What Keeps You Up At Night?

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a private meeting chaired by Jeff Selingo, the purpose of which was to provide him (and his colleagues at Georgetown and Arizona State) with feedback on a (soon to be) new executive education program designed to prepare the next generation of higher ed leaders. The meeting, that followed a very interesting panel discussion, included a mix of university presidents, deans and other senior leaders, foundation executives, search consultants, and others working in and around senior leadership in higher ed.

The facilitator for the session was a former member of George Mason‘s Board of Visitors, Kathleen deLaski, who started us off with the following question: “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of higher education?”

As you might expect from such a large (30 or so participants) and diverse group, there were many answers to this question, but at the top of the list were concerns about access and the growing inequality that restricted access to higher education is causing. Other big concerns included finding sustainable financial models, issues around teaching and learning, a perception that the pool of potential senior leaders has gotten too shallow, and worries that the internal systems in higher ed are not up to making the changes that will be needed in the coming decade. But only a few of the participants didn’t mention access in some way, shape, or form.

Not convinced that access to higher education is a problem? As Selingo points out in his recent book, College Unbound, a young person’s odds of obtaining a bachelors degree are closely tied to his/her family income. Children coming from homes with a family income above $90,000 per year have a 1:2 chance of obtaining a BA/BS degree by age 24. If the family income is between $60,000 – $90,000, those odds drop to 1:4, and if the family income is below $35,000, the odds fall all the way down to 1:17. Not surprisingly, the odds of someone from a lower income family getting into a highly selective institution are also terrible compared to students from upper income families. (168)

That’s an access problem that should be keeping us all up at night, especially when you realize that 21 percent of children aged 5-17 in the United States are living in poverty, which is a 24% increase over 1990. In other words, the likelihood that any American high school senior is going to graduate with a bachelors degree is just going to keep falling until (a) we figure out a way to get more kids out of poverty and (b) we figure out how to provide greater access to those kids. Otherwise, frankly, we’re in serious trouble as an industry, not to mention as a country.

The solutions to getting kids out of poverty are well above my pay grade, but solutions to access are something I know a little bit about. And what I know is that it is not enough to throw money at the problem — greater funding opportunities for students help, and help a lot, but scholarships and other forms of financial aid are not the only answer. Just as important is creating the circumstances in which students who do enroll can graduate in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., four to six years.

Many colleges and universities devote an incredible amount of energy to student retention programs, and proactive administrative efforts do help. But what also helps, and this is where historians have a role to play, is faculty members who think carefully about student success and design courses and curricula that will facilitate success and learning simultaneously.

This is a complicated problem for history, because when it comes to our majors, too often we don’t see them at all until they are sophomores, because future history majors very often have taken an AP history course in high school and so have placed out of our freshman courses. And those freshman courses all too often exist just to serve the demands of a general education curriculum, not the history major.

Given this reality on so many college campuses, it seems to me that history departments can play their own small role in the larger access/retention problem by rethinking the sequence of courses from the first semester of a freshman’s college experience right through to graduation. And, we need to reach out to our campus retention specialists and ask — what is it that makes it more difficult for our students to graduate? And what can we do to help change that, especially for the students who are at most risk?

Changing the reality of student access and success in higher education is a big issue — far too big for any one discipline to fix. But as historians, we also know that grassroots efforts across a broad population often aggregate into something bigger than one has any reason to expect. In the historical literature we often call those “popular movements” or “change from below.”

It’s high time we started our own popular movement or joined someone else’s.

 

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Why I’m Proud of the AHA

Regular readers of this blog will know already that over the years I’ve leveled more than my fair share of criticism at the American Historical Association on a whole variety of issues, some big, some small. And, along the way, I’ve had some nice things to say as well. The latest news from AHA central, about a $1.6 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand on the Association’s “career diversity initiative,” is both great news, but also a good reason to step back and take stock of all that the Association has accomplished in the past two years to help historians think about career trajectories other than the standard “tenure track job at a research university” track.

First there are a couple of facts worth remembering. At the top of my list is the fact that the vast majority of PhD trained historians with full time jobs work either as faculty at non-tenure granting institutions or in various “altac“positions ranging from museum professionals to academic administrative positions to archive management to work in the corporate sector. The second fact is that the number of tenure track jobs in history is almost surely going to remain stable (or decline) in the coming decade or so for the simple reason that the share of faculty jobs that are tenure track jobs is declining. On top of this reality is the fact that all across the country we are being told (especially by legislators) that funding should shift from non-STEM to STEM disciplines.

Labor market issues for those with advanced training, especially in the humanities, are acute and not to be minimized. Institutions of higher education all across the United States, but especially public institutions, are under tremendous financial pressure and far too many have chosen to (at least partially) try solve their financial problems by shifting to the use of more and more contingent faculty labor. This shift is bad both because it is bad for the people who are forced to labor in a kind of never never land of constant uncertainty and it is bad for the institutions because it makes it increasingly difficult for them to build consistent strength in their academic departments. I know that never never land because I spent three years there, one of which included teaching one class while waiting tables full time while my wife mucked stalls at a pony farm. It can be a very difficult place to live.

I spend a fair amount of time doing various and sundry jobs for our senior administration, so I’m privy to discussions at that level about finances and I read the academic press pretty carefully. There just isn’t much evidence that colleges and universities are going to break their addiction to contingent faculty labor in the short term.

These facts I’ve just cited are why I’m so proud of the work that AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman has done to partly pivot an organization that for its entire life has been, in my view, overly focused on the needs and desires of the most prestigious history departments, to a more capacious view of who “historians” are and what their career trajectories can look like. In my 20-plus years as an AHA member, I can’t remember a time when the Association put this much effort into work that will reach well beyond the confines of those most prestigious departments (if the work done under the grant takes hold, which is no sure thing).

This grant is not going to solve the labor market issues I’ve just mentioned. Not at all. But I’m hopeful that it will help graduate students in history find their way to fulfilling careers that are not predicated on contingency.

Anyone who has spent any significant time writing large grants like this Mellon grant knows just how much work they are. Months of effort and countless hours of staff time are required to bring off a success like this one. Shifting academic cultures is like trying to turn a battleship, but $1.6 million is the kind of figure that gets almost anyone’s attention. We won’t know for five to ten years whether this particular effort has borne fruit or not, but in the meantime, my hat is off to the AHA for getting serious about an initiative that is well outside the historical comfort zone of the Association.

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History’s Future

The March 2014 issue of Perspectives includes a very clear analysis of the most recent IPEDS data on history BAs by Allen Mikaelian. Everyone currently teaching college history or planning to do so should read this article.

Why? A quick glance at this graph should at least given one pause.

Mikaelian-Fig1What is shows is a five year decline in history’s share of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. In the data analysis business, we call this a trend. In an era of stagnant or declining funding for colleges and universities, this is a particularly bad moment for history departments to be smaller players on the enrollment stage. While the overall number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history is actually up slightly, deans, provosts, and campus accounting types all take note of a discipline’s relative share of resources provided and consumed and so graph results like this one are a real (not imagined) problem.

As I have written previously, one reason for history’s relative decline as a share of overall degrees awarded is the inescapable fact that, at the undergraduate level, our discipline has a gender problem. The 2011-12 IPEDS data (the most recent available) show that 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded to women, but only 40 percent of degrees in our field went to women. That’s a problem. And it’s not getting better. The IPEDS data show that history is also getting whiter by the year, even as higher education as a whole is becoming more diverse by the year.

What’s new to me in Mikaelian’s article is that the share of bachelor’s degrees in history awarded by our most research intensive universities (the “very high” category in the Carnegie classification) has fallen substantially over the past 25 years. In 1989, 38 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in history were awarded at these universities, almost all of which have very large history departments with substantial doctoral enrollments. But in 2012, only 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees in our field came from these departments. And, as Mikaelian points out, those same institutions experienced only an overall drop in bachelor’s degrees of three percent, so there has been a real drop in history degrees at our most research intensive departments.

I’ve spent a lot of time in university administration over the past five years and one thing I know for sure is that a measurable decline in degrees awarded is something that gets noticed, even if that decline took 25 years. There just aren’t enough resources to go around any more and so those fields that are generating more tuition revenue are blessed with more resources, while those generating less revenue see their budgets declining. That’s the inescapable reality of higher education in 2014.

What does this mean for the future of our discipline? It means that in the near term we shouldn’t be surprised to see tenure  lines at the most research intensive universities being shifted away from history. Unless those faculty who remain agree to teach more undergraduates (unlikely in most cases), those large departments will either become smaller still, or will begin relying on ever more contingent labor for their undergraduate teaching.

More worrisome than any possible decline of the biggest and most research intensive history departments is the on-going gender problem we have at the undergraduate level. If we don’t start coming up with new ways of thinking about that long standing problem, we’re all in the same boat — a boat that has sprouted more than a few leaks.

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Improving the Past

This semester I’m offering a new course, Improving the Past [syllabus], that is another attempt on my part to capitalize on what we’ve learned from recent research about how young people use digital media. Last year I wrote a series of posts I called The History Curriculum in 2023 in which I argued that within a decade we should be focusing our teaching around four key areas of skill: making, mining, marking, and mashing. Improving the Past takes on the first and last of these criteria.

Last year my department decided that I couldn’t teach my admittedly controversial course, Lying About the Past, in its full form and I chose not to teach it in the version our undergraduate committee proposed, one that would limit my students’ creative endeavor to the confines of our classroom. Because that course had generated so much student enthusiasm, I started thinking about ways to capture that enthusiasm that would also be acceptable to my colleagues. A close friend and former George Mason colleague helped me clarify my thinking on this and had several fantastic suggestions, one of which morphed into the current course.

The basic premise underlying the course is that there is a long history of attempts to “improve” the past, whether it was the sudden disappearance of Trotsky from the history of the Soviet Union, or a more recent claim by a Virginia textbook writer that thousands of slaves took up arms in the Civil War to defend the institution that held them in bondage. And then there are those faked Civil War photographs like the one provided here. Of course, this history of improvement extends all the way to the origins of our profession cw00172when, for instance, Thucydides put words into the mouths of his subjects in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars. At least Thucydides was up front about his improving of the past.

Given this long history of improvement of the past — whether with good intent or bad — it seemed to me important that students, whether history majors or not, need to learn to think critically not only about why the past is being improved, by how. How is information altered and woven into compelling new narratives? What role does technology play in both the alteration and the dissemination of such knowledge? How can technological tools help us ferret out distortions of the historical record?

One of the most important takeaways for me as an educator from my experiences with Lying About the Past is that my students learned best when they were making a hoax out of the available (mostly true) historical facts. As a result, Improving the Past is built around making and mashing. In addition to studying the many ways the past has been improved, my students will do some of their own improving. They will select historical texts, images, and maps that they will then alter, preferably subtly, to create a new and improved narrative about the past. Then they will write about why they made the choices they made, how the new narrative might change our understanding of the past, how an improved past might be easier to teach, and what they learned from their experiences.

A glance at the syllabus will show that I’m placing a big premium on collaborative work in the course. There are two reasons for that emphasis. The first is that the work I’m asking them to do is difficult and each student will come to class with a different level of experience with history and with technology. The more they can pool their intellectual resources, the more they’ll get out of the class. The second is that I’m emphasizing the lesson that historical work is heavily collaborative, especially in these days of digital scholarship, and so I want to drive home the idea that by working together they are mirroring what, increasingly, we do in our own work. And lest anyone be concerned, my students’ “improvements” of the past will not be released to the Internet.

I am fortunate that the university has just opened two new active learning classrooms and I was able to grab one for this course (see below). I have not had the good fortune to teach in such a space before and so I’m looking forward to monitoring the ways the classroom design does (or doesn’t) facilitate the kind of work I’m expecting from my students. Given what I’ve written recently about spaces for history teaching and learning, I’m excited to be in such a new and different room. Notice, for instance, the wrap around white boards and the lack of an obvious “front” to the room.

RobB106

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the class. I’ll report in later in the semester on whether it’s working or not.

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