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Tuning  History: Redirecting History Surveys for General Education


Forum Introduction

Lendol Calder


     In 1905, during a moment of high concern about the future of history instruction in higher education, Harvard historian Charles Homer Haskins told an audience of historians, "The most difficult question which now confronts the college teacher of history seems, by general agreement, to be the challenge of the first year course."1 Over a century later, Haskins' observation still rings true. Teachers no longer prepare themselves to teach a standard "first year course." But lower-level history courses—the kind that serve a general education purpose, the kind we use to draw in more history majors, the kind we want majors to take first, the courses we refer to as surveys—continue to pose difficult challenges for teachers on several fronts.

     The challenges can be inventoried briefly because most everyone knows what they are. There is the challenge of inertia, which keeps stale, unexamined courses in the curriculum because "that's the way it's always been done." There is the challenge of coverage, the pedagogy for introductory courses that has been rendered obsolete by the explosion of historical knowledge, the move toward enormous subjects such as World History and Big History, and by advances in the science of learning. There is the challenge of uncoverage or how to design effective alternative pedagogies to replace the old coverage model. There is the challenge posed by dual enrollment and dual credit programs in which high school students earn simultaneous credits toward high school and college degrees, a fast-breaking development that at many institutions is shutting off the supply of students signing up for lower-level college courses. And of course there is the old, enduring challenge of arousing enthusiasm for taking history courses at all. "I mean no disrespect," a good student once told me as I courted her for the history major. "But I took a World History Survey in high school. Why would I want to take that course again now?"

     Behind all these problems lurks the question of purpose. What is the general education history course for?

     The authors of the following essays take up this problem of purpose and push the question in new directions. Of course, they are not the first to do so. Inquiries into the purposes of introductory history courses have been asked by reform-minded historians in every generation since the days of Charles Homer Haskins.2 Moments of pedagogical and curricular reform have many causes. But according to Joel Sipress and David Voelker, the current agitation for change began in 2006 when I called for college history teachers to develop a "signature pedagogy" for history survey courses. In "Beyond Coverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," I examined the hegemonic model of lectures + textbook + exams used by many to teach survey courses and criticized coverage courses for covering up the goodness and power of historical mindedness. Suggesting new methods for teaching an introductory survey course, I also argued for new purposes: not the production of minds stuffed with the right facts, but the liberal education of citizens who can think historically about things that matter to them.3 But what does it mean to teach "historical mindedness?"

     The rise of a scholarship on history teaching and learning has stimulated lively conversations about proper learning outcomes for introductory history courses. My 2006 article suggested six "cognitive habits" are suitable for introductory courses: questioning, connecting, inferencing, sourcing, developing multiple perspectives, and recognizing limits to knowledge. Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke followed with an alternate set of concepts they called "the five C's of historical thinking": change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency. Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser, editors of the "Textbooks and Teaching" section in the Journal of American History, proposed that introductory courses should teach "The History Compass" pointing to five "truths" about the past: the pastness of the past, the presentness of the past, the constructed nature of the past, that facts from the past don't speak for themselves, and the contested nature of knowledge about the past. At a 2007 workshop for history survey teachers sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Penny Gold of Knox College recommended that introductory courses teach five "axioms" of historical study: change, context, complexity, evidence, and limits to historical knowledge. That our lists of outcomes overlapped was encouraging. That important differences remained was equally striking.4 Clearly, more work needed to be done before history teachers could claim to have a signature pedagogy for introductory history courses. In 2007, summarizing efforts that were underway, I wrote: "I hope that in ten years' time we will have made real progress in finding ways to impress the signature of history onto all our history courses."5

     Then something extraordinary happened. In 2011, the American Historical Association announced plans to coordinate a nationwide, faculty-led project to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program. Called "the Tuning Project," the AHA initiative borrowed a model employed in European higher education in which participants collaborate with interested parties (historians, students, employers) to define the core elements of historical training and then harmonize or "tune" these goals in ways that are appropriate for their own institution's mission. In the first wave of Tuners (2012–2014), faculty representatives from about sixty history departments drawn from a range of 2- and 4-year institutions across the country worked together to develop common language for communicating to a broad audience the significance and value of a history degree, including the core disciplinary elements of historical study and the goals of the undergraduate history major. A second, even larger cohort of history Tuners began similar work in January 2015.6

     The essayists in this series participated in the first wave of Tuning. Something they learned from the experience was that conversations about what history majors should know and be able to do inevitably turn in the direction of introductory courses. The question then becomes how departments might scaffold history programs to reflect a progression of competencies from entry level courses to the senior capstone rather than seeing progress toward a major as simply an accumulation of course credits. In the first essay of this series, Dan McInerney of Utah State University proposes several contextualizing questions teachers can ask themselves in order to re-imagine how their introductory course can foster deeper student learning and have more influence on broader curriculum reform in General Education. Sarah Shurts discusses how she and colleagues at Bergen Community College adapted competencies and assessments adapted from the Tuning Project to provide an introduction to history for entry-level non-majors who "don't know much about history" and don't particularly care to know more than they do. The collaborative nature of Tuning is on display in Dr. Shurts's essay as she explains how her department worked with surrounding colleges and universities to seamlessly transfer students from general education introductory courses to upper level history courses by aligning history competencies, rather than content, across the institutions. Louis Rodriquez of Kutztown University explains how his department developed interdisciplinary partnerships and focused instruction on historical skills to respond to a dire decline in history course enrollments and majors caused by a new General Education program, fewer Education students, and competition from other majors. Finally, Lauren Braun-Strumfels of Raritan Valley Community College challenges readers to consider some of the larger questions raised by Drs. McInerney, Shurts, and Rodriquez, especially the question of purpose.

     What is the general education history course for?

Lendol Calder is professor of history at Augustana College, IL. With Tracy Steffes, he is the co-author of "Measuring College Learning in History," in Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century, ed. by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Amanda Cook, to be published May, 2016 by Jossey-Bass. He can be reached at


1 T. Mills Kelly, "Remaking Liberal Education,"Academe89, no. 1 (2003): 28.

2 See Joel Sipress and David Voelker, "The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model" Journal of American History 97 (March 2011): 1050–1066.

3 Lendol Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," Journal of American History 92 (2006): 1358–1369.

4 Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, "What Does it Mean to Think Historically?" AHA Perspectives 45 (January 2007): 32–35; Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, "Introduction: Reflections on Textbooks and Teaching," in Teaching American History: Essays Adapted from the Journal of American History, 20012007, eds. Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009), 2–3; Lendol Calder, "Toward a Signature Pedagogy for History Education," HistorySOTL Newsletter 1, no. 2 (May 2007), (accessed May 5, 2016).

5 Calder, "Toward a Signature Pedagogy."

6 See "Tuning the History Discipline in the United States," (accessed May 5, 2016).

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