The AHA is Listening: How a Professional History Organization is Changing its Tune

I’ll be the first to admit, watching a recording of Bill Cronon lecture from a podium in a hotel conference room at last year’s annual AHA meeting didn’t sound that thrilling to me either. Don’t get me wrong, of course Cronon is a brilliant scholar, engaging speaker, and such an asset to the academic community to which he belongs. Nonetheless, sitting through an AHA presidential address in an attempt to gleam the organization’s take on the state of higher education – late on a Friday afternoon, no less – demanded another cup of coffee (at the very least). Perhaps in my rush to re-caffeinate, I assumed that Cronon’s talking points would follow a more traditional trajectory, and that I would have to pay close attention to catch a sound bite about teaching or the undergraduate classroom.  He happily proved me wrong.

In many ways, Cronon’s address was my jumping off point to explore the AHA’s take on teaching – past, present, and future. The address proved a good place to start, since Cronon begins by noting that his speech is one of the few presidential addresses (you can count the number of them on one hand, in fact) that takes on the issue of teaching and places it center stage. In combination with his article “And Glady Teach,” Cronon urges his colleagues to take their teaching as seriously as their research and remain committed to improvement in the classroom. By emphasizing the classroom and the student as much as the article and the monograph, Cronon hopes to show that some of the most valuable (albeit difficult) work that historians do occurs when they are forced away from the periphery of their subfields to engage an audience who often fails to share their love for the past. When scholars abandon their specialized vocabulary and step away from highly educated audiences, the historian then has to distill, simplify, and signpost their message in such a way that, ideally, “teaches the teacher” while simultaneously turning the professor into the discipline’s best advocate. In Cronon’s words, students “bless us with their confusion and boredom, instantly revealing to us – if only we have the courage to look in the mirror and recognize our own responsibility for what they are feeling – the places where something that we’ve said or done is in fact confusing and boring.” In other words, if historians take responsibility for their teaching and can convince undergraduates that history matters (certainly no small task), then they stand a better chance of convincing those groups both inside and outside the university (and who often control funding streams) of the same.

At this point in my research into the AHA, I was surprised and inspired by Cronon’s thoughtful calls to reorient our perspective back to the classroom. I also knew, however, that the scale of these issues lent themselves to ambitious conversations about change, but that tangible, on-the-ground solutions often proved much more difficult. Yet again, the AHA surprised me. In sifting through recent editions of Perspectives – the AHA’s “state-of-the-field” journal – I was pleasantly surprised to find multiple articles dedicated to addressing Cronon’s call for change.

Two programs, in particular, stood out to me as particularly innovative and capable of providing current and future professors with many of the tools they will need to affect immediate change in the classroom. The first, a grant-funded project that “explores ways to better integrate the scholarship of teaching and learning into the training of history doctoral students,” is headed by an all-star panel of experts that includes Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, David Pace, Keith Erekson, and Laura Westhoff. UC-Berkeley has signed on as the guinea pig, and the aforementioned panel, in conjunction with Berkeley history faculty and staff, are currently working to redesign the graduate pedagogy course to ensure that their program turns out top-notch educators, as well as scholars. Some of the many goals of the program include:

  • teaching grad students to be more aware of what constitutes, and how one achieves, historical thinking processes;
  • breaking down the distinctions between “my research” and teaching;
  • instructing graduate students on how to assess undergraduates in a way that does not “recapitulate the disadvantages that students brought with them”;
  • and to ground students in the ideology that, as future faculty, they will need to continue to grow and develop as teachers in an ever-changing landscape of higher ed.

In future months, the project will also sponsor yet another panel of experts to organize a series of conversations for the AHA’s 2014 annual meeting aimed at demonstrating “engaging and feasible ways to close the gap between research about history learning and the aspiring educators who could most benefit from it.” The AHA has even included a recommended reading list for those who would like to jump into the pedagogy scholarship early (notice the overlap between the AHA’s list and this course’s recommended reading).

The second project, headed by Patricia Limerick and the AHA’s Teaching Division, includes plans to create an online discussion forum titled “Teaching Tipping Points.” In response to the sense of loneliness and isolation that many professors experience when standing in front of a classroom, Limerick and her colleagues are in the process of developing a site that seeks to help professors at all levels – early, mid, or late career – cope with a rapidly changing educational environment. The creators hope to use one of the best tools in the historian’s toolbox – the narrative – to create a space to share teaching wisdom and practices. The developers are already soliciting classroom stories, whether success or failure, that offer an instructive message to others. The creators visualize the project as less of a “how-to manual” and more of space for “lively personal testimony” where the dynamic is privileged over the didactic. Ideally, historians would participate in an ongoing dialogue that addresses the specific challenges that history professors face, and also offer advice as to how to solve those problems (even if it comes in the form of “what not to do”). The project seems to still be in the developmental stages with no word on a launch date, but we should keep an eye out for what could be a valuable source of history teaching wisdom.

When taken in sum, these efforts highlight the fact that the AHA is taking a long look at the undergraduate classroom, and it seems committed to reflecting on its role in implementing change. Though these projects will certainly take time, resources, and continued dedication on the part of the AHA to find their way into the broader university system, they nonetheless constitute important “first steps” in the long process of revitalizing undergraduate education.

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One Response to The AHA is Listening: How a Professional History Organization is Changing its Tune

  1. Pingback: Penne Restad & Karl Miller on Teaching History

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