By Lian Bunny ’17
Dr. Maddalena Marinari and Dr. Phillip Payne, professors of history at St. Bonaventure University, attended workshops in New York City to learn how to fine-tune and standardize the history curriculum.
The American Historical Association (AHA) hosted a series of sessions and workshops on undergraduate teaching called the Tuning Project for the History Major from Jan. 2-5.
“We got to see that universities all over the country want to do this, and there’s really a strong desire to create some coherence in history programs across the country, which I think is really important,” said Marinari.
The AHA is the United States’ largest professional organization dedicated to the promotion and study of history and historical thinking. The organization gathers accomplished faculty members from more than 60 of the nation’s academic institutions for this project.
“The Tuning Project has been around since 2000 in Europe and other parts of the world,” said Payne. “The AHA has been involved for the past few years. The Tuning Project involves many disciplines, not just history; but in the United States, the AHA is the first disciplinary professional society to adopt it.”
After writing a cover letter detailing why they wanted to participate, Marinari and Payne were chosen to attend the project and were awarded a grant to cover travel expenses, approximately $600 per person.
According to Payne, Tuning asks the following questions: When students take a history class or complete a history major, what should they know? What should they be able to do? These questions began a national discussion.
Marinari and Payne chose to work on making class objectives more clear.
“Make it explicit in the syllabus and in the assignments that each assignment is meant to teach you something specific. It’s not just about learning dates and facts,” said Marinari. “It’s about helping students become more critical, evaluating sources from more than one perspective, but also helping them realize that these are skills you can use, not just in history classes, but in other classes and hopefully beyond college, too.”
Payne said he wants to define the basics.
“For me, the first step is to make sure I take more care in explaining what I mean by historical thinking and the steps in the process to bring as much transparency to the process as possible,” said Payne. “There is some debate as to what historical thinking and skills are. I like the basic definition that historians identify a problem, formulate a question, collect data and propose an explanation. I’ve been revisiting assignments looking for ways to make them more transparent about this process.”
However, their vision for the history department is a long-term plan.
“We want to try to do as much as possible, but it’s clear this is going to take a little bit of time,” said Marinari. “I think we also have the advantage that we’re a smaller department, and we all like each other so we work well together.”
Marinari and Payne said the goal is to keep pace with the 21st century.
“There is overwhelming evidence that employers increasingly don’t care about a specific degree, but they want people who can read well, write well and present well,” said Marinari. “These are things you have to do on a regular basis when you take a history class. At the base of a history class is to have an argument and support it, whether that’s in writing or orally. This is a skill that really everyone needs.”
Marinari and Payne remain part of the AHA network. This allows them to be in conversation with history professors from around the country on a daily basis, talking about potential improvements and strategies.
Both professors would like to attend conferences in the future to stay up to date. However, attending the conference again would require funding, because the grant is not given to the same school twice.
“We don’t want to change something and have this be the same thing for the next 50 years,” said Marinari. “We want to update it regularly, so that we can serve our students better.”
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