From the Executive Director

The AHA's Tuning Project at Twelve Months

James Grossman, April 2013

Most readers of Perspectives on History have probably by now encountered conversations about whether history and other humanities majors are “useful.” Generally we might infer that this question refers to the student, and specifically to the student’s employment potential. But when state governors propose that a humanities major pay higher tuition, they are pointing to the larger frame. They want the public subsidies to go towards the education of “useful” residents: young men and women trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and business-related disciplines and prepared to sally forth into a career of technological innovation and business acumen.

In this issue, several historians wrestle with—among other things—whether we ought to be engaging this discourse, and if so, how. The AHA has initiated projects at the undergraduate and graduate level oriented towards helping our students articulate the value of their degree in terms that we sometimes find uncomfortable. At the graduate level, we are exploring what sorts of jobs our PhD students can pursue beyond the professoriate. Public history work is familiar, comfortable. But we are also thinking more broadly, about work that might not be explicitly historical—whether in government, nonprofits/NGOs, higher education administration, or the private sector. This project, “The Malleable PhD,” will form the focus of a future set of articles in Perspectives, as our colleagues continue to debate whether such employment will always be idiosyncratic rather than susceptible to any sort of planning process, and how we think about such issues as the relationship between investment of fellowship resources and possible employment outcomes.

A central issue in that project, however, overlaps with the AHA’s Tuning project: Do both initiatives, in the words of Johann Neem, sacrifice “intellectual and moral commitments” for instrumental purposes? Neem thoughtfully suggests that Tuning, especially, turns us away from “the primary purpose of historical study,” towards mere absorption of a set of skills; away from a passion for narrative and elegant analysis towards an emphasis on craft and useful applications.

The essays in this issue address this important tension. Anne Hyde poses the question on the individual level, on how our ability to articulate what our students learn enhances our ability to explain the major beyond the college, to parents and employers. Instrumental? Perhaps. But Professor Hyde and most of the participants in our Tuning project report that parents have become part of the mix—and not just on parents’ weekend—asking thoughtful, if anxious questions about students’ career trajectories. We ignore them at our peril.

David Trowbidge’s essay suggests that we are not only playing defense. We also have opportunities that we can seize. Employers in the region surrounding Marshall University were surprised to hear what history majors had learned and what they could do, based on the requirements in their courses. Tuning established a process that facilitated communication with those employers, in part by establishing a common vocabulary to talk about not what we are teaching, but what our students are learning.

The “scholarship of teaching and learning” (SoTL), as specifically applied to history, grew out of work in cognitive psychology. For well over a decade this scholarship has emphasized the importance of listening to students to discern what they are learning as opposed to what we are teaching. Tuning combines this emphasis on “assessment” with a focus on clear articulation of those outcomes. Julia Brookins, writing in Perspectives, describes the Tuning project as “a nationwide, faculty-led project to articulate the core of historical study and to identify what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.” Back to value: history is valuable, and the students themselves ought to be able to explain that value, with regard to themselves as both economic actors and members of civic communities.

As reflected in their essays, Elizabeth Lehfeldt and Elaine Carey, et al., take that notion of value into their universities, engaging another of our important tasks in articulating the importance of historical learning and thinking: integrating the major and other history courses into the larger enterprise. St. John’s University, in the midst of curriculum reform, found Tuning useful in part because its ideas and frameworks pointed to missing elements in the curriculum. St. John’s was also able to adapt Tuning to the crucial task of integrating adjunct faculty into institutional curriculum development.

What these essays suggest then, is not that Tuning provides answers to all challenges facing our discipline. Nor that it constitutes the answer to any one of those challenges. AHA Vice President, Teaching Division, Carey and her colleagues argue more persuasively that Tuning offers an effective process for creating “ongoing conversations about competencies, goals, and outcomes.” Not everyone in our discipline wants to have this conversation, but broad forces and powerful individuals are forcing the issue. Better that the conversation is controlled by faculty and framed in different ways at different institutions according to local conditions.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA.