Looking for the outcomes in the history courses I took
Posted by Laurence Abbott
I was a history major when I worked on my first undergraduate degree. And, while I developed competencies in a handful of interconnected European historical narratives, I did not learn very much about how narratives come to be. I do recall working with primary sources, but these supplemented my textual encounters with established discourses in modern European history where the questions we took up as students, while not necessarily resolved by scholars, seemed, nonetheless, resolved in the eyes and minds of my professors.
Now, as a doctoral candidate in social studies curriculum, I look back at that undergraduate history experience to try to figure out some of the overt and covert curricular outcomes of those history courses I took two decades ago.
As near as I can figure, the fundamental outcome of these courses seemed to be ‘students will learn the historical narrative(s) I teach them,’ and ‘students will demonstrate their competence in learned historical narrative(s) through expository writing.’ I doubt that the syllabi for any of these courses made clear to me or my peers any learning goals or objectives, including the ones above. As I recall, most of them introduced the topic of the course in a paragraph or two, listed the required readings, the professor’s office hours, and the dates for papers and exams.
Should undergraduate courses, like the history courses I took, have clearly articulated outcomes? I certainly feel a degree of ambivalence towards this question. As an instructor in our undergraduate teaching program who works with social studies majors, many of whom identify themselves as history majors prior to enrolling in education, I find that few have had much exposure to historical thinking or historiographic processes. Further, many students lack depth in the content they did explore, and some demonstrate little ability to articulate or even recall any substantive content from the undergrad courses they have taken.
Yet, in my role as an entry-level member of the professoriate, I value and enjoy the curricular autonomy of the university classroom. While I do make outcomes clear to students in my course outline and throughout my course, it is partly because I wish to avoid the hypocrisy of not practicing what I preach. I am, after all, an instructor in curriculum and a social studies curriculum specialist. I can appreciate that my colleagues in history departments, too, rightfully enjoy the privilege of the same kind of autonomy I enjoy in my undergraduate teaching practice with regard to their own fields of work and research.
As I write this blog entry, some questions are beginning to emerge in my mind that I/we might take up in future entries. What are the hidden curricular outcomes of an undergraduate university education in history? What overt outcomes should there be in history courses? While students certainly require exposure and competence in foundational content and concepts, to what extent are undergraduates expected to figure out the curriculum of their respective university courses and programs?
I look forward to taking these up in future blog entries, and/or responding to those of you who wish to take them up, too.