Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Peer Review of History Teaching at UNC Charlotte

Donna R. Gabaccia | Mar 1, 1996

Editor's Note: In January 1994 the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) launched a national project entitled "From Idea to Prototype: The Peer Review of Teaching" to encourage university faculty members to engage in peer review as a means to develop techniques and skills conducive to effective teaching. Because the AAHE recognized that individual universities and disciplines might take different approaches to peer review it selected a diverse mix if universities and disciplines to participate in the project. The participating disciplines represented the fields of chemistry, mathematics, English, history, music, business, engineering, and nursing. Twelve universities selected pilot departments from among these fields; each department designated "teams" of two faculty members who worked with the other campus teams in the same field. The history department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte was one of the pilot departments chosen; Donna Gabaccia and John Smail formed the Charlotte faculty team. In the following article Gabaccia describes how the AAHE project helped to improve the quality of teaching at UNCC

The history department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has always expected good teaching of those who attained tenure. But it has rewarded, and defined itself, more through its dedication to scholarship and professional activity than through university or community service. Charlotte's vice-chancellor, Philip DuBois, chose the department to represent the humanities in the AAHE project, and he asked that active faculty publishers and professional activists participate for precisely this reason. His goal was to build local recognition of teaching as a scholarly activity, along the lines Ernest Boyer had effectively promoted on a nationwide basis. DuBois wanted to head off a dynamic that is common at regional universities in which self-defined groups of "teachers" and "scholars" divide into warring camps competing for resources.

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is a regional university emphasizing undergraduate teaching. The normal teaching load is three courses per semester. Its history department was one of a small number of departments that pioneered in developing a faculty of scholar-teachers during the 1970s and 1980s. Its faculty publishes extensively in many areas of social history, and the Journal of Urban History is housed in the department. Charlotte's 19 historians enjoy a reputation for good, if somewhat traditional, teaching within the university. The history major is both attractive and successful—450 students major in history at Charlotte—and the department's small M.A. program draws students from allover the United States; half enter Ph.D. programs.

My colleague John Smail and I were chosen to represent Charlotte's history department in the AAHE peer review project. John and I rightly predicted that most of our colleagues in Charlotte might be hesitant to participate in peer review activities. In fact, our most cynical colleagues, noting the origin of the project in the vice-chancellor's office, saw in it a shift of resources away from scholarship toward teaching according to the way administrators, lied-school bureaucrats/' and Charlotte's own local speakers of "education-ese" define it.

I do not know if Charlotte historians were typical, but most of my colleagues cared considerably less about the value their home institution placed on peer review than about what others in the history profession' thought of it. Should historians care about peer review? Charlotte's historians first had to be convinced. Learning that others in our profession valued, talked about, and practiced a wide variety of peer review activities proved critical to our progress. It helped my most skeptical colleagues see that peer review was more than an administrative plot to distract us from our real work of research and teaching. Thus, while local, institutional pressures created important obstacles to historians' participation in peer review, disciplinary professionalism ultimately motivated them and ensured success. Our experience suggests that the support and involvement of peers in the profession, and professional organizations within a given discipline, could prove indispensable for making peer review an important and valued component of the teaching repertoire.

The influence of institutional and professional concerns on peer review emerged very clearly and quickly at the AAHE project's start-up conference at Stanford University in June 1994. There, historians, chemists, and engineers all listened to the same lectures and talked about how peer review could be introduced on their campuses. All came to Stanford having already engaged in the same peer review "exercises." The two-person peer review teams had read and reflected on course outlines, visited or videotaped and discussed each others' classes, and read and discussed our written assignments and student work. As we rapidly discovered at Stanford, institutions of similar mission and size often produce roughly similar working conditions in the classroom. Nevertheless, the best discussions of peer review exercises occurred in disciplinary, not institutional, clusters. Historians from Northwestern University and Charlotte had more teaching challenges in common than did mathematicians and historians from Charlotte.

To be honest, when asked to join the project, John and I had shared our colleagues' skepticism, but we abandoned it after a week of intelligent talk about classroom and teaching issues in Stanford. Back in Charlotte, we felt ourselves in the uncomfortable position of missionaries or colonizers. But whose message did we carry? The AAHE's? The vice-chancellor's? Unfortunately, John and I had not anticipated the toughest institutional obstacles when, fresh from Stanford, we unveiled our program for "bringing teaching closer to the center of departmental culture."

Our own peer review project began during a semester marked by the implementation of a state-mandated program of classroom visitation for untenured professors throughout the University of North Carolina system. (The Board of Governors imposed a requirement for regular classroom visitation after a controversial Chapel Hill tenure decision raised questions about how seriously existing tenure procedures evaluated teaching.) John and I scrambled hard in the fall semester to differentiate our peer review activities from state-mandated classroom visitation. Even though we had already practiced the arts of visiting, observing, and discussing and had formed a “teaching pair" to demonstrate how peer review worked to mentor good teaching-we remained aloof from the mandated visits. But holding aloof did not alleviate confusion and distrust. Our efforts to encourage the formation of additional "teaching pairs" foundered, and our workshops on the Stanford peer review exercises attracted only limited participation.

Clearly, we needed a stronger local and departmental sense of “ownership" of peer review. As a first step, John and I chose to incorporate peer review techniques into ordinary department activities. We began with a curriculum review initiated by the department chair and the department's curriculum committee, on which we both served. Our sizable history major had grown considerably in recent years, and some feared it had lost much of its coherence.

In a series of Friday afternoon meetings (with food funded by the peer review project), the entire department read syllabi and discussed the rationale for courses we required of our majors. (These included two seminars on historical method and a mix of lower-level "surveys" and upper-level classes in Western and non-Western fields.) Doing so, we identified more precisely the skills we taught in required courses. The syllabi provided evidence of diverse strategies for teaching those skills.

Here was work the department wanted to do. It was closely tied to the teaching of history as we practiced it; it was also peer review. In a small way, the curriculum review opened our classrooms to each other's scrutiny, comment, and mutual support. Many colleagues said they had enjoyed and learned much from reading and discussing each other's syllabi. Others, however, expressed frustration with existing procedures for student evaluations and doubts about student learning-topics also discussed at Stanford.

At this point, with support from the AAHE, we were able to demonstrate that our profession as a whole cared about peer review and the nurturing of good teaching as part of professional training. John and I had initially proposed that the department examine the training of teaching assistants for their classroom work, and we had learned at Stanford how history colleagues elsewhere tackled this issue. Further discussion with William Cutler of the Temple University history department suggested that Temple had already given considerable thought to training future professors, but had been less successful than Charlotte in building a strong undergraduate major. With a supportive nod (and a small grant) from the AAHE, Bill Culler and I planned an exchange of visits between Temple and Charlotte, focused on these two issues.

In March 1995 I visited Temple's department and discussed, among other things, my department's review of its undergraduate major, and its teaching of basic skill, for historians across that curriculum. Bill Cutler then visited Charlotte for a workshop on the training of teaching assistants. He also participated in informal meetings, notably with Charlotte's review committee. This committee recommends annual merit raises; for years it has struggled inconclusively to find an acceptable way to evaluate and reward exceptional teaching.

Bill's workshop at Charlotte with the graduate coordinator, graduate students, and supervising faculty was a success. Prior to the workshop, I had interviewed current teaching assistants and summarized the main issues: questions about the negotiation of responsibilities; assistant-student relationships; preparation for grading, lecturing, and discussion; and assessment of the assistant's performance. Bill's description of assistant training at Temple helped the department recognize and begin to clarify a tension between seeing assistantships as financial aid and as teaching apprenticeships. While the Temple Ph.D. program's graduate course on teaching was not appropriate for Charlotte's smaller M.A. program, peer review of the Temple course helped Charlotte's historians formulate plans for a series of workshops for teaching assistants.

By year's end, John and I concluded that the Charlotte department had, in small but important ways, embraced peer review. Teaching was, in fact, closer to the center of departmental culture than it had been in previous years. With the support of department chair Carole Haber, all adjunct faculty now received regular evaluations. And because of the state mandate, more senior faculty were gaining familiarity with classroom observation, albeit for evaluation. Although the question of how to reo ward teaching with merit pay remained a thorny and unsolved problem, formal and informal discussion of teaching, curriculum and undergraduate history education in· creased markedly in 1994-95.

Nor did the discussion end with the completion of the peer review project. In fall 1995 several junior faculty informally created limited "teaching pairs," and a four-part workshop on teaching with graduate assistants, new and old, is under way, with plans for faculty and students to evaluate it and make recommendations for long-term planning. In addition, the department's curriculum committee ha scheduled follow-up discussions to consider how we can measure history majors' progress toward attaining necessary skills in the required courses. The committee also plans exit interviews with graduating seniors to gain additional insight, from a student perspective, into our skills-based major curriculum. And at least one of the department's current search committees is also considering the inclusion of a teaching colloquium or pedagogical seminar for its applicants.

More important, Charlotte's historians increasingly see peer review as something closely linked to the everyday practice of history teaching and to a more general movement within the profession. The AAHE has recently received funding to extend the peer review project for an additional two years. Our experience in Charlotte suggests that a second phase of activities, focused on more extensive collaboration between the AAHE and professional societies like the American Historical Association, might prove to be the key to "spreading the word" about peer review beyond the original universities and departments involved in its project.


Donna R. Gabaccia is the Charles H. Stone Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


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