Historians have too many learning objectives and it’s because we don’t know pedagogy – or even what we are

Recently, my medievalist cohort and I got together for a few sessions with the Center for Teaching and Learning to talk about how to write a syllabus, and all my frustrations about TAing came crashing down on me at once.

I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about teaching, and I’ve done my fair share of teacher training. I started tutoring other students formally my senior year of high school, which came with a weekly meeting to talk about theories of education and how people learn differently. I became a “writing consultant” – something between an ESL tutor, TA, and editor – at the end of my freshman year of college, and that also came with regular trainings about best practices, theories, and methods in teaching. I briefly, but very seriously, toyed with the idea of doing an education minor and getting a teaching certificate, but decided I hated the teachers running the program after one semester. And then when I started my MA program, I attended a full-day seminar on teaching and completed a teaching portfolio program that consisted of classroom observation, 10-15 hours of targeted training, and an interview to discuss my final portfolio. When I applied to PhD programs, I sincerely emphasized my commitment to teaching and how I wanted to use my degree just as much to teach as to do research. So I’m very familiar with concepts like “learning objectives” and have taken a very critical eye to the professors I’ve TAed under.

But this syllabus workshop, which came together fairly informally, is the first time I’ve seen learning objectives as more than just putting a name to something obvious, and I realized it’s because as historians (and especially as junior educators), non-tenured teachers have to shoulder way too many of them. The thought behind the syllabus workshop was simple – we, the roughly 10 or so medievalist PhD students in the History department, typically meet a few times a semester to workshop our seminar papers or dissertation chapters, but what if we came together to jointly create a syllabus for an intro-level medieval survey course that we could all tweak to our own preferences for our future use? We arranged for a staff member at the Center for Teaching and Learning to lead a handful of workshops for us, talking about how to put together a syllabus from a pedagogical perspective. At this point, I was somewhat skeptical – learning objectives seem really straightforward, since of course you teach a class with an idea in mind of what you want students to get out of it. And initially I found that the worksheets we filled out didn’t really change my mind about what I wanted students to get from a history course – any history course. Aside from whatever basic narrative I would be teaching, I knew I wanted my students to come away from my class with better writing skills (one step closer to being able to present a thesis and support it with relevant evidence in a concise way), some sense of critical thinking (reading a source and understanding its implicit and explicit points, as well as aspects of the author’s perspective or bias), and some broader understanding of how history works (appreciation for things that seem foreign, for instance). But once the group started discussing the learning goals, our helpful CTL staffer pointed out that a lot of the goals we were listing were curriculum-level goals – things that were so broad or lofty that they would be taught over the course of an entire major. It became obvious that even though we could pare them down to bare minimums, our teaching experiences have left us frustrated and with far too many lessons to teach.

It’s a sad but obvious truth that historians at major universities feel they are above teaching and put no thought into pedagogy. This is not a dig at tenured faculty. It’s just that from their vantage point, the job of undergraduate teaching is full of thankless tasks that they can, and do, offload to graduate students. We all know that undergraduates don’t know how to write and don’t understand historiography. If they did, there would be nothing to teach them. But what these professors (and a lot of grad students) forget, is that there are a lot more subtle, small aspects of history that undergrads also don’t know and that we have no mechanisms for teaching them because we rarely talk about these things ourselves. I’m talking about the basics of how history works. I do an exercise in most of my undergrad classes – on the first day of section, I ask them what history is and what its sources are. And this conversation goes in a very expected way – the first answer is some variation on “history is what happened in the past” and I ask something ridiculous in response like “is what I had for breakfast history?” The conversation that unfolds tells me a lot about what kind of class it’s going to be. Some students say “no, of course not” and we construct a definition of a sort of “basic” political historical narrative and talk about primary sources and bias and the students leave wondering how they got such a dumb TA. But some students say “well it depends, maybe you’re writing a history of breakfast” and then we get into a discussion about narrative and perspective and how different sorts of things can be sources, and usually a few of those students write really fascinating final papers about historiography or archaeology or something outside the box. But the point is that this is not on the agenda for any class, and so most undergraduate history classes spend an entire semester talking about a topic that no one in the room can define. And it doesn’t occur to professors to teach this because it seems really obvious, so when it does occur to anyone, the duty falls on the TAs to convey this fundamental and massive aspect of our field mixed into the coursework that’s already outlined.

This isn’t just a feature of large universities, though, and it’s not just an issue of intro courses or even undergrad programs; History as a field does not explicitly discuss our basic assumptions, methods, or theories and so what we as historians agree on we only pick up informally or through snippets and crumbs dropped by our advisers. In my undergrad curriculum at a small liberal arts college, which was exceptional in many ways, the only two required classes for history majors were a historiography colloquium to be taken Junior year, and a research seminar in preparation for writing a senior thesis. There was no introductory course that explained what history is or how it is practiced – in effect, the historiography colloquium was this introductory course, as well as an advanced seminar in field-specific methods. Other disciplines don’t do this, because they have a sense of what the basics are in their field. But historians can’t even agree on what makes us all part of the same field. So we relegate these kinds of lessons to survey courses, which are totally inappropriate to teaching these lessons because they are large and structured around taking on a lot of information at once. The result is overloaded, bloated syllabi and assignments. In large universities, this usually shakes out to one history class actually being two – there’s the survey lecture course that the professor teaches, and then there’s the intro seminar that the TA teaches in section, and they have completely different goals. How do TAs even know what to teach when we ourselves were educated in this way? It’s a sort of survival of the fittest, really. If you’ve made it to your second year in a PhD program, you’ve figured out to some degree what History is about, you have some idea how to write and read and do research, and you are at least familiar with the concept of constructing a narrative. Once you get there, your advisor tells you everything else you need to know in revelatory moments that make all the other suffering worthwhile.

Here’s a good example of the kind of skill professional historians learn but are never formally taught: reading. Historians have a particular method of reading, that’s a sort of thorough skimming. It involves reading the introduction and conclusion of a book word by word, looking for the main argument, method, and other scholars the author is directly responding to. For the rest of the book, the historian does a combination of glazing her eyes over the words and skipping everything but the first and last sentence of any given paragraph, stopping to carefully read individual paragraphs or examples that seem especially important, and occasionally going to the footnotes for more detail. Through this method, historians can read just about any monograph in two hours or less, and this is essential for doing any kind of research (where a given article will have upwards of 50 sources) or reading for the orals exams (which requires a reading list of around 200 books). Without this method, it’s impossible to stay current in your field or grade papers or keep on top of any of your work while still having time for literally anything else in a day. And it is never taught. In both my undergrad and grad historiography seminars, professors just said “figure out how to do this” without explaining what it was. This is our approach to pedagogy in History.

So when we approach learning objectives for undergrad courses, we have this same attitude – the basics should be easy enough to pick up through osmosis, we have enough important stuff to worry about. And it leaves us as teachers wondering why our students don’t understand what constitutes an appropriate source or why they keep making counterfactual hypothetical arguments (“without this important factor, this major event would never have happened”). In reality, our learning objectives need to start really small – understanding what history is, understanding how narratives are constructed (in the present, at the time of the events, and everywhen in between), and even understanding what kinds of questions history can answer. The most rewarding recent assignment I graded was a set of mapping projects in which students were asked to map census data in order to answer a question about immigration, and I was so happy to see that their responses all included discussions of how the standards for categorizing people had changed and so it was difficult to actually provide quantitative answers. These are lessons we take for granted in History, and as a result students leave our classes believing logical fallacies and become adults who misunderstand what history can show them and who repeat platitudes like “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it” or “history is written by the victor” without understanding what they actually mean.

These basic learning objectives should be the tenets of intro history courses, and they’re why we should have intro history courses – not survey courses with broad objectives like “writing skills” tacked on, but actual introductions to the study and writing of history. The fact that we don’t gives the impression that this is an “easy” field, that once you read enough you can make any claims you want about the past. And I’m all for amateur historians. But knowing a lot of facts and being able to place them in their relevant context, or being able to weight two opposing interpretations of them, are entirely different things. If Historians as a field thought a little more about what we actually are and constructed a real curriculum, we could achieve all our goals, we could churn out as many graduates who understand the lessons we’re teaching as we want, and people who become professional historians really just would be the ones who are most committed, rather than the ones who figured it out for themselves. It would give us the opportunity to build from one course to another, to structure skills like writing and critical thinking as steps to achieve rather than binaries. So I vote that we take a look at ourselves to decide what our field is about, put that into an intro course, and leave surveys and colloquia and upper level seminars for honing, rather than hastily substituting, these more amorphous skills.

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