Teaching History at the Two-Year Institution: A Status Report and View of the Future
James J. Lorence, October 1994
Throughout the United States more than six million people attend two-year collegiate institutions. In the fall of 1992, over 50 percent of all incoming college freshmen were enrolled in two-year schools. An acceleration of enrollment in recent years has resulted in a significant influx of nontraditional students into history classrooms at two-year campuses, where instructors work to integrate these new learners into the community of formally educated persons.
Recognizing that this new student body presents historians with both a challenge and a golden opportunity, teachers from diverse institutions gathered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in San Francisco in January 1994 to assess the current status of history instruction at two-year schools and to explore new approaches to meeting the needs of their hard-pressed faculties. The result was a wide-ranging examination of teaching problems that merit the serious attention of the profession if historians are to meet the academic needs of the next generation of upwardly mobile seekers of educational opportunity.
Unmatched Opportunities in the Introductory History Course
Any effort to deal with the new student population in history classrooms must begin with the acknowledgment by all historians that the freshman-sophomore experience provides a critical platform for students undertaking undergraduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. As history professionals, we should agree that not only are the essential building blocks for advanced undergraduate learning laid in the basic courses, but also that student attitudes toward and perceptions of history are often shaped by their encounter with the discipline at this level. All college and university teachers "need to change the view that general education is just the 'intro-stuff' students do before getting on to what is really important."1 Introductory and survey instruction in history is serious business, especially when one considers the significant percentage of students for whom these courses are the only history taken.
Introductory courses provide an unmatched opportunity to entice students into a meaningful engagement with the past and with the decisions of men and women from other generations. At this level we can ignite the spark of inquiry that will lead new generations to value history as a way of learning vital lessons about ourselves, our society, and our world. And in no venue is there greater opportunity for such self-discovery than at two-year institutions, whose mission it is to open the doors of learning to previously underserved populations and to help new learners transcend the narrow utilitarianism that sometimes characterizes their view of education.
Common to the presentations made at the San Francisco meeting was an awareness that student interest in history at two-year campuses is often superficial and sometimes latent. Paige Cubbison (Miami-Dade Community College, Florida) accurately described modern students as generally cheerful, polite, passive, and woefully deficient in basic background concerning the historical record. Students whose "intellectual curiosity has not been awakened yet," these young people "burn with zeal about absolutely nothing in the academic world." Similarly, Shirley Wilton (Ocean County College, New Jersey) saw these students as "postmodern," without a "sense of permanent self" and prepared to "shift identity with every new experience." Resistant to the traditional "logic of learning," modern students initially reveal minimal interest in the past and little desire to confront challenging new ideas.2 The striking absence of a common culture between students and teachers has been labeled "disarticulation" by Dennis McGrath and Martin B. Spear, who argue that somehow these young people must learn to "think, talk, and argue within the various academic discourse communities."3 In the history classroom, then, it becomes our responsibility to help them to grapple with the complexities of historical reasoning and methodology.
Two-Year Schools as the Laboratory of Opportunity
And help we must. Because the primary mission of two-year institutions lies in providing effective introductory and survey course instruction, teachers at these schools are in a position to assume leadership in the effort to awaken student interest in history and to spark the development of an intellectual curiosity that will prepare students for life in the world of ideas. But what is the surest avenue to the achievement of this goal? While methods vary, there is widespread agreement among community college teachers that the central objective in survey-introductory course instruction should be the development of critical thinking skills and the powers of analysis. The intellectual exercise that results from confronting issues that matter can be of great value in shaping student learning habits.
To this end, many teachers of basic history courses place a high premium on instructional techniques that promote interactive learning. The clearest theme in the discussion at the San Francisco meeting was an emphasis on the search for teaching approaches that encourage active student engagement in the process of discovery. Techniques recommended include the use of provocative essay examinations, minilectures punctuated regularly by questions, completely inquiry-based instruction, planned discussion using the Socratic method, advance distribution of test questions in examination preparation, role playing, classroom debates, collaborative learning, analysis of primary sources, creative employment of audiovisual (nonprint) evidence, and classroom simulations, among others. What links these techniques is the primacy they give to active learning, student initiative, and thinking historically.
Promoting Student Engagement through Interaction
The shift to the interactive classroom means that many of us must be willing to rethink the time-honored techniques that have been serving us well. For some, the task may simply entail the revision and restructuring of lectures to promote greater student engagement. Others will choose to radically redirect the responsibility for inquiry. The common denominator remains a consensus to encourage students to accept greater responsibility for their own intellectual growth.
As two-year college historians move to increase student participation in the learning process, many will find that new ideas entail new professional responsibilities. As Cubbison noted, teaching at a community college "is a constantly renewed call to learn more"; more than most historians, teachers at two-year institutions are spread thin, challenged to remain abreast of the latest developments in many fields. They are, after all, professional generalists whose teaching responsibilities are especially demanding and unusually diverse. Beyond this, they have been called upon to gain control of modern pedagogical techniques that will meet the needs of students whose backgrounds and preparation vary greatly.
For Wilton, the problem of remaining professionally active has been exacerbated by an alternative form of "disarticulation" between faculty at two- and four-year institutions. She suggests that community college historians, arguably those most in need of a tie with the research, intellectual stimulus, and excitement of modern historical scholarship, have been effectively cut off from their colleagues at baccalaureate institutions. Faced with crushing teaching loads, administration disinterest in scholarly achievement, and pressure to focus exclusively on the worthy enterprise of teaching, many such teacher-scholars have become "professionally disconnected" from their discipline, and not by choice. Few would argue with her conclusion that we must maintain our common disciplinary ties if we are to meet the needs of our students. Reconnecting with the historical discipline will almost certainly "help us to connect with our students."
Solving the Disconnect between Two- and Four-Year Schools
But how can this goal be achieved? Among the many alternatives explored at San Francisco, the solutions most favored were those that brought two-year college historians into close contact with their colleagues at baccalaureate institutions, with the idea of fostering a sense of inclusion in the larger community of professional historians. There was also expressed an element of skepticism concerning reciprocal sentiments among faculty at four-year campuses. For example, several participants noted the relatively sparse attendance of four-year faculty at the session. Despite such reservations, it is possible to identify examples of creative collaboration now underway. One useful model for establishing professional linkages is Theodore Rabb's program at Princeton's Center for Faculty Development. Founded as a career development program for community college teachers, the Princeton effort has provided a needed professional growth opportunity for teachers eager to maintain disciplinary contacts and to remain within the mainstream of the historical profession. Similarly, the New Jersey Project, created with support from that state's Department of Higher Education, has permitted teachers from two-year, four-year, and private liberal arts institutions to collaborate in the transformation of the postsecondary curriculum, with emphasis on gender, racial, and ethnic issues. Perhaps the greatest value of this project lies in the collegiality it has fostered among participants from disparate backgrounds.
The New Jersey Project's cooperation on curricular reform is at least tangentially related to one of the most serious challenges confronted by historians at two-year institutions: the development of workable responses to the problem of articulation and transfer coordination. Most two-year college historians would agree that without innovative solutions to the transfer problem, the mission of their institutions will remain unfulfilled. These history faculties, often limited in size, must develop courses that will meet the diverse needs of a wide variety of students transferring to baccalaureate institutions whose general education and program requirements differ substantially. Community college historians must be capable of providing students with not only a broad range of introductory courses, but also with depth of knowledge, control of appropriate content, exposure to conceptual history, and experience with critical thinking and writing, all designed to prepare them for the world of learning they will enter as they move into advanced undergraduate courses.
Toward New Collaborative Efforts
In order to meet this challenge, historians at all levels must work together to solve the myriad problems confronting the classroom teacher and the transfer student. We need to resolve collaboratively such questions as:
- What should the general education requirement in history consist of, and what is its place in the freshman-sophomore curriculum?
- What is the relationship between the general education requirement and the major in history?
- Are guidelines for introductory history courses appropriate or inadvisable?
- What is the place of the inquiry method and critical thinking in the basic history courses?
- What should the proper emphasis be on writing and communication skills in introductory or survey courses?
- How can historians cooperate to ensure that premajor and preprofessional requirements are satisfied in the courses offered at two-year institutions?
At least two factors influence articulation agreements between two-year and four-year institutions: geographic proximity and close relationships between transfer officers. Community college teachers would argue that a third force holds great promise for meeting student needs: historian-to-historian relationships. It is incumbent upon us as teaching scholars, and upon our professional associations as support organizations, to foster collaborative relationships among all practitioners of the teacher's art. Through department-to-department liaisons we can establish clear understandings concerning appropriate preparation of community college students for success in upper-level courses. Not only can we ease transfer, but more importantly, we would have a wonderful opportunity to develop shared expectations at all levels of history instruction.4 It is our collective duty as teachers and scholars to accept this responsibility.
Fortunately, there is evidence that historians have begun to meet the challenge. The California State University system, with articulation officers consulting department chairs, has developed specific articulation agreements that guarantee that community college courses will be automatically accepted as the equivalent of courses at the four-year campuses. A similar effort has been made in Wisconsin to ensure that recipients of the two-year associate degree have met the general education requirements at the state's baccalaureate institutions. Even more creative are the Virginia university and community college faculty who have worked together to establish modules of liberal arts courses offered throughout the community college system.5
Building Bridges between Two-Year Colleges and Precollegiate Institutions
While the exploration of commonly accepted outcomes is important to the future of two-year transfer programs, articulation with precollegiate feeder institutions can also contribute to the fulfillment of the two-year institution's mission. Because of the uniquely close relationship between most two-year schools and their host communities, history faculties at such institutions are ideally situated to build bridges with history teachers in the secondary schools. There are many models for such collaboration, but none has been more successful than the well-established History Teaching Alliance program, cosponsored by the AHA, Organization of American Historians (OAH), and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Through summer institutes and academic-year seminars, university and precollegiate teachers have regularly come together for intensive examination of content material in history within a collegial atmosphere. Although the exploration of the latest historical scholarship has typically been the alliance's primary objective, discussion of survey instruction and the preparation of students for college-level history has often been a natural outgrowth of these contacts.
As community resources, two-year institutions have played a central role in easing the transition to university-level education for first-generation entry-level college students, whose academic needs are great. Through the alliance and other such organizations, it has been possible to establish a working contact among teachers at separate places on the educational continuum. Anchored in their home communities and sensitive to their special needs, two-year schools may well be the best-situated institutions to create a much needed multi-level partnership in twenty-first century education.
As historians look to the future, they will note that two-year institutions, more than any other element in the postsecondary system, have been access points for masses of minority and nontraditional students. The pressures created by accelerated demand have forced teachers to explore new avenues, approaches, and delivery systems that can accommodate the diverse needs of a changing student body. Significant curricular change, distance learning programs, remediation, and more personalized learning systems have all found their advocates as historians have struggled to fashion education programs for the future. In no location have these changes been more dramatic than in California, where the enrollment crush has been accompanied by a substantial increase in the African American, Asian, Latino/Chicano, and Native American student population.
One creative response to the new realities has been the California community colleges' development of off-campus education centers as extensions of main campus programs. At our San Francisco session Juan Muñoz Lujón (College of the Desert, California) argued that these education centers offer an opportunity for creative experimentation in ethnic studies and new history fields, offerings which have been well-received within the center context. Among the successful strategies employed is the telecommunication of history courses, such as Chicano history, originating at California State University, San Bernardino, but simulcast to the Palm Desert Center seventy-five miles distant and accompanied by interactive discussion and biweekly meetings at the satellite campus. Other approaches employed at education centers include small group seminar sessions, on-site assignments at local historical museums and sites, and supplementary historical videocassette instruction.6
The education center concept, while widely recognized as a growing phenomenon in community college education nationwide, poses provocative questions. Historians at the San Francisco meeting discussed both the obvious advantages of distance learning strategies and the possible dangers inherent in excessive reliance on electronic communication as a substitute for face-to-face engagement. Lujón made it clear that telecommunications delivery systems are unworkable without the guiding hand of skillful instructors, and that the critical component in successful teaching is "still the instructor's commitment to the students and the learning process." Indeed, the more isolated the learning environment in the education center, the "greater the need for the instructor to establish and provide the climate, structure, and support for the teaching of history."
This insistence on teacher-student contact reinforces the importance of essay examinations. Despite the burdensome teaching loads characteristic of the two-year institution, most faculty acknowledge the superiority of essay testing, and many continue to rely upon it. The skills deficiencies encountered in history students at the two-year level make insistence on writing a high priority. For without the basic tools of analysis and communication, these students will not gain entrance into the company of educated people, which they so desperately seek. As a consequence, community college historians find themselves supplying much more guidance, direction, and feedback than seemed necessary in years gone by; but often their efforts are rewarded as marginal students demonstrate that while the pace of learning may vary, learning does take place. Although failures are inevitable, successes occur with regularity, and the gratification inherent in helping learners to unlock their own minds energizes the committed teacher for the intellectual encounters to come.
Courses Built on Student Presuppositions
But how will our "postmodern" students be brought to the table of analytical thought? How will the overburdened teacher connect with the bewildering array of students encountered in the typical two-year institution? Few community college historians would dismiss the value of instruction rooted in the student search for personal meaning in the analysis of historical problems and content material in the discipline. Concluding the Annapolis Conference on the Introductory Course, in 1980, the late Warren Susman summarized the conferees' consensus that "relevance is vulgar and indispensable." It is as true today as it was then that introductory courses "should be built in large part on an understanding of student interests, situations, and needs."7 As they introduce new generations of searchers to the magic that is history and the joy that is learning, historians at America's most accessible opportunity institutions consistently honor this respected tradition.
Fierce dedication to the instructional task reflects the operative assumption of teachers at the two-year level: no course is more important than the introductory course. For these historians, successful teaching at the freshman level constitutes a primary area of specialization. If San Francisco marked the beginning of a new dialogue among historians at all levels, as it certainly should, perhaps expertise in motivating and igniting the interest of potential historians at the entry level will be the key professional contribution of the AHA's newest constituency. Faculty at two-year institutions can become a valuable resource as the historical profession moves forward to probe the scholarship of teaching.
2. Paige Cubbison, "A Is for Apathy: Getting Students to Respond," and Shirley Wilton, "Teaching in the Postmodern Age: Building Connections between Faculty and Academic Discipline," papers presented at American Historical Association annual meeting, San Francisco, January 7–9, 1994.
4. James C. Palmer and Marilyn B. Pugh, "The Community College Contribution to the Education of Bachelor's Degree Candidates," Probing the Community College Function: Research on Curriculum Degree Completion and Academic Tasks (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1993), 55.
James J. Lorence is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Center at Marathon County, where he teaches the United States history survey and courses in twentieth-century United States. He is the author of Gerald J. Boileau and the Progressive-Farmer Labor Alliance (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994). He also serves as a member of the AHA Teaching Division.