Publication Date

November 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Head shot of

James Grossman

The landscape of postsecondary history education is changing, and the professoriate is changing with it—both the structures of employment and the work of teaching. I frequently use this space to reflect on the imperative of rethinking graduate education to broaden the career horizons for PhD students beyond the professoriate. But it is no less essential that we reconsider the preparation of historians whose career paths take the more customary route to college and university faculties.

Most of our largest PhD programs train students for positions that only a small minority will attain: tenurable appointments in “high research activity” institutions. Among history PhDs graduated between 1998 and 2009 who currently teach in higher education, approximately 75 percent are either outside “high research activity” institutions or off the tenure track. This means that the process and products embodied in much of graduate education—writing books and scholarly articles, teaching lecture courses and highly specialized seminars, and perhaps even preparing grant proposals for major fellowships—leave aside the principal issues and tasks that faculty at teaching-oriented institutions must engage. And those that faculty even at high-level research universities ought to engage.

We do not train our PhD students to see their profession as “teacher.” This might be inevitable, even appropriate. The PhD is, after all, a research degree. The craft of publication through books and articles stands at the center of graduate education in history, as it does in many other disciplines. At the same time, a historian is a scholar who not only creates new knowledge, but also disseminates insights across a variety of platforms, many of them in the classroom. The ways that digital tools now dissolve the boundaries between scholarship and teaching make this an opportune time to address these long-standing issues. The AHA has already resolved to put its imprimatur on and resources into elevating digital dissemination of knowledge onto the same plane as print. If we believe in putting teaching on that plane as well, too few of us have communicated that belief to graduate students. We have failed to integrate the teaching of history into the profession of being a historian—other than by example, or perhaps by sending our students across campus to teaching and learning centers generally considered marginal to the main pathway.

These centers have made great strides in improving the quality of teaching on their campuses, offering graduate students and junior faculty the resources that their home departments have not. Academic job candidates now brandish teaching portfolios and have benefited from videotaping and coaching unavailable a generation ago. Still, department chairs tell us that few job candidates are able to establish a dialogue between these portfolios and the curriculum at the institution to which they are applying. Worse, conversations about teaching that occur outside the context of disciplinary learning and practice remain marginal to the pursuit of a PhD in most disciplines. History faculty generally consider such training a valuable supplement, rather than seeing it as part of “becoming a historian.”

But it should be. Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.

If teaching history—including content not directly related to a scholar’s ongoing research agenda—is integral to being a professional historian, then it is essential to becoming one. It’s one thing to have the ability to plan a course and choose readings carefully and knowledgeably, something that many of our graduate students have already begun integrating into their portfolios. It’s another to shift our vocabulary of teaching to a discourse on learning, an approach to undergraduate education now largely relegated to the centers for teaching and learning, with inadequate integration into discipline-centered training.

Learning to teach history should not be severed from learning the discipline of history. History PhDs ought to be fluent not only in the constantly evolving research tools and methods of their discipline, but also in current classroom strategies, curriculum development approaches, assessment practices, and theories of teaching and learning. Postsecondary history education is more than just the sum of what individual faculty members bring to their classrooms. Teaching is perhaps the most collaborative and public exercise that a historian undertakes. Instruction occurs within the context of a curriculum in a department, college, or university. Members of a history faculty must think intentionally not only about course design and classroom strategy, but also about their role as members of a department and a college with stated missions, goals, and institutional cultures. Hence PhD students must not only be conversant in their own classroom strategies, but also understand trends in curriculum design and assessment, and even the larger structures of higher education administration.

Much work has been done in this area, especially through the Preparing Future Faculty program spearheaded by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Initiated more than two decades ago, and with only a slight presence in the history departments that graduate the bulk of PhDs, these programs focus on the role of faculty as teachers, mentors, and colleagues. But they offer little opportunity for students to engage the theories of teaching and learning that constitute the cutting edge of undergraduate education, and even fewer opportunities for engagement with the imperatives of curriculum design and assessment now ubiquitous across the landscape of higher education.

The AHA’s Tuning project has helped the Association and 150 of its members think about this broader aspect of history education in ways that can help graduate students situate their discipline within the larger enterprise of liberal education. The interest in these issues among history faculty became especially apparent when a small regional Tuning conference in Brooklyn mushroomed from an expected attendance of 30–40 people to nearly 120 from across the New York metropolitan area. Three additional regional conferences took place in October, drawing dozens to two Cal State campuses and nearly 50 to Florida A&M, in Tallahassee. Last year the call for a second round of “Tuners” received applications from over 100 institutions. The resources generated by the project have helped departments to rethink their curricular alignment and to argue more forcefully for history education specifically and in defense of the liberal arts more generally. The bulk of Tuners hail from departments outside the “high research activity” category. What the AHA has learned from Tuning will therefore resonate especially with the departments where current graduate students are most likely to find teaching positions.

Tuning has also highlighted new needs, such as the extent to which faculty roles must encompass advocacy at multiple levels. Faculty bear a special responsibility to explain and advocate for broad, liberal learning (with its unnerving potential for personal transformation)—to clarify and articulate the purpose of their disciplines within a rapidly evolving and complex system of student-centered colleges and universities, not merely from a faculty- or research-centered perspective. A solid grasp of both the specifically disciplinary and the broadly liberal components of historical study for majors and nonmajors will make that clarity and advocacy possible. Overall, we want our PhDs to develop a functional understanding of higher education, its diversity and current gale forces of change, as well as its limitations and the opportunities it holds for different types of students.

Indeed, given declining history enrollments and majors at many colleges and universities, we should be preparing teachers of college history to answer two fundamental questions: why should undergraduates, majors and nonmajors, study history, and how do historical thinking and learning fit into the larger enterprise of higher education? Every graduate student interested in a career in higher education ought to be challenged to formulate sophisticated answers to these questions based on engagement with scholarly literature, faculty, peers, and a world they should seek to transform, rather than hold at bay.

The author thanks Julia Brookins and Emily Swafford for their contributions to this column.

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. He tweets@JimGrossmanAHA.

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.