Publication Date

July 24, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

AHA Initiatives & Projects, Graduate Education


Teaching Methods

The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative is leading a national conversation to better align the purpose of doctoral education with the varying skills, values, and interests of graduate students and the changing professional opportunities for historians within and beyond the academy. In the spring of 2018, 20 PhD-granting history departments were awarded Career Diversity implementation grants to support a team of faculty and a graduate student fellow to collaboratively build sustainable cultural and structural change in their doctoral programs. After two years of work at our partner institutions, we asked the fellows to discuss what they’ve learned and share some of the innovative ways they are creating student-centered doctoral programs that prepare history PhDs for a range of careers.

AHA Career Diversity fellows at the 2018 orientation.

AHA Career Diversity fellows at the 2018 orientation. Elizabeth Poorman.

In this post, the third of a six-part series, Career Diversity fellows Andrew Brown (Texas A&M Univ.), Timothy Herbert (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago), Stacey Murrell (Brown Univ.)., and Joseph Stuart (Univ. of Utah) discuss how their departments have integrated pedagogical training into the graduate curriculum and the many ways sustained intellectual engagement with teaching enhances research, writing, and career exploration.

Why is teaching an important part of the professional development of a well-rounded historian?

JS: Preparing historians for diverse careers means that we must develop the skills that are not only valued in higher education, but that transfer to other areas of employment, too. Teaching, the ability to gather, synthesize, present, and assess understanding, is essential to every job of which I’m aware. Learning to teach is central to the historians’ work wherever they are working. Teaching requires historians to employ their skills in “real time,” whether in person or in print. Teaching is thinking on one’s feet, responding to queries and concerns, either asked or anticipated. Historians cannot do their work if they’re not able to teach others what they’ve discovered through their research.

TH: I swear that the AHA is not requiring me to say this, but anyone wondering about this question should read Jim Grossman’s “To Be a Historian Is to Be a Teacher.” It’s a thoughtful provocation that continues to inform my thinking on the relationship between history and pedagogy.

Taken at their word, history graduate programs have allegedly been preparing college professors for over a century. Yet the question correctly presumes that, until fairly recently, most programs did not consider teaching an important component of professional development. If they did, we wouldn’t need this conversation. I genuinely believe that many faculty understand teaching’s importance and want to improve their own work in the classroom. But as a profession, we often treat pedagogy as something you figure out as you go rather than as a subject worthy of sustained intellectual engagement on par with other research fields.

AB: Joseph and Tim hit most of the major points here. I would just add that the tools of the teacher are the tools of the historian. Historians in and out of the classroom are asking the same questions. Teachers understand that they are not able to cover all of the material on a given topic in their class, they therefore have to make decisions on what to include and what to leave out. This is central to the work of the historian, who has to decide what type of narrative to construct in their research. Whether in the classroom, in a museum, or a research center, historians constantly ask what themes, events, and people will frame their narrative and how this constructed narrative will be interpreted by their audience. Additionally, teaching requires you to think about your audience, as that will inform the format and content of your lesson. In other words, becoming a better teacher can also help you become a better researcher and writer.

As a profession, we often treat pedagogy as something you figure out as you go rather than as a subject worthy of sustained intellectual engagement on par with other research fields.

SM: I agree with what everyone has said, but I also want to bring up the fact that the skills of a historian are useful even beyond being a teacher or working as a researcher. We teach students how to analyze sources, to be critical readers, and to be able to construct their own informed understandings of a situation that emphasizes the relevance of context. These skills are particularly valuable in the world we live in, because there is so much about “fake news” or bias, but also current events that for some seem totally new, but in fact are rooted in centuries old problems and patterns. These skills are at the core of what the discipline has to offer to the “real world.”

How has Career Diversity in your department emphasized pedagogy?

TH: At UIC, we worked to infuse pedagogy into the department culture and curriculum in a few ways. We continued offering a series of teaching workshops (open to all but aimed at graduate students) launched before the grant. We convened a reading group that returned this summer after a brief hiatus. We also have a number of alumni who teach at community colleges and other teaching-centered institutions, and many of them agreed to serve as resources for current graduate students curious about teaching and working at those institutions. Most importantly, we pushed to add a pedagogy course to the graduate curriculum. Working toward that goal required initiating an ongoing conversation about both the purpose of our program and pedagogy’s place within it.

AB: At Texas A&M, we wanted to start a dialogue on pedagogy with participation from both graduate students and faculty in part because the academic jobs our graduates secure are concentrated at teaching-focused institutions. We did this in two ways. As the Career Diversity fellow, I led an initiative with faculty to design a pedagogy curriculum that could be integrated into the department’s existing historiography course, a required first-semester class. The curriculum is meant to introduce students to the differing ways they could teach history according to various fields and units of analysis. This occurs as students gain their first exposure to classroom teaching as teaching assistants. The second way we started a dialogue was by creating a pedagogy working group (with generous support from the department and one of our faculty members). The working group is meant to demonstrate that pedagogy is not something that can be taught once, but should be part of an ongoing conversation throughout one’s teaching career. Members of the department at every level could attend the working group and discuss pedagogical issues they confronted in the classroom such as creating effective in-class activities and the role of technology in the classroom.

SM: At Brown, the first Career Diversity Fellow, Juan Betancourt-Garcia, started a successful pedagogy reading group. This year we built on that enthusiasm and momentum to mix in hands-on workshops with the discussion sessions. One of our most successful sessions focused on lectures from a pedagogical standpoint. Since it was a hands-on session, we had a professor and a recent graduate walk us through the mechanics of scaffolding in a lecture, balancing between details and big picture, and the place of lectures within course planning. But we also wanted to provide a bit more support for our TAs, so we undertook a complete overhaul of our TA handbook, which includes sample written feedback, tips for incorporating active learning, strategies for decolonizing curriculum and practicing equitable grading, and sample syllabi and rubrics for TA sections. This is used in the day-long training for TAs and acts as a resource throughout the year. One of our reading group sessions also addressed how to teach history skills as TAs, thinking through how to give our students the same experience of being “in the lab” found in the sciences, and the revised TA handbook will include some of the results of that conversation.

We also developed plans for a year-long proctorship working with Choices, a program hosted in the History Department that develops curriculum for middle-school public education. We wanted to create a more sustained and involved partnership that would involve conducting research on how effective the curricular units are, how to better work with districts to distribute digital curriculum, the viability of working with community colleges as a market for curricular units, and the possibility of collaborating with museums to broaden the audience for this content. We had two proctors working with Choices this summer, and a semester-long version of the proctorship launches this fall.

JS: At Utah, we’ve also started a pedagogy reading group designed to help students consider the broader philosophies of teaching and the mechanics of how to teach. Our group is relatively small, about seven people, but that size allows us to have robust conversations. What’s been striking to me is that so many of our students, whether they attend the workshop or not, really want to teach. While research, writing, and other skills associated with graduate work in history are addressed at length in the department, many of us wanted to be historians because of great history teachers we encountered at some point in our education. This is particularly true of our MA students, who often wanted to pursue graduate historical training because of faculty members who took them under their wing and made history come alive for them. Career diversity has given students at Utah the go-ahead to develop these skills as our department works out exactly what a formal pedagogy class might look like as a part of our graduate curriculum.

What would this pedagogy training change in your own classroom and other educational practices? Has it changed how you think about work outside a classroom?

TH: My own graduate pedagogical preparation has helped me think about teaching in a much more expansive sense. Rather than simply transmitting knowledge, I now ponder how to help students learn to think historically and construct their own knowledge. Thinking about teaching has allowed me to reflect on my philosophy and practice in ways that I likely would not have if I didn’t have a forum to do so at UIC. To the second part of the question, I’m not sure it would have even occurred to me to think about pedagogy outside the classroom before. Part of developing a more expansive view of teaching is realizing the different ways pedagogy creeps into all types of settings.

AB: Working on our pedagogy curriculum influenced my teaching in profound ways. First, it encouraged me to look beyond the coverage model common in American history survey courses in favor of case studies. Second, I began flipping my classroom and utilizing a more student-centered approach. I began welcoming my students into a historiographical conversation in class and this helped the students feel like more active participants in the course. Finally, I’ve developed the habit of consulting the scholarship on teaching and learning in history. As I said above, I think teaching is something historians do both inside and out of a classroom. We are all asking the same questions. I think by admitting the fact that teaching is something we do everywhere, it will also allow us to redefine what we think are “successful careers” for historians.

By admitting the fact that teaching is something we do everywhere, it will also allow us to redefine what we think are “successful careers” for historians.

JS: Nearly every time that undergraduates tell me that they loved a history class they took, they say something like “I didn’t think that I liked history before [x class]. The professor really made history come alive.” I have thought a lot about this statement over the past several months, as I’ve been required to move my courses online. I think often what they mean is that history professors taught them historical skills, such as “seeing things in context,” “how to read a source,” “why history matters,” and “what’s the big picture of historical events.”

Our reading group and informal discussions in seminars or hallways regarding pedagogy ask graduate students to think much more deeply about what we are seeking to do as we educate. We aren’t only trying to help our students learn about important events, we are working to help students learn why events are important.

These pedagogy groups have also taught me that historians must be able to tie the present to the past. No matter what time we live in, but perhaps especially during this period of what feels like major turning points in American culture, our students are going to be engaging with the ideas, systems, and people that made our present what it is. Now, and in future, I will take more time to use present events to show how we arrived at this point. For instance, I just taught the introduction of Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson. It would have been irresponsible not to tie them to the murder of Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, George Floyd, and other victims of racist violence. Most of the class was spent asking and answering questions about race, policing, real estate, racial disparities in healthcare, and more. When I wrote my syllabus I knew we would discuss racism and racial disparities. But because of pedagogical training and discussions, I felt comfortable pivoting to addressing current crises, not only the crises of the past.

SM: One of my undergraduate majors was in educational studies, so for me there was no separating history from education. Working to develop the pedagogical tools and resources for my department gave me an opportunity to share some of that training (especially since my undergraduate program focused on secondary schools), because most graduate students (and for that matter, professors) are trained to think more about the content they are teaching and not the strategies or methods of that instruction. I also think that convening the pedagogy reading group allowed students to learn from each other and adopt new lessons, and hopefully we’ll be able to gather all of that information and make it available for future grads.

Andrew Brown is a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University, where he is writing a dissertation on the Smithsonian Institution and science diplomacy in the 1970s and 80s. He will begin teaching history at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in fall 2020.

Tim Herbert is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In fall 2020, he will begin teaching history at Proviso West High School in Hillside, Illinois.

Stacey Murrell is a PhD candidate in medieval history at Brown University, where she is writing a dissertation on concubinage from the perspective of its role in rulership in the polities of Iberia, North Africa, and Sicily between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Joseph Stuart is a PhD candidate in American history at the University of Utah, where he studies the relationship of race, masculinity, and religion among Black organizations that opposed integration in the Long Civil Rights Movement.

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