Publication Date

November 1, 2013

Although many of our students spend a great deal of time taking advantage of their school's architecturally enhanced facilities and tending to a blossoming social life, they attend the university to study and learn. Teaching, therefore, is necessarily central to the experience and purpose of higher education, and it remains the basis of the historian's craft. Yet it is routinely treated as something that is easily absorbed on the side because-­as conventional wisdom asserts-­it distracts from our true focus as historians: research that leads to the production of new knowledge. While the production of knowledge is essential to the historian's craft, the ability to publicly convey our ideas, methods, and interpretations in the classroom draw people to our discipline and further its significance within higher education and beyond.

The teaching of history takes place in thousands of schools, libraries, and archives. In the United States, there are 4,634 universities and colleges; only 4.4 percent, or 207, universities are categorized as having high or very high research activity. That means that the majority of universities and colleges are teaching-­focused rather than research-­focused. 

Teaching is central to the historian's craft, but in many graduate programs it is treated as something to be disdained-­distracting from our true profession. This myth is further substantiated by institutional changes and approaches. As a historian and as a chair of a history department in a teaching-­focused university, I want to address this disconnect and encourage those graduate students who are starting or continuing their studies this fall to study the craft of teaching.

Teaching is essential to the historian's craft, and frankly, it pays the bills for history departments. Unlike my colleagues in the sciences, my tenure decision was not pegged to grant revenue. Grants and fellowships enhanced my tenure portfolio, but I did not have to hold a research grant that generated over $50,000 or more in revenue for the institution as do my colleagues in the sciences and some social sciences. Publications are necessary for tenure, but it is my teaching that is important to the students, my department, the university's mission, and the discipline of history.

Introductory history classes that are part of general education requirements have contributed to the expansion of offerings in history departments by drawing majors. At St. John's University, my institution, the addition of an introductory world history course, the Emergence of the Global Society, to the core curriculum gave undergraduate students greater exposure to our discipline. Significantly, the addition of such a course led to three tenure-­track hires of junior scholars who were world historians or had experience teaching such a course. 

It is in introductory courses that historians can seize the opportunity to promote the discipline and profession to students who might reconsider their initial majors. History benefits from attrition that takes place in other majors, and students who gain an appreciation of the discipline in these survey courses may choose to major or minor in it. Studies suggest that students who become history majors after their freshmen or sophomore year may credit their interaction with a professor in an introductory world history class.1

In my introductory world history class, I open the semester by asking students to write a brief autobiographical study in which they connect themselves or a member of their family to a historical event. I briefly explain periodization and give them examples of historical events and processes. (I have an ulterior motive for this exercise because it also allows me to assess the students' writing and analytical abilities.)

Once the students have written their autobiographies, I ask them to work in pairs and tell their story to another student who can ask questions. That student then interprets his/her partner's history to the class. Thus, the students briefly learn about other historical events that I might not have time to cover in the semester, or they introduce certain themes that will be covered in the class. St. John's University is one of the most diverse universities and is located in the most diverse county, Queens, in the United States; subsequently the students' histories are fascinating and illustrate concepts of globalization and global encounters: the categories of analysis for the course. Students have interpreted political events in Guyana and Puerto Rico, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the partition of India and Pakistan, the back-­and-­forth migrations between Ireland and the United States, conversion from one religion to another, the Ukrainian famine as a family's historical memory, and the impact of incarceration on recent immigrants. By encouraging the students to interpret their lives as connected to major historical events or processes, the assignment helps them understand and display the basic analytical tools necessary to produce and communicate historical knowledge. This type of exercise connects students to the discipline in a very personal way that has resonance even if they do not become history majors, because they develop an appreciation for what history is and can be.

How can we as historians make the most of opportunities to engage the people who fill our classrooms? How do we engender an interest in the subject, or at best an appreciation of history? To begin to study the craft of teaching, read the works of historians who write on teaching and offer examples of assignments, but also how to assess teaching and learning. The AHA web site, blog, and Perspectives on History routinely publish articles on teaching. Scholars such as Lendol Calder, Keith Erekson, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, and Sam Wineburg will assist any historian in preparing to enter the classroom for the first time or a senior scholar looking for new ideas.

Institutions are increasingly focused on assessment, so this topic is one junior scholars need to know something about. As faculty, we must regularly assess our students and adjust our teaching to promote or improve learning. As a chair, I have worked with faculty, administrators, and other historians to improve assessment tools with goals, outcomes, and rubrics that easily communicate our discipline's core values and translate those to teaching goals and outcomes. Assessing students' learning while promoting the relevance our discipline is an essential part of the historian's craft, and that importance is far more immediate and urgent in the classroom than in one's research.

To improve learning, gain new ideas, and understand the role of teaching within the profession, your institution, and higher education, junior scholars can attend teaching workshops and sessions at the annual meeting or work closely with the resources at their universities. Every year, the AHA and affiliated societies host sessions introducing new teaching methods and materials. Closer to home, centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) or similar resource centers are part of most research-­intensive universities. I worked with a CTL for four years, and from that work, I adopted ideas from my colleagues, but I also learned about other possibilities for collaborations. While working with a CTL as a master's level student, I learned how to write goals and outcomes for syllabi. It was in an early CTL meeting at St. John's that I first learned creative ways to map forms of knowledge that led to my understanding of assessment. Thus, when I create or revise a syllabus, I embrace different types of assignments and consider assessment as part of the class design.

There are a number of often-­overlooked  resources for enriching teaching outside of the CTLs. These include university writing centers, digital humanities programs and projects, and university libraries. Librarians are specialists in information, and my classes have benefited from having embedded librarians, not just as information specialists.2 A librarian can not only enhance the students’ research experience, but also provide opportunities for the professor to try out new pedagogies by collaborating with a colleague who may have a similar educational and research background. Lastly, social media is a great tool to gather ideas on new materials and methodologies, whether on blogs, Twitter, or Tumblr. Whether academics or practitioners, historians have a growing online presence that is lively and collaborative. 

Teaching is a public act that enhances our discipline. We hand out syllabi and we engage in open public discourse, whether in a lecture, facilitated small-­group projects, or guided online discussions. As a profession, we should encourage life-­long learning and civic engagement as an important part of our discipline. My research and writing on drug trafficking in the Americas might not be the type of civic engagement I would like to promote, but I use my research as a vehicle to teach about historical methodology, licit and illicit global networks, and historical knowledge as it informs contemporary problems in ways that are significant to civic and political understanding. It is in the classroom that I am able to experiment with these ideas, methods, tools, and technologies. It is through the act of teaching that I continue to learn from my students, and I hope, they learn to appreciate our craft.

—Elaine Carey is the AHA's vice president, Teaching Division. 


1. Scott Jaschik, “Majoring in a Professor,” Inside Higher Education, August 12, 2013.

2. Elaine Carey and Raymond Pun, “Doing History: A Teaching Collaboration between St. John’s University and the New York Public Library,” College and Research Libraries, (March 2012), 138–42.

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