Shaping the Future of the History Survey
AHA Holds Fourth Annual Conference on Introductory Courses
Last fall, I attended the AHA’s fourth annual Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses. As an adjunct instructor and early career historian, I find these conferences accessible and directly relevant to my current role within the field—teaching introductory history courses. Each time I walk away with new insights, strategies, and ideas to improve my courses and my teaching. From listening to the presentations, attending the workshops, and participating in the discussions, it was clear that those in attendance shared a passion for history and for teaching it. Last year’s conference in particular revealed two distinct forces—one pedagogical and the other administrative—shaping the teaching of introductory or survey history courses. Just as educators are engaged in robust conversations about how best to teach these courses, administrators and policymakers are grappling with decisions about how best to fit them into the larger curriculum.
The conference kicked off with a keynote address by Anne Hyde (Univ. of Oklahoma), “Plagued by Doubt: Uncertainty as History’s Pedagogy.” Hyde discussed how teachers can leverage introductory history courses to help students learn to handle the uncertainties inherent in the study of history and in life. Her presentation contributed directly to the vibrant conversations among history educators about how to teach history in the unique setting of an introductory course. A breakout session titled “My Goals, Their Goals, Our Goals,” for example, focused on helping teachers align their motivations for teaching history with that of the students taking their classes. Many teachers were interested in identifying methods to engage disinterested students who take survey courses to fulfill general education degree requirements. Presenters and attendees alike agreed on the importance of integrating more historical methods or practice into their courses while accepting the necessity of omitting some content.
Teachers also discussed the challenges of tailoring their instruction to the specifics of each class—what works for a class of 20 may not scale to one of 200 and vice versa. One of the beautiful aspects of the Texas history conference is the willingness of all present to discuss which assignments and activities worked for them in the classroom, which did not, and why the activities failed or worked. These discussions are invaluable to all instructors, from the elementary teacher to the senior professor. The second day of the conference featured a well-attended Assignment Charrette, where teachers received feedback on their student assignments from peers in a supportive environment.
Another perennial challenge that history educators face is that of assessment. At a session titled “Assignments and Assessments,” Steven Mintz (Univ. of Texas, Austin) described a comprehensive system of assessment that was not based on the requirement that students complete all assignments. Rather it focused on creating a micro-economy where all activities and assignments were valued, and students chose the assignments they wanted to complete. Students then accumulated points to reach their desired grade. Essentially, Mintz noted, the process removed the pressure of completing any single assignment while still motivating students. At another session, “Gamification in the History Survey Course,” Brad Cartwright (Univ. of Texas at El Paso) demonstrated the use of Quizizz.com to gamify weekly content quizzes and encourage students to engage with the material while competing for bragging rights.
While teachers engaged in these conversations about pedagogy and techniques, they also discussed the impact of history education policy on their teaching. In fact, some of the biggest concerns in history education right now are questions of policy, including dual-credit, transfer credits, enrollments, core curriculum, and learning outcomes and objectives. Rebecca Leslie from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spoke on the board’s efforts to develop and implement uniform, measurable learning outcomes in order to improve student performance in pursuit of the state’s 60x30TX initiative, which aims for at least 60 percent of all Texans aged 25–34 to have completed a degree or certificate by 2030.
Dual-credit courses were of special concern to many in attendance. Since dual-credit students are in high school, these courses present unique pedagogical challenges. Dual-credit courses also exacerbate existing challenges around transferring credit hours. While much work has been done to standardize course listings and descriptions, many factors interfere with transfers, frustrating students and administrators alike. The popularity of dual-credit courses, however, indicates that they will continue to be a significant element of secondary and postsecondary history education. The AHA’s advocacy on these issues, including the Tuning Project and the inclusion of policy voices at conferences, has been helpful, but is insufficient on its own. It is imperative that teachers understand these issues because continued apathy will only result in further disconnect between practitioners and policymakers.
Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes underscored this reality at the conference. In his address, Paredes delivered candid insights into the role of policy in history education and clearly expressed a need for practitioners to contribute to policy discussions. Without the participation of historians in policy discussions, policymakers may make decisions that are unintentionally burdensome or even counterproductive.
Some teachers at the conference, for example, expressed trepidation about the recent educational policy initiatives on teaching students marketable skills. Many teachers provide language in their syllabi about critical thinking and other skills learned from studying history, but many lack the necessary framework for helping students, parents, and policymakers to understand how these skills correlate to non-history careers. Though seemingly problematic, these initiatives are actually opportunities for teachers to constructively engage with other stakeholders. By leveraging the AHA’s Tuning Project and Jonathan Lee’s (San Antonio Coll.) research on history and marketable skills, educators can meaningfully engage with policymakers, but as practitioners we have to be willing to do so. This discussion resonated with me in an unexpected way. While I am an adjunct instructor, my day job for the past decade has been in technology. Innumerable times, I have been asked how I became a technologist despite having degrees in history. My answer has always been to point toward the critical thinking and communication skills that history develops.
Like many other attendees, I walked away from the conference feeling refreshed from having spent two days with peers with whom I share a common passion for teaching history. I gained an understanding of the complex policy issues facing our departments and discipline, and I learned about how I can serve the discipline better as a practitioner-advocate. The business world has a concept called alignment. It’s the idea that if you match the core functions and goals of an employee or a department with the objectives of the business, both will succeed. The same is possible for history education and educational policy. When educators and policy makers align their objectives, we will both better serve our students’ needs.
Patrick Leech earned history degrees from Abilene Christian University and Texas A&M University–Central Texas. A technologist by day and an adjunct by night, he enjoys sharing his passion for history. Currently, he lives in Central Texas with his wife. This fall he will start working on his doctorate in history.
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