AHA Activities

History Learning and Teaching in the Graduate Curriculum

Julia Brookins | May 1, 2013

For history graduate students facing the classroom for the first time as instructors, the challenges of teaching may seem unfamiliar and isolating. Many get frustrated when students do not understand what history is or what they are trying to teach. But teaching challenges, like the research challenges elsewhere in the graduate curriculum, can be eased by evidence-based inquiry and shared, scholarly conversations. Early career instructors-whether they are planning a discussion section or trying to figure out where a writing assignment went awry-can draw insights from a rich body of research on how people learn to think historically. This was one of the core messages at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in March 2013, when the history department hosted a group of historians and a cognitive psychologist, all of whom have worked extensively in the scholarship of history teaching and learning.

In November 2012, the AHA received a grant from the Teagle Foundation for a project (Perspectives on History, January 2013) that explores ways to better integrate the scholarship of teaching and learning into the training of history doctoral students. Undergraduates and their families make big sacrifices for college opportunities; for these students, as well as for their own career prospects, graduate students want to learn how to teach well. One premise of the project is that teaching is not generic. Graduate students will be more effectively involved in teaching and learning concerns if they encounter them in contexts that are specific to their disciplines and, ideally, if their efforts are overseen and encouraged by departmental faculty who bear primary responsibility for students' intellectual development and professionalization. Two priorities in the program design, then, were to emphasize that much current research focuses on the discipline-specific nature of learning, and to test models for presenting the central intellectual-as opposed to merely practical-problems that faculty face in their teaching careers. Sam Wineburg (Stanford Univ.), a cognitive psychologist specializing in how students learn history, has observed that the biggest challenge in training history graduate students is leading them "to recognize the teaching-learning nexus as an intellectual problem worthy of the deepest thinking in the discipline.

"One of the keys for early career instructors is to be aware that historical thinking involves a range of ways of thinking that are unique to history as a discipline, and are not automatically a part of the tools that undergraduate students bring with them. Historian and teaching and learning expert David Pace (Indiana Univ.) explains, "Learning to read in a history course is fundamentally different than reading in an accounting or a biology course, and our preparation of graduate students should focus to a large extent on the particular forms of thinking and acting required for success in history courses." Focusing on the new skills and habits of mind required in historical thinking can lower barriers related to the social capital and intellectual background that students arrive with, Pace points out. Instead of assessing students based on their generic writing skills, for example, teachers can break down processes to work on component steps in historical thinking and develop them incrementally. Tailoring teaching to achieve particular, explicit outcomes can help teachers reach all their students. Otherwise, Pace cautioned, grading tends merely to recapitulate the disadvantages or privileges that students brought with them.

AHA staff worked with Maureen Miller, vice chair for graduate affairs in the history department at UC Berkeley, to arrange a visit from an advisory panel of experts in history teaching and learning. In addition to David Pace and Sam Wineburg, the panel included Lendol Calder (Augustana Coll.), Keith Erekson (Univ. of Texas at El Paso), and Laura Westhoff (Univ. of Missouri-St. Louis).

Berkeley faculty member Daniel Sargent volunteered to work with the advisors on a redesign of the department's 300-level course, Teaching History at the University. Sargent and his graduate student assistant, Lynsay Skiba, will spend time over the summer revising this course, a state requirement for all first-time teaching assistants. With Miller facilitating and department chair Ethan Shagan sitting in, Sargent, Skiba, the advisors, AHA Executive Director James Grossman, and Julia Brookins, project director, talked through ideas for the course. Sargent will teach the revised course with Skiba's assistance this fall.

For Pace, the main goal for such a course is equipping future faculty with the tools to continue growing and developing as teachers: "The focus of graduate students needs to move from their own performance to student learning. It is crucial that they learn to learn from and about their students." While good teachers have always learned from their students, what is new here is the collection of evidence from student learning that can then be translated back into teaching strategies. Wineburg was struck by "faculty's willingness to open themselves up to seeing teaching as an intellectual act that goes beyond the mastery of technical skills." He suggested that a course like Teaching History at the University address three main issues: How can teachers reveal students' thinking? How can they teach students to read texts in ways that differ from their high school preparation? How can they prepare students to orient themselves in space and time vis-a-vis any historical topic or document? Calder emphasized the need to prepare this generation of students to respond to situations we cannot anticipate: "Twenty years from now, history classrooms, and the students in them, will look very different. Therefore, a course on pedagogy should ground students, not in current tips and how-tos, but in a way of thinking about teaching that is useful for navigating one's way through the rapidly changing landscape of higher education.

"One of Sargent's main goals in teaching the course is "to help graduate students to deconstruct, at least to some extent, the distinction that exists in many of our minds between 'teaching' and 'research.' It's a categorical distinction that permeates our profession, yet most of us who do this for a living would, I think, acknowledge its artificiality." Sargent himself had not previously realized how much "substantive, and serious research exists on the teaching of history, especially at the university level." Prior to the meetings, he had not thought of the teaching that he and his colleagues did as a subject for research in its own right, and was "impressed by the rigor" of what the scholars of teaching and learning do. "The idea of bringing evidence-based scholarship to bear on the practice of classroom instruction seems to me a sensible way to move forwards.

"The curricular and institutional difficulties in preparing history graduate students to teach vary considerably by program, but everywhere they are complex. Time is short in and out of the classroom, and both faculty and graduate students are often over-burdened with other obligations. Training students to teach within these constraints requires creativity. By the close of the workshop, Sargent and Skiba were planning to build a syllabus that will take students through a series of experiential assignments and activities. Beginning graduate student instructors would practice the key skills of listening closely for evidence of how their undergraduates are thinking, while carefully observing themselves and their peers interacting with undergraduates in order to see what is being communicated.

Sargent found the discussion a "helpful and provocative" learning experience. Acknowledging that such a course has the potential to pose deep intellectual questions, however, raised the stakes for redesigning it. Sargent reflected that the insights he had gained might make the revision harder, not easier, but expressed confidence that it would be worth it: "the outcomes for the students who take the course will be better."

In the coming months, the project will sponsor another team of experts to work with the elected representatives of the AHA Teaching Division to create a coherent and concentrated series of sessions for the 2014 annual meeting to demonstrate engaging and feasible ways to close the gap between research about history learning and the aspiring educators who could most benefit from it.

Julia Brookins is the AHA's special projects coordinator.

Tags: AHA Activities Resources for Faculty Resources for Graduate Students Graduate Education Resources and Strategies


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