Encouraging Research Excellence in Postsecondary History Education

AHA Staff, October 2000

This document offers a philosophical and practical statement about how departments can, and why they should, encourage excellence in research by faculty and students. It seeks to identify a series of "best practices" that promote an appropriate emphasis on research as central to teaching in the discipline. These guidelines also invite efforts to think creatively about how research is evaluated and linked to faculty and graduate student rewards, and about how research techniques and presentation formats can be adapted to new forms of presentation (such as electronic presentations, documentaries, and museum exhibitions). It is hoped that this statement on best practices will encourage department chairs, as well as provosts, deans, and other institutional administrators, to adapt these recommendations to fit their various academic settings.

The document is organized in four sections: (1) Framing Points, (2) Encouraging Student Research, (3) Faculty Research and Its Relationship to Evaluation, and (4) Library and Other Institutional Resources. Each section offers guidelines for the establishment of standards and improvement of performance, as well as practical suggestions on how these might be implemented by departments and institutions.

The Research Division welcomes your comments, which can be directed to Robert B. Townsend, Assistant Director, American Historical Association, 400 A St. SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889, or by e-mail to Robert Townsend.

I. Framing Points

(a) Research, the process through which new knowledge is created, is fundamental to the practice of history. Research grounds historical inquiry and interpretation of texts and data. Through research and its dissemination in a variety of formats, historians expand the discipline's range of knowledge and hone skills of analysis, argumentation, and use of evidence.

(b) The ability to conduct research is central to the vitality of the discipline. In the sciences, it is assumed that faculty research efforts will be institutionally supported and adequately funded. The same should be true for history. The benefits from such support extend throughout the institution and to the larger community.

(c) The definition of what constitutes research in the historical profession is expanding. Research is no longer defined primarily as the exploration and interpretation of primary and secondary written sources, but also material culture, oral and video history interviews, and other source materials.

(d) The teaching of students at all levels, as well as the reward systems in history departments, need to be expanded to include research presented in nontraditional formats (for example, CD-ROMs and other software or visual presentations such as museum exhibitions), which also serve to advance historical knowledge. Departments should consult the AHA's statement on "Redefining Historical Scholarship" (1994, available at http://www.historians.org/pubs/redef.
htm), for suggestions about expanding notions of the production and presentation of history.

(e) At some four-year and many two-year colleges, faculty attempting to conduct research face special challenges, including heavy teaching loads, limited library facilities, lack of access to research assistance, and, too often, an institutional culture that does not value scholarly research. Nonetheless, scholarly activity should be as central for historians at these schools as it is at research institutions. In every setting, scholarship strengthens teaching. While these guidelines will not be achievable by all institutions, we recommend that governing boards, school administrators, faculty, and students work together to insure that every history department reflects the core of these recommendations.

II. Encouraging Student Research

(f) Exposure to and acquisition of a variety of research skills is an essential part of undergraduate and graduate education in history. Students should be encouraged to recognize the links between research and its dissemination through teaching, print or electronic publication, or non-traditional modes such as museum exhibitions. This is best done by exposing students to teachers who share their research and involve students in it, as appropriate.

(g) The critical thinking skills learned from conducting historical research are relevant for all students, not only for those who will become historians. Those skills include extracting data from and evaluating sources, constructing an argument through formulation and expression of positions, presenting results in oral or written form, and exercising initiative and judgment. Departments should provide students with experiences in how historical research methods can be applied in a variety of occupational settings.

(h) Students enter into meaningful engagement with the past by using primary sources. Departments should ensure that all students—not only majors—have the chance to conduct original research with primary sources. To offer such opportunities, departments need to be staffed with sufficient numbers of faculty to make possible the kind of close faculty-student interaction required for research seminars in which students meet frequently with the professor to choose a topic, locate sources, construct an outline, and write and rewrite drafts.

(i) The definition of research materials has broadened considerably over the past decades to include not only written primary and secondary sources but also material culture, visual materials, data sets, oral sources, and other non-textual materials. Beginning at the undergraduate level, students need to be exposed to the full range of research materials. In addition, students should have the opportunity to present research results in forms other than research papers. These might include formats pioneered over the past two decades by public historians, such as media presentations and museum exhibitions.

(j) Students should be encouraged to undertake at least one research project that makes critical use of electronic materials. Electronic sources are especially useful in helping students learn to create meaningful comparisons and connections; work with a variety of primary materials ranging from quantifiable data sets to popular culture artifacts; and evaluate the reliability of sources. In this latter area, students and faculty can work together to develop means of assessing the authority and quality of information on the Web. Students should be reminded that print materials in the library have been evaluated by scholars in ways that information on the Web has not.

(k) Research should be required in more than one course for undergraduate majors, and it would be desirable for majors to proceed to progressively more complex interpretation and analysis. For example a sophomore historiography course followed by a junior research course and capped by a senior thesis or seminar with accompanying major paper would be a desirable sequence. Students should generate at least some of the research questions that they pursue. Rather than specializing in one approach to historical research, departments should encourage students to sample a variety of methods and approaches

(l) Evaluation of student research should reflect those increasing levels of complexity. A senior research paper might be evaluated along these lines: Does it show the kind of critical thinking faculty had hoped to develop? Does it ask interesting and historically significant questions? Is it well argued? Does it show understanding of relevant historiographies? Is there proper documentation? Are a variety of primary sources used? Do the sources, taken as a whole, represent a broad spectrum of possible approaches or fields? Does the author show creativity and awareness of various methodological possibilities? Are the methodologies appropriate?

(m) With the advent of the Internet has come the reality of research papers that can be easily downloaded by students. In addition to the standard caution that use of such materials constitutes plagiarism, faculty should explicitly stipulate the skills to be demonstrated in each research paper, so that students must tailor their work to the assignment.

(n) Mentoring of students is accomplished in various ways, including research collaboration between faculty and undergraduate students; faculty awareness of opportunities for support of student, especially graduate student, research; encouragement to apply for research grants, and assistance with students' preparation of grant applications. Departments should consider making funding, including summer funding, available for undergraduate research projects, especially those linked with honors programs or senior research papers. Departments should be encouraged to seek resources to allow undergraduate and graduate students to present the results of their research at professional conferences. Students should be invited to share work with each other and, generally, to develop a culture of collegiality. Perhaps most importantly, in neither research nor teaching can electronic technologies substitute for faculty example. Training in research skills and thinking historically require personal interaction between teacher and student and among students

(o) We endorse the statement from the Conference on the Growing Use of Part-Time and Temporary Faculty in Institutions of Higher Learning (1997) that graduate training can no longer concentrate solely on careers in research universities. While graduate training should continue to emphasize fundamental skills in conceptualizing and refining archival research projects, students should also have opportunities to develop expertise in methods of research and dissemination that will help them in careers outside the academy.

III. Faculty Research and Evaluation

(p) Research and teaching are interdependent activities. Departments should create environments supportive of research by teachers. At the institutional level, faculty research must receive adequate support. All teachers of history, whether tenured, tenure-track, part-time, or adjunct and whether teaching at two-year, four-year, or PhD-granting institutions, should be provided with the necessary resources and opportunities to keep current in their field and to integrate the results of their own and others' research into course content.

(q) Departments should facilitate faculty research with appropriate institutional support, including the acquisition of research materials and relevant technology, sabbaticals, release time, and assistance with preparation of grant applications.

(r) When evaluating faculty research, a broad range of presentation formats should be considered. Procedures should be established for evaluating non-traditional research products, such as software, electronic publications, museum exhibitions, and documentary films. In addition, departments should consider ways of evaluating scholarship independent of publishers' decisions, which are based on market and other considerations as well as quality of the product. Publication of a print monograph by an academic press need not be the primary basis for judgments concerning promotion and tenure.

(s) Faculty should be encouraged to share their work with colleagues through periodic colloquia and other means. This is particularly important in smaller departments in which a faculty member may be the only person working in a field. Colloquia help historians enrich their scholarship by exposure to methodologies, historiographies, and questions from fields outside their own. Equally important is support for faculty participation in professional conferences held at regional, national, and international venues.

IV. Library and Other Institutional Resources

(t) The library is the historians' laboratory. Just as faculty in the sciences are provided with necessary equipment, so historians should have easy access to the books, journals, data bases, computer stations, microform readers, and similar tools that are essential for historical research.

(u) Research in primary sources for students of history is equivalent to "lab work" for students in the sciences. Institutional support and funding should be available to allow historians to bring research into the classroom. This includes "smart classrooms" with sophisticated audiovisual equipment, as well as provision for student access to primary source materials, whether as physical artifacts located in nearby repositories, printed reproductions in the library, or digital forms available over the Internet.

(v) Information technology, remote storage, and the decline in book budgets are transforming how historians use libraries for research and teaching. Librarians should be encouraged to work directly with departments to determine what research materials are of most interest to users and to expand their support for acquisition of historical materials—monographs, serials, journals, data bases, types and quantities of electronic licenses, etc. Librarians and faculty should work together to ensure that the library's materials budget (books, periodicals, media, etc.) is allocated according to a clear and equitable formula. In addition, historians must become involved in development of guidelines for maximizing access to and preservation of materials, including selecting formats (e.g., microform or digital) and creating finding aids.

(w) As libraries are being transformed, the skills required by history bibliographers are changing. Institutions should support development of scholar/librarians, who have themselves conducted scholarly research and thus have first-hand experience with the kinds of issues facing researchers.

(x) Libraries and departments must ensure that faculty and students have access to information technologies and are provided with adequate computer resources and training to make maximal use of the new technologies for historical research. This might include assisting faculty and students to develop computer-based research skills through workshops on new databases, search engines, history-specific web sites, and so on.