Creating the History Curriculum for the 21st Century: Experiences and Issues

Irvin D. Solomon, September 2000

One of the major issues history teachers regularly face today is the nature and the method of delivery of the college curriculum. While I do not have a crystal ball that is capable of projecting the future, I do have the rather unusual experience of creating from scratch a history curriculum for Florida's and the nation's newest state university campus. My experience reflects issues and trends that will, I suggest, affect the rest of our profession in profound and troubling ways.

Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) opened on August 25, 1997. The new university was to be vibrant and modern, was to grow to a student body of 10,500 by the year 2006, and was to challenge not only traditional curricular offerings, but also traditional employment practices. The Florida legislature guided the drafts of the embryonic school's mission statement. In keeping with many national trends, the legislature's actions resulted in much talk of "accountability," "program assessment," "interdisciplinarity" (which many interpreted as thinly disguised criticisms of the traditional liberal arts), and always the overarching discussions of the "market model" (that is, consumerism and lack of tenure). Even though many of these principles may, in fact, have value, the intellectual debate over them, which would have been so characteristic of the decision-making process of the traditional institution, seemed to be absent in the FGCU planning process.

The Florida Board of Regents, for its part, promulgated a mission statement, which established the guidelines for a politically stimulated "forward-looking model." The new paradigm promised to focus on providing quality undergraduate education, limited graduate programs that considered the needs and schedules of working adults, a variety of alternative learning and teaching systems such as distance learning through televised and Internet courses, computer-aided instruction, competency-based education, and replacing tenure with a system of multiyear appointments (MYAs). FGCU's founding president, academic vice president, and deans' council issued eight Guiding Principles (see box), which emphasized student success, use of technology, and "connected knowing and collaborative learning." Particularly troubling in the creation of both the Mission Statement and Guiding Principles was the perceived absence of meaningful faculty input. Faculty were, therefore, essentially expected to implement policies and untested assumptions that might have been adopted more for political than for sound pedagogical reasons. Herein lay reflection number one for those of us involved in curriculum development for the new school: our task would be guided by both political and pedagogical concepts of what the traditional academy represented and of what the prototypical school of the 21st century should look like.

As I proceeded to develop FGCU's History Program, I quickly perceived new challenges to the traditional role of, and expectation for, the teaching of history. FGCU's founding administration's decision to create a College of Arts and Sciences without traditional majors and minors presented the first departure from the traditional model. Under this framework, all Arts and Sciences students would be required to take an interdisciplinary track as their major and pursue discipline-intensive areas like history as secondary "concentrations." I also realized that by experimenting with MYAs as a substitute for tenure (except for those of us transferring in with tenure lines from other Florida State universities), FGCU's founding administration had decided to dismantle another traditional paradigm of higher education.

This resulted in hiring and retention concerns regarding highly qualified and talented history faculty. For example, many respondents to our job ads seemed to state that they were seeking a tenure-track position, despite a clear statement in the ads that FGCU had committed itself to MYAs in lieu of tenure. This candidate "blind spot" to a nontenure-track university even carried over into the telephone interview process, as more than one candidate withdrew from the discussion once I reiterated that a tenure-line would not be offered as a condition of employment. Ultimately, I and other committee members realized that our pool of candidates was weakening with each withdrawal despite the glut of PhDs. Subsequently, we seriously considered whether the nontenure issue had dissuaded capable and well-qualified candidates and had conversely persuaded less qualified candidates to apply in the belief that a nontenure school would cast "a very large net, indeed." I would, therefore, suggest to those contemplating the ending of tenure to ask themselves the following question: if you are really good at your chosen profession, are you more likely to pursue a job with security or one without security? Obviously, there are many variables inherent in this question, but it is certainly one worthy of professional inquiry.

Eventually, however, the issue of distance learning offered the greatest challenge to the traditional model of history instruction. As I perused the existing literature and explored relevant Internet sites, it became apparent that there were many critics of the new model who warned of possible problems caused by the unreserved use of technology and distance learning. Was it possible that distance learning might be economical from the administration's point of view, but not an effective form of instruction from the faculty's vantage point? Moreover, would students, especially low-income students, have access to necessary computer hardware and software to receive and respond to distance-learning courses? Would it be possible to go overboard with distance learning?1 Would it be foolhardy to neglect the issue of how distance learning might reshape both the new students' and experienced educators' expectations for quality instruction?2

Another thorny issue was whether all levels of classes were appropriate for distance learning. How would teaching strategies in upper-level and exit courses address development of research and writing skills over distance? How would professors train students in the rigorous methodology of history via electronic bridges? Perhaps most important, how would instructors verify authorship of electronically submitted research papers? All these presented pedagogical conundrums to those developing the FGCU history curriculum.

In a real sense, FGCU's "experiment" with technology and distance learning evoked issues that transcended individual disciplines. Faculty members across the curriculum expressed workload concerns about mastering complex new teaching technology and about the demanding nature of Internet and other electronics-based courses because of the potential for unwieldy numbers of teacher-student contact hours. Would teaching electronic courses actually be more work than teaching in a conventional classroom? This issue carried significant implications regarding the ability to deliver quality instruction and to reasonably meet contractual working conditions.

The persistent argument that technology-based courses do, indeed, deliver quality instruction is problematic. Frequently, technology glitches impede the learning process, but just as frequently, students and professors lament the lack of spontaneous and group interaction in technology-focused coursework. Moreover, what type of learning actually takes place over Internet-based courses? Is it inductive? Interactive? Delayed interactive? Intuitive? Or simply rote learning? An even thornier issue is whether or not the discipline of history actually lends itself to distance learning. Obviously, learning can, and does, take place over time and space, but is that learning qualitative? My experiences would suggest that professional historians, including their representative state and national organizations, should carefully deliberate this concern.

In sum, my experience in building the new history program for the 21st century involved merging the influences of the computer age with evolving political realities (or what might have seemed like merging the expectations of Generation X with the slogans of Madison Avenue). Professors and program leaders today must speak and teach both to new technical skills and demands and to new intellectual, professional, and contractual demands as enunciated by politically focused legislators, boards of regents, management-oriented administrators, and consumer-oriented students. Whether we like it or not, society is now requiring that history programs become innovative and eclectic in myriad ways. The traditional curricular skills and approaches of the past will not meet present and future demands. Thus, it is useful for history teachers to move into the new millennium with new concepts of what history programs should and should not do for an inevitable wave of forward-looking students, consumers, and technology- and distance-learning-smitten legislators. Within this context, it becomes clear that the nation's newest university's mission, and our attempts to fulfill that mission in meaningful, qualitative ways, become symbolic lessons for all educators.

—Irvin D. Solomon is History Program Director, Florida Gulf Coast University. He is tenured in the Florida State University System. He would like to thank David B. Mock and Annette Atkins for their constructive criticism of an earlier draft of this article.


1. Two recent studies have called into question the sweeping presumptions by many educators and politicians that distance learning is, indeed, an effective way to educate college students. See "What's the Difference: A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education," Institute for Higher Education Policy (, and "The Virtual University of Educational Opportunity—Issues of Equality and Access for the Next Generation," The College Board (

2. See, for example, William F. Massy, "Life on the Wired Campus: How Information Technology Will Shape Institutional Futures," in Diana G. Oblinger and Sean C. Gold, eds., The Learning Revolution: The Challenge of Information Technology in the Academy (Bolton, N.Y.: Anker Publishing Co., 1997); Michael G. Moore, Melody M. Thompson, B. Allen Quigley, G. Christofer Clark, and Gerald G. Goff, The Effects of Distance Learning: A Summary of Literature (University Park, Pa.: American Center for the Study of Distance Education, 1990); Ruth Phelps, Rosalie A. Wells, Robert L. Ashworth, Jr., and Heidi A. Hahn, "Effectiveness and Costs of Distance Education Using Computer-Mediated Communication," The American Journal of Distance Education 5:3 (1991), 7–19; Ronald A. Phipps, Jane V. Wellman, and Jamie P. Merisotis, Assuring Quality in Distance Learning: A Preliminary Review (Washington, D.C.: Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 1998).