennis Carroll, Project Officer (Washington D.C., 2003), iv–vi. Available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003164.pdf.
13. Carol Stanford Bucy, Tennessee Women: A Guide for Teachers on Integrating Women into the Tennessee Social Studies Curriculum: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve (Tennessee Department of Education, 1994).