Publication Date

November 21, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the President

John R. McNeillNow that the AHA will no longer support job interviews at its annual meeting, that winter ritual will have a different feel to it. It will also have more available physical space in the hotels in which the annual meeting is held. The space reserved for interviews, the unlamented “pit,” will be no more. What should the AHA do with that space?

The leading idea at the moment is to devote it to sessions focused on professional development. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals are often required to make sure their skills remain up to date by attending workshops specifically designed with that goal in mind. Perhaps the annual meeting can offer equivalent opportunities for historians. We all need to keep learning and keep refining our skills.

As we reimagine the annual meeting as a professional development space, one of the challenges is to drill down into the different categories of “teachers” who are part of the AHA.

The AHA membership includes historians working in all kinds of settings. Professional development sessions of many different kinds might be welcome. But since such a large proportion of the AHA membership is composed of teachers, let’s begin there. Novice teachers often feel unsure of their command of their subject. Experienced teachers are often asked, or volunteer, to teach something new and unfamiliar. Everyone faces the challenge of keeping up with new technologies intended to improve teaching. And, of course, interpretations change and new research findings emerge, and teachers want to make sure they stay caught up with the latest scholarship.

As we reimagine the annual meeting as a professional development space, one of the challenges is to drill down into the different categories of “teachers” who are part of the AHA. There are teachers in training—graduate students in PhD programs who are already getting professional coaching at their institutions but want to get exposure to the larger landscape of higher ed. (For some grad students, teaching workshops at a national conference can offer a crucial supplement to the training their own programs cannot or do not provide.) There are community college teachers who do critical work helping students bridge high school “social studies” and college “history.” There are adjunct professors whose challenges include learning a kind of academic code-switching as they commute from place to place (often in one day); they work everywhere in higher ed, from the community college to the research university. Adjuncts, too, have to develop a repertoire of effective teaching skills while trying to publish so they can stay competitive for a job that will enable them to finally teach in one place. 

There are plenty of faculty members who never received teacher training but want to press the reset button on their teaching.

Tenure-track faculty members must also forge a double identity as teacher-scholars, albeit with much more time and stability. Still, their teaching challenges can vary widely, depending on the sort of institution where they work. Do they have to develop a solid set of lectures fit for 300 students? Can they play a bit with that format by imagining a “think-pair-share” in a lecture hall with seats bolted to the floor? Or are they at a small college where there are high expectations for advising and mentoring undergraduate research? In this case, professors find themselves teaching from their office chairs, spending countless hours coaching novices in research and writing skills. Are these early career tenure-track faculty members teaching graduate students? If so, they have to think about how to teach historians who lack advanced degrees but are already highly skilled—in other words, how to inhabit a teaching persona that signals expertise even if they are fresh out of graduate school themselves. Finally, there are plenty of mid-career or more advanced faculty members who never received teacher training but remain curious and open and want to press the reset button on their teaching. 

Victoria Stewart and Thomas Gubbels at the K–16 Teaching Workshop at AHA19 in Chicago.

Victoria Stewart and Thomas Gubbels at the K–16 Teaching Workshop at AHA19 in Chicago. Marc Monaghan

K–12 teachers (who, lest anyone forget, often have master’s degrees or PhDs) are also part of the AHA’s professional community, and they, too, inhabit diverse and complex teaching institutions. Indeed, those of us in higher education can learn much from the way our K–12 colleagues work on their craft. Every K–12 teacher knows the abbreviation “PD,” because professional development is baked into their identity. It is an integral part of their socialization into the teaching profession, and most do PD year-round. They receive pay either for those hours or for substitutes, to free up their time. District support of and state funding for these efforts vary widely, and the AHA continues to endorse PD, which treats K–12 teachers like the professionals they are.

The AHA wants to create a whole culture of continuing professional education that is responsive and inclusive.

Our challenges can vary dramatically, but we still share an identity: we are all working teachers. We are trying to solve beautifully complex puzzles about how humans learn. The AHA’s view is that much can be gained when teachers from various parts of the educational ecosystem learn together—or at least learn adjacent to one another. One benefit of rethinking the AHA annual meeting as a professional development space is that it can become a kind of teaching commons, a place where K–16 teachers can think—and talk together—about history education as a learning continuum. 

We detail this list of teacher types to say we see you. And we want to hear from you too. Now that the annual meeting is changing, what can it offer the working teacher? We want to provide panels, workshops, and meetups that respond to what you need. But we want to do more than that. The AHA wants to create a whole culture of continuing professional education that is responsive and inclusive. We want to offer an annual meeting that will motivate you to put the AHA into your conference rotation and embolden you to ask your dean, principal, or department for support in money or time, at least when personal schedules and childcare arrangements can be flexible. (The AHA offers grants to offset some of the costs of attending the annual meeting.) Professional development is work. But it can also renew and energize us. It can spark joy—which would be an improvement on most job interviews.

John R. McNeill is president of the AHA. Laura McEnaney is vice president of the AHA Teaching Division.

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