A Graduate Student’s Perspective of the Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses

By Nicholas Roland

Texans like to describe their state as being “like a whole other country.” In at least one sense this claim to Lone Star exceptionalism is correct. The state of Texas requires all undergraduates at state institutions of higher learning to take six credit hours of United States or Texas history. This requirement, born out of Cold War fears of creeping communism among Texas young people, is a boon to Americanists and ironically serves to buttress this facet of the discipline against a legislature dominated by the ideological heirs of the 1950s anticommunists. With this unique situation in mind, the AHA held a conference on teaching the survey course at the University of Texas at Austin campus on August 28–29.

One of the conference’s major concerns was to discuss pedagogy and disseminate information on the latest research on cognition and learning as it pertains to the teaching of history. Lendol Calder offered a keynote address on his own experience with teaching the United States history survey and his eventual decision to redesign his course. Calder described his initial courses as lecture-centric and in keeping with the traditional coverage model. Through his own experiences and his readings in cognition and learning outcomes, he decided to abandon the coverage model. Calder now focuses on teaching more in-depth “blocks” where students are introduced to a topic, then take part in critical inquiry exercises with primary documents, and finally participate in some kind of assessment. Calder believes that this model yields better results in building both the skills associated with historical thinking and student’s historical knowledge. The themes of moving away from the coverage model and of focusing on developing students’ historical skills were echoed by speakers throughout the conference.

On the conference’s second day, UT Austin’s own Emilio Zamora gave an address about his own experiences teaching history in Texas. Zamora made several interesting points. Rather than portraying himself as a neutral figure, Zamora discusses his own positionality with his students at the outset of the course. He believes that this serves to make a connection with students and to get them thinking about the ways in which their own lives are intimately connected to the past. He also discussed the use of oral history assignments as a teaching method, again emphasizing its ability to make a human connection for students with a seemingly distant past. Zamora believes these techniques serve to build empathy in students, a critical if often overlooked component of a liberal arts education.

Breakout sessions tackled a variety of topics. I chose to attend two: “Using Creative Assignments” and “Writing/Assessing Outcomes.” As a doctoral student, most of my daily concerns have to do with research and writing, with little thought given to how to actually teach history. The opportunity to learn from distinguished and experienced scholars and teachers was one I couldn’t pass up. Though a wide range of techniques and opinions were discussed in the sessions, a couple of underlying themes seemed to emerge. One key point was the possibility of engaging students through technology and the opportunity to complete assignments that relate to their individual majors and interests. Another was a sense of realism about the possibilities for student learning in a college introductory course. This second point folds back into research that suggests students don’t retain much from a coverage model course.

The political challenges facing higher education in Texas and beyond were a final major concern for many in attendance. A discussion with Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymond Paredes was very helpful in illuminating challenges and opportunities. A growing consensus, articulated in closing remarks by Trinidad Gonzales of South Texas College, seems to be that Texas academics must become better organized and proactive in order to ensure that the best interests of college students and teachers are protected. This conference was an invaluable experience for me and I highly recommend it and similar AHA events to other students who are beginning to think about how they will create and teach their own courses.

Nicholas Roland is a doctoral student in American history at the University of Texas at Austin.