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From the Teaching Innovations column in the September 1995 Perspectives

Teaching College Teaching and the Professionalization of History

Donald L. Fixico, September 1995

Five years ago my colleagues and I in the history department at Western Michigan University set out to develop a new doctoral program, never anticipating that our course of study would eventually be described as a "boot camp for future historians." We intended, naturally, to offer a quality education in the latest methodologies and theories, and our core offerings, like those of other graduate history departments, do include theory, methodology, and historiography. But we knew that the program would have to be innovative, both to attract students and then to ensure their competitiveness on the job market. As a result, we created an unusual course that focuses on the history profession itself. This course, entitled "College Teaching and Lec ture Preparation," is like no other in that it does not require students to concentrate primarily on writing papers, taking exams, or reading traditional history. Rather, it is about the process of teaching history and about students preparing for careers in history.

Our profession has become so complex and competitive that it seemed to us strategically important to instruct our graduate students in how to communicate historical themes, concepts, evidence, and critical analysis in the classroom. Furthermore, we wanted to help them to become the best historians possible and to make them aware of opportunities for research grants and fellowships, and of other opportunities in history-related positions. All of us in the profession have had mentors. We also learned bits and pieces from observing favorite and impressive professors in the classroom. We found out about the profession and how to develop a career by listening and asking questions, which at times was awkward. But no one taught us how to teach or how to become professors or other kinds of professional historians in any systematic way. Hence the need for a course to enlighten graduate students about what lies ahead, whether they intend to enter academia or public history. What do they have to do in order to survive as competition becomes increasingly acute and as budget cuts nationwide result in scrutiny of the profession?

To my knowledge, no history department has ever offered a full course for graduate students on how to teach history at the college level and how to prepare for a nonteaching history position. At best, history teaching is offered in education courses, but only for candidates who plan to teach in secondary schools. The central aim of our course is to put the graduate student into the role of a learning scholar who will decide either to teach academic history or to pursue a career in public history. Other history departments might choose to provide instruction about how to be a good teaching assistant, or they might simply teach history. Graduate students do indeed need instruction in the responsibilities of being a teaching assistant, and this is the first order of business in our course. Our university has joined the ranks of those that stress the need to prepare teaching assistants in general and to inform them about governing policies and regulations. Our approach, however, goes beyond these limits and prepares graduate students for all that is involved in a career in history.

Developing a Reading List

Once we agreed that the need for such a course existed, its content had to be determined since there seemed to be no models. As the course was being structured, I faced the problem of finding appropriate textbooks. There are, as it turned out, few books that actually address teaching history at the university level. One can easily find works on how to write history and on methodologies of history, but not on how to teach the subject and on the kinds of problems and challenges a new instructor might encounter. Currently, we use The Art and Craft of Teaching (1982), edited by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, because it addresses all aspects of what happens in the classroom as well as such topics as lecturing and evaluating students. The most useful book, which actually focuses on teaching various types of history (e.g., quantitative, social, world, and local), is History Anew: Innovations in the Teaching of History Today (1993), edited by Robert Blackey. Another book, Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick's The Academic Job Search Handbook (1992), describes the steps in writing a vita and in looking for a job. And the ninth edition of Wilbert J. McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (1994) is a comprehensive volume on handling cheating, designing examinations, using electronic information, and related topics. The reading list for the course also calls attention to the valuable articles that appear regularly in The History Teacher, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, and the Teaching Innovations column of Perspectives. In addition, I selected appropriate articles and chapters to meet the needs of the course on specific topics, such as advising students, lecturing to large classes, developing a syllabus, dealing with plagiarism, and using computers in the classroom.

Compiling a reading list consumed considerable time. I would advise those who are inclined to develop a similar course to ask for release time so as to be able to survey the vast materials about teaching and to determine how these materials can be applied to teaching history at the college level or to becoming a public historian. If possible, fund ing should be obtained for photocopying materials and for purchasing literature on teaching and career de velopment. Uni ver sity ad ministra tors are often interested in supporting teaching improvement by spon soring workshops and by sending professors to teaching conferences. Because this course aims to prepare the next generation of historians to teach effectively and to be more in control of their career development, administrators should be especially eager to provide assistance.

The Course Format

The course is taught as a graduate seminar and meets once a week for two and a half hours. This allows time outside of class for students to complete their assignments. The students prepare lectures for videotaping, write short papers on specific topics, and read from the textbooks and from the collection of articles compiled by the instructor. To assure sufficient time for videotaping and discussion, we allow only 12 to 15 students in each seminar. The students' curiosity about the profession and their eagerness to do well in the classroom inspire provocative questions and valuable discussion about the profession.

Each seminar session focuses on a certain aspect of the profession: the academic system, syllabus preparation, teaching philoso phies, differences between lecturing and teaching, teaching minority and female students, teaching seminars, plagiarism, teaching large lecture classes, using computers and media in the classroom, advising students, developing vitae, job interviewing, and the responsibilities that accompany the doctorate. We also discuss the importance of preparation and organization in developing a course and talk about how to use computer- generated bibliographies, library holdings, journal articles, and textbooks to obtain materials.

Guest speakers are often invited to address specific topics--the latest computer and media technology available for the classroom, for example. The speakers include women and minorities so students can learn from the experiences of people from culturally diverse backgrounds. Toward the end of the term, students choose two faculty members in the department to speak about what is involved in being a history professor. These lectures enable students to hear the views of professors they respect as role models. In addition, videotapes of impressive outside scholars are viewed and discussed in order to identify and evaluate teaching techniques. These tapes can be obtained from colleges and universities that have teaching centers or from a department or college of education. For example, Western Michigan University's faculty development office has such tapes and teaching materials available, as does Stanford University.

Course Assignments

Course assignments do not include regular exams or research papers. Instead, students are asked to develop a course, typically a survey course, that they might be asked to teach. After preparing a syllabus, midterm and final exams, and two lectures per week (several pages of outlined notes each), they quickly learn the challenge professors face. This rigorous assignment serves two important purposes: (1) it makes students realize what is involved in preparing for a lecture, and (2) it reinforces what they know and helps them to prepare for comprehensive exams.

The syllabus is more important than the students initially realize. They must provide a rationale for each portion of the syllabus and explain how the course meets departmental needs and guidelines and maximizes the opportunities for their students to learn history. In the beginning, this is a frustrating assignment. Graduate students learn that a syllabus has to be revised several times in order to be clear about what is to come and what is expected, about course objectives, about what is appropriate and fair regarding assigned readings, and about overall curriculum balance throughout the term. In preparing the syllabus, students rely upon suggestions in the textbooks, and seminar discussions and office visits provide further assistance. Our fundamental goal is to help the students understand that simply presenting historical information in class is not sufficient; they must motivate undergraduates to think critically about history in relation to key ideas, themes, concepts, and analysis.

In addition to preparing a syllabus, the students write short papers, which are discussed in class. The papers focus on the first day of class, textbook selection, exams and grading ethics, research versus teaching, and teaching philosophy. Information about these subjects is in the textbooks. The assignment on teaching philosophy is particularly important. It results in constructive self-reflection about how one looks at history as a discipline, prompting students to consider personal values, attitudes about learning, ways to communicate skills, and what they as individuals value about history.

One-page responses to potentially unsettling classroom situations are also periodically assigned. The students write about how they would deal with obnoxious students, students who cheat on exams, and unusual situations, such as emergencies, that might catch them off-guard. These assignments are not graded, but responses are discussed in the seminar to ascertain the best responses to given situations. The overall objective here is to help prepare students for these situations in advance of their inevi table occurrence.

Videotaping Student Lectures

Videotaping students lecturing is a key component of the course. The students view their videotapes after each lecture in order to observe their own teaching habits and potential weaknesses. This humbling experience is a strong incentive for improvement, and lecturing enables students to learn to think aloud in professing "why" and "how" history occurred. They learn that delivery is as important as compiling strong lecture materials and that starting with an objective is as crucial as properly completing a lecture by drawing conclusions and reviewing different perspectives, themes, and concepts.

—Donald L. Fixico is professor of history at Western Michigan University.