Response to On Historians, Tuning, and Markets

James Grossman, September 2012

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To the Editor:

The following is AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman's response to Christopher Doyle's letter:

Christopher Doyle's letter offers much to admire, and I am especially appreciative of his inclination to engage important issues in the AHA's publications. As AHA president William Cronon and I observed in a session at the 2012 OAH annual meeting, one purpose of scholarly societies is to provide arenas for disagreement and debate, and the issues that Doyle raises are critical to our work as historians and teachers.

Doyle rightly points to the importance of the "Tuning" initiative in the AHA's current agenda. The Association's Teaching Division undertook Tuning to help us think more effectively about the AHA as an arena for professional development focused on learning and teaching. We wanted to stimulate new ideas among our members about undergraduate education, and to help our members think about assessment as a tool for faculty learning rather than a burden imposed by bureaucrats and interlopers. I was especially excited about the potential for Tuning to engage history education with civic culture.

This project differs from past efforts in its engagement with communities beyond the academy, its focus on outcomes, and its desire to see modes of assessment that reflect our professional values. But it also resonates with previous initiatives. Tuning is faculty driven, refrains from defining curriculum content or pedagogical method, and relies on collaboration between staff, elected Association leadership, and participants. The framework provided by these characteristics may seem "vague," but as guiding principles they point toward a considerably less dangerous direction than the one evoked by Doyle's thoughtful concerns.

Doyle is unhappy with my use of "language deriving from the business world." But searching for and using a shared vocabulary that enables history faculty, parents, students, potential employers, and civic leaders to speak effectively to one another about the value of history education need not require or suggest capitulation to the values of the business world. When students and their parents ask about how a history education will translate into employment opportunities, they are not asking for such a capitulation; they are asking how to square an earnest desire to study history with the realities of the job market. In many cases, what a student learns in a history course might have little direct impact on that initial job search; but what our students learn about the dynamics of change, social relations, institutional development, and so on, will undoubtedly contribute to their development as members of communities and as economic actors. We must set aside the false – but too often invoked—dichotomy between career-oriented education and preparation for participation in civic life.

Doyle questions whether "such a clamor really exists" for a clearer explication of what our students learn, and what they can do upon graduation. I asked our 60 faculty participants if parents, not to mention students, are asking such questions. At least two-thirds raised their hands. We need to address not only what our current majors want, but also what might attract the kinds of students who might have shied away from a history major in the past because of concerns (on their own part or on the part of their parents) about employability.

Tuning does not envision reshaping the major around what we hear when we engage students, parents, employers, or community leaders. It envisions a more transparent and clear message (yes, another marketing term) about what history majors know and can do. If we want people outside of our departments to appreciate what we teach our students, we need to engage them in conversation about how our work intersects with theirs.

For example, while I agree that "marketers make poor historians," I am less certain that history majors would not succeed as marketers. We teach our students how to do careful research, how to craft presentations based on evidence, and how to communicate clearly and concisely. Is application of these skills to marketing a bad thing? I don't think so. Our economy will have its share of marketers whether we like it or not; and my preference is for more of them to understand the value of historical thinking and sensibilities. The AHA does not advocate skewing our curricula to hew to the needs of marketing, or of any other profession. But if we want students to take our courses, to learn what we have to offer, and to encounter a broad array of career opportunities, then we have to accept the legitimacy of diverse employment directions, and help our students communicate to potential employers the value of what they have learned in our courses.

Perhaps elements of this project—and other AHA initiatives, especially in such areas as developing new services for our membership—suggest that the AHA is learning from the world of marketing. I don't see anything wrong with that. After all, one of the outcomes we seek from a history major is a thirst for lifelong learning accompanied by the skills that facilitate it. One of those skills is an open mind about sources and about the value of knowledge residing in other disciplines. Will this, in itself, signify that the AHA is becoming "like a marketing agency"? Hardly.

Nor does the use of "stakeholders" imply deference to corporate discourse. Dating back to 1821 (a reference in the Times of London to "stakeholders in one system of liberty, property, laws, morals, and national prosperity") the term has referred to individuals with non-material interest. More recently "stakeholders" has been endemic to the literature generated by nonprofits and has even been enlisted to compete with the notion that "stockholders" are the only individuals with meaningful "stakes" in a variety of settings.

Doyle is quite reasonably concerned that by engaging in the discourse of outcomes, accountability, and public engagement, the AHA will open our classrooms to some of the same top-down curriculum mandates that have both undermined the integrity of secondary-school education and marginalized faculty. However, Tuning is not only taking place in a different context, but is being driven by teachers who are fully committed to strengthening, not weakening, the traditions and structures of faculty governance that have served higher education so well. No campus, nor any individual scholar, has been pressured by the AHA to participate in this initiative. Indeed, historians from 121 institutions applied to participate, and many others were disappointed to learn that they could not apply if they could not commit to attendance at the scheduled workshops. The applications were notable for their emphasis on how the AHA's version of Tuning will empower them to address issues that have already arisen on their campuses in ways that are appropriate to the values and methods of historians.

Tuning does in fact—as Doyle recommends—"rely on our own profession, its practitioners and methods, to justify the value of a history degree." We believe that by listening to our neighbors, community members, cultural institutions, even business leaders, we can widen our circle of passion about the past. Such public engagement has for some time been a central aspect of good work in public history. Let us be as open minded on campus as we are in museums, libraries, and other venues for the teaching of history. And let us remember that the American Historical Association itself has a long tradition of inclusion—a history of providing an arena for individuals working in many professions to come together over their common interest in a single discipline.

—James Grossman