Publication Date

November 7, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

When students complete a program of study in history, what should they know, understand, and be able to do? It’s a straightforward question, but one that many of us have had difficulty answering in a clear, concise, and compelling way. We know that a course of study in our discipline develops a varied and rich base of knowledge, skills, and civic understanding. But how well do we make those implicit assumptions explicit to our many audiences, including students, administrators, policymakers, and employers?

The center of Florida Gulf Coast University's campus.

The AHA’s Tuning project brought together faculty members from college and university campuses across the United States, including Florida Gulf Coast University. Twhair/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Since 2012, the American Historical Association has helped faculty respond to these questions and more clearly explain the principles and value of historical study with its Tuning project. Two sessions at the upcoming AHA annual meeting in Chicago will offer a critical look at the accomplishments of the AHA’s project in the classroom and on college campuses, and on the state of Tuning around the globe.

The AHA’s Tuning project built on a European higher education initiative that was developed in 2000 and “exported” to the United States a decade ago in 2008 with support from Lumina Foundation. The work brought together over 160 faculty members on 130 campuses to discuss the nature of historical study, develop a “Discipline Core” of key goals and skills, and encourage colleagues to reframe survey courses, experiment with class design, address enrollment issues, collaborate across two- and four-year institutions, clarify career prospects of history majors, and design meaningful assessments of student learning. Since then, the original groups of “Tuners” have shared their suggestions and leadership with hundreds more historians. Some of us will gather at the AHA annual meeting to discuss “Tuning at 10” and the intellectual and cultural shifts in the discipline that have resulted from the project.

AHA members may be less familiar with another part of Tuning’s history: how the project has evolved in higher education throughout the world. Tuning spread rapidly across the globe after initial phases of the work in Europe from 2000 to 2002. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as students moved more freely with their studies (and their transcripts) across European campuses, Tuning helped institutions identify points of convergence and common understanding in the “learning outcomes” of different subject areas and the requirements for degree programs. The project aimed to harmonize, rather than standardize, higher education studies, respecting the diversity and autonomy of institutions while also designing comparable degrees. Starting with 100 institutions in the European Union and the European Economic Area, Tuning has now spread to 120 nations, more than 50 subject areas, and over 1,000 partner universities. The most recent participants joined the project from higher education systems in India and Southeast Asia.

A comparative, global perspective on Tuning in the field of history sheds light on how scholars construct the discipline within different regions and cultural traditions. While sharing core sets of assumptions about the nature, methods, and goals of historical study, colleagues differ significantly in the ways they have chosen to “Tune” their discipline. Two recent studies examined these questions by comparing the Tuning process in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. The reports were both promising and cautious. Historians have worked steadily on Tuning, but progress has been hampered by confusion over the Tuning process, divergent national approaches to historical study, and declarations of outcomes that remain divorced from classroom practice.

Writing in the October 2017 issue of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Jean-Luc Lamboley reported that French historians have displayed more “indifference” than active resistance to Tuning. Content-heavy approaches to teaching, research-focused careers of professors, challenges to “career” discussions, and time-constrained complaints of initiative fatigue have hampered much work. Yet historians have worked together to outline a competence-based framework for history education. Marco Velázquez Albo, commenting on history Tuning in Latin America, pointed to problems that arose from national economic disparities, conflicting methodologies, generational differences, limited attention to pedagogy, and deep concerns over globalization. Faculty participants still managed to work cooperatively to outline shared objectives and to recognize the importance of issues tied to teaching and learning. My own report on US Tuning pointed to the traditional absence of pedagogical training for historians, inexperience with the approaches (and language) of “outcomes-based” learning, and passionate objections to any form of history “standards.” US historians have, however, pushed Tuning activities quite far, moving from the articulation of a disciplinary core to the redesign of courses and curricula to initial steps in the assessment of student learning.

A key historian guiding Tuning reforms, Ann Katherine Isaacs (Univ. of Pisa), pointed to interesting comparisons between European and US participants. EU Tuners have been especially skillful in articulating the outcomes and competences developed by historical study and have carefully followed the methodologies and collaborative processes proposed by the Tuning project. But the implementation of their objectives remains a bit thin. Educators in the United States, on the other hand, lean towards individualistic and practical approaches to the work. They commonly focus inward on their own campuses and departments, disregarding broader national and global trends. But US Tuners tend to be concrete and substantive, moving beyond abstract outlines of goals to work on tangible changes in coursework, curricula, and teaching.

Each group of historians can learn from the other. As Issacs reminds us, though, colleagues in our discipline have been at the forefront of the worldwide project: “historians, working together, created, led, and lead Tuning.” At AHA19 in Chicago, guests from Europe and Japan will participate in a roundtable discussion of Tuning projects in various parts of the world. We hope to continue these conversations there.

Sessions on Tuning at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago, January 2019

“Tuning at 10”: Anne Hyde, Nancy Quam-Wickham, Norm Jones, and I will reflect on the changes that Tuning has brought to classrooms, curricula, campuses, and the AHA itself. Debra Humphreys, vice president of strategic engagement at Lumina Foundation, will place Tuning in a larger, cross-disciplinary context, commenting on the ways in which the project has helped colleagues demonstrate the value of higher education and deliver on quality for today’s diverse student body. (Saturday, January 5, 2019: 8:30 a.m.-10:00 a.m., Stevens C-4, Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)

“The State of Tuning around the Globe”: The head of the Tuning Academy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Robert Wagenaar, will discuss the development of the project across the EU and its spread to other regions. Satoko Fukahori and Ikko Tanaka will comment on the direction of Tuning projects in Japan, particularly in the fields of engineering and philosophy.(Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 p.m.-5:00 p.m., Stevens C-5, Hilton Chicago, Lower Level)

Daniel J. McInerney is professor in the Department of History at Utah State University. He was recently interviewed by AHA staff member Julia Brookins on how and what historians have learned from the Tuning process since 2012.

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