The anti-intellectualism of historians in the classroom

Over the past several months, I have seen at least a half dozen academic friends circulate a piece from the Huffington Post College blog, entitled, “A Message to My Freshman Students.” The piece touches on some important issues regarding the differences between college-level and secondary-level instruction. I appreciate the author’s attempt to meet his students where they are and acknowledge that college freshmen are facing major changes and that not all of those changers are clearly explained to them.

However, there are more than a few passages that irk me, including one that summarizes my problem with the article: “First, I am your professor, not your teacher.”

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.

Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?

We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.

Serious researchers produce insightful scholarship on learning, and we owe it to ourselves and to our students to engage with this material.

My posts this semester will attempt to engage some of this scholarship and explore my feeble attempts to integrate pedagogical research into my instruction. I’m happy to be joining the University of Texas at Dallas this year, an institution that makes interdisciplinarity a way of life. American history has been greatly enriched through insights from our colleagues trained in other departments. But our intellectual ecumenism is still too limited. When is the last time you’ve wondered what they are doing over there in the education department? For me, the answer has been “too long.” I hope you’ll join me here as I try to work through recent scholarship in pedagogical research. If you’d like to read along with me, I will recommend a few journals worth your time:

The Review of Higher Education – The journal advances the study of college- and university-related topics through peer-reviewed articles, essays, reviews and research findings, and by emphasizing systematic inquiry–both quantitative and qualitative–and practical implications.

Review of Educational Research – The Review of Educational Research (RER) publishes critical, integrative reviews of research literature bearing on education, including conceptualizations, interpretations, and syntheses of literature and scholarly work in a field broadly relevant to education and educational research.

Contemporary Educational Psychology– Contemporary Educational Psychology publishes articles that involve the application of psychological theory and science to the educational process. Of particular relevance are descriptions of empirical research and the presentation of theory designed to either explicate or enhance the educational process. The journal places great value on the quality of research methodology.

Learning and Instruction – As an international, multi-disciplinary, peer-refereed journal, Learning and Instruction provides a platform for the publication of the most advanced scientific research in the areas of learning, development, instruction and teaching. The journal welcomes original empirical investigations. The papers may represent a variety of theoretical perspectives and different methodological approaches. They may refer to any age level, from infants to adults and to a diversity of learning and instructional settings, from laboratory experiments to field studies.

Educational Research Review – Educational Research Review is a international journal aimed at researchers and various agencies interested to review studies in education and instruction at any level. The journal will accept meta-analytic reviews, narrative reviews and best-evidence syntheses.

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