Tuning History in Utah: Winning Friends and Influencing Policy Makers

Daniel J. McInerney, April 2014

In February 2011, as the Utah state legislature debated funding for higher education, a Senate leader rose to denounce what he saw as wasteful spending in particular programs, arguing that students in the humanities and social sciences graduated with “degrees to nowhere.” College and university presidents attending the session sat quietly and respectfully as the senator made his speech; none stepped up to rebut the claims made. But over the next month, the arguments were repeatedly challenged, not only by academics who publicized their students’ postgraduation successes, but also by a range of community members from business, industry, and services—sectors that we, at one time, did not think of as producing humanities advocates, but who had been purposely included in our statewide Tuning project.

Whether operating within a state, a national disciplinary society, or across a region (as in Latin America, Africa, Russia, and the European Union), Tuning is a faculty-driven initiative designed to clarify—and demystify—the core goals and the key skills pursued in different academic disciplines. The project poses a straightforward question: when students complete a program of study in a discipline, what should they know, understand, and be able to do? Faculty in a discipline ask the question to better understand their own roles, responsibility, and accountability in higher education. More important, faculty want students to understand what they take from their studies into further education, employment, and civic life.

Conversations about Tuning take place both within and outside the walls of an academic institution, with stakeholder groups of employers, legislators, and policy makers. As in Utah, colleagues in another state Tuning project have also seen the value of building reform initiatives with communities that academics do not usually identify as allies. The Texas Student Success Council purposely engaged with policy makers known to be deeply skeptical—and dismissive—of higher education. The council’s work focuses on broader attainment of postsecondary degrees over a wide range of disciplines. As organizers began their project, they called on long-standing supporters of education in Texas. But they also deliberately included some of the strongest skeptics of educational programs and spending.

The organizers built on an insightful strategy. Education critics commonly grounded their arguments on the claim that vested interests were not interested in genuine change. But when the critics were asked to join in the work—and offered the opportunity to actually effect change—they accepted the challenge. In the process, those who had frequently questioned higher education helped build a receptive and inclusive community of postsecondary reform, one that has had a powerful effect on the state’s legislature.

As in Texas and Utah, the American Historical Association’s Tuning project, launched in February 2012, does not simply engage in a narrow, insular assessment of the discipline but invites a broad mix of ­communities into discussions of higher education’s roles and goals. As Elaine Carey, the AHA’s vice president, Teaching Division, has noted, Tuning is a dynamic process that creates “ongoing conversations about ­competencies, goals, and outcomes.” The discussions should include students, alumni, administrators, parents, employers, and policy makers. Conversations with such a variety of voices take historians out of their comfort zone in two ways: by pushing discipline specialists to articulate clearly the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind we believe our students should develop; and by listening to the ways a range of stakeholders answer the same question.

Examples from Utah and Texas suggest the value of building discussions with those we might all too causally dismiss as critics, naysayers, or opponents. They suggest that we should take the time to hear what is on their minds. Learn what they value. Figure out what assumptions they make and the suspicions they hold. Employers and policy makers are eager to talk and grateful for the opportunity to be heard. As we in Utah realized, simple acts of openness, inclusion, and respect can pay off in a legislative dustup. And, as our colleagues in Texas have learned, it can be helpful to give critics the opportunity to take part in the very process they so often dismiss—and see if they are serious about their claims.

Employers and policy makers have not only helped us; they have taught us about the work we do within our own institutions. The point was driven home to Tuners in Utah when we engaged with employers, particularly employers who specifically recruit history graduates. Working on a statewide Tuning grant from Lumina Foundation, team members kicked off their project with a questionnaire sent out to a range of employers. The survey asked participants to identify a broad set of skills and competencies they deemed important in higher education. The results were reassuring because of the considerable congruence among a wide range of stakeholders. But the survey gave us little to go on beyond points of agreement.

To dig deeper into the views of employers, our Tuning team contracted with a local research firm to conduct focus group discussions with employers in the public and private sectors who hire history majors. In Utah, that meant conversations with school districts, archives, museums, research firms, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our facilitator asked employers about the skills they expected in graduates, the strengths and weaknesses they observed in our students, and the suggestions they had for our curricula (reports are available at: history.usu.edu/htm/about/assessment).

Employers provided a vigorous, thoughtful, and wide-ranging set of responses to our questions. In particular, they taught us four key lessons about the types of strategies faculty should develop to help students in our history programs.

First, for all our Tuning talk about formal sets of learning outcomes, skills, and proficiencies in the field of history, it was interesting to hear employers repeatedly emphasize a basic quality they admired in candidates: a strong passion for historical study. ­Employers described their interest in ­candidates who expressed an animated, infectious commitment to studies of the past and who displayed an ability to stir up a lively interest in audiences for a range of historical projects. We do our graduates a great favor by encouraging them to convey a lively, enthusiastic sense of the joy and pleasure they take from their studies. Employers in our focus group repeatedly pointed out that the subject students spend so many years loving may very well provide them (for an even longer time) with a satisfying living.

Second, employers noted that they preferred candidates who had completed some type of practical experience in historical work outside the classroom. The focus groups pointed to the importance of building internship opportunities into a history curriculum, especially in archives, museums, historic preservation groups, and government agencies. Our participants valued internships because of the on-the-ground experience students acquire as they bridge academic work with involvement in the local community. Equally important, internships offer practical lessons in two other critical areas of experience: records management and the operation of organizations and bureaucracies. As one participant observed, interns can enter full-time ­positions with a much clearer understanding of relationships: how staffs function, the way offices connect with one another, and (practically speaking) “where you go to get stuff” and accomplish tasks.

Third, discussions with employers indicated that it is important for our graduates to discuss their historical studies in terms of collaborative, team efforts. Some employers appeared to think of historians as scholars who lock themselves away in dusty carrels, preferring to work alone, isolated, and out of touch with others. The stereotype may leave our graduates in a weak position during interviews. Faculty can help in two ways: by developing course projects created by groups of students, and by encouraging students to consider how their scholarly work—especially capstone projects conducted in upper-division seminars—results from sharing resources, critiques, and strategies with a small community of researchers (for an example of a capstone rubric that highlights collaborative skills, see: history.usu.edu/htm/about/assessment).

Fourth, the focus groups clarified a broader point appropriate to consider for students looking ahead to employment or graduate studies: the importance of constructing a persuasive narrative of their educational experience. As faculty tackle the complex responsibilities of providing course content, disciplinary skills, research assistance, and critical evaluation, we should also consider the importance of a particular type of mentorship for our students: helping them develop a clear, meaningful, and compelling vocabulary to convey the scholarly work of history in terms that the broader public can appreciate. It is, perhaps, one history lesson we often overlook. Students intensely engaged in the details of a monograph, a document set, or a research paper may have difficulty stepping back to recognize the broader abilities they have honed: their capacity to investigate problems, identify reliable sources, analyze information, ­contextualize complex questions, and communicate conclusions in a clear and thoughtful manner. We provide a great service to our students by helping them form a crisp, coherent, and meaningful account of the skills they develop in historical studies.

Conversations on higher education with a wide public audience have the capacity to upend preconceptions, reframe responsibilities, build trust, and strengthen alliances, particularly when we establish a common interest: the success of our students. Talking with employers in Utah opened our eyes to issues that faculty had often neglected. The discussions opened our ears to suggestions from a community we had frequently disparaged. And the conversation opened our minds to the way four simple lessons could help graduates focused on employment as well as those committed to masters- or doctoral-level work. Tuning serves as a double “calibration” of our discipline: the project invites scholars to look deeply at the knowledge, understanding, and skills developed through historical inquiry, while also asking us to listen thoughtfully to the ways those outside our institutions view, vet, and value our field of study.

Daniel J. McInerney is professor of history and associate department head in the Department of History at Utah State University.

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