Saturday, November 7, 2015

Historians Are Teachers

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, believes that teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a historian.  He is right.  Ph.D programs must recognize this.

Here is a taste of his recent column in Perspectives on History:

Most of our largest PhD programs train students for positions that only a small minority will attain: tenurable appointments in "high research activity" institutions. Among history PhDs graduated between 1998 and 2009 who currently teach in higher education, approximately 75 percent are either outside "high research activity" institutions or off the tenure track. This means that the process and products embodied in much of graduate education—writing books and scholarly articles, teaching lecture courses and highly specialized seminars, and perhaps even preparing grant proposals for major fellowships—leave aside the principal issues and tasks that faculty at teaching-oriented institutions must engage. And those that faculty even at high-level research universities ought to engage.

We do not train our PhD students to see their profession as "teacher." This might be inevitable, even appropriate. The PhD is, after all, a research degree. The craft of publication through books and articles stands at the center of graduate education in history, as it does in many other disciplines. At the same time, a historian is a scholar who not only creates new knowledge, but also disseminates insights across a variety of platforms, many of them in the classroom. The ways that digital tools now dissolve the boundaries between scholarship and teaching make this an opportune time to address these long-standing issues. The AHA has already resolved to put its imprimatur on and resources into elevating digital dissemination of knowledge onto the same plane as print. If we believe in putting teaching on that plane as well, too few of us have communicated that belief to graduate students. We have failed to integrate the teaching of history into the profession of being a historian—other than by example, or perhaps by sending our students across campus to teaching and learning centers generally considered marginal to the main pathway.

These centers have made great strides in improving the quality of teaching on their campuses, offering graduate students and junior faculty the resources that their home departments have not. Academic job candidates now brandish teaching portfolios and have benefited from videotaping and coaching unavailable a generation ago. Still, department chairs tell us that few job candidates are able to establish a dialogue between these portfolios and the curriculum at the institution to which they are applying. Worse, conversations about teaching that occur outside the context of disciplinary learning and practice remain marginal to the pursuit of a PhD in most disciplines. History faculty generally consider such training a valuable supplement, rather than seeing it as part of "becoming a historian."

But it should be. Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.

If teaching history—including content not directly related to a scholar's ongoing research agenda—is integral to being a professional historian, then it is essential to becoming one. It's one thing to have the ability to plan a course and choose readings carefully and knowledgeably, something that many of our graduate students have already begun integrating into their portfolios. It's another to shift our vocabulary of teaching to a discourse on learning, an approach to undergraduate education now largely relegated to the centers for teaching and learning, with inadequate integration into discipline-centered training.

Read the rest here.