From the National History Center

New Mock Briefings Program Shows Student-Historians How to Inform Policy

Amanda Moniz, October 2015

This fall the National History Center is introducing the Mock Policy Briefings Program, modeled on our own Congressional Briefings by Historians initiative.

The inspiration for the Mock Policy Briefings Program comes from concerns and questions of colleagues and students. Last fall, in an address about the state of civic engagement in the United States, National Endowment for the Humanities chair William “Bro” Adams remarked that the humanities are the intellectual guardians of civic participation and challenged us to think about how we can strengthen civics education and practice. Later, one of the participants in our briefing last winter on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Mark Von Hagen of Arizona State University, told center staff that his students were surprised to learn that he, a historian, was going to Washington to brief congressional staffers.

Congressional Briefings by Historians seeks to inform staffers on the historical contexts of contemporary issues Congress addresses. As we build the program, we are learning that many hundreds of history-degree holders work on Capitol Hill. Historians and history-degree holders are part of policy-making conversations, but, as stories like Von Hagen’s have alerted us, students may not appreciate the extent to which knowledge of the past helps to illuminate and inform policy decisions.

The Mock Policy Briefings Program responds to Adams’s challenge and students’ curiosity about historians’ public role, along with broad concern in the discipline about declining history enrollments. The program has three goals. It aims to foster students’ understanding of the value of historical perspectives for policy decision making. It seeks to enhance students’ civic engagement by asking them to connect their historical studies to policy-making conversations. And, finally, it aims to help students recognize and showcase the skills and habits of mind they have gained from their history education.

Educators can adapt the program to suit their courses, curricula, locations, and institutional imperatives. Beyond college faculty, we also believe that high school educators could implement the program.

How does the program work? The answer is up to the people implementing it. The program guide, available on the center’s and Association’s websites, provides step-by-step advice on crafting a briefing and explains the pedagogical value of the project. Drawing on the AHA’s Tuning project, the guide also helps students articulate the usefulness of their history degree. We include sample assignments, logistical advice based on the center’s briefings, and follow-up opportunities, with sections geared to educators, students, and history clubs. As the sample syllabus indicates, putting on a policy briefing involves research, written work, and oral presentations. The guide asks students to present the historical context of an issue in a compelling but nonpartisan way. The particulars, however, will vary, as pilot projects suggest.

This fall, Temple University’s Jessica Roney has incorporated the briefings model into a course on the history of the City of Brotherly Love. Examining local history within the context of national and international developments, her students will craft a briefing to bring a historical perspective to an issue currently facing Philadelphia policy makers. Members of the class are working both individually to research potential topics and collaboratively to choose and prepare the issue for the class briefing. Once they have identified appropriate policy makers and held a dress rehearsal near the end of the semester, they will hold the formal event before an audience of Philadelphia policy makers. (I am honored to have been invited to attend and offer feedback.) The final assignment for the course is a blog post reflecting on what students learned about how history shapes current policy considerations and how they can apply those lessons going forward. Watch AHA Today (blog.historians.org) to learn more about the students’ experiences.

While Roney is integrating the briefings program into a course she was already planning to teach, faculty members at Siena College in Albany, New York, are taking a slightly different approach. Thanks to an early conversation with Siena’s Karen Sonnelitter, the contours of the program began to take shape. Based at a school in a state capital, she offered insights about the possibilities and practicalities of inviting state legislators and their staffs to attend student-historians’ briefings. She and her colleagues are now designing a special-topics course around the program and plan to offer the course in the 2016–17 academic year.

Richard Bell of the University of Maryland, College Park, is pursuing a third variation. In spring 2016, he will teach a course on incarceration in early America. The National History Center’s own early-fall briefing is on the history of incarceration, with Alex Lichtenstein of Indiana University, Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan as the three presenters and the center’s director, Dane Kennedy, as moderator. Bell plans to have his students consider and critique the more senior historians’ briefing as they develop their own. In addition, through the center’s network of congressional staffers with history degrees, Bell plans to invite a graduate of the University of Maryland system who now works for a member of Congress from Maryland to attend the briefing. As our network of congressional staffers with history degrees develops, we hope to help connect staff in district offices around the country with other interested faculty.

As these three pilot projects suggest, educators can adapt the program to suit their courses, curricula, locations, and institutional imperatives. We believe that, in addition to college faculty, high school educators could implement the program in their courses. And, just as the center’s briefings bring Americanists and non-Americanists to Capitol Hill, we hope educators in various subfields will consider using it. It is not our intention that particular legislative issues drive the course; we are not suggesting that an educator start with a policy concern. Rather, we believe that this program could be incorporated into many, if not most, subfields. Everything has a history, as James Grossman, the AHA’s executive director, often says, and courses across regions and eras provide historical context for policy decision making today.

In addition to Roney, Sonnelitter, and Bell, Katherine Luongo of Northeastern University offered early suggestions about how to craft the briefings educational program. With guidance from center and Association staff, intern Cristina Belli, now in her sophomore year at Brown University, handled much of the drafting of the plan. We now invite your input as we continue collaboratively to develop and implement this program.

Amanda Moniz is assistant director, National History Center of the American Historical Association.


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