Publication Date

April 1, 1997

Perspectives Section

From the President

Most history instructors embrace the ideal of being a teacher-scholar. At the same time, those of us who lived through the post-Sputnik development of the American research university know that institutional support for this ideal has steadily shrunk as funding, advancement, and reputation gravitated to research, leading over time to the creation of an elaborate network of learned journals, scholarly conferences, specialized field organizations, and recruitment efforts directed at locating the brightest stars in the scholarly firmament.

Straws in the wind indicate that the direction of academic attention may be changing. Without Cold War props, the unquestioned preeminence of research is finally being questioned. Often prodded by a disgruntled public, university leaders have started asking how, what, why, and with what kinds of success are their undergraduates being taught.

The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) has made it easier for faculty members to get out in front of this movement with its Teaching Initiatives, a nested set of pilot programs involving departments in 12 universities: Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis; Kent State; Northwestern; Stanford; Syracuse; Temple; California at Santa Cruz; Georgia; Michigan; Nebraska at Lincoln; North Carolina at Charlotte; and Wisconsin at Madison. Stanford psychology professor Lee Shulman, the incoming president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has been a central figure in this program, which has been funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

More or less bracketing questions about student evaluations of teaching, the AAHE program has created a number of ways for us to think in a sustained manner about our teaching and to help one another as peers. Enhancement rather than evaluation is driving these projects, but inevitably the net effect will be to provide more substance for the evaluation of teaching.

Three noteworthy aspects of the AAHE initiative make it attractive: the emphasis on teaching as an intellectual activity; the goal of sustained, career-long efforts to improve teaching; and the encouragement of collaborative peer exchanges. Noting astutely that teachers tend to be private, if not secretive, about their performance in the classroom and that administrators intrude only for promotion purposes or to avoid disasters, the AAHE has called for the same open sharing of information about the elements of good teaching that accompanies discussions of scholarship.

The AAHE has given the AHA a grant to work on course portfolios, one of the pilot ideas. Assistant Director Noralee Frankel is administering it. The course portfolio initiative invites instructors to draw up rationales for the content and organization of a course as a way of demonstrating how particular conceptual issues or intellectual challenges in the presentation of the subject will be, or have been, handled. Since decisions about teaching often go unexamined, providing explicit documentation and analysis tends to make teachers more reflective about what they do and why they do it. Gathering at the January annual meeting of the AHA, Michael Adas (Rutgers Univ.), William Cutler (Temple Univ.), Seth Cotlar (Northwestern Univ.), Mary Ann Heiss (Kent State Univ.), John Inscoe (Univ. of Georgia), Marc Kruman (Wayne State Univ.), and Florencia Mallon (Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison) began working out ways to adapt the course portfolio idea to the specific needs of historians.

Patricia Hutchings, the director of the AAHE program, visited my campus last month to talk about teaching initiatives in an open faculty meeting. Taking a sounding at the outset, she discovered that most faculty there thought that their departments really cared about good teaching and about student learning, but few responded affirmatively to the question that asked if processes and policies were in place that encouraged experimentation, risk taking, collaboration, and improvement of teaching.

In Pat's presentation, we learned about faculty pairing, in which two colleagues team up to attend each other's lectures (at least more than once) and interview each other's students in small focus groups that enable them to explore responses in more depth than the "very enthusiastic about the material" level of student evaluations. Other departments have created "teaching circles" that provide regular times and places for an ongoing discussion about teaching, often focused on obscure areas of classroom instruction as well as successful assignments and presentation strategies.

I'm personally fascinated by the AAHE idea of pedagogical colloquiums in which faculty members speak formally about their approaches to teaching as well as their ideas about student learning. Again the sustained application of thought to a process as complicated as the exchange of ideas between student and teacher can only enrich our understanding. The history department at Stanford, one of the pilot participants, has started asking job candidates to give a pedagogical presentation—a move that has given their graduate students a "heads up" on what may be expected of them and at the same time bringing their own faculty members into the conversation about teaching, its critical components, and possibilities for their enhancement.

All of the teaching initiatives tend to reinforce each other, starting that succession of reflections and ideas that is so familiar to us when we are writing. Of course they all take time, and something will have to give if they are pursued thoroughly, but I'm enthusiastic about these new initiatives because I think they will lead to real improvement in undergraduate education. I also believe that they offer a long-overdue corrective to current ways of evaluating teaching with their emphasis on impressions of reception.

Most of us believe that research, like any other intellectual engagement, enhances the knowledge and thinking of teachers and hence contributes to their teaching. Now we have some vehicles for demonstrating this relationship. Let me know what you think.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.