History, 2015

What will it mean to teach history at the college level in the year 2015? This came up in conversation with my reading buddy, Tom, the other day. That should be one of my guiding questions, I think, as I go through this process.

Right now, there’s a lot of good historical material up on the web. Some of the good stuff:
Historians’ websites and blogs, iTunes U, University-sponsored sites, lecture series audios or TED talks, even YouTube has some material. Like the people who argue against self-publishing, I think we sometimes hide behind the argument that the centralized system protects unwary viewers from all the junk out there. REALLY? Do we actually want to give up critical thinking and cede control of truth to some authority, whether it’s a commercial publisher or an academy?

In some cases, it seems the only difference between some of the material freely available on the web, and the content students get in Gen Ed undergraduate classes, is the particular interpretation that the instructor wants to put on the course. This isn’t a trivial contribution, since there’s a nearly infinite number of paths through a period like “H150: US History Colonial to Reconstruction,” the course I’m currently TA-ing. But unless the POINT of the course (and by extension, the department, the school, the undergraduate education...) is to teach students the "right interpretation," (in which case, they're at a seminary rather than an academy), then it's more or less a matter of chance what the particular instructor decides to stress. For example, there will be three completely different approaches to H150 taken by HCR, Barbara K, and Leonard R at UMass in the course of just three consecutive semesters!

So, that said, the most significant difference between good online content and an undergraduate course may be the fact that there are papers, tests, grades, and ultimately credit toward university core requirements and graduation. That’s an important difference, both in terms of the learning process it implies, and the journey toward pre-professional legitimacy that keeps most of these students coming to classes. But...is that
enough to hang a career on?