The Teaching Column: Addressing the Central Contradictions of Teaching

David S. Trask, November 1999

Editor's Note: It is with regret that we note this column marks the end of David Trask's distinguished term as contributing editor of the Teaching column. David has been a generous colleague and a valued member of the AHA "bureaucracy" since 1995, first as a member of the AHA Council and Teaching Division and more recently as a contributing editor to Perspectives. His unflagging good humor and sage advice will be sorely missed. His successor, Annette Atkins, discusses her approach to the column in her contribution to this issue.

Teaching is one of the two primary outlets for the scholarly work of historians; publication is the other. Although we have become more and more willing to regard these two avenues as equally important, we have generally not recognized some of the contradictions contained in these two pathways to the public. As researchers historians have long cherished the image of themselves as individual practitioners isolated from the world while in the pursuit of answers to historical questions. Compared to most scholarly communities, historians are among the least likely to engage in group research and publication. Yet, when we look at the acknowledgements pages and footnotes of a book, we see a different image. Our debts to our colleagues and their work can go on for pages.

Survey courses, our major teaching assignment, are different. With only a few exceptions in each class, it is not a conversation with students who may one day follow us into the history profession. It is the basic setting where we historians connect with society at large. Indeed, for most citizens it is the only way they know our work. But this public activity—teaching—has also traditionally been one of the most personal and private activities we undertake. Although we may share classroom anecdotes with colleagues or ask for references on unfamiliar topics, we seldom welcome others into our classes or enthusiastically look forward to the evaluation of our teaching. If it were not for the demands of tenure evaluation or administrative pressures, most historians would claim the right, as professionals, to make their classroom judgements without any kibitzing at all. In recent years, however, taxpayers and tuition-payers have been less willing to accede to our judgements of the historical. Legislators in many states are moving toward the imposition of course outcomes across state systems of higher education. Furthermore our private pursuit of the public act of teaching is being challenged from within the profession by those who want to make our teaching more visible to our colleagues—and to ourselves.

The Teaching column changed in several ways in the last three years to address these contradictions between our public roles as teachers and our scholarly, more private work as members of the community of historians. This need provided the rationale three years ago for changing the column's title from "Teaching Innovations" to simply, and more broadly, "Teaching." The modification was based on the growing necessity for historians as instructors to do more than share successful classroom techniques. We need to be aware of the larger trends and initiatives affecting our classrooms. A second change is the occasional use of the "Teaching" column to reflect issues raised by the AHA Teaching Division. This relationship began informally as a spin-off of the fact that the last two editors—Robert Blackey and I—were also members of the Teaching Division. The division and Council now recognize the partnership between the column and the division, and the division will coordinate regularly with future editors.

In my term as editor I have sought to broaden the discussions of teaching historians to include the environment surrounding and affecting the classroom. It is no longer our personal, private domain (whether we feel it should be or not is another issue). Contradiction among different aspects of our work is a natural part of life as a member of the community of historians. It has been the goal of this column to address but not resolve issues surrounding the contradictions inherent in teaching. Consequently Perspectives has run columns on collaboration, portfolio evaluation, the relation of cognitive psychology to historical understanding, a statewide meeting on teaching history, issues related to community college concerns, and details of new criteria for teacher training.

I want to thank all the people who volunteered columns or acquiesced to my pleas to write on a subject identified by me. It has been a pleasure as well as a privilege to do this work—and to watch the AHA continue to expand its interest in and support of teaching as a central and vital activity of historians.

Despite the adoption of a broader focus on teaching issues, column ideas initiated by members and volunteered to the contributing editor will continue to comprise the bulk of future columns. Please note that this would be a good moment to bombard our new editor with ideas for columns accompanied by offers to write them.

—David S. Trask, who was the contributing editor for the Teaching column of Perspectives from 1996 to 1999, teaches at Guilford Technical Community College, Jamestown, North Carolina.