15th 2009
Practice, not content: the History lab

Posted under: American history, jobs, students

Nancy Shoemaker, a Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, has published an essay in the current issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History called “Where is the History Lab Course?”  She wonders why historians don’t try to teach courses that actually reflect historical thinking and historical practice, and instead teach survey courses that reinforce the notion that history is just content, not an intellectual discipline:

Instead of introducing students to college-level history with a survey course, literally weighed down by a 500- to 600-page textbook with timelines and arcane facts, we should devise a laboratory course modeled after that in the sciences. Several years ago, while on a university-wide committee to develop new general education guidelines, I had to contend with colleagues in the sciences who did not see history as vital to general education because, they said, it was just about memorizing facts. That they all tested their students using multiple-choice exams when we in history used essay exams did not shake them from their view of history as mere transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.

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I envied the scientists’ defense of why science is important and particularly their talisman, the lab course. They did not just want science to stay in general education. They wanted the lab course to stay. A better metonym for their discipline than the primary document is for ours, the lab course replicates scientific inquiry from inception to discovery to interpretation of results. Most eye-opening for me was how the scientists, if they were to have only one opportunity to communicate to students what science was, wanted that moment to be spent immersed in scientific practice, not scientific content.

Because “[i]ntroductory surveys only make students knowledge consumers” instead of “knowledge producer[s],” she therefore has developed a lab course (or “as [she] prefer[s] to call it, ‘workshop’ course”) she calls “The Historian as Detective.”  (Shoemaker doesn’t mention it, but The Historian as Detective (1968) was also title of a book edited by Robin Winks popular in the 1970s and 1980s for undergraduate “introduction to the History major” courses.  I read it in the late 80s as an undergraduate, and even had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Winks when he visited our campus that year.)  Shoemaker writes, “I modeled my course after Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem witchcraft course, which they had taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts and which eventually led to the monograph Salem Possessed (1974):”

For my topic, I chose the most infamous American whaleship mutiny without a published book-length account, the 1857 mutiny on the Junior. The Junior mutiny had drama, mystery and sufficient obscurity to frustrate students Googling for an authoritative voice to provide “the answer.” In a writing-intensive seminar, 18 sophomores spent a semester with all the primary sources I had been able to collect on the topic and produced a book, collaboratively researched and written, in which they recounted the events of the mutiny, its aftermath, and its larger meaning and significance.  They now know a lot about whales and whaling history, some ocean geography, and some of the history of labor, prisons, and pardons in 19th-century America. More importantly, they did the work of real historians and along the way discovered the pleasures of the hunt, felt exhilaration when new information transformed understanding, and realized the satisfaction of piecing together bits of evidence from the documents to tell a coherent story. They also encountered the frustrations of real historical research: the inevitable gaps in the documentary record, questions that remain unanswered, and bad handwriting. I have yet to figure out how I will reproduce the experience on a larger scale, but I know that Boyer and Nissenbaum achieved that at the University of Massachusetts, where they taught large classes with sections led by teaching assistants.

Ah–but why should Shoemaker try to “reproduce the experience on a larger scale?”  (Aside from university bugetary reasons, I mean.)  There are no pedagogical or disciplinary goals that would be served by taking a seminar of 18 sophomores and turning it into a survey class to serve 100 or 250 students.  Indeed, I’m sure that one of the things that made the course especially valuable to Shoemaker’s students is that they could take a class as a sophomore with a professor and fellow students who knew each other’s names and had conversations with each other about historical research.  But, I of all people know what it’s like to teach at a large state school.  It’s all about the F.T.E.s, baby–I get that, and teaching a History Lab course to 100 or 250 is a better idea than offering the same students standard survey classes.  And if you could have one T.A. for every 20 students, it would be a dream.  (For me, who has just one graduate T.A. for 123 students–kind of a nightmare, actually!)  Still, as I have said before, we all know what works–but who will pay for it?

Shoemaker’s History Lab course is a specific solution to my generalized critique of the survey course and the damage that it does to students, professors, and our discipline.  I love it–now all I have to do is figure out who will pay for it!

And for those of you who just can’t seem to get enough history pedagogy, you should head on over to John Fea’s blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  He’s had a series of provocative posts this week about history teaching called “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” and is up to part 9 so far.  Check it out–and congratulations on the sold-out hardcover book and the release of the paperback, John!


17 Responses to “Practice, not content: the History lab”

  1. Janice on 15 Jan 2009 at 7:53 am #

    When I was a grad student, the Western Civ course had one TA for every sixty-odd students (TAs ran three tutorials, achieving the 20:1 ratio through repetition). Like you, I might teach 70-120 students in the freshman course and have one TA which could work if I could only get the rooms to run tutorials. The registrar’s office just laughs incredulously when we request rooms and if we do find some rooms at odd hours, we can’t get enough students available at those time-slots to run tutorials.

    Even now, I’m teaching a practicum type course but to 70-plus students in a cavernous lecture hall. I have two! TAs but no place to run tutorials, so the TAs will provide grading assistance and office hours. What I wouldn’t give for my regional comprehensive university to have the facilities and institutional culture that makes it possible to lead seminar-sized tutorials if not seminar-sized introductory classes. (Which, by the way, the scientists don’t do, either. Yes, they have their labs, but the labs are staffed by a stream of TAs and are adjunct to huge lecture meetings for the majority of course-time.)

    Feh! Thanks for the links to John Fea’s blog — I read “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” last year and am intrigued to see what someone else has to say about the book.

  2. Historiann on 15 Jan 2009 at 8:11 am #

    Janice–our large surveys are structured just as you report. There are no tutorials or discussion sections, so our TAs serve as graders and administrative assistants. In the past, I’ve recruited undergraduates to take attendance and run discussion sections (they get course credit) in various corners of our building during our scheduled course time, but the classroom design and architecture works against us.

    FYI, just after posting, I found an article at the New York Times about how M.I.T. is ditching the large freshman survey in favor of smaller and more interactive classes, and guess what? The attendance rate zooms, and the failure rate plummets. Who’da’thunk it, folks?

    Yeah–it’s really too bad you can’t fix education by just “throwing money at the problem.”

  3. GayProf on 15 Jan 2009 at 8:53 am #

    It seems like one of those unsolvable puzzles. On the one hand, administrators are keen to reduce class sizes because they know that it factors into their rankings (The best means to make an argument with administrators seems to be to say “We know that rankings are that important, but they do take xxx into consideration when they make them”). On the other hand, the number of students far exceeds the people available to make these revisions possible. Given that many graduate programs are reducing the number of students admitted (because of the small number of jobs available), there are going to be even fewer T.A.’s. But, it seems to me, this is probably also tied to history’s declining enrollments across the nation.

    I am not sure that many historians actually think that the large survey is ideal and most, it seems to me, would like to see a revision as described here. The problem, though, is a practical one. (As an aside, I once had a T.A. revolt against me because I actually assigned my survey class writing that had to be graded. S/he recoiled noting that everybody else simply gave multiple-choice exams, which meant most other T.A.’s had to do much less work).

  4. Historiann on 15 Jan 2009 at 9:18 am #

    Wow–what a precious, precious gradflake you had, GayProf! Boy, I really hope that ze gets a job where ze never has to do any grading at all, and can just slough it all off onto hir…grad students? I guess it makes much more sense for hir to learn how to grade when ze has a 4-4 load with 45 students in each class! Yeah, good luck, flakehead.

    I agree with you that outside of SLACs, no institutions have the human resources to do this. This is why the Shoemaker/Historiann plan is so brilliant: it’s a full employment program for all historians! Hire them all, and let the T & P committee sort them out later. (Maybe we can get funding for these hires from the Obama administration’s employment stimulus package!)

  5. Buzz on 15 Jan 2009 at 9:29 am #

    I believe there is merit in teaching more history classes this way. However, I believe that the notion that most students need to learn the analysis techniques that are used by professional historians may be somewhat misguided. This is rooted in people’s failure to think about why topics such as history and science are necessary parts of a general education. We teach these topics, not primarily because it is important for students to know when the civil war began or how to calculate the pressure of ideal gasses, but so that students will be able to draw on their knowledge to address the problems they will encounter in life. In both cases, some general familiarity with the major themes and topics of the subject is required to be conversant with the topics that arise in everyday experience. And there will, of course, be a substantial number of students who will need particular specific pieces of information. However, mostly the students really need to learn to think, and what they are taught informs how they will respond to future situations.

    At this point, however, I believe there is a significant divergence between a discipline like history and the sciences. The most important lessons of history are of how and why things happen. To understand, say, the Renaissance is to understand how economic, social, and political factors led to a huge burst of cultural exploration in Italy (which spread northward), until changing factors brought the Italian cultural expansion to a halt. This is significant to us, because the developments of the period had a lasting impact on how European (and later American) societies developed. However, even more important, I would suggest, than providing information about how we arrived at where we are is the fact that history can provide guidance about where we may be headed in the future–lessons about how to (and not to) deal with the issues that still face us today. In this regard, I think it is more important to understand what happened than how we know what happened. Of course, our knowledge is incomplete, and this is part of what needs to be conveyed, but the lessons are more fundamentally about the human experience, not how we study the human experience.

    The sciences, only partially for historical reasons, do not have the same goal. Rather than having to deal with merely imperfect understanding, science education deals both with the problem of incomplete understanding and incomplete information. In history, we can often known reasonably well what happened; the key is to then to understand why and how, and what we can learn from that. In contradistinction, in the sciences, we teach about situations where it is was not at all obvious what would happen under certain experimental circumstances until an actual experiment was carried out. So we teach students about the scientific method–how to develop and test hypotheses and eventually reach reasonably robust conclusions. At the same time, the students are taught the details of how the physical world works; and again, based on this information, they can make useful judgments about what should be done in the future.

    The scientific method has applicability far beyond the hard sciences, and as I noted, it is partially an accident of history that we teach this method through experience with the sciences. But it’s only partially an accident; the ready testability of hypotheses in the laboratory sciences does make the scientific lab a better ground for teaching the necessary analytical skills. The analogous techniques used by historians are less ideal for pedagogical purposes. So I think it is probably less advantageous to try to teach professional research methods in history, as part of a general education. (And it’s only to a very limited extent that laboratory classes in the sciences are related to how scientific research is actually done.) Indeed, there is no real need for all the scientific disciplines to teach this way, except to provide repeated exposure to the material. I think some repetition is needed, but it may be overdone in the current system. I would be perfectly satisfied, for example, if the general education students didn’t have to take lab classes in physics, for example. The students without a specific physics interest could get enough training in the scientific method with classes in other fields, like chemistry.

    Which brings me to a comment about the teaching of science at MIT. It is not well known, but none of the required freshman-level science classes at MIT have a laboratory component. (There are specialized versions of several of the classes that do incorporate labs, but at most a few hundred students–out of a freshman class of over a thousand–take any of these.) One of the assumptions that MIT can afford to make is that every student will get real laboratory training; it’s a requirement to graduate (and more than 90% of students do more than the minimal lab work). So the Institute can afford to dispense with teaching that aspect of the sciences in their introductory-level classes. This is still true of the TEAL physics classes, which have been reasonably successful.

  6. Ignatz on 15 Jan 2009 at 9:44 am #

    I had the pleasure of taking 4 years of history in a small private high school. While most courses were surveys, I loved them. Maybe it’s because instead of 200 students crammed into a lecture hall there were 15 of us plus teacher, all engaged with the material. (But ideally, shouldn’t a TA be able to foster this engagement in hir small section?)

    I am glad they WERE surveys. I think that for people to understand, say, current Middle East imbroglios, they need to know the long history of conflict there. And to “get” our economic woes, to comprehend the concepts of capital and labor (we read Marx and Engels…). And to unpack the delicate balance (or imbalance) that we call “US democracy,” to spend time close reading the Declaration and Constitution and discussing the Framers’ ideological scaffolding; later expansionism; “American exceptionalism,” etc. We didn’t discuss historiography, maybe cuz this was over 25 years ago–but we read lots of primary texts.

    With this background, I think I woulda been ready for a close study of whaling and in my freshthing year in college. But most students entering Baa Ram and other state colleges aren’t as lucky.

    At my husband’s history grad program, most students didn’t get TA funding until their third year. (All English grad students, of course, were put to work from day 1.) It’s a shame his peers didn’t get to start TA-ing earlier. With good teaching prep (don’t get me started on this one!), they might have fostered the small-group experience I enjoyed in high school.

  7. Historiann on 15 Jan 2009 at 9:58 am #

    Buzz–I appreciate your comments, but they are based on a misunderstanding of history as a subject and as a discipline. You write,

    The most important lessons of history are of how and why things happen. . . . However, even more important, I would suggest, than providing information about how we arrived at where we are is the fact that history can provide guidance about where we may be headed in the future–lessons about how to (and not to) deal with the issues that still face us today. In this regard, I think it is more important to understand what happened than how we know what happened. Of course, our knowledge is incomplete, and this is part of what needs to be conveyed, but the lessons are more fundamentally about the human experience, not how we study the human experience.

    The sciences, only partially for historical reasons, do not have the same goal. Rather than having to deal with merely imperfect understanding, science education deals both with the problem of incomplete understanding and incomplete information. In history, we can often known reasonably well what happened; the key is to then to understand why and how, and what we can learn from that.

    How “we” got from A to B is not “the most important lesson of history.” Most professional historians would reject the notion that there’s only one story to tell, one straight line to follow in explaining how we got from here to there. (Who is “we” anyway? Why start at A? Who said that B was an important turning point, and why?) Historians have argued for centuries about what actually happened and how can we know it. We go dig up new evidence to make different arguments. Especially for those of us working before 1800, we deal with much more than just “imperfect understanding,” and I would argue that the craft of historians too is to deal with “incomplete understanding and incomplete information.” Whole fields like African American history and women’s history were invented decades ago by dedicated scholars who didn’t listen when their advisors told them that “well, of course it would be a fascinating research topic, but there is no evidence.” There is still so much more to be discovered and argued about, and the arguments will continue.

    The most important part of history education is reading and evaluating historical evidence, and developing people who are critical readers and thinkers is foundational to the liberal arts as well as to the creation of responsible citizens in a Republic. It matters, for example, if the citizenry can read newspaper articles or web sites critically. It matters if they think about power, and ask, “whose interests does this proposed policy serve?” Training in the discipline of history is training in the discipline of critical thought. Those are in fact “the analysis techniques that are used by professional historians.”

    Yes, it’s important to get a sense of the scale and sweep of basic chronology, but that’s not really history education. I stand by my comparison of textbook “coverage” to the periodic table–necessary perhaps, but not sufficient.

  8. Buzz on 15 Jan 2009 at 10:21 am #

    Historiann–With respect, I believe you are mistaken. Professional historians are not the sole arbiters are why history is important. Much of what you describe is how you view the study of history–history as a discipline–but that is an entirely different matter from what makes history worthy of study–history as a subject. History is about an exploration of the human condition. Critical thinking is part of this, but critical thinking can be taught in many areas and by many methods. If history is to be deemed an important part of general education, then it must have some unique utility–which I believe it does. But I stand by my claim that what is most important about history as a specific field is what we know about the past, not how we come to know it.

    Moreover, I believe you are mistaken about my opinions. I have not said anything about favoring broad coverage. In fact, I believe much more could be learned from the targeted study of history. The rote memorization of dates is of little value. What we can learn from history is how things happen and how that can guide us. This does not privilege one particular “story,” although some aspects of history are far more relevant to particular problems we face now than others. In fact, I have long thought that many of the traditional topics taught in American history classes were of dubious value, since they bear little relationship to questions we may face today.

  9. John F. on 15 Jan 2009 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks for the kinds words on my book. I have long aspired to join the Penn Press paperback ranks with the likes of fine books like *Abraham in Arms*!

    I am all over this lab idea, but I think your critique, Historiann, is more about LARGE LECTURE SURVEYS and not about the survey (or an introduction to U.S. history course–”survey” implies mindless coverage)in and of itself. I am with Ignatz on this.

    When I was completing my dissertation at Stony Brook (and had run out of funding from the history department)I took a part time job teaching AP US History at a private academy where my wife was director of residential life and where we also happened to live. (As a working class kid I had some serious issues with the place–but that is a story for another time and another post). At the same time I was also teaching the U.S. survey course at the university across the street. There were some days where I would literally step out of the boarding school classroom (wearing my required tie and sport jacket) and walk across the Long Island Railroad tracks to the university classroom. (I usually lost the tie on the way!). I used the same textbook for both courses and basically “covered” the same material, but any comparisons between the two courses must stop there.

    As you can imagine, a “survey” course (even an AP History course which requires coverage!) with 15 incredibly bright young Ivy-league bound high school seniors was a completely different experience than the 100+ survey I was doing with the college freshmen at SUNY. My point here is not that public university students are somehow inferior to wealthy private school kids. My point is that size matters. I am convinced that I could have fostered a similar environment in the public university course if only I had the same number of students.

    In the end, however, I am afraid Historiann is once again correct. It’s all about FTE!

  10. Indyanna on 15 Jan 2009 at 11:27 am #

    My senior seminar has just (one could hope) read the Shoemaker piece and in about a half an hour we’ll convene for a discussion partially about the questions that it raises, and otherwise mostly about Daniel Boone [long story]. If any notworthy insights come to pass from this I’ll report on them later.

  11. Tom on 15 Jan 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m uncertain about stepping once more into the breach here, but I’ve read with interest Historiann’s and Buzz’s comments–and as a former teacher of college physics (including labs) and a current pseudo-historian (a medievalist, but in the discipline of English, although I often write on historical, rather than “literary” texts), I feel invested in the issues.

    I sometimes ask my English students if literacy is a good thing, as a preface to reminding them that we must ask “good for what? and for whom?” Even literacy is not an immanent and inherent virtue.

    “History” may have different values and purposes for general education and for historians, partly because “history” is often used to signify both a way of knowing and a body of knowledge.

    It may be the case here that the debate centers on whether gen ed students benefit more from an understanding of the past–in its broad outlines, at least (a body of knowledge)–or whether they benefit more from a knowledge of how to approach the past (a way of knowing). We all know, of course, the the two questions cannot _really_ be separated: what we know is implicated in how we know it. But, if I understand Buzz, he’s right when he says gen ed. physics has only a partial relation to the actual practice of physics–that’s one of the reasons I decided to leave the field. But it may not be unreasonable to suppose that what one does as a practicing member of a discipline is not always what’s most valuable for gen ed students.

    I don’t know what vision of history is most useful for non-major gen ed. students. But I am powerfully struck that this debate about the value of surveys comes at a cultural moment when students seem more than ever persuaded that the past does not constrain them. Students can well mouth all the platitudes about learning from history, but I think they really believe that technology and computers have changed the world so much that there’s a break between their world and the world of the past. I think that (other than in relation to their own families and personal experiences) they often feel free of the past, which becomes only a matter of curiosity (or not).

    If I could teach non-history-major students about the past, the point I’d want to make is that we can’t know whether or not (or how) the past constrains us (in our thinking, our habits, our prejudices, practices, laws, etc) unless we know about the past.

    And maybe I’m wrong, or crazy, or otherwise deluded, but knowling something about the past does seem to invoke the “body of knowledge” model.

  12. Indyanna on 15 Jan 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    My students, perhaps predictably, paced a little tentatively around Shoemaker’s piece, wondering what quite caused it to be added to a seminar on “Daniel Boone’s Pennsylvania; Daniel Boone’s America.” Then they allowed as how her idea of inverting the curricular sequence to go from the very particular research experience toward the synthetic perspective of the broader chronicle, whether “survey” or not, might be doable. But they continued to think that various sorts of structural support would be required, and described it in terms recognizable as the sorts of courses we do in fact already offer. So it was hard to sell them on full immersion in being “inquisitive, not acquisitive.”

    I’m somewhat on both sides of the philosophick questions pertaining to coverage versus uncoverage, comprehensive versus thematic, etc. But I wanted to quibble a bit with one part of Shoemaker’s argument, that the lab course is “a better metonym for [sciences'] discipline than the primary document is for ours,” because it “replicates scientific inquiry from inception to discovery to interpretation of results.” What the standard undergratuate laboratory course replicates is only scientific “replication” itself, which is but a small part of the spectrum of scientific inquiry.

    That is, you pour a small quantity of a well known and common acid on a small quantity of a well known and common let’s say schist, then watch the bubbles emerge, profuse, diminish, and disapear. If you have to ask the prof (or post-doc) “why this rock just exploded,” the first responders are probably already on the way over. So no new knowledge is (hopefully) being created, even in tiny, controlled amounts.

    This is more like the now-standard “primary source document analysis exercise” that is a part of many history courses than it is like the history seminar she actually describes when she talks about “the thrill of the chase, the wonder of holding an old thing in one’s hands, the discovery of something no one else knows.” Most document readers are pretty lame, and not by accident. We all know that there is/was a phenomenon described as “republicanism.” Somebody finds a petition that seems to indicate that there was also a variation called “artisan republicanism.” (Or “pirate republicanism,” “Indian republicanism,” your category goes here). Students read it and are led in tiny steps to see the analogues, or their absences. Their questions are fairly predictable (“why do the bubbles look brown,” not “why did the rock explode”), and the instructor stays safely in intellectual control of the whole experience. Better than the 270-seat auditorium lecture, to be sure, but not really the broad spectrum of elements that define “those aspects of history research that give so many historians so much pleasure.”

    I’ve often looked for a documents package, or CD-ROM bursting with squirrelly documents that would compel the prof. to say “damned if I know, what do YOU think?… Maybe this, maybe that, let’s try something else…” The text that doesn’t describe any kind of republicanism, any sort of middle ground, any sort of imagined community, any sort of paradigmatic thing at all. Just the chaos of human experience. This would more fully replicate what keeps us all in the archives until after the bars close, but it would require a less than comfortable indulgence in pedagogic vulnerability. It would also doubtless disquiet a lot of the students.

    Of the seminar that she actually taught at Connecticut, it was great, but, the phrase that the students “spent a semester with all the primary sources *I* had been able to collect…” somewhat undermines the notion that the students “discovered the pleasures of the hunt.” I told my seminarians today that I’ve changed my tune on internet-based research (partly due to recent personal practice). Where I once would have said “stay away, there are monsters out there” on the web, I’d now say there are indeed monsters–and misconceptions–out there, so be careful. Unless your school is hard by an actual repository of some substance, the Google archive is pretty much the only way to give them access to both the pleasures and the terrors of the hunt.

    All this said, Shoemaker’s is the best piece of writing and thinking we have on this subject so far, I think. The last paragraph, in particular, is wisdom itself.

  13. Historiann on 15 Jan 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    I’m sorry if you believe I mischaracterized your comments, Buzz–I think your vision of history is informed by the large survey model, rather than historical inquiry as historians and students practice it. People can judge for themselves–I quoted you directly, and left your comment as it stands above. You write, “what is most important about history as a specific field is what we know about the past, not how we come to know it,” and “What we can learn from history is how things happen and how that can guide us.” Aside from a minority of very traditional and politically conservative historians, this is not how professional historians see their discipline or their work. I and all of my professional friends and colleagues are very much all about the “how we come to know it” part.

    I take your point that critical thinking can be taught in a variety of disciplines. However, you won’t find me defending history on the terms you stake out. This is probably because by the time people get to university classes, they’re down with the survey and what that kind of knowledge that imparts. I find that my greatest contribution is when I deconstruct history as it were, to introduce doubt, and encourage students to think about the constructedness of history (epistemology).

    And, John F.: no, my critique really is of the concept of the survey, whether it’s taught to 15 or 1,500 students at a time. They are more egregious and irreseponsible the larger they get, but they remain fictions. I think it’s fine for students to get a “broad sweep”–I just don’t think those courses should be privileged in the history curriculum the way they are now.

    Since it’s the non-historians in this thread who take umbrage with ditching the survey because they value it so much, I invite them all to take a turn teaching it. I guess the old saying really is true: history is too important to be left to the historians!

  14. thefrogprincess on 15 Jan 2009 at 4:39 pm #

    At the risk of prolonging a debate which may have no solution, I have to side with Historiann about the fundamental misunderstandings of what the discipline of history is and what the purpose of college history education should be. I don’t think anybody thinks “facts” themselves should be abandoned; there is content to be addressed, but the best lecturers I’ve witnessed do so in a way that makes clear that interpretations are up for debate. More importantly, however, no student is going to get complete coverage of anything in one course, or even in four years of courses. History departments often have fairly loose requirements that allow students to pursue their interests. It’s unrealistic that a student is going to leave a course with a fully nuanced knowledge of two thousand years of Middle Eastern history, for example, that they can then apply to their understanding of current events. What we can aim for is that students leave our classes knowing how to teach themselves history. Too many students expect one “right” answer to complicated questions or they have no idea where to go to get information and how to evaluate it. How then can they practice this “critical thinking” that they’re supposedly learning elsewhere if they can’t even find information and sort through it effectively?

  15. Judith on 16 Jan 2009 at 8:44 am #

    I think this is a question not just about history, but about broad educational philosophy. What do we think the purpose of undergraduate education should be? I know people, mostly in the sciences, who emerged from their bachelor’s degree with a well-paying job on their way to a fulfilling career. This probably does come from their “practical” education, with courses focuses on honing and practicing their craft. Comp sci folks write programs, chemistry people do experiments in the lab, etc.

    Those of us in the humanities tend to continue our education, work in an unrelated field, get additional training, etc. If we are prepared for a particular job right away it may be because of an internship, because we learned a language, or have a particular skill. Does that mean our actual degree program didn’t teach us enough? I don’t think so.

    I earned a B.A. in History in 2006. I learned a lot in college – about relationships, about living away from home, about maintaining my sanity, about being a responsible adult, and about being an employee. I also learned some academic skills, such as how to research and what is “acceptable” in a paper. What I regret, though, is that I didn’t learn more content.

    I was initially turned onto history through a 12th grade AP European History teacher. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed the subject. We delved deep into social history, read memoirs, and yes we did a lot of memorizing, but I enjoyed it. I liked knowing and understanding the themes and movements of history. As an undergraduate, I did learn some things, but it was all very jumbled. My university – we’ll call it Bark Dog U – did a lot with public history and the practice of history and I wasn’t all that interested. They offered to extend my scholarship so that I’d only have go one more year and get a Masters for free and I declined, because I had no interest in doing public history or working in a museum or what have you.

    I know that not everyone shows up for the same reasons, but I think that for undergraduates, content is a big deal. Get people interested in the content, and then they’ll want to know more – they’ll want to go on to the practice. Graduate programs can teach them all they need to know about research and historiography and *doing* history. One of our required courses for the B.A. was a historiography course, and it was by far the worst course. Why? Because we had no choice as to the topic. We had to focus on the Enola Gay and the Smithsonian exhibit and really I was not. interested. The same would be true with the whaleship example. I’m sure I would’ve got something out of it but I also would’ve hated that professor with the fire of a thousand suns for the topic. On the other hand, I loved my senior thesis class. We had to do a renaissance or reformation topic, but that was all the limits. I wrote about the discourse of male homosexuality in 14th and 15th century Florence and Venice and had an absolute ball. I loved researching, I loved being in the library. It was fabulous.

    So I feel that if universities offer undergrads a ton of “content” topics, and really let them go their own way and learn about the periods and subjects that fascinate them, they’ll eventually come around to the practice if that’s what they want. And others, like me, who have no interest in historical practice but a deep interest in reading and learning history, will have an opportunity to do just that, and go off into whatever graduate studies or professional field with a refreshing perspective.

  16. Historiann on 16 Jan 2009 at 10:04 am #

    I don’t understand the division in this thread between “practice” and “content.” As Tom has said upthread, they’re really inseparable. The question is really whether practice is addressed at all in the classroom, in the structure of the class, and in the readings. There is no way to teach historical practice without some basic factual information and background–I wouldn’t know how to do that. “Content” is important, but only insofar as it’s part of a more sophisticated inquiry.

    So, Judith–you’re a intelligent person who likes history and thinks about it deeply. How on earth could 4 years as a History major ever teach you enough “content?” How is that the sole responsibility of your former faculty members? Do you really think even if you had a few more courses that you really liked, and fewer courses like your mandatory research on the Enola Gay controversy, that you’d feel like you had learned all you needed to learn about history?

    I think thefrogprincess is right: “What we can aim for is that students leave our classes knowing how to teach themselves history.” You probably know now that a book by a popular author like David McCullough is going to be very different than a university press book. You know the difference between a primary and a secondary source, and you probably are shrewd at discerning which primary sources might be more useful or reliable than others. You can continue to learn more “content” as you see fit. But you wouldn’t have learned that by sitting in content-driven, textbook-based courses. I think it’s much more important to force students to be active participants rather than passive cyphers in the classroom.

    Although you don’t have a particular interest in public history, my bet is that your exposure to the field and its questions and central concerns has made you a more thoughtful history student. Public history students have to confront the constructed nature of history and the choices historians have to make in presenting history much more than students of traditional history, traditionally delivered. (My department has long had a public history M.A. program, and although I am not a public historian, I think it’s great because it forces our students to think in more sophisticated ways about history.)

  17. Judith on 18 Jan 2009 at 10:01 am #

    You make some good points – I will admit that even in a very good, top tier history program, taking interesting “content” courses the whole time, I would have tons more to learn. And I do embrace that, and love that there’s always something else out there, always something new to delve into. I think I should modify what I said before – it’s less that I’m looking to know all there is to know, to cram as much content as possible into one degree. My problem with my experience is more that I emerged feeling a little loss, unsure what if anything I had learned from some of the courses I took. Maybe what I should be suggesting is not that students be offered *more* “content,” but a sturdier leg to stand on. For example, I had a great course on the US in the Vietnam War, which was not my area at all, but the way it was taught really served as a bridge to any further studies we might want to take on. The professor posed some important questions about colonialism, about the importance of popular support in a war, etc. Though we didn’t delve particularly deeply into these questions, they sparked our interest (or at least mine.) Though I don’t have a particular interest in Vietnam, it did get me thinking a lot about colonialism and interested in looking into it on my own.

    Similarly, another class I took, not a large survey class but a discussion-style class of about twenty students on the Russian Empire, served the same purpose in a different way. The class was taught entirely through memoirs and a couple of pieces of fiction, and it posed broader historical questions that pushed me to further research (Russian history, incidentally, is my principal area of interest). The other courses I took either had a practical approach that I found restrictive (the Enola Gay one being one example) because the professor wasn’t really pushing us to pursue our own interests or were meandering and somehow failed to impart any actual historical content during the semester (or at least nothing that stuck).

    In a way, writing this comment, I’m coming around to your perspective, just from a different angle. I suppose what I’m saying is that yes, content should push students to do later research on their own and learn what they never could in four years, but that there should be enough options in any history program to allow students to take courses that are going to spark that interest. If I had been able to take say, six or seven classes on East European history, I don’t know that I’d be as embarrassed as I am now when I say that it was my focus but then have to admit that only two classes were offered and in fact I learned very little on the topic.

    Haha, maybe all I hope is that professors will one day provide their students with comprehensive bibliographies, so we don’t find ourselves searching about the Internet for good syllabi when we want books that will teach us more.

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