Tuning, Teaching, and Taking Care of Students
David Trowbridge, April 2013
Five years ago, when I was on the academic job market, an interviewer responded to one of my questions in a way that still gives me goose bumps.
The atmosphere in the AHA Job Center was particularly tense that year, with dozens of empty tables representing cancelled searches in the wake of the 2008 market collapse. Such an environment is no place for improvisation. Thankfully, I had prepared a list of softball questions for those last five minutes of every interview when they are invited. "What makes The University of X special?" I asked. This was a great question because the responses usually filled the remainder of the interview. One particular time, however, the answer was profound and concise: "We take care of our students as if they were our own."
For the past five years I have reflected on what it means to take care of our students as if they were my own. I joined the AHA's Tuning project because I wanted an answer that might satisfy myself and convince others of the value of our discipline. I wanted to find ways to more fully prepare students for fulfilling lives and successful careers. I also wanted to find a way to express the unique value of a history degree to students and skeptics. I viewed the Tuning project as an opportunity to join with other members of our discipline, address these questions, and express the value of our craft.
The process demanded that we first identify the unique skills of the historian. Secondly, we had to demonstrate how these abilities were connected to success beyond college. Finally, Tuning required us to see our discipline from the perspectives of others. If we are to persuade students, administrators, and employers, we must take an interest in the things that matter most to them. And we must be concise.
In this spirit, members of the history department at Marshall University met with various groups of students, administrators, and local employers. We asked questions and we listened. There have been some criticisms of the Tuning project regarding the appropriateness of its perceived emphasis on outcomes and employability. I agree with many of these concerns and have greatly benefitted from the letters and articles in Perspectives on History that have discussed the Tuning project and clarified its goals. For those who still believe that the Tuning project is too concerned with employability, I would ask you to consider the issue from the perspective of your students. Secondly, I would invite you to meet with the women and men who employ your students. If your experience is anything like mine, you will be gratified to find common ground. Employers, like republics, need women and men who have the capacity to think deeply and construct arguments based on evidence.
At Marshall, the leaders of our Career Services Office secured the participation of a dozen corporations and government agencies who hire our graduates for entry-level positions. For the first hour, each of the academics listened as employer after employer shared their frustrations. It seems that corporations are tired of new hires who are unable to read, analyze, and communicate. Furthermore, they have no interest in coursework based on memorization, assessments graded by Scantron machines, or assignments that do not challenge students. They believed that college should be a transformative experience. They wanted us to raise our standards, and were utterly averse to any suggestion that colleges abandon history or the humanities. If I scripted their responses, I could not have invented a stronger defense of the history major.
Towards the end of our conversation, employers began asking us questions about the unique skills and training of our students. I described a recent upper-division assignment in my courses, one that required students to conduct primary source research and publish their findings within a local history website. I explained how students proposed research questions related to African American history in Appalachia. I explained that each student was investigating a question that had rarely been explored, a common challenge for historians that requires creativity, time management, and focused exploration.
I briefly discussed how students searched in archives, acquired old newspapers on microfilm, and made dozens of phone calls to arrange oral history interviews. After these tasks were complete, each student sorted through their evidence and analyzed each source based on published secondary sources. Finally, they each produced a concise narrative that added to the aggregate of human knowledge. There was a long pause, after which one of the employers asked for the students' names and how he might reach them. A second replied that I could have stopped with the part about students using a telephone for its original function. By sharing this experience with students I have found that they approach research projects with a new sense of purpose.
Our meetings with students were equally encouraging. We asked them to identify the unique skills of historians—qualities that made the study of history different from other disciplines. The students talked about perspective, understanding change over time, and conducting meaningful research. And the skills most important to students—the ability to uncover and quickly sift through volumes of data, the capacity for informed judgment—were the same attributes most valued by employers. However, many experienced difficulty organizing and articulating their ideas because few had ever been asked these questions so directly. We need to encourage students to connect assignments to skills throughout their academic career so they can more fully express the usefulness of their education. Thoughtful students, much like their faculty mentors, are wonderfully adept at discussing their research but often struggle to articulate their qualifications and skills.
Our conversation with graduate students revealed that a majority were more interested in pursuing careers outside of the academy than becoming professors. However, students had little familiarity with the kinds of careers that might be available to MA and PhD recipients. After describing the work done by researchers and analysts, we found that a majority of our students preferred these positions to the professorships we assumed they coveted. How can we continue to refer to these corporate, government, and nonprofit careers by labels such as "Plan B" if so many students would prefer them to academic jobs? Should we intentionally train students for careers outside of the academy? Might an advanced degree in history prepare students for careers as researchers, administrators, and analysts better than laws schools and MBA programs?
These discussions revealed the most compelling reason why we should all be concerned with the employability of our students—it was the top concern of every student we talked with. I teach African American history, and therefore follow in the footsteps of the finest teachers this nation has ever produced. These educators faced opponents more organized and hostile than we could ever imagine. Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune leveraged the resources of the black community, obtained revenue controlled by legislatures more committed to white supremacy than public education, and turned private homes and one-room schools into universities. They were successful educators because they understood that their students were driven by upward mobility and they found ways to challenge a world that believed their students could never be more than laborers and domestics.
During the 1950s and 1960s, students risked their lives to attend Septima Clark's Freedom Schools. She served students not by telling them that they must organize for radical political change, but by asking them what they wanted to learn. Her graduates marched with King in 1963, a protest movement that sought jobs and freedom.
The vast majority of students enter college for the same reason—they want upward mobility. For most students, that goal is most evident in terms of a rewarding career. Because we understand history, we need not apologize or hesitate to help our students reach this objective. Training students for career success must not be our final objective, of course. But how can we ask students to value education for its own sake if we do not first address their original motivation? Like Septima Clark, we have an opportunity to seek out and address the things that are most important to our students. Clark understood the power of education and recognized that education would unleash forces that would demand social change. Employment was only the first milestone, but it was the one everyone could see and no one could deny.
Helping students obtain good jobs is a step towards social change, and it is an important part of what it means to take care of students as if they were our own. Those who led Freedom Schools did not risk their lives just so students could read. They risked their lives because they understood the connection between education and citizenship. I hesitate to take the comparison too far, but in many ways the lesson is the same. Literacy and employability are both way stations on the journey towards lives of meaning. Taking care of students means guiding them along this path until they reach that first milestone. If we dedicate our lives to guiding students to this point of the path, few students will double back, and most will never stop learning.
David J. Trowbridge is an associate professor of history and director of African and African American studies at Marshall University. He is the author of A History of the United States, and a proud new daddy.