Publication Date

November 10, 2020

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


  • World

Over the past decade, historians have grappled in print and in practice with the question of how our profession can adapt to the changing shape of the world without sacrificing the core of our craft as we understand it. A range of obstacles overlie the landscape of higher learning, from an enrollment crisis in college-level history courses, to the intense financial pressures facing students, complications and opportunities provided by new technologies, and a sheaf of sometimes-contradictory mandates from administrators and legislators. More broadly, the pandemic and recent acts of resistance to structural racism have deepened the demand that the United States, and historians in particular, take a hard look at our embedded assumptions and behaviors. Meanwhile, renewed culture wars loom, manifest most recently in the Trump administration’s attempt to regulate the teaching of American history.

Should artifacts taken during colonization, such as this painting from Ethiopia found in the British Museum, be returned? Questions exploring colonialism in museums, curriculum, and the community are central to the “Questioning Decolonizing” module of the History for the 21st Century project.

Should artifacts taken during colonization, such as this painting from Ethiopia found in the British Museum, be returned? Questions exploring colonialism in museums, curriculum, and the community are central to the “Questioning Decolonizing” module of the History for the 21st Century project. © The Trustees of the British Museum, asset #324782001, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

As a discipline, we are shifting to strategies that address these challenges forthrightly. The AHA’s History Gateways initiative is one example. At the 2020 AHA annual meeting, half-a-dozen sessions were devoted to improving introductory courses. Even AHA president Mary Lindemann advanced her own “immodest proposal” in the February 2020 issue of this magazine, making an impassioned case that introductory courses do just that: introduce students “to what makes history so valuable.”

At the same time, emerging responses to this challenge have sometimes taken the form of grassroots collaborations among instructors and historians. This article serves as an invitation to participate in one such collaboration. History for the 21st Century (H/21) is a project that mobilizes and equips faculty to address together the challenges facing our discipline, our students, even our fellow faculty through a redesign of introductory college history courses. Based at San Francisco State University (SFSU), H/21 aims to foster the production of peer-reviewed, student-centered, open educational resources (OER): teaching materials that are free to students and instructors for use in introductory courses. The project’s editorial board includes Urmi Engineer Willoughby (Pitzer Coll.), Molly Warsh (Univ. of Pittsburgh), Jesse Spohnholz (Washington State Univ.), and Trevor Getz (San Francisco State Univ.).

The H/21 initiative launched in August 2019 with a meeting at SFSU of leading history educators and world history instructors (including veterans of significant world history textbook projects) from around the country. Bob Bain’s (Univ. of Michigan) keynote reviewed the long history of incomplete efforts at broad curricular reform and challenged us to be comprehensive, creative, community-focused, and effective. We asked participants to consider such elements as the challenges noted in our opening paragraph, the reliance on overworked contingent faculty (as well as the workload of tenure-track faculty), changing historiographical frameworks, and what we know about effective learning. The result was a provocative set of ideas and proposals that developed from both precirculated papers and brief on-site presentations. Some of the papers pushed us to think about how introductory courses can recruit new majors; others emphasized serving communities that will likely never take another history course. Some participants urged us to meet students where they are; others advocated pushing them in new directions. Some attendees provided concrete suggestions for content, format, activities, and assessments that are tried and tested; others proposed truly novel approaches. Many pointed out the need to think about the course in terms of skill-building progressions.

Responses to the challenge have sometimes taken the form of grassroots collaborations among instructors and historians.

For all the variety of emphasis and perspective, there was broad agreement that community building among authors and instructors is essential to improving our craft, and that this collaboration begins with introductory courses. We contemplated how these two strategies might be brought together in an educative curriculum in which participants honed their own skills as instructors while also supporting student learning. Overall, we embraced a suggestion that the project focus on sponsoring and supporting the building of carefully designed and fully realized teaching modules. The precirculated papers and transcripts of our discussions are available on the H/21 website and may be of use to your departments or learning communities. They range from calls to make our teaching materials more relevant to deep dives into the question of “what historians do.” They challenge us to complicate our thinking and simplify our teaching, all the while assessing its effectiveness for our students’ current and future selves.

In the wake of this conference, we designed two significant initiatives to transform our conversations into a community of faculty-scholars producing student-centered pedagogical materials for one another.

First, using funds made available through a grant from the Agentives Fund, H/21 is commissioning authors to build free, digitally available units (called Modules Ready to Educate, or MREs) that teach both skills and historical content. Following peer review and testing, MREs are being made available for instructors and students to use, and modify, for free. Designed to utilize two to four class sessions, these MREs will include all of the information, materials, and supporting documentation an instructor will need to adopt or adapt to their classes and teaching approaches. Once users have registered on the H/21 website to access the available MREs, those materials can be freely adopted or adapted for classroom use.

MREs follow an inquiry-based design. Each poses a question to students of world historical value. It provides them with tools to learn the skills necessary for answering that question, and sources on which to practice using those tools. In other words, each module aims to help the student accessing it learn to “think like a historian” at a level appropriate for an introductory course, using real and meaningful historical content. Because each derives from the expertise of the author, the modules can incorporate interesting reflections, unusual materials, and deep considerations of method.

Four MREs are currently available. One is “An Object of Seduction: The Early Modern Trans-Pacific Silk Trade,” authored by Dr. Xiaolin Duan. This module compares silk production and culture in early modern Mexico and China. It begins with a history of sericulture before immersing students in a world of trade, fashion, and culture. Through visual sources, such as paintings, maps, and silk cloth, and documentary evidence from both sides of the Pacific, the module is designed to build students’ skills in working with evidence in comparative perspective. It also has the potential to build their understanding of global connections, a theme central to any world history introductory course.

H/21 is commissioning authors to build free, digitally available units that teach both skills and historical content.

Three other completed modules are already available for instructors to use and adapt. Andrew Hardy’s “Imperial Strategies in the Early Chinese Empire” encourages a deep reading of primary sources on statecraft during the rule of China’s Han Dynasty. “Questioning Decolonization” asks students to consider “curriculum decolonization” in the context of historical decolonization. The module “1905” takes them on an exploration of the year 1905 across the globe. We are in the process of commissioning another eight modules for development this year. These additional modules will cover topics such as the First World War in Africa, interpreting contemporary narratives about the origins of Islam, comparing understandings of violence in the early modern era, and connecting global political and military events in the 19th century. We are accepting proposals for new MREs on an ongoing basis; a module proposal form can be found on the website.

Beyond authoring and using, H/21 will be building a community of engaged teacher-scholars. All modules will be available to other instructors for comment, new ideas, twists, and reports of effectiveness. Through this community aspect, instructors will benefit from coming together to explore how to engage students better, assess better, and teach better (oh, and have fun doing it!).

In the future, we will sponsor papers, proposals, and discussions on course design so that instructors can explore frameworks to adapt their existing courses or shift to an all-module approach. We are also working with partners to develop a common format that will make it easier for instructors to find primary sources and teaching materials. The AHA has provided space for these conversations at various events, including the annual meeting and the Virtual AHA Online Teaching Forum. We are tackling world history courses first; we plan to turn to US history in 2021. H/21 doesn’t claim to provide definitive or even comprehensive solutions for these courses. Instead, our goal is to develop a community that is faculty-led, student-centered, and effective at producing and sharing materials and curricula perfectly suited to students at the introductory level.

There’s a long path ahead (or, more accurately, many long paths). But we will start here, with work shared among faculty members, within departments, and with administrators. H/21 is building a platform for our community to rewrite how we do history with and for 21st-century students. Our hope is that many of you will join us in the undertaking.

Trevor R. Getz and Steven M. Harris are co-directors of the History for the 21st Century Project. They both teach history at San Francisco State University.

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