Publication Date

November 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

A surprising thing happened at the American Historical Association annual meeting in San Francisco, December 1989. A session scheduled for the last hour on the last day of the meeting, and announced on the last page of the Program, opened to a standing-room-only audience! What, you may ask, was the subject that attracted such interest? It was not a session on a subject, but on a method. No, it was not about numbers or computers, but about teaching. The Program asked the question: How do we train historians to teach?

The session was part of a larger effort of the Association and other historical bodies to bring together teachers of history at all levels of education: the History Teaching Alliance. The Alliance has organized collaborative workshops and projects between secondary school and college teachers of history around the country for the purpose of bringing history to local communities. The History Teaching Alliance organized the session at the AHA meeting in order to explore how prospective professors of history—that is—graduate students, could be trained to teach as well as to research history.

The panel of five speakers encompassed a range of teachers of history, including a public and a private secondary school teacher, a couple of college teachers, an advanced graduate student in history who had taught in high school for several years, and, for good measure, a history textbook writer. Despite the diversity of the panel, all members agreed on the need for some emphasis upon teaching in the course of preparing young people to be professional historians if only because teaching was the way the great majority of them would earn their living. Still, there was more to it than that, as both panel members and participants in the later discussion from the audience made clear. History is too important a subject in the lives of people to be treated as just a body of information to be purveyed mechanically or uninterestingly.

The operative question was: How could young historians be taught to present their subject in an engaging and memorable way? Although no one doubted the value of good teaching or the need to improve the quality of instruction, there was no consensus as to how that could be imparted to the beginner. All of the panelists and several members of the audience agreed, for example, that the source of much good teaching was the particular teacher. If he/she loved the subject, knew it well, and recognized its importance to the students, good teaching was very likely to follow. But mere knowledge or even enthusiasm for the subject and students are not sufficient in many cases, as panelist Susan Shapiro, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, pointed out. One had to find “the hook,” an approach to the past that would catch the students’ interest. It might be an event in the daily newspaper or a local controversy that would provide an opening to a broader past. Another panelist, George Moss, City College of San Francisco, used his writing of a textbook as a device for involving students, as well as for vetting early drafts of his book. Comments from the floor stressed the need to respect students in getting the subject across; sarcasm or a sense of superiority were both out of place and counterproductive, they emphasized. Panelist Steve Noll, a former high school teacher and now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, contended that making a firm “connection” between student and teacher was almost as important as the subject itself. He urged graduate students to take responsibility to look for ways to arouse student interest, to present a subject in an enticing way, to think about teaching and not to wait for instruction in pedagogy from their graduate instructors. That instruction might not come, but even if it did, a large part of learning to teach, he emphasized, involves self-awareness and self-direction.

In fact, the lack or absence of training in teaching during the course of the Ph.D. was a common lament from both panelists and audience. As George Moss remarked, his graduate work at Berkeley had been excellent training for scholarly research, but no thought, and thus no instruction, was given in the matter of how to teach that which had been so thoroughly imbibed from his high-powered graduate instructors. He observed that teaching seemed to be perceived by his instructors the way sex was treated in Victorian households: it was never mentioned. The thought apparently was, Moss wryly observed, that, like good Victorians who managed to have offspring nonetheless, “We would all ‘naturally’ teach without any instruction.”

Certainly that was true in my experience in graduate school across the continent at Columbia University twenty years earlier. What training I received as a teacher while going through graduate school was on-the-job training at part-time teaching positions at Hunter College, New York University, and City College. Two of these institutions had evaluating procedures wherein a senior professor would suddenly drop into your class, sit himself in the back of the room, and begin madly taking notes as you flustered through your lecture. No significant feedback on the quality of teaching emerged from the experience.

More instructive was my experience at my first full-time job after completing the Ph.D. That was at Vassar College, where the department’s commitment to good teaching included informal discussions on how individuals prepared courses, structured syllabi, assigned written work, and conducted classes. There were no class visits, but the department’s interest in teaching accomplished the same end without the surprise or the intrusion. In short, in my generation teaching was largely an afterthought; it was a necessity, to be sure, but hardly a part of one’s training to be a professional historian, though teaching was precisely what one was going to be paid to do.

That rather laissez-faire approach has ceased to be acceptable, as the comments at the session and subsequent inquiries made clear. In all fields, as well as in history, teaching is now sufficiently prized that some universities have formal programs to train graduate students to teach, usually as a part of their work as teaching assistants. Syracuse University has an elaborate program in which teaching assistants are brought to the university before classes start in the fall for a two-week orientation program, for which they are remunerated. The graduate students prepare short presentations for videotaping, which are then reviewed by peers, and receive materials and oral instruction on teaching techniques. Teaching assistants at the University of Colorado have available to them a year’s program of classes and workshops on teaching, for the successful completion of which a certificate of teaching is issued. Stanford University has a Center for Teaching and Learning, which has prepared written materials with suggestions on teaching small discussion groups, preparing a lecture, and composing examinations. (The handbook and other materials on teaching are available for purchase from the Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford, CA 94305.) The advice and materials are available to all prospective teachers at Stanford, but no one is compelled to participate. Nonetheless, between 250 and 300 persons take teaching orientation. The Center also encourages graduate assistants and faculty to have their class presentations videotaped and then analyzed by experienced teachers. Only about fifty teaching assistants each year have videotape consultations, principally because that kind of analysis is, understandably, more anxiety-producing than other kinds. Stanford has also provided for over a decade a three-session program for teaching assistants on the grading of undergraduate writing, but the funding for that program has lately run out. To encourage attendance at these meetings a small remuneration was given in recognition of the many competing claims on teaching assistants’ time. UCLA offers a detailed program to encourage departments to develop their own particular arrangements for training teaching assistants. More heavily than Stanford, UCLA relies in its program for teaching assistants upon videotaped performances reviewed by peers and experienced teachers.

The interest at a number of universities in encouraging graduate assistants to improve their teaching has reached the point where national meetings are held to spread the word and the instruction. Ohio State’s Center for Teaching Excellence, for example, sponsored in 1987 the first national conference on the Employment and Education of Teaching Assistants. Representatives from over one hundred United States and two Canadian universities attended the three days of lectures and workshops on all aspects of the work of teaching assistants. The 1989 national conference, under the title “Preparing the Professoriate of Tomorrow for Teaching,” was sponsored by the University of Washington at Seattle, which counted several hundred participants.

A large part of the impetus behind such programs derives, of course, from the universities’ heavy reliance upon teaching assistants and the recognition that neither students nor parents, who pay substantial tuition, will be satisfied with indifferent instruction. The University of Colorado, for example, justified its Graduate Teaching Program on the ground that it assisted graduate students not only to support their professional development, but also to achieve “the ultimate goal of improving undergraduate education” at Boulder. Most graduate instructors are well aware that letters announcing openings in history often stress the need for teaching experience. (That was one reason the University of Colorado introduced its Graduate Teacher Certificate.) One member of the session audience drew on this interest in the teaching experience to recommend that graduate departments and students begin to submit videotapes of a candidate’s teaching as a part of his or her placement dossier. Such a procedure, used more broadly in evaluating promotions, would also help to answer that always perplexing question of how to find a common measure or standard to evaluate teaching as against the tangible measures provided by scholarly publications. Thus department members could observe directly a candidate’s performance and apply their individual (or common) standard for judgement.

The rising emphasis upon teaching in appointments suggests also a way in which teacher training for history graduate programs may be facilitated. At the moment, for example, the Stanford History Department has a teaching requirement for its prospective Ph.D.s but it is not systematized, as I suspect similar programs at other Ph.D.-granting departments are not. At Stanford a student teaches a course of his or her own devising under the supervision of an advisor, as well as gives a lecture in a course for which he or she serves as a teaching assistant. The supervision of that work, however, can be quite loose because it is not defined or closely monitored by the department.

Integrating that departmental instruction with the University’s Center on Teaching and Learning would supply structure and uniformity and thus provide a much more valuable program than is presently in place. In pursuit of greater emphasis upon teaching, another member of the session audience went so far as to recommend that “passion” for teaching be taken much more seriously in setting up criteria for admission to graduate work in history. George Moss suggested that universities might look into establishing internships at nearby community colleges and high schools where doctoral candidates could obtain some instruction and experience in teaching beyond lecturing, the commonest mode at universities for centuries.

It is true, as commentators from the audience and from the panel observed, that it is not easy to make every scholar into a superb teacher, but the new accent on teaching training in graduate schools around the country demonstrates that teaching can be improved by listening to and putting into practice the recommendations of experienced teachers and paying attention to the concerns as well as the distractions that impinge upon undergraduates. Experience, like history itself, is the great teacher in pedagogy as well as elsewhere. Thus it seems likely that the present movement to devote more attention to training young historians to teach will surely continue until the practice may become as fixed a part of graduate training as the research seminar paper. That was at least the hope and the message of the panelists and the audience at that surprising session in San Francisco.

Carl N. Degler is Margaret Byrne Professor Emeritus of American History at Stanford University. Robert Kunath is a graduate student in history at Stanford and the Coordinator of TA Training at that institution's Center for Teaching and Learning.