The American Historian

Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher: History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part II

David Arnold

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two part series. Be sure to check out part one in our November 2016 issue or online at

“Historians can still be heard to complain vociferously about how ignorant their incoming undergraduates are of history. The question that remains is at what point will historians come to care enough about their complicity in the preparation of future generations of history teachers to rethink their modal pedagogical practices.”[1]

In their introduction to the March 2006 “Textbooks and Teaching” section of the Journal of American History, editors Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser suggested some of the many reasons that historians approached the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in history (SoTL) with trepidation: would we be abandoning the mysteries of history, our true love, for “the mysteries of rubric creation,” or worse, the banalities of assessment scores and pedagogical “best practices”?[2] Many of us recoil from the jargon-laden terminology found in Charles T. Wynn’s recent article applying cognitive theory to the U.S. history survey: “Problem-based learning begins when students can define the problem, identify its multidimensional or multi-truth characteristics, identify the need for domain specific processes (historical inquiry and others) and broad thinking-systems (intuitive, formal, relativistic, and dialectical).”[3] We also fear that “student-centered” classrooms involve activities that are “intellectually vapid, devoid of historical content or an understanding of historical context.”[4]

Nothing underscores the philosophical challenges of the SoTL more than the ongoing debate over teaching and learning styles that fundamentally, and over-simplistically, pits traditional lecturing against active, student-centered learning. On one side, SoTL practitioners seek to eliminate the teacher-centered approach that many academically-trained historians have used over the generations, typified by the phrase “if I said it, that means they learned it!”[5] SoTL advocates challenge students to wrestle with the untidiness and contradictory nature of history, interrogate and unveil the authorial voice contained in every source, and construct knowledge through open-ended inquiry. They urge students to “produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.” They promote a constructivist, student-centered theory of education where the teacher’s job is “to aid, abet, and guide, and to be a role model of inquiry rather than an answer giver.”[6] As Lendol Calder explains, if we require students to write their own histories rather than simply consume our lectures and textbooks, they will come to understand firsthand “what history is not: a definitive story, facts strung together, a clear-cut and painlessly acquired knowledge of the past.”[7]

On the other side, traditionalist professors believe their job is to provide students a cogent—and perhaps even an engaging and provocative—historical narrative. Especially in large introductory courses filled with non-majors, many history professors still embrace the role of “sage on the stage”—lecturing to students and introducing them to enduring themes in the humanities—rather than “guide on the side,” using active-learning methods to transform students into miniature historians.[8] Molly Worthen, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is an unapologetic advocate of lecture, arguing that “there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course.” Worthen, who relishes the role of lecturer to the point that she “rehearse[s] before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes,” contends that lectures “are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning.” She bucks against the current “active-learning” orthodoxy, arguing that lectures, by forcing students to listen carefully and take notes, are anything but passive. In fact, Worthen argues that lecture courses play a special role in teaching students critical thinking, especially the skill of building arguments from “facts” rather than “knee-jerk opinions.”[9]

The endless debate over the value of lecture versus active learning shows that many history professors remain deeply skeptical of the SoTL. Historians still hold lecture in high regard, perhaps because many still liken themselves to storytellers who bring the past alive with a combination of thought-provoking lectures, images, music, and the occasional dramatic interlude. Should this be replaced, some ask, with the drudgery of students plowing through primary document analysis, a task that used to be reserved for graduate students? By promoting active-learning and historical thinking, are we diminishing the time-honored role of historian as storyteller and relinquishing our role in providing undergraduate non-majors with structured historical narratives?

Robert Blackey (who admits that “the jargon of cognitive psychology and education make many of us historians cringe”) rejects the “underlying premise that the traditional lecture does not work, that by its very nature lecturing renders students passive learners, induces apathy, and runs a greater risk of boring them into not learning at all.” Blackey argues that if it is done properly, “history lecturing can be made to promote learning in a way comparable to any other technique.”[10]Peter Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, as well as his Great Courses series “The Art of Teaching,” similarly glorifies the art of lecturing over the science of active learning.[11] A history professor at Emory University, Allitt does not ignore the SoTL and recent developments in the field of teaching and learning, but he makes it clear, as his book title indicates, that teaching is primarily about the teacher: “Keep in mind that the classroom is not a zone of equality; it is a hierarchy and you are at its head.”[12] Allitt reminds professors that “lecturing…is a type of performance” that has “show business elements.” He focuses on the performative elements of a professor’s presentation, urging practitioners to “create and sustain a distinctive tone and mood,” to pay attention to “the importance of dress,” and to “make your presentation commanding and gripping.”[13] In his teaching advice, as well as his lucid history lectures available through the Great Courses website, Allitt reminds us that effective lecturers balance a combination of knowledge, passion, zeal, humor, compassion, and an intuitive sixth sense. Talented lecturers are part scholar, part missionary, part stand-up comedian, and part jazz performer, ready to improvise at a moment’s notice. Allit’s lively prose, sense of humor, and attention to detail, all convey the kind of professor a student would want: inspired, funny, and memorable, with a lovely English accent to boot.

Allitt and Blackey remind us of the potential power of lecture—why it is such an enduring ideal—and frankly, why it is so popular among history students as well as the broader public. The efficacy of lecture might not be supported by scientific evidence and it might prioritize “teaching” over “learning” and charisma over effectiveness, and yet it is a genre to which we are inevitably drawn. TED talks, the Great Courses, and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have all made their mark by conveying sages on stages to an adoring global audience (and both Blackey and Allitt, tellingly, refer to their students as an “audience”). Professors in this mold are not judged by “learning” but rather by performance, by the values of stardom and not scholarship. If the SoTL is to make further inroads, it will have to confront the reality that the popularity of professors is mostly based on “charisma” and not “on any verifiable analysis of what students have learned.”[14] When professor Joseph Gonzalez reorganized his courses to promote inquiry-based learning, “half of the students thanked [him] for allowing them to learn how to ‘make history’” while “the other half castigated [him] for failing to teach them ‘history.’” He recalls that “several students called the class an utter waste of their time, wondering if I actually ‘knew’ any history.”[15]

Students, apparently, do not always prioritize “learning” when they assess their professors. So do we give them want they want—“edutainment”—or give them what the latest pedagogical science claims is best for them? There is an irony with the “student-centered” classroom: the students whom it serves do not always seem to prefer it, as Katrina Gulliver, a lecturer in the humanities at the University of New South Wales, explains in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her students hated group work, which they characterized as a “waste of time” and “having to teach myself.” Gulliver concluded that “a large part of the value that we bring to the classroom is that of the ‘sage on the stage,’ rather than the ‘guide on the side.’”[16]

Do students really learn content and cognitive skills more deeply with active, student-centered methods rather than lecture? No amount of research will convince true believers on either side. The debate over lecture is more about ideology than data; more about philosophy than number-crunching; and, especially when it comes to the defenders of lecture, reveals as much about professors’ fears over the changing nature of academia generally than with the specific claims of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Traditionalists worry that the professoriate is being minimized in the current trend of education. Cognitive theory promoting student-centered learning together with new online technologies and the ever-present bureaucratic necessity of cutting costs per student have created a perfect storm for traditional professors.[17] Students can now use online platforms to engage with material at their own pace in self-directed ways. Online learning, and especially competency-based education, have aligned new teaching theory with technology to create an argument for minimizing, or even eliminating conventional professors altogether.[18]

SoTL advocates tell us that if we craft a single narrative for our students we deny them the agency of grappling with multiple interpretations and arriving at their own answers.[19] But are our students—and here I’m speaking for those of us who do not teach at elite institutions—prepared to navigate history through active learning? Is the goal of the history survey really to train students to practice history and historical thinking or rather to introduce them to ideas, debates, and moral dilemmas that they can chew on and discuss? Is it necessary to get students “thinking like historians” or just thinking? Can we educate them with lectures or must they always be “doing” history? Can we “tell” them things? Primary documents may well be the signature pedagogy of the historical profession—and perhaps the key to unraveling the mystery of teaching history—but sometimes history professors must simply tell a compelling story rather than make their survey students grind through primary document analysis.

If it is to become widespread, the SoTL will have to overcome concerns from those of us who teach large lower division courses at community colleges and universities outside the ivory tower and do not have the privilege of teaching classes exclusively with students who are prepared to launch themselves into inquiry-based projects. In the provinces, we do not have the privilege of allowing history to appear uninteresting or tedious—many of our students are not sufficiently socialized to be reverential, nor are they self-starters. They need to be cajoled, hectored and inspired. They need our wisdom and our compelling historical narratives that are enlivened, as they must be, with movies, music, slides, instant surveys, YouTube, and chandeliers from which to swing.

Why Should History Professors Should Consider the SoTL?

We do not know definitively if active learning is really a more effective method for teaching the survey than listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and taking tests. We do not know if interpreting primary historical documents will inspire our students, transforming them into critical-thinking citizens and engendering in them a passion for history and life-long learning, or deaden forever their enthusiasm for history. If we want to inspire students, there is no single narrative, no surefire template, and no dominant method that will do the job.

The SoTL can moreover be pedantic. It can overstate its claims with talk of grade-school children engaging in sophisticated forms of historical thinking. Yet it is full of wisdom and optimism about our profession and compassion for our students (which is sometimes wanting in our field). The SoTL moreover offers embattled professors a way to push forward even as our institutional and public support seems to waver precariously. For that reason, I offer skeptical history professors three persuasive, and self-serving, reasons to consider (albeit critically) the SoTL. First, the SoTL—regardless that it originated in education departments and the K-12 system among scholars who are not all historians—privileges the historical method above all other things. Second, the SoTL connects us to a larger community of scholar-teachers who are grappling with similar problems and concerns. Finally, the SoTL can revitalize our teaching by getting us to see our classrooms (and our grading chambers) as places of scholarly investigation and problem-solving rather than drudgery.

History professors should be flattered by the SoTL since it takes historical thinking seriously and attempts to bridge the gap between history scholarship and history teaching not by dumbing down history, but by making history teaching follow the disciplinary methods of history scholarship. “The scholarship of teaching and learning,” write Kornblith and Lasser, “not only encourages us to bring our skills as researchers into our work as teachers; it also asks us to articulate the core substance and significance of our distinctive expertise as historians.”[20] The SoTL, in Calder’s words, “saves historians from having to become educationists.”[21] It plays into the wheelhouse of academic historians, privileging our knowledge and our methods of thinking, revealing that “expert teachers” are not solely pedagogues, but “have a deep understanding of the structure and epistemologies of their disciplines.” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning “sharply contradicts one of the popular—and dangerous—myths about teaching: teaching is a generic skill and a good teacher can teach any subject.”[22]Sam Wineburg argues that “there is no such thing as generic critical thinking.” Scholars “think critically within the bounds of our disciplines, and features of thought considered critical in one field often fail to appear in another.”[23] Historians should take heart: the SoTL does not minimize our special and beloved discipline; it only asks that we reveal our discipline more thoroughly to the students we teach.

The SoTL also connects us to a larger community of scholars who are similarly laboring in the classroom and transforms teaching from a solitary struggle to a shared project. Calder observes that “when it comes to teaching, most college professors are closet libertarians.”[24] Who can deny it? We don’t want non-expert outsiders—especially administrators and legislators—telling us how to teach our courses. We do not like the idea that our classrooms should be subject to the judgement of the broader public or even our peers. Our research is peer reviewed, but “no teacher ever opens a professional journal to read with fear and trembling a review of his or her latest history course.”[25] But the SoTL, at its best, is not about holding historians accountable to outsiders, or even each other: it is about developing a “community of inquiry” composed of history teacher-scholars who are talking about, writing about, and discussing what happens in the history classroom. Will that lead to a consensus over the “best practices” or the “signature pedagogy” for history? Not likely. But it will arouse more debate and conflict, infusing intellectual vitality into the art and science of history teaching. Either way, it will be a discussion controlled by those who should know best by merit of their training and experience.

Ironically, given its focus on the learner rather than the teacher, the real impact of the SoTL might be in simply rejuvenating our careers by making teaching into a scholarly endeavor. For those of us who are teaching the survey to hundreds of students year after year with no TAs or research support, teaching can feel like all output without any return, emptying our emotional, physical, and intellectual reserves without an opportunity to refuel. Teaching in this sense becomes a “problem”—too many underprepared students, too many exams, not enough time. But what if—as Randy Bass asks—we think about teaching problems as scholarly problems, which generate questions, rather than misery, and frame an investigative process rather than a student complaint? “Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation is precisely what the movement for a scholarship of teaching is all about,” Bass explains. “How might we think of teaching practice, and the evidence of student learning, as problems to be investigated, analyzed, represented, and debated?”[26] Unless we are employed at elite research universities, most of us spend our lives teaching. If we can’t find ways to make our daily labors intellectually energizing, then we are lost. But if we can begin to see our teaching as a source of intellectual stimulation; if we can begin to see the classroom as a laboratory for scholarship, while at the same time upholding the highest standards of our discipline, then we can improve our methods, enrich our lives, and perhaps strengthen our profession in the process.


DAVID ARNOLD is Professor of History at Columbia Basin College where he teaches survey courses in US, World, and Native American history. He received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1997 and is the author of The Fishermen’s Frontier, an environmental history of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. After nearly two decades teaching at a community college, his current scholarly interest is teaching and learning, particularly how to effectively teach history to non-major undergraduates.

[1]Bruce VanSledright, “Why Should Historians Care about History Teaching?” Perspectives (Feb. 2007),

[2]Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, “Beyond Best Practices: Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” Journal of American History, 92 (March 2006), 1356.

[3]Charles T. Wynn, "A Cognitive Rationale for a Problem-Based U.S. History Survey,” Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, 40 (Spring 2015), 35.

[4]Fritz Fischer, “The Historian as Translator: Historical Thinking, the Rosetta Stone of History Education,” Historically Speaking, 12 (June 2011), 15.

[5]Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” The Journal of American History, 92 (March 2006), 1358.

[6]Richard H. Brown, “Learning How to Learn: The Amherst Project and History Education in the Schools,” The Social Studies, 87 (Nov. 1996): 267, MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 30, 2015).

[7]Calder, “Uncoverage,” 1365.

[8]Alison King, ‘From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side,” College Teaching, 1 (Winter 1993), 30–35.

[9]Molly Worthen, “Lecture Me. Really,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 2015, SR1,

[10]Robert Blackey, “New Wine in Old Bottles: Revitalizing the Traditional History Lecture,” ed. Robert Blackey, History: Core Elements for Teaching and Learning (2011), 15–16.

[11]Peter Allitt, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom (Philadelphia, 2005), and See also David Vaught, Teaching the Big Class: Advice from a History Colleague (2011).

[12]Peter Allitt, The Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educator (2010), 10.

[13]Ibid., 19–21.

[14]Aeron Haynie, Nancy L. Chick, and Regan A.R. Gurung, eds., Exploring More Signature Pedagogies, 2.

[15]Joseph Gonzalez, "My Journey with Inquiry-Based Learning,” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24, (No. 2, 2013), 40.

[16]Katrina Gulliver, “Digital Natives Like a Good Lecture, Too,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 1, 2014,

[17]See Dan Berrett, “How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 19, 2012, For a good discussion of how online technologies as well as new cognitive educational theories are coming together to prompt a rethinking of the U.S. history survey course, see Laura M. Westhoff, “A Perfect Storm and the U.S. History Survey,” OAH Magazine of History, 27 (July 2013).

[18]See Johann N. Neem, “A University without Intellectuals: Western Governors University and the Academy’s Future,” Thought and Action, 28 (Fall 2012), 63–80. Neem argues that competency-based online education in the model of WGU poses a great threat to the tenured professorate, especially in the liberal arts, because the duties of professors (designing curriculum, delivering content, grading, mentoring, assessing students, and shared governance) is being disaggregated and carried out by non-tenured specialist “course planners,” “designers,” “mentors,” and “assessors.” See also Larry D. Spence, "The Case against Teaching,” Change, 33 (Nov.–Dec. 2001), 10–19. Spence makes a compelling case against the professor-centric classroom, arguing that professors need to become “designers of learning experiences not teachers,” (18). Alternatively, it should be noted that rumors of lecture’s demise might be premature because “The lecture model—putting dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of students in a room with a professor—endures because it makes economic sense.” See Berrett, “How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture.”

[19]Peter Seixas, “Schweigen! die Kinder! Or, Does Postmodern Histor Have a Place in the Schools? in Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Same Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (2000), 20–23.

[20]Kornblith and Lasser, “Beyond Best Practices,” 1357.

[21]Calder, “Looking for Learning,” Perspectives on History, March 2002,

[22]John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000) 163.

[23]Sam Wineburg, "Teaching the Mind Good Habits.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2003,

[24]Lendol Calder, William W. Cutler III, and T. Mills Kelly, “History Lessons: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” in Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, eds. Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwin P. Morreale (2002), 4654.

[25]Ibid., 53.

[26]Randy Bass, "The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?" Inventio: Creating Thinking about Teaching and Learning, 1 (Feb. 1999), http//