Teaching, Learning, and Access: Introducing the May Issue of Perspectives

Looking back over the past academic year, the aspirations and concerns of AHA members about undergraduate history education have been reflected in the pages of Perspectives on History. Our Teaching Division’s initiative on enrollments, led by Vice President Elizabeth Lehfeldt, produced articles spawning productive discussion on our Member Forum, within departments, and elsewhere online. Enrollments relate closely to the varied fortunes of the history major, also explored in Perspectives. The Association is running an ongoing survey of history majors about their career paths, with an eye on producing exemplary qualitative and quantitative data. Last month, we published Paul Sturtevant’s fine-grained analysis of the American Community Survey, which pummeled widespread myths that history is a “useless” major. 

Allison Miller introduces the May issue of Perspectives on History, which includes articles on teaching, learning, and access.

Now, in the issue that closes out the academic year, Perspectives turns to another fraught issue about teaching and learning: how we can ensure that students who choose to enroll in history courses succeed—and come back for more.

In our May issue, two of the world’s leading experts on teaching and learning look at what we know about the topic and what we must do with that knowledge. Together, two articles by David Pace and Andrew K. Koch argue that history education is allowing many students to fail, with disastrous consequences for their academic careers, the study of history more broadly, and the current state of democratic society.

Invoking the specter of fake news and alternative facts, Pace’s “The History Classroom in an Era of Crisis” places history education at the forefront of democratic education due to the critical thinking skills it imparts. But as it stands, history education can reinforce the inequality that plagues contemporary society. Too often, our courses tell well-off, better-prepared students that they are college material, shunting the rest to the margins. The answer isn’t ego-boosting grade inflation or lowering standards, says Pace, but research-based teaching strategies from the interdisciplinary scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL).

Koch continues the argument, presenting evidence drawn from a three-year survey of student grades at 32 institutions, sponsored by the Gardner Institute. He finds, to some alarm, that grades in introductory history courses falling below C (or grades of incomplete or withdrawal) can be correlated to student decisions to leave college altogether. Even more worrisome for educators committed to college access, this trend intensifies when race, class, immigrant status, and parental educational level are accounted for. If one bad grade in an introductory history course is a danger sign for undergraduates’ academic careers, these statistics should prompt soul-searching in the discipline.

In another take on access and history, Stephanie Kingsley (the AHA’s editor for web content and social media) reports on digital historians’ efforts to make their work accessible to people with disabilities. When digital historians think of accessibility, the first thing that might come to mind is uploading digitized archival documents, oral histories, interactive GIS maps, or OA books—making history available for free online, in other words. But Kingsley shows that accessibility means something different to disabled historians. A website might not be navigable without a mouse, for example, or readable even with assistive technologies. Since digital historians are typically committed to making their work available to the broadest audience possible, Kingsley notes ways that disability historians are working with digital tools today and offers tips that all digital historians should consider. (Hint: consult people with disabilities from the beginning!)

Our News section this month includes “Historian, Program!” from AHA director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives Seth Denbo, about The Programming Historian. This collection of free online tutorials is for those who want to jump into digital history or learn new skills. If Omeka, Markdown, and GIS mean nothing to you, The Programming Historian can help, and with history-specific lessons—no more frustratingly irrelevant examples drawn from other disciplines.

Associate editor Kritika Agarwal brings us “The Quick Rise of The Slow Professor,” rounding out our News features. The Slow Professor, by Canadian English professors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, has become a runaway bestseller, starting conversations across disciplines and inspiring reflective op-eds. The authors draw from the Slow movement to analyze current values in “the corporate university,” such as speed and overwork, which they argue are destructive to scholars and scholarship alike. Agarwal uncovers ways that some humanities scholars are putting The Slow Professor to work in their lives while others are critiquing its ideas. Whether or not you agree with the book, its success might signify the beginning of an individualistic turn away from current academic culture.

Our leadership columns, from AHA president Tyler Stovall and executive director James Grossman, both argue that members of our discipline should seize on the public appetite for historical knowledge (and the tendency to simplify it). Stovall notes that the current obsession with the working class—in the context of Donald Trump’s victory—relies on stereotypes of working-class people that labor historians discarded long ago. Historians need to step forward to show that “working class” no longer means white male industrial workers (and really never did). Grossman, working from a recent controversy in the Arkansas legislature over the work of the late Howard Zinn, explains that the AHA can help politicians with an interest in historical curriculum by finding historians who can contribute to these conversations, with students’ interest in mind.

There’s more in the May issue, so please dive right in and as always let us know what you think. If you haven’t joined the AHA yet, you can do so here. See you in the fall.

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