Getting History in Tune

Over the past year or so the American Historical Association has been working on what they call the “Tuning Project“. For those who are not members of the Association, the April 2013 edition of Perspectives included an entire forum on the project. Now the AHA has issued a new (pdf) document detailing the current state of the Tuning Project’s work on what they are calling the Discipline Core: “a statement of the central habits of mind, skills, and understanding that students achieve when they major in history.”

There is much to like in this document, which as Julia Brookins of the AHA writes, is intended to foster dialogue among history educators, students, the general public, and others interested in how history is (and isn’t) taught. If I were starting a history major from scratch, this document would be one of the source documents I would use with my colleagues as a basis for our conversation about what we ought to be teaching (competencies and skills, not content) to and with our students. And because I’m teaching historical methods this coming semester, I plan to revisit my syllabus to see what sort of alignment my assignments have with the core competencies laid out in the Tuning document.

In the spirit of Brookins’ call for conversation, I would also say that I found the document surprisingly disappointing in a couple of important ways. The first of those is that the document seems to be focused primarily on undergraduate education. As someone who teaches both graduate and undergraduate students, and who also spends a lot of time working with K-12 history educators, I was hoping to see a bit more conversation on the trajectory of history education from the earliest grades through the terminal degree. Because the authors of the document speak to a desire for a broader conversation, I think that more of that conversation would be likely if all phases of history education a part of the report.

A second critique I would offer is that the document just doesn’t seem very forward-looking. While the authors have done a very nice job of capturing what is common to historical study as it is right now at most colleges and universities, there is no sense of future possibility here. A reader coming to this document for the first time will have to be excused for concluding that what history students do is read, research, and write. What about the making of historical things — websites, digital archives, digital stories, re-created artifacts, museum exhibits (virtual/analog), and all the other ways that history students are beginning to use new media and other tools to make history in new and different ways?

The report does mention the creation of a website/blog/e-portfolio toward the end, but that is really the only mention of the digital world history students live in, other than saying that students should be able to locate appropriate materials online as well as in libraries. Those two statements about the digital world our students inhabit just strikes me as not nearly enough. For instance, shouldn’t history majors learn to apply their critical thinking skills to databases — not as tools for locating sources, but as resources that have historical arguments all their own? Shouldn’t history majors learn how to source digital sources (digital forensics)? Shouldn’t they learn to think critically about how the maker movement might have something to say to historical scholarship? Or what does it mean to have historical information be open source? At what point in the trajectory of historical study should students begin learning to work with big data? These are altogether different and yet very pressing issues in history education and they are largely missing from the Tuning document.

I would also like to see a much richer conversation about the ethics of historical research and production. Too often our conversations with our students about ethics come down to a series of admonitions about plagiarism in the first week of the semester and that’s that. Before the Library of Congress went offline last week, I did a search for books on the ethics of the historical profession and found exactly three. Three. I think we need to find new ways to spread the conversation about ethics across our curricula and so if I were editing this document, I’d include more on ethics.


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