News

Report Presented on Internationalizing Student Learning Outcomes in History

Dane Kennedy and Noralee Frankel, March 2006

Now, more than ever, the cumulative effects of global exchange, engagement, and interdependence make it important that we provide our students with an international perspective on the past. For this reason, the American Historical Association has taken part in a multidisciplinary effort to promote the internationalizing of teaching and learning at colleges and universities in the United States. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and coordinated by the American Council on Education (ACE), the initiative also involved the Association of American Geographers, the American Political Science Association, and the American Psychological Association. An AHA task force was appointed in 2004 to examine the issue and make recommendations. The task force presented its final report in September 2005 to a national gathering of higher education administrators in Washington, D.C. and the report can now can be accessed online at http://www.historians.org/teaching/ACE/Taskforcereport.htm.

The general goals of the project were to articulate discipline-specific global learning outcomes that would inform both the major and general education curriculum, to develop action plans to promote internationalization within the participating disciplines, and to explore ways to integrate the recommendations by the disciplinary associations within institutional strategies to internationalize education. The task force established by the AHA to take on this task was chaired by Dane Kennedy (George Washington University) and included Noralee Frankel (AHA), Kevin Gaines (University of Michigan), John Gillis (Rutgers University), Patrick Manning (Northwestern University), Sonya Michel (University of Maryland at College Park), Kevin Reilly (Raritan Community College), and Peter Stearns (George Mason University). Kennedy is the outgoing chair of the AHA's Committee on International Historical Activities and Michel was one of the committee's members. Manning is vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division and Reilly a member of the division; both also serve on the AHA Council. Gillis was the co-director of a NEH-funded summer institute that the AHA conducted this summer entitled “Rethinking America in Global Perspective,” for undergraduate and community college faculty. Gaines has served on the AHA Committee on Minority Historians and Stearns is a former vice president of the AHA Teaching Division.

The first challenge the task force confronted was how to target its efforts so as to have the broadest possible influence without advocating unrealistic or diffuse goals. We decided to direct our attention to the survey courses that serve the purposes of general education. General education history courses communicate with the largest number of college students and successful internationalization at this level will have a wide impact. Revising key courses with the aim of greater internationalization may also serve as a welcome opportunity to differentiate the college-level history surveys from their high school counterpart, which otherwise too often seem unduly repetitious and routine to the students involved. These courses fall into three subject categories: the world history survey, the Western civilization/European history survey, and the American history survey. Since the American survey is least likely to frame its subject in an international context, assuming in many instances what critics refer to as an exceptionalist orientation, the committee gave it particular attention. At the same time, we agreed that the other surveys warranted scrutiny as well. Though world history is international by definition, it often neglects the role of the United States in modern events, hampering its ability to bring global issues home to students. The Western civilization course, in turn, needs to be challenged in some cases to open out to wider comparisons and fuller consideration of the interactive nature of contacts with peoples outside the boundaries of Europe. The task force felt it was important, therefore, to view the general education surveys as an ensemble that should ideally work to achieve a harmony of purpose.

A second consideration that shaped the deliberations of the task force was to avoid recommendations that amounted to being an add-on to content-glutted surveys. These courses are already plagued by the tyranny of coverage, with its demand that more and more material be squeezed into finite syllabi. It is instructive to note that the world history survey, which would seem most susceptible to this problem, is in fact most successful in avoiding it. Less barnacled by tradition than the other surveys, world history also has been obliged by the demands of scale to establish a more rigorous conceptual framework that screens out extraneous subject matter. It provides an example the American and European survey courses can learn from.

These considerations led the task force to organize its report into two segments. The first part addresses those pedagogical issues that are applicable to all general education history surveys. We begin by offering a list of themes and topics that we believe transcend the particularities of any single history course and serve as a way of thinking about the three surveys as constituent elements of a larger project, each of them addressing the same broad set of concerns, but doing so in different contexts and on different scales. We also identify a set of basic skills that we believe students should acquire in the general surveys, and we suggest some general learning outcomes that such surveys should aim to achieve. In addition, we endorse the pedagogical objectives for teachers proposed in the Organization of American Historians' La Pietra Report on Internationalizing the Study of American History.

The more extensive second part of the report focuses on the American history survey. Here we suggest how the general goals outlined in the first part can be applied to the American history survey. The recommendations that follow are meant to signal some of the ways this course can be made more international in its orientation. Several points should be noted about these recommendations.

First, our intent in preparing an outline of how the American history course might be reconfigured is illustrative, not prescriptive. Second, we have delineated a set of themes that correspond to the general categories offered in the first part of the report, both to stress the ways that the American experience fits within broader historical patterns and to establish a standard for escaping the tyranny of coverage. Third, we have organized the outline into sections that are thematically distinct but overlap in periodization, thereby highlighting both continuity and change. Fourth, we have concluded each section with some consideration of the ways that U.S. history can be framed in a comparative perspective, offering examples that instructors may find useful as they seek to give a more international orientation to their surveys. We believe there is a real opportunity to reconstitute the American history survey as an entry point into an analysis of the larger global forces that have shaped the modern era.

Although the focus of this report is on general education history, it carries corollary implications for the history major. The themes, skills, and outcomes introduced in the general education surveys can be—and should be—explicitly reiterated in the courses and sequences of the history major.

The task force understands that these recommendations must be evaluated as part of a complex web of factors. In addition to the intellectual issues entailed in making the general education survey more genuinely international in focus, we must consider the pedagogical challenge of making such a survey more meaningful to students, the institutional issues arising from state educational requirements, the graduate training of faculty who teach the survey, the tendency by universities to resort to part-time faculty to teach introductory courses, and so on. But the issue that lies at the heart of these considerations is what sort of student we would like to see emerge from our courses.

Lastly, we recognize that this report will not have any effect unless it speaks to the needs and interests of the faculty who teach the survey courses. We hope you will take the time to read the report online and send us your reactions. Nothing would gratify us more at this point than to generate a dialogue or provoke a debate about the issues raised in the report.

—Dane Kennedy, professor of history at George Washington University, was chair of the task force, and Noralee Frankel, AHA assistant director for women, minorities, and teaching, was a member of the task force. Anyone wishing to comment on the report of the task force should send the comments to Noralee Frankel.