Reflections on the February 2013 Tuning Workshop

Today’s guest blogger is Sarah Shurts, an AHA Tuning participant and assistant professor of history at Bergen Community College.

Comedian Joel McHale recently gave an interview where he mentioned that he had been a history major but had turned to acting because “it’s not like you can open a history shop!” While those of us whose passion for history became our profession might cringe at this, we also must acknowledge that many of our history majors do go on to professions that have nothing, on the surface, to do with history. And yet, when aspiring history majors asked me what they could do with the major, I often steered them toward the old standards of law and teaching. While I believed in the inherent value of the study of history and appreciated the diverse skills it provided, I had difficulty translating this to my students, much less to those outside academia. With this in mind, I would like to offer some reflections on two themes from the February workshop that might explain the value I see in the Tuning project.

As I discussed degree specifications, expectations for adjuncts, articulation agreements, and assessment strategies in workshops with colleagues from institutions ranging from community colleges to large research universities, I was reminded of how institution-specific the Tuning project is. It originates with the faculty of each history department rather than external assessment organizations, or even the AHA. While the 70 Tuners developed statements of learning objectives and core competencies that we hoped could apply across institutions, the statements are intended as models for individual institutions to adapt rather than set expectations passed down from the AHA. This autonomy to critique and reinterpret the discipline core and to design our own assessments deflates any charge of standardization. Yet, having this model helps those of us attempting to define our program for our students and our college find a common ground on which to stand with our colleagues across the country. As we now undertake our new task of crafting degree specification documents that define the purpose of the history degree, its unique disciplinary characteristics, and core competencies at our specific institution, it is reassuring to have a broad model that we can adapt to our individual programs.

Another aspect of Tuning that was highlighted in a Saturday plenary session, a question and answer session between AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman and Carol Geary Schneider, the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), is the attempt to define the discipline in a way that can convey the value of historical thinking to our students, our community, and even employers. and even employers. This last effort has been the subject of some debate.  However I would argue that it does not damage our discipline to emphasize how the skills students gain from the study of history can be relevant to the external world and their future professions. If we accept that history students are going to seek employment outside the traditional confines of teaching and law, we should teach them to recognize the competencies they have gained in our programs and provide them with the vocabulary to express these skills to others, including employers. AACU data indicates that employers want to hire students who possess the very skills that history programs foster. As the delightfully funny Patricia Limerick explained in her address to the group Saturday evening, if employers truly want employees skilled in communication, written expression, critical questioning, problem solving, and civic responsibility then history majors are one stop shopping. By being transparent in our expectations for history degree recipients, we are teaching students to communicate their strengths to potential employers and recognize the true value of their history education, even if, as McHale noted, they can’t open a history shop.

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