Blogs > Cliopatria > What Should History Majors Learn?

Apr 9, 2009 8:13 am

What Should History Majors Learn?

Yesterday the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed ran articles on a new effort at colleges and universities in Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah to establish learning outcomes for undergraduate majors in history and a few other fields. In the latter article, Scott Jaschik dug up a list of history competencies used in the Bologna Process in Europe that will serve as a foundation for this American pilot project, which is funded by Lumina.

This new development reminded me of a conversation about a year and a half ago between Mills Kelly and myself about the curriculum for undergraduate history majors. Mills made a great point about my recommendations: he observed that I was assuming"the measure of success of an undergraduate history curriculum is the degree to which it prepares majors for graduate school and ultimately for PhDs in history." I think the same thing can be said for above-linked Bologna competencies.

Since then my thinking has changed a bit on what our students should learn in history undergraduate programs. Mills still has a point about asking students what they want to get out of the major. But in my experience few students pick up historical thinking and practice skills unless they are explicitly taught them. I have experimented with quizzes, projects, and assignments to help students learn these skills and met with some success. In future courses I plan to emphasize applications of history skills in society and the workplace, as well as digital skills like semantic search and publishing content online.

I hope the people involved in this Lumina-funded project pay close attention to the recent curricular recommendations issued by the National History Center. I don't think we need to spend more foundation money covering ground that has already been covered by others. It would be great if this new project comes up with more specific learning methods and outcomes for history majors, without falling into the trap of focusing solely on academic applications for history. Our students need a history major that provides a liberal education and prepares them for the technological complexities of living and working in the twenty-first century.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jeremy Young - 4/10/2009

One thing we agree on: Maarja SHOULD get her own blog.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/10/2009

You're welcome to your opinion. Obviously I don't share it and some of your commenters at PH don't either. Maarja has been told more than once here that if she wants to carry on conversations with herself (which is exactly what was happening), she should get a blog.

Sterling Fluharty - 4/10/2009

I welcome the comments also. Please keep them coming.

Jeremy Young - 4/10/2009

Ralph, it's your blog, and I have my own (though I'm not the owner any more), and I completely respect your right to do and say whatever you want on your own site. That said, purely from the perspective of a reader and commenter, I've always enjoyed Maarja's comments, and I don't really understand why you continually rebuke her for, well, using the comment function that you've enabled for just that purpose. Yes, she does tend to go on at some length, but I've found that if you actually bother to read those rambling comments, she's almost always saying something very insightful and useful. I've had a number of really rewarding exchanges with her both here and elsewhere. Finally, I'm not certain why it is that you appear to want to drive off one of the very few people who actually comments here at Cliopatria with the intention of furthering the discussion rather than simply playing gotcha. Mightn't you get more readership if you had more commenters like Maarja?

Maarja Krusten - 4/10/2009

Thank u 4 the gr8 example of web 2.0 interaction! bingo!

no i'm not lonely (in fact got a wonderful compliment this am from a senior colleague, still beaming). just trying to help out in the clubhouse. at least no one mentioned the P word in relation to a pond (eyeroll)


by Smartphone (not spending any more of my lunchbrk here however)

Ralph E. Luker - 4/10/2009

Maarja, Have you noticed that you're doing it again? You comment at such length and so often here and elsewhere that it kills all conversation. You do it repeatedly. Are you lonely? Get yourself a blog.

Maarja Krusten - 4/10/2009

History competencies naturally focus on preparing history majors for graduate school and the attainment of a PhD. As you note, this has been covered by a number of observers. But why stop there? Some undergraduate history majors end up with multiple degrees, in history but sometimes also in disciplines other than history (e.g., library and information science or law or public policy). Some attain history degrees only but work in public history or for the federal government rather than academe. Wherever they end up, they draw on a combination of what they learned in the classroom and practical lessons learned in the workplace.

That being the case, why not include more practical lessons about history at the outset? Even those who go into academe would benefit from more exposure to how decision making and governance work. My suggestion is meant to help all history majors, including those who do not plan on becoming professors. That may not have come across in my hurriedly written posts yesterday (one dashed off as I ran off to catch a train in the morning, the others tapped out on my Smartphone in a doctor’s office waiting room where I waited for a family member).

A friend, who once headed an academic history department and then came to work for the federal government, once told me that nothing in academic life prepared him for how government really works. Sometimes when I read pieces written by historians, I wonder whether that explains the lack of empathy in some narratives and analyses. Or why the Presidents and other government figures seem so cardboard and distant. (Some historians do well in how they depict the principals in their narratives but other really struggle to the point of making some of their subjects appear unnecessarily cartoonish.)

I also wonder why advocacy presents so many challenges for those trained in history. And why most discussions of the Freedom of Information Act or access to records or record keeping statutes seem remote, premised in a pristine environment which rarely can be found anywhere, or otherwise unrelated to how human beings behave. This is a longtime concern of mine. In the past, I've tried asking established historians to put themselves in the position of the creators of records in assessing how issues can appear very different to various stakeholders. Your essay turned my attention to the classroom, although in a different way than you may have intended.

Perhaps I’m just reflecting my 36 years of experience in working for the government, with some of my career spent as an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration. If part of the solution to writing better history, or using history more effectively in advocacy, is to take into account a helicopter level view as well as a broad picture view, as Philip Zelikow suggests, then why not teach more of this at the undergraduate level? Why not make some of the applied lessons more visceral, so they stay with students, wherever they end up? Why not use available tools, such as Web 2.0 mechanisms, to let students experience first hand what affects candor in records creation, what affects or inhibits group deliberations of the sort they study at the highest reaches of government, and how that an affect decisions and outcomes? It might reduce insularity and stovepiping and separation. It might help them to reach a broader audience later, whether they write scholarly works, turn to producing popular history or apply historians' competencies in advocacy or public service. Web 2.0 can help in understanding the beginning of the life cycle of archival records -- including why people sometimes avoid creating them in the first place, as John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress once noted on H-Net's H-Diplo list -- as well as the end (information sharing and dissemination of digital records by archival institutions and library special collections units).

Good luck!




Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2009

I meant to add that T. Mills Kelly did some great work at Edwired a year or two ago, looking at H-Net's moderated discussion lists. I've long been interested in what affects deliberations, among the subjects I study (Presidents and their advisors) and in my own Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 interactions. (Lots of trial and errer in the latter.) Glad you and Kelly are interested in this.

Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2009

Thanks for the nice response. One can talk to people about how a U.S. President use Cabinet meetings -- Eisenhower to hash out issues, other Presidents for more pro forma meetings with details hashed out elsewhere informally. But how much sense do they get of how decision making and deliberations work? And how personalities and character types affect them?

And why sunshine can be an aid or a hindrance, depending on the group dynamic, the issues under discussion, and so forth?

Web 2.0 provides wonderful opportunities for students to debate issues, collaborate on products (I should have mentioned Wikis as well), and to figure out what inhibits communications and what encourages it. What intimdates people. What makes them feel free to drop the masks and say what is on their mind, in a way that moves issues forward. What leads people to posture or grandstand and what minimizes such behaviors. How to handle dominant personalities in groups. How to make sure quieter voices are heard, not just the loudest ones. What is the value of safety valves and non-public means of venting. Why people look for workarounds and backchannels if they are restricted to certain means of communications. The same things come up in most workplaces, including within the White House. One can read about the Bush administration, the Eisenhower administration, whatever. But until the world of web 2.0, there weren't many ways to experience such things in the virtual world.

Posted on personal time

Sterling Fluharty - 4/9/2009

Thanks for the idea. It would be interesting to adapt it so that students learned the value of microhistory. So many of them think that history is a set of facts that are set in stone. I think the students would enjoy learning how to find documents that change our views of history.

Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2009

Glad to see you write that "In future courses I plan to emphasize applications of history skills in society and the workplace, as well as digital skills like semantic search and publishing content online."

I found myself nodding when I saw in January 2008 that Philip Zelikow pointed to the value of looking at history from "a helicopter . . . 100 feet up" as opposed to 10,000 feet up."

History depends on records. When they discuss digital records, historians often focus on information sharing by archival institutions. They look at the end of the life cycle of records -- dissemination. What about the beginning of the life cycle of records? How often do academics discuss in the classroom how to balance or mitigate risks that surround the records on which historians rely for "helicopter" views?

Just the other day I read an article in the NYT about President Obama's efforts at transparency. One non-governmental observer suggested that some Cabinet meetings be streamed live. However, the reporter did not examine why the federal government traditionally has used the exemption which precludes release of some pre-decisional records under the Freedom of Information Act. (Over time, privacy and sensitivity erode and some such information is released from archival, non-current records.)

Reading the NYT piece and then your comments brought to mind what I think would be a great classroom exercise. Divide students into groups, All undertake the same assignment, one which requires persuasion and collaboration. In coming up with a topic, be sure to include elements involving specific, named people and issues with some ambiguity (no clearcut easy solutions or "good guys" and "bad guys.")

Tell half of the class they can discuss the project only by using certain social media/web 2.0 mechanisms, i.e., publicly readable Twitter accounts, blogs, and Facebook pages. Tell the other half they may use any of the above but that they also can strategize and exchange thoughts through private email messages, unrecorded face to face discussion, and telephone conversations. After completion of the project, discuss the outcome with the class. Examine factors which lead to greater candor and factors that lead to or minimize grandstanding and posturing. Discuss whether the communications methods affected the quality of decisions made and the overall quality of the product. Discuss whether members of the more restricted group were tempted to seek out backchannel methods that bypassed the authorized means of communications. (I'm thinking of moves similar to the use of private RNC accounts rather than accounts.)

Glad to see you're thinking about practical matters of this sort!



History News Network