Publication Date

September 2, 2014

On May 20, 130 historians, administrators, and public historians gathered at St. Francis College in Brooklyn for a one-day conference: Teaching History to Undergraduates: A Regional Conversation. As participants in the AHA’s Tuning project who are based at institutions in the New York-New Jersey area, we organized this event as a regional discussion of current issues in college history education. It was an occasion for a broad group of faculty historians and their allies to reflect on the state of undergraduate history at their institutions. Attendees came from as far away as Massachusetts and Delaware to share ideas on how to improve student learning in history and how to advocate for each other and for the history discipline.

The conference began as an idea among the organizers, who had gotten to know one another through the Tuning project. We thought that a regional conference would introduce the project to historians in the Northeast and allow us to talk about the issues facing history education. The goal of the conference was to start a conversation about what history students should know and be able to do upon completion of introductory classes at a community college or completion of a BA degree.

After a welcome from the conference hosts, including St. Francis College provost and fellow historian Timothy Houlihan, AHA Executive Director James Grossman opened the event by discussing how the AHA’s Tuning project can help faculty members address some of the issues facing departments in the region. Tuning offers them a well-established process for disciplinary faculty to demonstrate their leadership on program curricula, learning assessment, and community engagement.

Attendees expressed concerns over the declining number of traditional college-age students in the Northeast, declining enrollments, students who struggle academically, recruitment of transfer students, student retention, and greater administrative and political demands for assessment and accountability. By working regionally, faculty can reach across institutions while still responding to specific legislative discussions and public policy debates, as well as engaging directly with particular K–12 education standards, regional economic conditions, and
demographic trends.

The breakout sessions focused on key areas: advocacy, research skills, writing and assessment, and recruitment and retention. There was a general agreement that students are drawn to history because of the content and the stories we can tell, but there are also important skills that the study of history provides. These skills can be valuable assets for majors and nonmajors alike, and history educators should begin to emphasize these versatile skills in addition to knowledge of content.

The breakout session “Hands-on History: Teaching Skills in the Archives,” focused on the Students and Faculty in the Archives program, which brought faculty and first-year students from St. Francis College, City Tech, and Long Island University Brooklyn to the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) and produced the website St. Francis faculty and BHS staff members offered information on best practices and provided ideas for designing hands-on experiences that would help students develop historical thinking, the ability to contextualize, and document-analysis skills, thus moving away from a “show and tell” model of archives education. The library staff provided useful logistical tips, and participants emphasized that it is essential for faculty to work carefully with the documents from a teaching perspective, rather than a research perspective, before taking a class to an archive. The presenters’ insights led to a lively discussion at the session about their experiences using archival and other primary sources to improve student learning.

In the session for department chairs, participants voiced concerns regarding declining enrollments and greater demands for accountability. Even more significant, given how heavily many colleges and universities are promoting STEM and business courses, chairs exchanged ideas about different approaches to articulate the importance of history. All professions, for example, whether in history, business, or STEM, require a high level of writing skills, critical thinking, and reading. Our discipline demands close reading, analysis, and writing, and chairs should work with the career center, as well as with potential employers of history students, who require excellent verbal written and communication skills and the ability to analyze and address a problem.

In “Developing and Assessing Writing Assignments,” faculty described a range of creative strategies they had developed to encourage students to get past their apprehensions about writing, develop historical empathy, and hone analytical skills. Examples of assignments included short “reaction” papers, in which students might evaluate a primary or secondary source and assignments that blend historical fact with the expository approaches of fiction or journalism by having students imagine conducting an interview with a historical figure or having a dialogue involving several historical figures. Such assignments, faculty agreed, teach the craft of history through experience and provide useful diagnostic benchmarks for assessment.

Participants in the “Recruiting, Retaining, and Transferring History Majors” session discussed strategies for recruiting new history majors in both two- and four-year programs. They also discussed ways that faculty can help students stay on a path all the way to graduation, even as they transfer among institutions with different requirements and academic expectations. Some faculty suggested that entry-level courses should begin to move away from the coverage model of traditional surveys to include more appealing, specialized courses that teach historical thinking skills. Those already involved in Tuning spoke about how helping students learn to talk about the skills they learned in history classes in a language recognized by potential employers can improve retention of majors. Some faculty proposed offering mock interviews to help students learn to express their proficiencies more effectively. Others stressed the need to scaffold or scale instruction of historical skills in reading and writing during the first two years in order to ensure that both native and transfer majors understand and are prepared to meet expectations for senior-level course work, and thus prevent them from abandoning the major in frustration. Finally, faculty emphasized the importance of constant, personal communication among disciplinary faculty at nearby two- and four-year programs to help effect a more seamless transfer of well-prepared history majors.

After the defined thematic sessions, participants gathered in groups to address expectations for historical thinking and research skills, introductory courses and content, closing the transfer gap, and ways to create seamless transitions from high school to community college to a four-year college. Professors shared ideas about reading requirements and how to encourage students to read more and to read critically. Some participants were hopeful that the Common Core standards might encourage a greater emphasis on historical thinking.

Many professors talked about students’ poor writing skills and shared ideas for improving them. Some colleges and universities have student mentors who work with transfer students and with students transitioning from content-coverage courses to more skills-based courses. Professors exchanged ideas about types of assignments that included both low-stakes and high-stakes writing. Other participants spoke about sophomore seminars, undergraduate methodology and historiography classes, transfer-designated classes, and multi-semester classes with a similar cohort to foster a sense of community among the students.

In the sessions, all the participants addressed how adjuncts, contract faculty, and high school teachers offering college-level classes might be better integrated into the departments, whether through adjunct liaisons, events, workshops, or listings on websites.

The conference concluded with a lunchtime address by Dan McInerney, a faculty historian at Utah State University and a member of the Tuning USA Advisory Board. McInerney addressed what Gabrielle Spiegel called (in a March 2008 Perspectives on History article) “The Triple A Threat: Accountability, Assessment, and Accreditation.” McInerney broke down the fear of assessment and accountability by posing some basic questions: When students complete a program of study in history, what should they know, understand, and be able to do? And how can we, as history educators, help them achieve those goals? He urged faculty members to acknowledge that they must be the ones to answer these fundamental questions, and that they can answer them collaboratively, in straightforward language that incoming freshmen, parents, employers, and policy makers will understand.

This conference demonstrated the great potential that results when historians and their allies come together to ask important questions about undergraduate history education. We anticipate that as more faculty members recognize the new opportunities that collaborative curriculum building and innovative teaching practices can offer them and their students, they will continue to look to the AHA and its broad membership as an institution that can best sustain these important discussions.

Elaine Carey is associate professor and chair of the history department at St. John’s University and the AHA’s vice president, Teaching Division. Sara Haviland and Eric Platt are assistant professors in the Department of American Studies, Economics, History, Political Science, and Social Studies at St. Francis College. Sarah Shurts is assistant professor of history at Bergen Community College. Emily Tai is associate professor of history at Queensborough Community College.

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