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.        

It’s a TA Life for Me: Living in Greenwich Village

Art Work and Items for game points.

Art Work and Items for game points.

By Gillian Macdonald

“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”

This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work –  it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.

Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect –  it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).

The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....

This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.

This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.

Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).

Active Politics is the Study of History*

By Trent Wolf (Class of 2015)

I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science, and since then, I have worked as a legislative assistant to State Representative Frank Liberati in the Michigan Legislature. Politics can be understood as simply a web of interconnected relationships: connections between legislators or between elected officials and voters, for example. In practice, no piece of legislation is passed in a democratic system without relationships being established between politicians, just as no elected official wins their campaign for public office without building and maintaining relationships with voters. The difficult, and nuanced, aspect is untangling all of these relationships through using the same skills historians use to untangle the hidden realities of humanity’s past.  Using this lens, politics can be viewed as history unfolding in real-time.

The most obvious, and potentially less direct, application of my studies in history would be simply understanding the historical context to the reality we live in today—something I believe too many in our society go without. Public policy and politics are intrinsically intertwined with our historical past. Basic understanding of historical facts impact the way in which laws are written and also influences the way in which politicians talk about their ideas and project those ideas to the public. Additionally, historical understanding, or lack thereof, directly defines the ways in which constituents perceive politicians and their ideas.

More directly, though, by employing the research skills learned through studying history—such as source analysis, aggregating analyzed historical data, and effectively communicating the story that data illustrates—I was able to develop a important set of skills that I use every day to be effective at my job.

For example, when performing historical research, secondary sources are used to provide context to a given topic and primary sources—such as speeches, letters, songs, poems, illustrations, and memoirs—are used to gain a better understanding of a topic, which allows a researcher to expand upon the known historical record. Similarly, in public policy and politics, we use secondary sources to frame societal problems and policy solutions, such as data on income inequality or school performance. Then primary sources, such as constituent communications, firsthand political information from elected officials, or forms of support from stakeholder groups, are combined with the secondary source information to gain a broader understanding of an issue and how it might be solved.

With this in mind, the same skills of thoroughly vetting sources and knowing that multiple perspectives must be gathered to gain a credible understanding of an issue or topic are directly used in both politics and history. For instance, in the same way historical research should not be told through the lens of one historical figure, one document, or one perspective—in politics you must also gain as much primary source perspective as possible to be able to effectively craft policy and campaign messaging. Additionally, I fully believe that individuals who study history properly are able to gain a sense of “open-mindedness,” or are more able to objectively analyze the information they are researching, which is sorely missing from our political system that has been ravaged by partisan hyperbole and ad hominin attacks.

I credit all of my experiences as a student of history for where I am today. In so many ways, those experiences have become directly linked to who I am as a working professional trying to better the world in which we all live as well as an individual and the way I view the world. In both history and politics, critical thinking and analysis as well as being able to think in new, creative ways are key to being able to contribute to the historical record or pass legislation.

*Polybius, The Histories, vol. 1

History Matters: The Skills I Learned

By Emily Lint (Class of 2015)

Today, like most days, I thought about my time spent in history classes at CMU. I am currently halfway through my first year teaching at West Senior High School in Traverse City, MI. I teach economics. When I accepted the job in Traverse City near my family at the school where I student-taught I was thrilled. At first I wasn’t sure how my history training would apply to teaching Economics, but not too far into my first planning day in a hot classroom in the late summer I realized I would have plenty of opportunity to use my history training teaching economics. I learned far more than content from my history professors at CMU, and the non-content skills kicked in right away.

CMU’s history department made me a better thinker. I learned that historical events do not exist in a vacuum. Context is everything. I learned how to think about topics in their place in the grand scheme of things.  My experience with examining different angles of historical topics translates into my teaching every single day. I try my best to make sure my students understand concepts with context and can see how to apply what they learn to their lives every single day.

CMU’s history department made me a more well-rounded person. In my American history classes especially, I learned the story isn’t as simple as I had been told. When you’re telling the story of people, there are always lots of perspectives to consider. Likewise, every kid has a slightly different perspective and different set of experiences they carry with them into my classroom. Remembering to consider other perspectives has helped me get to know the dozens of kids who pass in and out of my room every day. 

CMU’s history department made me a better public speaker. As my time in the program progressed the classes got smaller and smaller and the opportunities to sit back and listen became fewer and farther between. Eventually I was forced to speak up. Small class sizes, accessible professors, and great content helped me become more comfortable speaking out. In my own classroom, I try to emulate those professors who brought me out of my shell. Incorporating elements of “sticks and carrots” that got me to talk in college into my own classroom has allowed me to witness the blossoming of students who offer incredible insight to classroom discussions every day.

Finally, CMU’s history department made me a more confident person. Every experience tackling original research, working on projects with professors, attending conferences, and presenting my work made me feel more and more confident with my ability to take on the world. Standing in front of 33 teenagers for the first time was less intimidating because I had already stood in front of far more people than that. Teaching content was less scary because I knew how to tell a story (even if it turns out the story is about economics). So much of what I feel comfortable doing today comes from the confidence instilled in me throughout my time with CMU’s history department.

I am grateful for so much about my time with CMU’s history department. The life lessons and skills I picked up along the way are the gifts from the CMU history department that I am most thankful for.