Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers

By Ruth Sandwell

Collectively, historians’ work consists of constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing a vast edifice of knowledge about which generalizations and synthesis will vary according to the purposes of the historians and the audiences to whom they are directing any particular manifestation of their work. Historians tend to identify their work exclusively with their purposes and audiences as specialist scholars. But if history is a dialogue amongst people about the interpretation of meaningful evidence left over from the past, that dialogue occurs not only in our published articles and at scholarly conferences, but also in our undergraduate teaching. And it is through teaching, not writing, that historians reach what is certainly our largest, and what may be our most important, audience: undergraduate students. Even though historians sometimes encounter undergraduate teaching with a sense of profound loss identified with what they perceive as a distraction from their ‘real’ work of research and writing scholarly texts, the history created by the historian-as-specialist-researcher shares some key, even essential elements, with that created by the historian-as-undergraduate teacher: both require research, synthesis and presentation of materials appropriate to a particular audience, and each involves both giving and receiving critical reviews from that audience.

But it is the differences that strike historians most forcefully, particularly in their first years of teaching. Most notable are the important differences between the two audiences for our work, scholar or fellow specialists on the one hand, student or novice learners on the other. There are differences in the relative location of our audiences; undergraduates (even) today are usually present in real time in our classrooms, and the medium of delivery is predominantly oral for teaching, predominantly written for fellow scholars. A different power relationship exists between the respective audiences of historians-as-teacher on the one hand and historian-as-specialist-researcher on the other. Part of this difference is attributable to the structures of the university itself, which institutes formal procedures relating to the assessment of undergraduate students that differ from the conventions of peer review used to evaluate fellow scholars. Part of the power differential comes from the imbalance in knowledge between expert and novice. Indeed, historians have been heard complaining that they cannot count on any subject knowledge in their undergraduate students, either about any particular topic or about the nature of historical thinking that comprises part of the disciplinary knowledge of historians. Finally, the history we create as scholars is typically more heavily dependent on clearly identified primary sources, while the history we teach is likely to draw more on the work of other scholars, who may not be identified by name. Differences in the degree and kind of citation are related to differences in the kinds of summaries and syntheses that historians are likely to use in their teaching, particularly in junior level survey courses: these are typically larger, broader and more general than would be professionally appropriate in the increasingly narrow sub-specialties within which most academic historians publish.

But the biggest difference in audience is arguably numbers. The audience that most historians will ever have for their undergraduate teaching is much, much larger than the one theyhave for the history they write. And from the vantage point of that audience, undergraduate history classes are likely to be their only direct encounter that they ever will have with professional historians. For many, the knowledge they gain in their undergraduate classes will be absorbed into the ‘general knowledge’ of history. But the numerical importance of that audience for history-as-taught doesn’t stop with its direct impact, for many undergraduate history students are studying history because they aspire to eventually teach or otherwise convey it. A tiny minority will go on to further training and become academic historians; some will get further training in specific branches of public history and work in archives, libraries, and a variety of “heritage industries”. But a much larger number – perhaps even a majority of those gaining history degrees – are taking undergraduate courses in history with the hope that they will be history and social studies teachers at the primary and secondary level, where they will, in turn, go on to influence many thousands more students each year.

Given that the audience for history-as-taught-to-undergraduates differs in widely-acknowledged ways from the history delivered to specialist scholars, it is surprising that historians have been so reluctant (with some important exceptions) to engage formally and as historians with the implications of what history means, and what history is for with regard to their largest, non-specialist and general audience.[1] There are, I would argue, two particular reasons why historians should engage in this dialogue at this time.

First, there are indications that undergraduate students are not only the most numerous recipients of the history we do, but that they may also be the most important. According to discussions occurring largely outside of the world of academic historians, evidence is suggesting that history, or historical understanding, really does matter to the general public – the people – in a pluralist democracy.[2] Historians are well aware that the research of academic historians has changed to be more representative of differences within societies, more comfortable with dissonance and fragmentation, more sensitive to imbalances of power, including those worked out in unifying narratives that recapitulate authoritarian structures of knowledge.[3] Yet historians may be surprised to learn that scholars in the field of history education are arguing that historical understanding for the people matters in ways that are deeply connected to historians’ disciplinary practices. International research in history education reflects a growing consensus that an emphasis on the ways that historians work, and the epistemological frameworks within which they practice, provides students (and the general public) with the best epistemological framework and analytical tools they need to understand and navigate the complex world in which we live; historical thinking in all of its complexity provides the people with the best ways to create and critique truth-based claims in a pluralist participatory democracy.[4]

If the non-specialist audience that historians encounter in their undergraduate classrooms just might be the most important one they address in their careers, a second reason that historians should care about this audience is that research in the field of history education is indicating a pervasive failure on the part of historians-as-teachers to convey what, according to recent research, turns out to be precisely the most important part of history education: a disciplinary understanding of what history is and what it does. Leaving aside the abysmal ignorance of most Canadians about the substance, themes and issues identified by historians as important in history, evidence suggests that most undergraduate history students are unfamiliar with using evidence-based reasoning to build a convincing argument – nor do they know how to critique one.[5] Many, disturbingly, seem unfamiliar with the concept of evidence as it relates to history.[6] Perhaps the most damning evidence comes from the high schools themselves, where authoritarian, positivist, opaque, product-oriented fact-based history continues to define history teaching and learning, usually displacing entirely the more dialogical and process-oriented focus that have characterized historical writing over the last thirty-odd years.[7]

In conclusion, there is compelling evidence that what we are doing as undergraduate history professors is potentially of great importance to our society. Arguably, historians as undergraduate teachers are in the best position – best in terms of their disciplinary knowledge, their relative freedom to teach what and how they want, and their strategic position as the primary educators of future history teachers and educators — to convey the kinds of historical understanding that scholars are suggesting “the people” need in a pluralist democracy. This kind of knowledge is not, according to the research, making it out of the undergraduate classrooms and into the schools.

Accommodations are already being made as historians-as-teachers address the different opportunities and constraints of this audience. But somewhat paradoxically, I am suggesting that the best way for historians to address the different nature and purposes of their largest audience — the general non-specialist — historians need to pay more, not less, attention to their specialist disciplinary knowledge in their undergraduate classrooms. While historians will probably still need to privilege the nation state in their organizational narratives if they want to convince Ministries of Education that the public purse should be supporting history in the schools, the good news is that history education in the schools has moved away from a much narrower vision of citizenship education as explicitly patriotic narrative, and replaced by more complex iterations of education for citizenship. Perhaps influenced by earlier and more simple justifications of teaching history in the schools, historians have shied away from teaching the complexity of historical understanding at the undergraduate level. Recent trends in history and citizenship education, however, suggest that historians need to work harder to convey these procedural and theoretical complexities in order to better educate the people. We historians need to begin talking about how, as well as why, to do a better job of teaching in our undergraduate classrooms.

Ruth Sandwell is a professor of history and history education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This post was originally published as a paper on in April 2011. It will be published shortly in expanded form as Ruth Sandwell, “On Historians and their Audiences: An Argument for Teaching(and not just writing) History” in Ruth Sandwell and Amy von Heyking, eds.  Becoming a History Teacher: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking and Knowing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014 in press).

This week is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

[1] For a recent overview of historians’ retreat from both public history and discussions of history-as-taught, see Stephane Levesque, Thinking historically: Education students for the twenty-first century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) esp Chapter 1. Exceptions in Canada include Desmond Morton, “Canadian History Teaching in Canada: What’s the Big Deal?” in Ruth Sandwell, ed. To the Past: History Education, Public Memory and Citizenship in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 23-31

[2] There is a large and growing literature on the research into the role, potential and real,of history education on the citizenry of liberal democracies. For a review of these see Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (New Jersey and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004). For a discussion of the Canadian literature on the subject, see Ken Osborne, “Teaching History in Schools: a Canadian Debate,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 35, 5 (2003), 585-626.

[3] As Lyle Dick has argued in this collection, historians are advocating a move to forms of history that are more explicitly dialogical, democratic and open.

[4] Levesque, Thinking Historically, provides a particularly good summary of the literature relating to this point in his introduction. See also Peter Seixas, “A modest proposal for change in Canadian history,” Teaching History, December 2009 (137), 26- 30.

[5] There is a vast body of research on this. See for example Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, “Why don’t more history teachers engage students in interpretation?” Social Education: 67(6), 2003, 358-362;and Teaching History for the Common Good; Peter Seixas, “Student Teachers Thinking Historically. Theory and Research in Social Education, 26(3), 310-341 (1998); Peter Lee, “Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History” in M. Suzanne Donovan, and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom(2005)

[6]Sam Wineburg, “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy,” American Educational Research Journal 28, 3 (Fall 1991), 495-519.

[7]Ruth Sandwell, “School History vs. the Historians,” International Journal of Social Education 30, 1 (Spring 2005), 9-17.


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