From the From the Vice Presidents column in the December 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Tipping Points in Teaching: A Call for Collaboration

Patricia Limerick, December 2012

Fellow AHA Members, I am asking for your company in my classroom. I am, more or less, asking to team-teach with you.

When I was a student, it never occurred to me that a teacher in front of a class could feel intensely lonely. But over the course of nearly four decades of teaching, this has occurred to me plenty of times.

There can be hundreds in the room with you, but as you welcome the students and plunge into the deep end of that pool of mystery called teaching, you are intensely and inescapably on your own. You can—and should—invite the active engagement of your audience. But the weight of the responsibility for successful learning still settles heavily on your shoulders. Even the liveliest of responses from the students can only temporarily lighten that load.

Recent episodes of immersion in that sense of being alone in a crowd have made me think about the membership of the American Historical Association in a fresh way. Distributed all around the nation are members of this association, who know valuable secrets that I want to know and whose companionship (necessarily remote and virtual) I want.

Many teachers today join me in wanting a stronger sense of connection to comrades engaged in shared enterprise.

Thus, I am pleased (let's be frank: I am excited, relieved, and even exhilarated!) to announce a new project of the AHA's Teaching Division: an interactive web site called "Teaching Tipping Points."

To relieve the loneliness at the front of the classroom and to experiment with a way to see if the AHA could become a "beloved community" (do not scoff—this could happen), the AHA Teaching division will soon embark on an endeavor to harvest the individual and collective knowledge, experience, and wisdom of the membership of the American Historical Association. This harvesting will take the shape of an entirely revamped web site (the functional meeting place for beloved communities in the 21st century) designed to foster, among AHA members, a sense of community, camaraderie, and good company. The communications on the web site will help early-career teachers get their bearings (and manage their terror!), revitalize mid-career teachers who fear burnout, and provide all with resources for coping with a rapidly changing educational landscape.

At the beginning, we thought we would use the more conventional term, "teaching tips." But as our ambitions took shape, we realized that we wanted to recruit our fellow AHA Members to write stories of discovery, change, and innovation. We want unmistakable action in these tips; we want a dynamic sense of problems confronted and solutions attempted; we want tales of ineffective classroom customs getting tossed out the window and creating space for fresh approaches. We especially want stories about discouragement and frustration yielding to—or, rather, tipping toward—a sense of energy and fresh possibility.

We intend, in other words, to capitalize on the distinctive virtues and strengths of our profession. Historians often declare that our theme is "change over time," and thus we want the Teaching Tipping Points to echo that theme, showing our careers in the classroom as a dynamic process. Moreover, narrative, story, tale, and illustrative example are the characteristic methods of expression for the most compelling forms of historical communication. Thus, we invite our contributors to present their Teaching Tipping Points as narratives, stories, tales, and illustrative examples, rather than as instructions, exhortations, or prescriptions. We will not prohibit other forms of communication, but we will do whatever we can to encourage a livelier exercise of prose that matches up with the strengths of our discipline. We will encourage tales of teaching that are closer in style to the literature of action and adventure than to the more plodding genres of manuals, lesson plans, and how-to guides.

We seek stories of experiments that worked, but we also want thought-provoking stories of experiments that should have worked but did not (and yet still delivered, in their failure, an instructive message). Given the rewards of risk-taking, we may even offer special recognition to and appreciation of the authors of stories of failure on a very grand scale.

For years before our project, the World Wide Web has proven to be a hospitable habitat for the posting of teaching suggestions and strategies. In this age of digital oversharing, teaching tips have found a home on the web page of nearly every professional academic organization. But these tips seldom—in their phrasing and literary form—carry the power and vitality of memorable teaching.

This state of affairs adds up to good news for the AHA. Teaching tips have not achieved their full force and appeal, either as a literary genre or as a point of convergence for the building of community and camaraderie. Teaching resource sites are often locked into a mode of monodirectional communication. Exhortations to "develop new approaches," "bring a global perspective to the classroom of the 21st century," or "educate the public about the benefits of historical knowledge" do little to invite and guide teachers to real innovation.

The central feature of the new web site will be a Teaching Tipping Points discussion forum, with its own prominent, separate tab. This forum will constitute the web site's principal challenge to the forces of professional loneliness and classroom isolation, allowing instructors to build connections with comrades responding spiritedly to shared challenges. Innovations that come from this collaboration will constitute, by virtue of the discussion format, an open door for comment, field-testing, and refinement.

The discussion forum will put a special emphasis on Teaching Tipping Points that transcend the conventional categories of research and teaching. Instructors who offer examples of a classroom exercise that led to an outcome, by which student responses gave their teachers a fresh and valuable perspective on a scholarly matter, and even inspired a particular interpretation or conclusion, will receive a grateful acknowledgment from us. Similarly, we will put a premium on Teaching Tipping Points that show students bridging the gap between their classroom studies and the wider world of civic engagement. We will welcome examples of teaching approaches that set students up to practice "applied history" (sometimes categorized as "service learning"), bringing historical perspective to bear on the dilemmas of our times.

The web site will also include a section where we can recommend to each other useful ideas we have encountered on other sites. We will categorize resources topically, including sections for K–12 educators, instructors of undergraduates, professors mentoring graduate students, and providers of digital history courses. Furthermore, because browsing through conventional digital collections of teaching tips web sites can feel like a wandering journey with an excess of destinations, no section in the resource category will have, at any time, more than three or four links. Each link will be accompanied by a concise description of the content of the linked material, a clear statement of why the recommender found it worth calling to everyone's attention, as well as suggestions as to who might find the links useful.

The Teaching Tipping Points web site will, of course, welcome ideas on the use of technology in teaching. But we also see this project as a contribution to the cause of persuading voters and to public officials to recognize the value of face-to-face education, and the corresponding necessity of hiring and retaining teachers who will make the most of the opportunities presented by the actual convening of human beings in classrooms.

In our hopes for this project, we are, to use a verb that is coming near the end of its useful shelf-life, "privileging" lively personal testimony over pedestrian and predictable exhortation ("you should do this"), and the dynamic over the didactic.

In making choices about the shaping of this project, we have been steered by the goal of designing the Teaching Tips site to provoke appreciation and gratitude for the existence of the American Historical Association and a nationwide community of colleagues.

The front of the lecture hall, the central seat at the seminar table, and the desk chair in which one plans classes and grades papers should soon become more companionable, and less lonesome, posts of duty.

Patricia Limerick (University of Colorado at Boulder) is vice president of the AHA in the Teaching Division.

Join the Teaching Tipping Points Project and Share Your Expertise!

Interested in participating in the Teaching Tipping Points project? Enthusiastic about sharing your expertise with fellow teachers? You can do so in two ways: You can volunteer to serve on the editorial board, or you can contribute short essays to be posted on the project web pages.

Interested in Joining the Editorial Board?

If you would like to be considered for one of the places on the project editorial board, please send a brief, one-page cover letter, a c.v. of not more than two pages, a brief statement (300 to 350 words) presenting your response to the project as described on these pages, and suggesting possible enhancements or improvements that deserve consideration.. Please e-mail the documents to Robert Townsend.

Members of the editorial board will oversee the various components of the mini website; they will work with AHA staff editors to ensure that the material published on the site meets the high standards expected from AHA publications and conforms to the Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. The board members will set policies, periodically assessing the success of the site and proposing remedies for any problems the project might encounter after its launching. While AHA staff editors will deal with copyediting of texts and other day-to-day tasks, members of the editorial will regularly take turns to provide editorial oversight.

Interested in Contributing Articles?

The project website will depend on contributions of short essays (of about 500 to 750 words) that present and explore, in a lucid narrative style, classroom techniques that succeeded as well as those that did not. As Patty Limerick emphasizes in the essay, the Teaching Tipping Points initiators seek stories—personal stories that tell the reader how the author assessed and responded to the challenges of classroom teaching. Humor will be a welcomed and valued (though not required) feature in these contributions. Send your stories (with a brief cover letter) to Robert Townsend. Once the project site is launched, articles will be posted on the web site, sometimes after review, commentary, and revision. Authors of these essays will be expected to follow the guidelines set out on the web site and conform to the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.

Please direct any questions, about the project or about the submission of essays, to Robert Townsend.