Tag Archives: undergraduate teaching

Free For All (2)

President Obama’s proposal to reduce community college tuition to near zero has generated quite the wide variety of reactions, but a quick scan of this morning’s news web seems to indicate that the overall response is pretty negative. Some of the main arguments against the plan include:

While I find the second of these critiques to be more than a little elitist, the first and third do have some merit. It’s already a fact that increasing numbers middle class families are sending their children to community colleges for one or two years of substantially lower cost tuition so that they can afford the final years of a bachelor’s program at much more expensive colleges and universities. These families don’t need the subsidy that free tuition would provide.

To me, the bigger issue is finding ways to improve student success rates at community colleges. The answer to the problem of low success rates is not a mystery–it is already well known to those who research student progress at community colleges. As important as financial factors are, just as important to student completion and transfer rates are:

  • Clear pathways to the degree, whether that pathway is to an AA or a BA. Students need to be able to see, from day one, which courses they need and in what sequence. For those transferring to a BA program, the pathways they see need to be well articulated with the BA, so that they do not have to take additional (and repetitive) courses from the upper division institution;
  • Capturing students during their first weeks of their first semester/quarter at the community college to make sure they get good advising on everything from their academic path, to their financial package and responsibilities, to the services available to them from the college. Most new students have no idea how to plan a path to their degree (or transfer) and know almost nothing about the services available to them. Accessing clear and early advising substantially raises completion rates;
  • Find ways to increase the job stability and tenure of community college faculty. Study after study shows that the more long-serving faculty there are at a community college, the higher student success rates are. This makes sense, of course, because the more consistency students have in mentoring and instruction, the better their outcomes should be.

What does this mean for history (and humanities) departments? My last post in this series argued that growth in community college enrollments would almost certainly have a negative financial impact on history (and by extension humanities) departments at BA granting institutions. If freshman and sophomore enrollments do indeed shift to community colleges, as I expect them to, those of us at BA granting institutions need to rethink our relationship to the community colleges in our local markets.

Instead of an us/them way of looking at area community colleges, we should be thinking about “us” in the largest sense of the word–meaning that we are all part of a larger effort to help students achieve their educational goals. It’s not like what I’m proposing is new or revolutionary–the University of Central Florida has been at this for close to a decade and gets around 10,000 transfers from its partner institutions each year.

History departments can take a page from the UCF book and go meet their community college colleagues to discuss collaboration, common learning outcomes, joint faculty hires, BA department advisors available on the community college campuses on a regular basis, finding ways to push undergraduate research opportunities down to the community college campuses, and a whole host of other possible collaborations.

Some of these collaborations will be easy, some will be more difficult (joint faculty hires, for instance). But for any of them to work, faculty from the four year institutions will have to approach such efforts as equal partners, not as those who are employed at “better” institutions. I say this because it is simply a fact that community college faculty are far too often looked down on by colleagues from four year institutions. Nothing could be more toxic to collaborative endeavor.

Speaking as someone who has visited many community colleges over the years and as someone who cares passionately about quality undergraduate teaching, I can say with confidence that some of the best undergraduate teaching in America happens on community college campuses. When it comes to teaching excellence, we can all learn a lot from one another. That prospect alone should make greater collaboration well worth the effort.


Free For All

Tomorrow night President Obama will propose a new federal program that offers students attending community colleges two years of free tuition. While I don’t think the odds are very good that the current Congress will agree to join hands with the president on this one, I do think that by giving voice to this idea, and linking it to the Tennessee Promise program that does something similar already, the president has at least goosed the United States toward something that substantially expands student enrollments in community colleges.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that over the coming decade either a federal program or a series of state level programs like the Tennessee Promise do take shape. What might be the impact on history departments?

The first thing to remember is that any program that provides free, or almost free, community college education will accelerate a trend that has been going on for some time. Already BA granting institutions give away a substantial portion of the freshman year to those students who show up with AP or IB scores above a certain level. For example, in 2012, the George Mason University history department gave away 424 credits to students based on those scores, costing us somewhere between $166,000 and $487,000 in lost tuition revenue. Already around more than one-third of our new students in any given year come to us as transfers, mostly from the three excellent community colleges in our local area.

If a new federal or state program were to provide an additional price incentive to students to begin at their local community colleges, we (and others like us) would see an even more substantial drop in tuition revenues from our freshman and sophomore courses.

One of the dirty little secrets of higher education is that most graduate programs are subsidized by tuition revenue generated by general education courses. General education classes are larger and increasingly taught by contingent faculty who are paid a good bit less than tenure track faculty, so the revenue per course is much greater. That revenue is what makes it possible for us to offer our seniors seminars with 15-18 students and our graduate students courses with even lower enrollments.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a circumstance ten years hence in which we have lost a big chunk of that general education revenue to our area community colleges. If that happens, as I am convinced it will, we need to be planning now for what our departments will look like in the fall of 2025. It’s not that difficult to imagine what the big changes will be:

  1. Fewer tenure track faculty
  2. Fewer graduate students, especially PhD students

Given the state of the academic job market, fewer PhD students would not be the worst thing to happen for all concerned. And if #1 comes to pass as well, we really, really need to start constricting enrollments in our PhD programs. Or start new tracks in those programs that explicitly prepare students for careers as community college faculty.

If we are mostly teaching upper division courses, then there will certainly not be the need for anywhere near the number of tenure track faculty at many history departments today. We just won’t be teaching as many students and that, combined with the loss of revenue from general education courses, means we are almost certainly going to get smaller.

Assuming history departments around the country are going to get smaller, what will excellence look like in those departments? How will we know we are doing great things? How will we define ourselves and our importance to the overall educational project of the university if the vast majority of our teaching is to majors or graduate students?

We have a lot of good things to say for ourselves and why we matter. But we need to start having these conversations now rather than later.



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.

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.


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.