Publication Date

November 1, 1997

Most historians working in American higher education today make a sharp distinction between research and teaching. Accustomed to spending long hours working alone in archives, libraries, and at home, they think of research as a private activity with public manifestations. Their articles and books are the foundation stones of successful careers. The reverse can be said of college teaching. It is unquestionably a public act, almost always done in the presence of others, hut it is not routinely documented for peer review except perhaps in the form of student evaluations. What it contributes to professional reputations is marginal at best, seldom reaching beyond the confines of home departments or institutions.

It is time for historians to reconsider this artificial distinction. Research and teaching share many conceptual and analytical dimensions. Both involve the making of intellectual decisions that reflect the scholarship of the decision-maker. Both can be preserved not just for private reflection but for public consumption. Like elementary and secondary school teachers before them, educators in America's colleges and universities are now learning about accountability. The rising cost of a bachelor's degree has prompted many parents and politicians to demand hard evidence that their investment in undergraduate education is paying dividends. But asking American academics to open their classroom doors to protect their jobs has already sparked alarm about the future of academic freedom. Making teaching a more public act cannot be imposed upon the professoriate. Along with their colleagues in other disciplines, historians will have to decide for themselves that the real issue in peer review is competence and that by documenting the scholarship of their teaching, they can learn from one another and improve their performance in the classroom.

The Peer Review of Teaching Project

Course portfolios represent one way to explore and reveal the scholarship of teaching. They are not the only way, as demonstrated by the growing popularity on campus of teaching circles and pedagogical colloquia. But neither of these innovations requires much, if any documentation. The Peer Review of Teaching Project—sponsored by the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—has settled on the course portfolio as one of the most promising means by which to get at the impressive scholarship that goes on display every day in many college classrooms. When the project's 75 charter members assembled at Stanford University in 1994, they had no idea that the course portfolio would emerge from their work as a seminal idea.1 Instead, the historians from eight public and private universities who were present in Palo Alto found themselves trying to explain to each other the rationale for the design of a course they chose for the occasion. Focusing on the syllabus, they discovered just how important this basic document is as a road map to instruction. It was not a long step from there to thinking about how to capture not only the promise but also the delivery and the outcomes of teaching.

Developing a Model for the Course Portfolio

For the past two years a small group of scholars from several disciplines has been working under the auspices of AAHE to develop a model for the course portfolio, and it is just these basic components of any well-taught course—clearly stated objectives, carefully executed instruction, and closely monitored results—that they have focused on.2

In 1996 the American Historical Association formed a Working Group on Course Portfolios.3 Composed of representatives from eight universities, the group includes faculty new to peer review as well as veterans of the AAHE Project. An important theme of its initial discussions at the AHA’s 1997 annual meeting in New York City was the parallel between the intellectual choices historians make in doing both research and teaching. No less than a book, a college course rests on a scholar’s judgment about what is worth knowing and how to organize and convey that knowledge to make a lasting impression. Decisions about course structure and content, and even about teaching method, should be driven by the instructor’s interpretation of the past and its relationship to the present. Course portfolios present historians with an opportunity to capture the scholarship of their teaching by documenting these decisions.

But course portfolios are still a work in progress in history and other disciplines. Their purpose and content remain unresolved—a matter for much further discussion. The AHA Working Group agreed that there are two different reasons to put one together and that portfolios created for one reason will probably not look exactly the same as those created for the other. A course portfolio can serve a summative purpose, providing colleagues with the data they need to conduct a formal evaluation of one's teaching. A summative portfolio would include such essentials as the syllabus, examinations, and samples of student work to illustrate respectively the instructor's intent, the course's execution, and its learning outcomes. It might also contain other items like the questions used to prompt discussion in class or the students' course evaluations. However, a course portfolio can also function in a formative capacity, helping to improve one's teaching. This kind of portfolio might be more speculative, featuring perhaps a long statement in which the instructor reflects upon an innovative teaching strategy that was not completely successful or the intellectual possibilities and consequences of building a course around certain topics or themes. It might be shared with one or two colleagues, distributed to the members of a teaching circle, or simply reserved for private study and reflection.

Formative and summative portfolios are not mutually exclusive. The same portfolio could do double duty, but the degree of candor characteristic of a formative portfolio might be inadvisable in a summative one. It is also worth pointing out that course portfolios are not the same as teaching portfolios, which should give experienced professors the chance to show the full range of their accomplishments as teachers. In addition to several course portfolios, a teaching portfolio might account for achievements in undergraduate advising, curriculum development, and/or work with graduate students who have written M.A. theses or Ph.D. dissertations.

In compiling data for an evaluation of the AAHE Peer Review Project, Jim Wilkinson, director of the Bok Center on Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, discovered recently that the fear of disapproval by colleagues who prefer the status quo is a more powerful disincentive for faculty thinking about teaching reform than the time required to organize classroom visits or assemble a course portfolio. Apparently, even the converted hesitate to take the risks associated with reform, most likely because they believe that teaching will never command the same respect as research in American higher education. But time is a real issue. Course portfolios in any field, but especially in history, take time to prepare and evaluate. Putting together the first draft of my portfolio for an undergraduate survey course in early American history consumed about one hour per week that I devoted mainly to organizing my instructional materials and preparing an instructor's diary. Portfolio authors must also take pains to make their work as accessible as possible by adopting a framework that makes it easy to find key sections and allows for selective reading.

A course portfolio in history (or any other discipline for that matter) probably will not roll back the frontiers of knowledge any more than the course itself, although sometimes even undergraduate students come up with original insights that ought to be preserved. But the scholarship inherent in historical narrative, synthesis, and interpretation can be represented in a portfolio. Aside from capturing the scholarship of course design and implementation, portfolios can also help us combat what Lee Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has called "pedagogical amnesia," an affliction whose most obvious symptom is not being able to remember whether a particular lecture or discussion worked the last time.4 Perhaps more importantly, the reflection entailed in writing a portfolio can help the teaching historian understand why a course theme succeeded or failed. For example, preparing an instructor’s diary helped me see more clearly how to make migration work better as a unifying concept in my survey course. It led me to the realization that I could teach the migration of ideas as well as people, making this theme a more continuous presence in the course.

Assembling a portfolio also forced me to ask what I had learned about the relationship between content and method when I last taught the course and to consider how I might better integrate conceptualization with performance the next time. If one goal of my course is to teach beginning students what it means to think like a historian, then how did my assignments—a weekly journal, a book report, and two examinations—contribute toward the achievement of that end? This emphasis on improvement from one semester to the next argues for viewing a course portfolio as an organic document, growing and changing—like the course it represents—over time. That being the case, historians should not expect to build portfolios for every course taught but concentrate on those in which they have the strongest interest or invest the majority of their energy, imagination, and time.

Components of a Portfolio

The components of a course portfolio are not standardized. But the members of the AAHE Working Group on Course Portfolios have developed some ideas for structure and content that might be useful for historians thinking about writing one. Just as in any scholarly work, the data that are included should help the reader understand the author's objectives in preparing the portfolio, the intellectual framework for the course in question, and its analytical scheme. In other words, a course portfolio is analogous to an article or monograph because the authors of both position their work within a well-defined context and then justify decisions about the selection and use of material by organizing it into a meaningful pattern built around an argument or theme.

Based on this justification, let me suggest a format for a course portfolio in history.

I. Introduction or Abstract: To summarize the portfolio and orient the reader. Might include a table of contents.

II. Framing Statement: To place the course in its intellectual and institutional context by describing its place in the curriculum, the kinds of students who take it, and so on.

III. Thesis Statement: To explain the primary purpose of the portfolio (e.g., for a personnel decision, teaching improvement, and/or personal edification).

IV. Syllabus: To explain the intellectual goals of the course and the steps by which they will be achieved.

V. Narrative of the Course: An instructor’s diary to document the ways in which the intellectual goals of the course were or were not achieved. This section might include or be followed by handouts, examinations, and selected samples of student work such as journal entries or answers to particular questions on examinations.

VI. Peer Comments and the Instructor's Response to Them: Not unlike the reader’s comments on a manuscript.

VII. Appendices: Might include student evaluations and more samples of student work. An instructor might take the opportunity here to show how students grow and change over time.

Final Word

In conversations with scholars from such disciplines as biology and mathematics, I have been impressed by how structured and predictable teaching must be when some skills and concepts have to be taught before others can be learned and prerequisites drive the curriculum. Of course, the same could be said of history if we let chronology always organize the teaching of our discipline. But there are many different ways to approach our excursions to the “foreign country” that is the past. The itinerary need not always be the same. Course portfolios present historians with a special opportunity to show their creativity as teachers of one of the most open-ended academic disciplines.


1. For a report on the project that includes a chapter on course portfolios, see Pat Hutchings, Making Teaching Community Property: A Menu for Peer Collaboration and Peer Review (Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 1996).

2. The disciplines represented by this group include biology, English, mathematics, and psychology as well as history.

3. For a brief report by the AHA president on the work of this group, see Joyce Appleby, “Reviving the Teacher-Scholar Ideal,” Perspectives 35 (April 1997), 3-4.

4. Shulman has written extensively on teaching. His “Course Anatomy: The Dissection and Transformation of Knowledge,” an unpublished paper presented at the Fourth AAHE Conference on Faculty Roles and Rewards, gives his thoughts on the course portfolio. See also Lee S. Shulman, “Teaching as Community Property: Putting an end to Pedagogical Solitude,” Change (November/December 1993), 6-7.

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