Navigating the Crisis: Set a New Course

By Jennifer Vannette

The crisis of the humanities has been a long lamented point in the academy. As we well know at CMU, budget shortfalls are balanced on the backs of history programs, which then have to cut courses and new hires. As other programs send us fewer students due to their own restructuring and society deems the study of history less important, universities have begun to require fewer credits in history. Additionally, many people view history as less useful to their futures. It’s easy to get discouraged.

The latest issue of Perspectives on History (May 2017) offers two articles addressing the challenges of and failures regarding teaching history. David Pace, in his piece “The History of the Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” begins with the clarion call that “in a ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles,” and he argues that we have a moral obligation to defend the institutions of democracy. Pace promotes a change in how we teach history, being sure to move away from memorization and towards reasoning and critical analysis. This is not a new idea, and many historians have already made that shift at the college level. But, Pace, notes that we have a tendency to blame students lack of preparation for college rather than reshaping courses to address the needs of the student body we have.

 The numbers are startling when it comes to fail rates. The companion article in Perspectives, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators” by Andrew Koch, complied data on 28,000 students from 32 different institutions over the course of three academic years spanning 2012-2015 who were enrolled in a US history survey course. The data showed that about two-thirds of the students earned a grade of a C or higher. But, looking at the demographic variables, the research team saw that race, family income level, gender, and status as a first-generation college student were indicators that predicted the success rate of students in a history class: “…the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian Americans, white, and female students who are not first generation, and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, and sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.” And, the failure in one introductory course, like a US survey, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

 Koch also criticizes past methods of teaching history. He sees promise in active-learning strategies. But, additionally, he implores historians to take an active role in preventing the negative outcomes for disadvantaged students. Inequality in society predicts inequality in learning outcomes, and we have an obligation to intercede.

Both articles also express worry that part of the fail rates are due to a lack of diversity in the narratives communicated to students. Even though historians have produced a great body of literature that addresses class, race, gender, ethnic studies, religion, and many more interesting facets of humanity, many minority students are not finding themselves represented in the survey courses. We’ve adjusted how we talk to each other as academics, but we are faltering in communication of the rich body of history to students and the public.

Pace and Koch acknowledge the lack of willpower at institutions to make changes, particularly when the results are unknown. We need to try something new, but a university rarely wants to be the first to use an untested method. The work that goes into changing course offerings can be daunting, but there are resources available and a network of historians working on educational research. Change can happen – Yale recently announced that through their efforts of revamping their history major courses and requirements, history is once again the top major at the university.

Both authors offer good starting points for the conversation, and they indicate that we need more creativity. We perhaps need the political determination to challenge the norm (should I say sacred cow?) of historical survey courses. Even when historians have tested new methods, we still cling to the survey lecture structure. Consider the example of how the game-based pedagogy Reacting to the Past has been typically used. The game focuses on one particular historical experience during a discussion section while the chronological survey continues with lectures during two of their three meeting times.

Some historians have begun to approach courses, even university required surveys, with a thematic approach. This can be difficult to do; it’s hard to relinquish the chronology. I know when I taught US Since 1945, although I organized the lectures by themes, I made sure to also balance that with a chronological structure. I’m not sure I went far enough. We have the ability to cover a broad sweep of history while focusing entirely on a single theme. Course examples from the American Studies program at Canterbury in the UK are quite exciting, for example, The Invention of America: Texts and Contexts from 1670 to the Present; Rise of the American Colossus: US Foreign Policy, 1898 to the Present; or, Banned Books: A Literary History of the US. Can we pique student interest better by focusing on a particular theme rather than trying to cover everything that happened over hundreds of years?

As historians, we know that we are relevant to the conversations that consume society today, and as Pace pointed out, we perhaps even have a moral obligation to do all we can to defend our institutions. With the fail-rate data and the layers of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make changes, it's easy to want to just stay the course. But there are positive signs. Even with STEM promotion, many technology business leaders have said that they seek people with the skills historians have and can teach. (Here. Here. And here.) The work of a course change is daunting, and there are no guarantees. And, still, we should engage in new ideas and try new methods for engaging our students – even if it means killing the sacred cow.