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AHA session focuses on role of teaching in discipline

Educator or Historian?
January 7, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- Much attention has been devoted in recent years to the the question of whether humanities graduate programs adequately prepare students for careers outside academe. But panelists at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting also focused on another question: whether Ph.D. programs adequately prepare students for “the oldest alternative profession”: teaching.

History professors spend four times as many hours teaching as researching, said Robert Townsend, deputy director of the AHA, but graduate programs don’t reflect that ratio. Rather, he joked, he and other history Ph.D.s have traditionally been expected to learn about teaching like they learn about sex – “on the street.” Additionally, he said, an overwhelming number of new Ph.D.s -- 85 percent -- report an intention to enter academe.

Richard Bond, associate professor of history at Virginia Wesleyan College, said a quick survey of the country’s top 25 history Ph.D. programs revealed no consensus on teaching preparation, which has obvious implications on learning for the students those Ph.D. candidates and Ph.D.s. later will teach, and the profession in general. Better-preparing graduate students to teach history could help bridge an emerging cultural “schism” between research and adjunct faculty and help history departments better defend themselves against the enrollment-draining potential of the massive open online course (MOOC).

Such changes also must be paired with a radical undergraduate curriculum reform that challenges traditional, content-pure perceptions of the major, he said.

Lendol G. Calder, history professor at Augustana College, in Illinois, asked audience members to consider whether they’ll describe themselves as historians or educators on their tax forms this year. The varied responses among professors pointed to a fundamental disconnect between the way historians approach their research – problem-based and rigorous – and their pedagogy, he said.

“Few historians inquire into teaching and learning the way that we venture into our own work,” he said, adding that historians typically have had a disdain for educational literature. But that’s changing. The History Teacher journal now has 40 or more footnotes per article, versus far fewer 15 years ago. Scholarship also focuses now on how to teach, not just what to teach.

Colleges and universities also can help reshape the supply of teaching-savvy Ph.D.s by demanding more pedagogical training from would-be faculty members. Augustana, for example, now requires interviewees to prepare a 50-minute pedagogical colloquium on teaching philosophy, in addition to the standard information about their dissertations and backgrounds.

“We were nervous when we started,” Calder said. “To our surprise, it sent a very strong message about who we were to applicants, [without] any drop-off in the quality of their research.”

Ann Fabian, history professor at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, said that while her own generation of professors was “raised by wolves” in terms of teaching, institutions including her own increasingly value pedagogical preparation for graduate students. Rutgers, for example, offers a course that allows students to create syllabuses and write and deliver lectures. Most graduate students also teach on their own during the summer semester. Collaboration between universities and K-12 teachers in local districts also helps reinforce the value of pedagogy.

Fabian also encouraged professors to observe each other teach. “Students are no longer being raised by wolves,” she said, “but you have no idea what else you’ll learn.”

Remembering the Lobes

In another pedagogical AHA session, Janet Zadina, an educational neuroscientist affiliated with Tulane University and the University of South Florida, discussed optimal ways for history professors to help their students learn.

It’s not enough to merely “fire” the brain with information, she said. Real learning occurs through “wiring” of neural connections that happens through multiple methods of exposure to content (such as introducing a lesson with a YouTube video or other visual, and providing initial readings below students’ reading levels) and self-study. Because learning history requires much of the frontal lobe, which in healthy brains mediates executive function, too heavy a cognitive load can hinder learning and sometimes produce results that look like learning disabilities. Teachers can reduce that load by “chunking” readings or essay prompts into meaningful sections and reducing opportunities for divided attention; the brain is not good at multitasking, despite what many students believe, Zadina said. Cognitive “breaks” for discussion or reflection are good every 15 minutes.

Shorter, concrete assignments should dominate the beginning of semester, she added, while longer, more abstract assignments requiring higher-order thinking skills should be reserved for the end of the semester.

One of Zadina’s more controversial recommendations during a discussion period was that of test reform. Even though it’s a tricky subject, traditional testing methods (think multiple-choice, high-stakes exams) can cause anxiety for students and don’t always ensure neural “wiring” and long-term learning. As such, teachers may consider whether different methods of assessment are better for their students, she said.

Maryann Brink, a longtime history adjunct at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who helps run a program for at-risk students, said pedagogical inquiry among professors has become more common in recent years, as faculty find ways of connecting with a less traditional, more technologically inclined student body in ballooning class sizes. And while finding ways to teach to the student, beyond the one-size-fits-all, 13th-century lecture model, is important, Brink said she’s also accountable to taxpayers to train students who will be productive members of a society that won’t always cater to their needs.

“Students have different learning styles, but they also have to go out and function in the world,” she said. “That’s the balance that needs to be struck.”

 

 

 

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