Tuning and Recharging: Tales from Twelve Months In

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, April 2013

Editor's Note: The six articles that follow report on the AHA's Tuning project, a three-year, multi-stage exploration of the history major. James Grossman introduces this forum.

A small-group session at the recent Tuning meeting, held in Washington, DC. Photo by Vanessa Varin.Walk into a meeting of your average college or university history department and utter the simple word "assessment." The reactions will probably range from eye-rolling to resigned sighs to blank stares. Some might even run screaming from the room. Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit. But many in higher education have had bad experiences with assessment. This is typically because it is a top-down affair, with administrators trained in other academic disciplines, not just telling us how to evaluate what we do, but evaluating our worth as teachers or our department's worth as a whole, based on standards alien to our core professional values.

But what if assessment could be a faculty-driven effort? What if historians looked at their departments' curriculum and evaluated the skills our students acquire through their study of history? What if we identified the distinctive aptitudes and habits of mind that our discipline cultivates and that will serve students well in their future careers? What if we communicated with employers and told the story about the skills that students of history possess?

These questions and the principles that undergird them are at the heart of the AHA's Tuning project. For almost a year now, I have participated in this initiative—implementing it in my own department and working with a team of colleagues from a diverse range of institutions in the Midwest. I first met with other colleagues on the leadership team in January 2011. We spent an intense 48 hours talking about what constitutes the "core" of history as a discipline. Then, in June 2011, representatives from approximately 60 institutions met with the leadership team to begin discussing what it would mean to implement the project's objectives on their individual campuses. Every participant was responsible for designing a plan for what they thought they could accomplish that fall.

I returned from this meeting energized and inspired by these conversations and plans. And then I hit a roadblock. In August, bad news from the upper administration of my university began to circulate. As chair of my department, I was among the first to receive this information. Among the disheartening news? That my discretionary funds had been swept away, and the university was launching a plan to "prioritize" programs across the university (usually a bad sign for humanities departments). I had to deliver this bad news at the first department meeting of the year—instead of leading an enthusiastic and uplifting discussion of why the Tuning project was so great and how it could enhance our curriculum and programming, as I had hoped. But it occurred to me that there could not have been a better time to introduce the Tuning project. Tuning could provide the catalyst for productive discussions about the value of history as a discipline and thus energize what might otherwise have been a despondent faculty. Tuning was equipping us with the tools to defend ourselves. Praise, Clio!

Since that meeting my department has embraced the concept of Tuning in various ways. To become more comfortable with the concept, each faculty member "tuned" one of their syllabi, identifying course objectives. A department committee then met to discuss the points of overlap among these syllabi. As I had suspected all along, there was considerable common ground among our courses. Identifying this will help us as we move forward to make arguments about the transferable skills that our history majors acquire. It has also prompted revealing discussions about where we have work to do. We have wondered, for example, about the kinds of experiences our students have between the survey courses and the capstone. This has, in turn, prompted a discussion about possibly developing a methods course for majors. In all, then, initiating the process of Tuning has knit the faculty together around questions of common purpose and how best to train our students.

I was able to carry some of these lessons with me to a meeting in November with six colleagues from the Midwest team (three members weren't able to join us) to share progress reports, brainstorm solutions to obstacles we had encountered, and to outline what steps we would take in the coming year. Individual faculty were pursuing a variety of projects that included using the learning objectives on individual syllabi to identify a common departmental core and hosting alumni events where current students could meet former history majors to discuss their career prospects and network.

So, what have I learned in the last 12 months from colleagues both near and far?

  • That even though "assessment" is a bad or controversial word for some faculty, conversations about why we think the study of history is valuable and what we hope our students are learning how to do routinely spark fantastic discussions about teaching and learning.

  • That one size does not fit all. Many have worried that the Tuning project—like assessment endeavors of the past—will lead to the AHA or some other authority imposing a standard curriculum or set of outcomes. Nothing could be further from the truth. No two departments engaged in Tuning are going about it in the same way, or have the same objectives.

    Some, like Alverno College, have a sophisticated system of assessment—which the faculty support—already in place. An institution like this can use the Tuning project to revisit and refine its assessment instruments. At research-intensive institutions, teaching is often not in the spotlight (to put things diplomatically) but faculty can use the legitimacy conferred by the AHA's leadership of the Tuning project and its basis in faculty-led initiatives to begin conversations about it.

    Some departments are small, some are large, all have particular strengths; it would be foolhardy to suggest that such a diversity of institutions adopt a common set of objectives. But I contend that it is valuable—and given the current climate for higher education, necessary—to have conversations about our own departments' objectives with our colleagues, our students, our alums, and employers.

  • That we often hide our light under a bushel. I think that we believe we are communicating to students all that is wonderful and valuable about the study of history. But more often than not we are not conveying this as transparently and self-consciously as we could. We are more likely to hope (or assume) that our enthusiasm will rub off on them. But they are not us. Most of them will not pursue an advanced degree in history, and so we have a responsibility to help them explain transferable skills they acquired as a history major when they are in a job interview, sitting across the desk from someone who majored in accounting or hated history in high school. Tuning requires us to slow down and articulate for the nonspecialist what skills and knowledge are at the core of our discipline.

  • That sometimes there is a significant gulf between the ivory (or, in my case, concrete) tower and the community. I do not mean the usual town-gown disconnect, but rather that we can always be doing more to educate our partners outside the university. Whether it's a local employer, the director of the local historical society, or a student's parent, we need to articulate our value as history educators and our students' capabilities as history majors. The Tuning project challenges us to communicate more frequently and openly with these partners.

  • That history departments across the country offer amazing curricula and dynamic programming. The opportunity to meet with peers from these diverse departments has already enriched my teaching and my leadership of my department. It is all too easy in these days when higher education is besieged on all sides to retreat to places of narrow self-interest and preservation. The Tuning project will ensure that we continue to talk to one another and share best practices and ideas.

As I finish this brief account, I have just returned from the second national meeting of all of the participants in the project. Enthusiasm continues to run high, even as most of us have encountered challenges on our campuses. In my department, the discussions continue to be well-timed as a major, and unanticipated, curricular reform at our university is providing the unforeseen opportunity to revise our major in light of some of the insights that Tuning has provided. The methods course for majors and other curricular innovations may become a reality sooner than we anticipated. As chair, the Tuning project has recharged my administrative batteries, and for my faculty it has provided a rallying point for defending the discipline.

Elizabeth Lehfeldt, a faculty participant in the Tuning project, is professor of history and chair of the history department at Cleveland State University.