Indiana University History Departments Talk about History

Roy Schreibner | Feb 1, 1998

This past October, just under three decades since the last all-university meeting, representatives from the history departments of seven of the eight Indiana University campuses met at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. After nearly five hours of discussion, the participants agreed to do it again within the next couple of years. What had happened? Why not wait another 30 years?

The first reason was the source of the ideas for this meeting. It was initiated and funded by an all-campus Indiana University program called the Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (FACET). The major concern of this group is effective teaching. Its membership of nearly 300 includes historians from all but one of the eight university campuses. To some extent the fact that this was a history conference was coincidental. In order to talk about common concerns in the undergraduate program, the FACET steering committee wanted a discipline that was taught widely throughout the university from which to choose representatives. History fit this model.

The second reason for satisfaction with the conference was this use of representatives. Only one or two historians from each campus participated. Those who did appear had no authority to make any changes for their departments. To put it bluntly, the gathering was not a threat to the autonomy of any campus. The nonthreatening nature of the meeting was reinforced by official endorsement of the AHA Teaching Division.

The undergraduate history major seemed like a good starting point in finding a theme for the conference. With this idea in mind, the AHA's Liberal Learning and the History Major (available on the AHA web site) went out to all participants and Lacey Baldwin Smith, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, was selected as the keynote speaker to help focus on this theme.

The group of a dozen historians (and one English literature professor from FACET to act as an evaluator) that gathered at the Indiana Historical Society represented a broad spectrum of constituencies within the discipline. Some departments represented were very large and had graduate programs; some had only two faculty and no undergraduate history major. A few were fresh out of graduate school at their first tenure-track jobs; several others were full professors with several decades of experience at Indiana University. Of the dozen, one was Asian and one African American. One of the senior and most of the junior faculty represented were women.

Professor Smith began by emphasizing how the volume of material and topics for historical study had expanded to the point where a single individual could no longer claim to have scholarly historical knowledge of more than a small portion of the historical record. Along with, and perhaps related to, this expansion came a fragmentation of the consensus on why it is useful to study history. The view that history is moral philosophy teaching by example or that a knowledge of history is necessary for the governing elite, whether titled aristocrats or Communist Party bureaucrats, has long since faded. No generally accepted substitute has appeared in its place. After developing this context, Professor Smith then moved to specific issues and concerns that needed addressing within the major and to more general ones within all history classes. Among those topics, he discussed the questions of depth versus breadth and the balance between covering an area and teaching students the skills needed by historians, particularly writing.

What happened next was a surprise. Virtually all of the participants made it plain that the major and what happened within it was not their primary concern. From the smallest departments to the largest, most of the undergraduate students they taught were not majors. Judging by the conversation, it is safe to say that even on the campuses where a history major is offered, not even 10 percent of the students taught majored in the subject. Most of the students in history classes are business or education majors. In some departments even the senior seminar, supposedly the last bastion of the pure history major, is overwhelmed by secondary social-studies education students. It also became clear that in this era when history courses are increasingly not required but rather are one of several options, when administrators expect classes to be filled to the maximum, and when departmental budget allocations are dependent on how well their courses draw students, concern with the undergraduate history major is something of a luxury.

In terms of teaching principally nonmajors, this situation may not be radically different than what prevailed in the decades immediately after World War II, but the attitude of the conference participants certainly is. During that earlier time, when the crowded first-year sections were filled with undecided students, they were often considered a prime recruiting ground for history majors. Whether or not significant numbers of students actually did become history majors, the optimism was there. Judging by the FACET meeting participants, that attitude has vanished. Those present have not given up on the idea of making classes interesting--they have to in order to attract students--but none of them feel they can compete for majors with programs that lead directly to a purely vocational track.

This change in emphasis at the conference did not mean that the issues and questions that Professor Smith raised in his keynote address went unexamined, but rather that the examination took place based on the participants' experience of teaching mostly nonmajors who were likely to remain so. One result of this attitude is that the prerequisite is a dead issue. So is demanding students take a chronological sequence of history courses. On a more personal level, as several participants said, the odds are they will see the vast majority of students in their particular set of history classes for only one semester.

It was at this point that the unity of the conference members largely dissolved. The discussion shifted to the questions of breadth versus depth and of basic skills versus historical content. For those who made the argument for an emphasis on breadth and content, the limited exposure students had to history classes was one of their chief motivations. If students are going to receive an abbreviated version of history, it is important to expose them to the key events and individuals so they can learn their significance. This group also expressed a fear that if the acquisition of skills became the primary reason offered for taking history classes, then other departments and programs in the humanities and social sciences could offer equally convincing rationales for having students enroll in their classes. The most obvious skills--writing and critical thinking--are not the monopoly of the historians. Given these conditions, by de-emphasizing the uniqueness of historical study historians could put themselves out of business.

Those who chose depth and technique for their emphasis in running classes questioned how much students retained with a broad survey approach. To these historians, taking students through a topic in depth more closely approximated what historians do as professionals. As a rule, the procedure is to go from the specific discoveries to the general conclusions. In one of the few references to the major, one participant suggested that it makes sense to have a survey as the capstone course for history majors as a way of pulling together the more specific classes. While none of this group was enthusiastic about the prospect of endless correcting of grammar, spelling, and structure of student work, the general feeling was that students needed to work on their presentation of historical information as an expected part of the history program. Several individuals from this group, including Professor Smith, report success with a team-teaching approach using composition instructors, who are generally as uncomfortable trying to teach historical knowledge as the historians are teaching composition.

While neither side succeeded in changing the other group's approach, in the process several creative ideas emerged. Without trying to report all subjects covered, some did stand out. Even in the general first-year surveys, a couple of the participants are having success with term paper assignments that ask students to choose a historical figure and then to explain how this person would have reacted to a major event of their era in which the individual did not take part. In one case this assignment in a modern history class led a student to contact the person chosen and ask for an opinion on the incident. A debate format within the classroom is another way of getting students to examine historical problems. The related technique of using small group discussions within a larger class also received attention. Instead of having all ideas directed at the instructor for commentary, it is one way to encourage students to exchange ideas among themselves, and in the process to give those ideas value.

In the end, whatever the disagreements, the participants came away feeling that their problems are not unique, and that there are ways to bring history to students without lowering the quality of the courses they offer. Given the almost total lack of interest in the original purpose of the conference, that is a most unexpected and satisfying result. Equally important, those involved recognized that the exchange of information about concerns and possible solutions is valuable enough to them so that they recommended that it happen a good deal more frequently than once in 30 years.

—Roy Schreiber teaches at Indiana University South Bend.

Tags: Resources for History Departments Resources and Strategies


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