An Unexpected Bridge: The AHA Tuning Project and Writing Across the Curriculum
Daniel S. Murphree, April 2013
At the University of Central Florida (UCF), an initiative sponsored by the AHA recently intersected with a broader endeavor designed to enhance teaching and learning in multiple academic disciplines. Specifically, the AHA's Tuning project appeared at a time when faculty members of the University of Central Florida's (UCF) Department of History began collaborating in an effort to better promote UCF's Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program. No UCF faculty are formally part of the Tuning project, but Tuning's goals served as important guideposts in the creation of a new approach to furthering WAC objectives and helped participating faculty create a model of history course congruence that transcends regional, thematic, temporal, and instructional-level categories.
While still not fully implemented, this fusion of Tuning project and WAC principles provides a template for faculty at other institutions grappling with issues such as student information literacy, discipline credit-hour limitations, and government or institutional course requirements. Equally important, the bridging of Tuning project and WAC approaches allows faculty to devise assignments that help students practice broadly applicable skills and achieve comprehensive learning goals while remaining firmly in the realm of history and historical thinking.
As noted in previous issues of Perspectives, the Tuning project is an effort "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." Sixty-five history educators from colleges and universities around the country agreed to collaborate in formulating core objectives, in the process clarifying the skills recipients of a history degree can use "in terms of personal development, civic engagement, and career potential."1
Early fruits of the initiative's efforts included dozens of "core competencies" and "learning outcomes" that students pursuing history degrees should be able to demonstrate.2 The future of this initiative is unclear but the efforts of Tuning project participants have resulted in a framework that should give teachers much to discuss in coming years.
WAC programs, in contrast, have been in existence in US colleges and universities for over three decades. Diverse in structure and specific objectives, most emphasize the concept of "writing to learn"; an approach to assignments in courses of all disciplines that encourages multiple student writing activities designed to promote learning of subject-area concepts and instill broader critical thinking skills. WAC advocates argue that students should not just write about the subject matter they are learning, but also write to better learn the subject matter. Accordingly, instructors design and coordinate writing assignments in a manner that encourages students to conceptualize writing as learning, thereby providing them with an additional means of facilitating their education. In other words, "when students are given frequent and structured opportunities to practice writing, they become more engaged with their learning, think more critically, and communicate more effectively. They are also better able to transfer knowledge and skills between courses and contexts."3
The genesis of the UCF initiative occurred in the Spring 2012 semester, when two history faculty members and I were appointed "WAC Fellows." Instructed by our institution's WAC program directors to develop "discipline-specific, writing-related student-learning outcomes, and assignments to support those outcomes,"4 the history contingent collaborated with teams from the departments of chemistry and nursing to share strategies and familiarize ourselves with other disciplines' classroom practices.
We soon learned (or relearned) the value of interdisciplinary communication and need for coordination of writing approaches. Similar to the Tuning project's emphasis on articulating history's general value, colleagues from chemistry and nursing helped the history team better understand the importance of campus-wide writing practices in clarifying their fields' overall relevance to students and faculty alike. Moreover, though potential nurses, chemists, and historians perform different tasks, clear, effective writing is essential to all of them. The more we discussed student writing, the more we recognized the comparable barriers and opportunities all disciplines face in this regard.
These ideas gelled amongst the history team members in relation to another of the Tuning project's points of emphasis: aligning specific curriculum elements in relation to introductory, upper-level, and capstone courses, as well as to three degree levels (associate's, bachelor's, and master's).5 In short, we decided to pursue WAC-related goals in course content changes that would transcend the different levels of our programs (core, major, and master's level) by employing a coordinated schema to progressively build the writing skills of our students.
We began the process by developing "general learning outcomes" that could be applied to courses at all levels. Again inspired by the Tuning project, we agreed on four categories: content knowledge, research methodology, evidence-based arguments, and abstract thinking. We wanted students at all academic levels addressed to be able to demonstrate understanding of lecture and assigned reading content through responses to prompts in formal, informal, open form, and expressive in-class and out-of-class assignments; demonstrate understanding of methodological approaches by applying them to prompts dealing with historical interpretations; demonstrate understanding of different types of evidence through responses to prompts in which they are asked to form conclusions using multiple types of evidence; and demonstrate comprehension of analytical concepts commonly employed by historians through writing assignments built around close readings of primary sources.
The next step involved deciding which learning outcomes should be emphasized at each level. Again incorporating both Tuning project and WAC principles, we determined that at the core level students should demonstrate the ability to use provided materials to perform basic analysis for improved comprehension of primary and secondary sources. At the major level students should demonstrate the ability to locate and use a range of secondary materials to contextualize and analyze primary sources, address major problems, and make evidence-based arguments. Graduate level students, in turn, should demonstrate the ability to locate and use a range of secondary materials and recognize and critique abstract themes and major problems.
Our next task pertained to teachable sources. We quickly determined that using a single source or collection would facilitate coordination across levels and that a good option for our purposes would be the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (www.slavevoyages.org/tast/index.faces). Not only did this online database provide materials that were relevant to most courses offered by our department, it also was freely accessible by students. Using the site as our evidence centerpiece allowed us to address a broad geographical and temporal scope relevant to history classes at all levels. Moreover, the site houses a rich collection of primary sources (data, images) and secondary sources (essays, interpretive maps) and was specifically designed for use in primary, secondary, and postsecondary classrooms.
We then designed several specific assignments that could be built around our outcomes and source base. A few examples can be found in the sidebar accompanying this article. Though each assignment is conceptualized differently based on academic level, all are constructed to coordinate and advance student progression in obtaining the research skills that historians should possess, regardless of occupation. Each assignment is also designed to expand the different types of writing (discussion posting, extended essay, high stakes, low stakes) that all students should become familiar with while increasing the number of assignments requiring student writing overall.
This model is being implemented by the history team slowly and little data is yet available to form conclusions. It should be noted that the above benchmarks and assignments do not wholly reflect Tuning project or WAC guidelines, but are an adaptation of both to address particular concerns, and that we do not recommend imposition of this project or related philosophies on faculty at any institution of higher learning. Nevertheless, we do believe that the process described above offers important lessons. Interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to unexpected results. The above assignments promote "writing to learn" and coordinate learning objectives. Neither designed nor expected, the synthesis of Tuning project and WAC objectives benefited our efforts to fulfil the goals of both programs. And, much like the Tuning project and WAC, our model contains ideas and techniques that hopefully will inspire further innovations aimed at improving higher education curricula.
Writing Assignments at the Core, Major, and Master's Levels
Core Writing Assignment #1 (Low Stakes): Access and explore the section titled "Estimates" and demonstrate your understanding of how to use different types of evidence by posting a response to the following prompt in the online Discussion Forum: Why is it important to use different types of evidence for understanding the past?
Core Writing Assignment #2 (High Stakes):Using the table, timeline, and maps available in the "Estimates" section, write a three- to five-page paper (out of class) in which you make an argument for which geographic region (within a modern nation-state) experienced the greatest impact from the trans-Atlantic slave trade between 1501 and 1866. Major Writing Assignment #1 (Low Stakes): Use the search tools provided on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to find a voyage that lists "Mainland North America" as the "principal place of landing." Submit your query, as demonstrated on the website, and view the results. What were you able to learn about this particular voyage from the database? What questions did the database leave unanswered? Post your response to the class blog site.
Major Writing Assignment #2 (High Stakes): Read David Eltis's essay, "A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade," and view the "Introductory Maps" on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website. These secondary sources—one textual, one visual—are designed to illuminate broad patterns of slave trading activity across four continents and four centuries. For this assignment, write a three- to five-page essay that places an individual slaving voyage of your choice within the broader Atlantic world context addressed in the secondary sources. In what ways does the voyage you selected conform to broad historical patterns? In what ways, if any, does your voyage deviate from the norm? Your paper should combine insights gained from the secondary sources with primary source evidence drawn from the database to make a solid, evidence-based argument.
Master's Writing Assignment #1 (Low stakes): Practice critical reading and recognition of specific methodologies/critical approaches by making a visual representation of the development of a set topic in the historiography, including symbols denoting major scholars and works, major debates, introduction of new ideas/methods. This can be a diagram, outline or any other detailed format expressing complex connections.
Master's Writing Assignment #2 (High Stakes): Now that you have familiarized yourselves with the historiography of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, identify a major "problem" in studying it, and trace its route through the historiography in detail, assessing argument, methodology, and theoretical approaches as appropriate.
Daniel S. Murphree is associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. He is the editor of Native America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia (2012) and author of Constructing Floridians: Natives and Europeans in the Colonial Floridas, 1513–1783 (2006), which received the Florida Book Awards' Silver Medal in the nonfiction category and the Florida Historical Society's Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Award. He is grateful to colleagues Emily Graham and Scot French for collaborating as "WAC Fellows."
1. Julia Brookins, "Nationwide Tuning Project for Undergraduate History Programs Launched," Perspectives on History 50, no. 3 (March 2012): 14; Julia Brookins, "The Tuning Project's Summer Meeting," Perspectives on History 50, no. 6 (September 2012): 23.
3. For information on Writing Across the Curriculum philosophies in general, and the UCF WAC program specifically, see John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011), 17–21; For quotation, see "Writing Across the Curriculum: University of Central Florida," http://wac.cah.ucf.edu.