Turning Inquiry into Action
Using Communities of Practice to Build Better Introductory History Courses
History is in trouble, if enrollments in introductory courses are any indication. Communities of practice may offer a solution by drawing on the collective wisdom of everyone involved in these courses.
At my institution, the University of New Mexico (UNM), enrollments in introductory history courses have declined significantly over the past 10 years. Much of this is due to the influences that the AHA and others have identified on a national scale: drops in overall enrollment; changes to general education requirements; student, and parent, preference for majors with clearer pathways to employment. Other nationwide trends, such as the increase in humanities course offerings at community colleges, have played an important role in changing expectations about history courses at UNM. Our students can easily transfer credits earned at nearby Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). As a result, many opt for the smaller class sizes, wider range of scheduling options, lower tuition prices, and excellent instruction offered just a few blocks down University Avenue.
Nevertheless, introductory courses remain an important part of the UNM curriculum and one that we are committed to. It is not simply a question of numbers, although our introductory courses often enroll twice as many students as our upper-division courses. More importantly, these courses play a significant role in UNM’s general education curriculum and serve as gateways for future history majors and double majors.
We understand that the introductory course is an especially important moment in a student’s career. The important and troubling findings in the work of Andrew Koch, reported in the May 2017 Perspectives article “Many Thousands Failed,” drive home the point. Koch’s work suggests that first-generation, low-income students from underrepresented groups not only fail introductory history courses at disproportionately high rates, but that those failing grades often lead to their dropping out of college entirely. If Koch’s analysis applies at UNM, and we assume it does because our introductory history classes regularly appear on UNM’s list of “killer courses,” we could be guilty of something far worse than irrelevance.
In response to this complex set of challenges, and with the goal of improving both teaching and learning within introductory courses, groups of UNM and CNM faculty members, graduate students, and local K–12 teachers and students have come together in a series of different “communities of practice” (CoPs). A concept associated with the educational theorist Etienne Wenger and the anthropologist Jean Lave, CoPs are “groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” More focused than clubs, but less results-driven than task forces, CoPs are united by a quest for knowledge.
More focused than clubs, but less results-driven than task forces, CoPs are united by a quest for knowledge.
The ambiguity at the heart of the model can be frustrating for those who prefer either more theoretical or more pragmatic approaches, but it is ideal for responding to multifaceted challenges such as those facing the history intro course. In addition, because these are communities of practice—in which practitioners share with each other what works and what doesn’t, and then use that knowledge to improve their own practices—discussion translates to action relatively quickly, avoiding “analysis paralysis.” CoPs in education should, of course, be informed by learning science, but their primary goal is not analysis—it’s application.
Over the last four years, members of the history faculty at UNM participated in four CoPs explicitly addressing the introductory course. We met regularly to review relevant works in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), share syllabi and personal experiences, and discuss possible innovations and improvements. We organized focus-group-style discussions with local high school and middle school history and social studies educators and undergraduate students. After concluding the CoPs, we have a greater appreciation for the complex role that introductory courses play in our students’ educational experience as well as in our work as educators. Perhaps the most important insight to emerge out of this process was the most obvious one: communities of practice that concern teaching should include students at all levels.
One of the major insights that came from our CoPs could only come from students. During one meeting of our first CoP in 2017–18, we heard story after story from our majors about how they came to appreciate the structure, rhetoric, and intellectual effort involved in constructing a good lecture only after they’d taken years of discussion- or activity-based courses. From them we learned, for instance, why so many of our majors wait to take lower-division survey courses until their senior year: it was because they feel that only then can they appreciate a broad overview, tying together everything they had learned. Our program of study is designed to move students from large lecture courses surveying broad topics into small, narrowly focused seminars. But these students suggested that reversing the structure might make more sense.
Expanding the CoPs to instructors beyond tenure-track faculty was essential to our success. Non-tenure-track instructors, who in most cases had more experience teaching introductory courses than did tenured or tenure-track faculty, provided valuable expertise and important insights. UNM graduate students, who have benefited from participation in the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative, reminded us that the goal of training future professional historians, and the goal of introducing students to the benefits of studying history, require different pedagogical methods. Likewise, K–12 instructors introduced us to incoming students who, we suddenly realized, we knew almost nothing about.
Communities of practice that concern teaching should include students.
Working across disciplines also contributed to the vitality and usefulness of our CoPs. During the 2018–19 academic year, another history faculty member and I were part of a different set of CoPs sponsored by UNM’s Office of Academic Affairs and focused on interdisciplinary collaboration. Because of the diversity of these groups, we focused more on learning science and SoTL than on narrow disciplinary concerns. Through these CoPs, we gained a greater understanding of how faculty in other disciplines think about general education courses—and a better appreciation for how students experience those courses as part of their total educational experience at UNM. We began to understand that most students encounter introductory history courses not within the context of the discipline of history, but as one of many options among general education requirements. Most students do not choose between, say, US History I and Antebellum America: From Revolution to Civil War, but between US History I and, for instance, World Literatures, Biology for Non-Majors, or Introduction to Linguistics.
Perhaps the most vibrant CoP to emerge at UNM in recent years arose organically out of a new course, Teaching and Debating History, created by my colleague Melissa Bokovoy and taught in spring 2020. In this team-taught course, graduate and undergraduate students worked together with two faculty members to explore the practice of history teaching—in higher education, in K–12 schools, and in society more broadly. We treated this course like a CoP rather than a traditional classroom, encouraging students to not just learn about some of the key issues and debates in the SoTL in history, but also to practice teaching and learning themselves—by creating syllabi, by participating in group assignments centered on developing lesson plans, and by experimenting with and sharing knowledge about the use of new technologies in the classroom. Above all, we invited our students to “look behind the curtain” of the traditional classroom, and to ask questions about our own pedagogical choices. When we used the jigsaw method, for instance, to facilitate the discussion of one session’s reading assignments, we spent as much time talking about the jigsaw method as the readings. Treating a traditional class as a community of practice may seem like stretching the concept to its breaking point, but it is important to remember that Wenger and Lave first coined the term while studying apprenticeships. Instead of uncovering a hierarchy of masters teaching students, they found a web of relationships that produced knowledge at different levels. Journeymen and apprentices learn from each other.
In some ways, the course confirmed many of our preconceived notions. We went in believing that students didn’t like group projects: as it turns out, students don’t like group projects. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this course was the extent to which our students pushed back against many of our most cherished beliefs about teaching. I, for one, had thoroughly internalized one precept of the catechism of the SoTL of history: “uncoverage” is preferable to “coverage.” Proponents of uncoverage, such as Lendol Calder, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe, reject a traditional “facts-first” or survey approach to history, suggesting that students are better served by first being exposed to historical methods of inquiry. Our students appreciated the uncoverage approach but were reluctant to jettison the survey entirely: they felt that they needed to know what they were studying before they could think about how to study it.
Can CoPs save the history intro course? Possibly, but certainly not on their own. They can support faculty working to create better undergraduate educational experiences by bringing people together to discuss their work. These discussions are most valuable, however, when they involve our students.
Caleb Wood Richardson is an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico.
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