Tag Archives: International Conversations

A Terrible Tip

In the December 2012 edition of the AHA’s newsletter Perspectives, Patricia Limerick, the new Vice President of the Teaching Division, announced a new Association project, “Tipping Points for Teaching.” The project, as described by Limerick, has two main goals: to (a) gather and curate teaching tips from AHA members that can then be disseminated via a web interface, and (b) to somehow use these examples of teaching to help persuade “voters and public officials to recognize the value of face-to-face education…”

I will admit that there might be some benefit that accrues from collecting and disseminating exemplary teaching exercises that members might contribute to the website. But on the whole, I think this whole effort is a terrible idea.

Because calling something a terrible idea is a pretty blunt statement, I want to be very specific as to the reasons for my criticism.

The AHA is the largest and most important organization representing historians in the United States, so any AHA project signals to not only members, but to the historical profession, and the general public what the Association considers to be important work. The message of this project, at least as it is described in Perspectives, is that teaching about the past can best be improved by gathering and disseminating “tips.” Such a stance devalues teaching as an intellectual enterprise, reducing it instead to a cluster of skills that can be learned through imitation, and worse, essentially ignores two decades of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history – an effort that the Association has fairly consistently supported throughout those two decades.

As described, “Tipping Points in Teaching” makes no mention of the pioneering work on teaching and learning history of American scholars such as Sam Wineberg, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, Lendol Calder, Robert Bain, Keith Erekson, and Laura Westhoff, or of our colleagues in the UK, Paul Hyland, Sarah Richardson, and Alan Booth, or of Stéphane Lévesque and Peter Seixas in Canada, or of Sean Brawley in Australia. Nor does the site’s workflow diagram offer any hope that the work of these scholars will have any place in the website. In other words, those AHA members coming to this website will have no way of accessing the most important research on the subject they are interested in.

Imagine if the AHA announced a new project focused on the analysis of an important historical topic and invited members to contribute their best public lectures on this topic in lieu of essays that cited evidence to support the author’s conclusions. There would be howls from across the country that these lectures offered nothing of substance – artful presentations, perhaps, but no substance. But because the subject of this project is teaching it is somehow okay to resort to collecting “tips”?

A second problem with this idea has to do with the goal of promoting the benefits of face-to-face teaching. If the Association’s goal is to somehow stave off what I’ve termed the Online Course Tsnami, a website offering visitors a database of exemplary teaching exercises is about the worst way I can imagine going about this defense of face-to-face instruction. I’m sorry, but a database of inspiring teaching tips is going to convince exactly no one that face-to-face instruction is too wonderful to be replaced by online delivery systems.

No amount of assurance by otherwise excellent teachers that their students really “got it” in class is going to convince skeptics that face-to-face instruction is better than online instruction. The case for face-to-face instruction needs to be made with data derived from research, or not made at all. Data driven research on learning outcomes is what will make the case, and nothing less.

If the Association’s intention really is to put its weight behind a defense of face-to-face instruction, then the funds the Association plans to spend on the Tipping Points project would be much better spent sponsoring serious research that has the potential to demonstrate how learning outcomes differ in face-to-face and online educational environments. Or, failing that, the AHA should use its resources to help a team of scholars secure grant funding to conduct these sorts of studies.

Finally, the way this project has been described in Perspectives betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Once upon a time it was the case that it made sense to have people submit content, curate it, then post it online. But the advent of Web 2.0 changed all that. Now the crowd curates the content, votes it up and down according to popularity and usability, and the staff that once would have done the curation is there to resolve disputes, monitor for abuse, and promote the project.

Back in 2008 the Association proposed something similar with respect to historical websites. That project was never realized. As planned now, this teaching project will be hugely staff intensive and if it does result in a flood of contributions, will at worst collapse under its own weight, or at best will simply become too large to keep up to date.

Given all these problems, I hope the Teaching Division reconsiders this plan. I would hate to see the scarce resources of the Division used on a project that really has little hope of success.

The History Curriculum in 2023 (Conclusion)

At a conference on the future of higher education at George Mason this past fall, one of my colleagues in the sciences pointed out that his department offered very rich and immersive learning experiences for their seniors in capstone seminars. I asked him why they made their students wait four years for such experiences?

In this series I have tried to suggest a number of ways we can transform the history curriculum to take advantage of the potential of digital media technology and offer rich and immersive learning experiences for our students throughout their four years in the history major. I’ve just finished reading the December 2012 edition of Perspectives and I have to admit that I’m amazed at how little attention was paid to undergraduate education in an issue devoted to “the future of the profession.”

It’s worth remembering that without undergraduates, our profession has no future.

The tuition paid by our undergraduate students sustains our graduate programs, making it possible for us to offer those small and not cost effective seminars. It also at least partly sustains the faculty labor force. How many departments that you know of would have the same budget if their undergraduate enrollment declined by more than one-third over a short time span? A few of the best endowed institutions can sustain departments through their endowments. But only a few. The rest of us depend heavily on undergraduate tuition for our survival.

I’m confident that history will never be dropped from the national undergraduate curriculum, but it’s very possible to imagine a future where individual institutions drop the liberal arts (including history) altogether to become niche players in an increasingly globalized education economy. In a world where big accounting firms are arguing that universities must radically transform their business models if they are going to survive at all, we need to take seriously the notion that at no institution is history indispensable.

That being the reality of the future of our profession, we need to think hard about how we can make our undergraduate major relevant in the digital economy, relevant to the lives our students are living and the ways they use technology, and, just as importantly teach our students the procedural knowledge — both digital and analog — that they need to be the best historians they can be.

The changes I’ve proposed here to the history curriculum are obviously not the only possible options for reform of what we do. I hope they generate some conversation about our future — conversation not only in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, but also in our top journals and newsletters.

If we don’t take seriously the notion that change is necessary, our future looks increasingly like an underfunded archive: stale, musty, and increasingly forgotten.

The History Curriculum in 2013 (Mashing)

In the second post in this series I argued that one of the most important reasons why the history curriculum needs to change was that student use of the Internet has changed dramatically in the past five to ten years. Where once the Internet was primarily a zone of extraction–a place to go get information–for young people the Internet is increasingly a zone of creation. This is not just a supposition on my part, but rather comes out of my reading of a number of carefully crafted research studies of youth and digital media. And there is no reason to believe that this trend toward more and more creation of content online is going to change any time soon.

Given this reality, I’ve been arguing throughout this series that the history curriculum must change to give students much freer reign when it comes to the work products they deliver to us as evidence of their learning in our classes. But it is also the case that just offering students a chance to be more creative does not (generally) result in an outpouring of creativity on their part.

After all, our students are busy, often over scheduled, and can be intensely pragmatic in their pursuit of a particular grade. Given the choice between doing something they know–write a paper, take an exam–and something they aren’t used to, many, if not most will opt for the known path to success. For this reason, it is incumbent on us to create courses that integrate what we know and care about (historical thinking, various forms of content) and what digital media make possible.

Because our students will come to those courses with a wide range of digital skills, these courses have to be structured in such a way that even the complete digital novice will prosper. But that’s what we do already in our courses, isn’t it? Don’t we assume on Day 1 of the semester that at least a few of the students in class know essentially nothing about whatever the topic of the course is? Getting students up to speed quickly is something we already do well.

No aspect of digital technology offers our students as many possibilities to be creative in their approach to making sense of the pass as the ability to mash up various forms of historical evidence into a new and compelling presentation. The possibilities of such mash ups, while not endless, are so great that I’m only going to discuss two here: video and mapping.

In an earlier post in this series I discussed digital storytelling as one way students can “make history,” but the typical digital story produced by students tends to be more of a mini-documentary and less of a mash up. What I’m arguing for here is to teach students the skills they need — both technical and historical — to produce sophisticated historical mash up videos like this very short take on the events outside Tiananmen Square in 1989.

This video mashes up iconic news footage of the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square facing down a line of tanks with a clip from Mario Savio’s “put your bodies on the gears” speech at Berkeley in 1964 and a sound track by Boards of Canada. In just 62 seconds the creator of this mash up makes what we would recognize as a reasonable historical argument — that there is some sort of connection between American student activism of the 1960s and Chinese student activism in the 1980s. In the context of a history course, much more would need to be done to explore this argument further, but this brief video offers us a glimpse of what students might do if we turned them loose to create arguments in various media.

Digital maps are another way that students can be produce very creative mash ups of historical information. That historians are very interested in the potential of digital mapping and GIS is evident in the number of sessions on GIS here at the AHA annual meeting. But we still offer our students very few opportunities to engage historical evidence in geographic space.

Simple tools such as Google Earth make it much easier for students to mash up historical evidence with historic (or current) maps. Already, various Google Earth communities have posted a wide range of interesting mash ups of maps, images, texts, and video. The learning curve for creating mash ups such as this one of Francis Gary Powers’ U2 flights is pretty shallow. What’s missing is the value added that we can provide — a more rigorous approach to the analysis of the evidence included in the mash up.

More sophisticated tools, such as Cleveland Historical and NeatLine, are already available to allow students to create even more sophisticated mash ups of historical and geographical information. In the next few years it’s reasonable to expect that many more similarly exciting platforms will be available to us and our students.

Given how easy it is already for students to produce interesting and intellectually rigorous historical mash ups, the curriculum of the future needs to incorporate these tools, both because doing so gives our students license to “make history” and to think about history in new and interesting ways, but also because the work they do with these tools will provide them with tangible intellectual products that they can show to future employers, graduate search committees, and others.

[Final post in the series]

The History Curriculum in 2023 (Marking)

Way back in 1996 (a millenium in Internet years) I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire as a fill in for someone on sabbatical. Early in the fall semester I got a memo (not an email) offering faculty members a chance to attend a workshop where we would learn how to put our syllabi on the World Wide Web. I signed up and spent two hours learning to write HTML code via green text on a black screen. At the end of the workshop, both of my syllabi found new lives online and the rest, as they say, is history.

This was not my introduction to coding, but it was by far my most successful foray (there is no need to discuss what grade I earned in Introduction to BASIC Programming in college). I continue to bless my luck that I learned to create web pages the old fashioned way, because I’m just lazy enough that had I started with a program like DreamWeaver, I probably never would have learned the underlying code that drives my websites. At the same time, more than once I’ve wished that I had had the time to really learn XML and CSS at the level that I need to know them. I even own a guide to simple programming in Python, not that I’ve ever gotten past the Introduction.

Because the tools of digital technology are increasingly so user friendly, fewer and fewer of our students are spending much, if any, time at the command line, or even in the source code for the content they create online. In my experience, most history majors don’t even know what “metadata” means, much less how it influences what is served up to them by Google or other search engines.

If we let this situation continue, we are doing our history students a real disservice, both when it comes to teaching them about our discipline, but also in helping them prepare for careers after graduation, whether in history or many other fields.

It’s a reasonable question to ask why history majors should learn some of the basics of coding. As Audrey Watters points out in her post on the more generalized version of this question, “Coding for the sake of coding doesn’t really get you much.” Audrey quotes Jeff Atwood who points out that good software developers don’t write code because they love code, but because they want to solve problems. While Atwood is making a plea that we not teach everyone to code, I think that his point about problem solving is exactly the reason why history majors need to be introduced to the basics of coding.

To put it more directly, good historians, like good software developers don’t study the past because we love musty old documents or to see our names in print, but because we want to solve problems. Our problems are different from those faced by software developers, but problems they remain. How many times have to urged your students to answer a question in their essays? That question is a problem that typically begins with the word “why.”

With the advent of super massive databases of historical content, students of the past are facing a new species of problem. How can we mine these databases for the information we want? How can we recognize patterns in those data? How can we organize the material we extract? How can analyze what we’ve found and organized? How can we present those data in ways that are compelling and explicable to our audiences? And how can those presentations happen across multiple platforms (laptop, tablet, mobile phone)?

Historians and other humanists are starting to take seriously the notion that coding, whether to extract and manipulate data or to present it in elegant ways (or both) are skills that students of the past need to acquire. But only a few historians thus far. Examples worth taking a look at include my colleague Fred Gibbs, Caleb McDaniel at Rice University (see his posts on learning Python), Miriam Posner at the University of Minnesota, Jeremy Boggs at the University of Virginia, and everyone else working on the Programming Historian project.

I can’t pretend to say that I could teach my students how to code, other than how to work with HTML and CSS, but I do recognize just how important it will be for our students going forward from 2013 to develop skills that I don’t have. Not every history student needs to learn to code, but I think we do our students a disservice if we don’t (a) make the option available to them and (b) strongly encourage them to avail themselves of this option. Those of our students who do develop these skills will almost certainly find doors open to them that the standard history major, MA, or PhD will not even be able to knock on.