The American Historian

The Ecosystem Method: A Community Focused Approach to Historical Training

Cristóbal A. Borges

In the last five years, I have stumbled into conversations at conferences, division meetings, professional get-togethers, and even casual interactions that revolved around a prevailing sense of doom. Often started by comments such as “enrollment is way down in my department,” or “I am having a hard time hiring people that have the skills to do history,” these interactions offered a dire analysis of how our particular corner of the history world is changing and possibly dying. As troubling as these interactions were, the news became worse when I looked at statistics of student enrollments in history departments. Robert B. Townsend noted in a September 2017 article in Perspectives on History that “the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in history fell 10.1 percent from 2014 to 2015.” None of this data really surprised me, and I suspect that it does not surprise you, either. Unfortunately, the situation does not seem to be changing any time soon. Lower enrollment levels have resulted in shrinking budgets for history departments, leaving the future of history education (and the humanities in general) in a dire state. These do not need to be signs of death for our field, however. Instead, they can be levers of change that push us to seek new opportunities to strengthen the historical community.

Of course, as people who work in the field and shape it, we must be ready to capitalize on these possibilities. To do this we must rearticulate our place in our communities in a way that takes advantage of our individual skills but does not compromise who we are as historians. I propose that we embrace an ecosystem approach for our historical training. The concept of the history ecosystem allows us to focus our decision making and training on the interconnectedness we already experience in the field. Instead of acting as individual scholars that interact with each other only during sporadic moments such as conferences, speaking events, or project partnerships, we should think of ourselves as interrelated parts of a broader history community that is tied together by the locations we share. In these local spaces—the physical places where we live, work, research, study, train, and traverse on a regular basis—we inherently interact with one another and are entangled in relationships that depend on the success of every entity involved.

Each historian, department, institution, and organization enacts a crucial role in this history ecosystem, and none can truly fulfill the demands of our profession without the other; whether we like it or not, each is affected by the decisions of other entities in our communities. For example, if a local school district changes funding for dual credit students enrolling at colleges, or if a university changes prerequisites for transfers, or if a new tax structure affects local funding for non-profits, the consequences are felt by people and institutions engaged in historical training at almost every level. The local spaces that bind us together should be central to the way we design and conceive of the profession and its training. Our local spaces are certainly our immediate communities, but they can also be defined in a broader manner when considering the central roles regional and national funding structures have on educational and cultural institutions. These integral relationships are part of our local spaces where we do the work of history and create an interconnected relationship between people of various history fields. Viewing our history profession as a connected ecosystem allows for the equal valuing of each part, and, more importantly, ensures that we can advocate for our field in a more holistic way to a broader cross section of society. We can bridge the gaps between our schools, colleges, museums, parks, corporations, and governments.

As a professor at a community college, I see my role in this ecosystem as building historical knowledge in our society. As such, my job is to expand the historical understanding of the people I interact with. I try to help people see the connection between the field of history and day-to-day life. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot states in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, “human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators.” Why not ensure that they become more active participants and better narrators?

For example, I redesigned my introductory history courses with the explicit goal of having students learn the central skills of our field and the power and responsibilities that come with knowing how to construct (and deconstruct) histories. This course change allowed me to connect content acquisition with discussions about history as a field and a profession. I share with my students the difficulties of doctoral work and the realities of being tenure-track alongside discussions of the Cuban-Spanish-American War of 1898. I do this in survey courses because I want students to see that I, as a professor, am a working professional. It is a profession that has various career paths, and is one that they could enter, too. What happens in the classroom is just one component, and I am convinced that the more we let the mystery of what we actually do as faculty and history professionals continue, the more disconnected our students and the public will become from who we are. To share the details of our profession with students at the earliest stages of their academic careers opens the world of colleges and universities to them as a community, which is exactly what we are. It is in this understanding of community that we can connect our history ecosystem to what we do in the classroom.

Outside the classroom, in our communities, the ecosystem approach helps me connect what I do in my courses with what my city and region are doing with history. I have engaged in curriculum-based partnerships with local historical and cultural institutions in Seattle such as Pike Place Market and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (NHP) to build in assignments, expert visits, and out-of-the-classroom experiences where students connect what we study with what is present in their day-to-day lived spaces. Of course, this is not new. As historians, we have used the world outside the classroom as an integral resource for as long as the field has existed. What is necessary now, I believe, is that we extend to our students, and the community at large, the discussions we often reserve for upper division or graduate students in history. As historians, we need to discuss the profession and its diverse manifestations as a central aspect of what we teach.

For example, in developing my lessons, lectures, assignments, and activities for units on U.S. and Pacific Northwest history at places such as Pike Place Market and the Klondike Gold Rush NHP, I incorporate discussions with the professionals at those sites about how their jobs connect with history and the skills of the profession. Quickly, students see how working in history can take on different forms and be an asset in many careers. History can open the door to becoming a professor, or a national park ranger, or a non-profit organization’s education specialist. I hope in the future to expand this approach to private entities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Doing this can open a world of possibilities for the people we interact with on a daily basis. Moreover, this is a crucial responsibility for every person that works within this field. Why is this so important? Well, consider the current state of our field as it pertains to job opportunities. According to a November article in Inside Higher Ed by Scott Jaschik, one key marker of how our field is doing has been rather bleak. Using history job postings for 2017, Jaschik determined that there had been “a 12 percent decline from the year before.” Diminished enrollment, the lack of job listings, the day-to-day discussions about shrinking budgets and lackluster student interest: these are our realities in history. If we are not the advocates for the profession, and for expanding the way people view the possibilities within the field, then who will be?

I have come to the belief that we must move beyond the three-tier view of how to train people for our field. In this tiered approach, we divide students into one group that must take our courses to fulfill general education requirements, one group that wants to major in history to work as teachers or other B.A./M.A. required professions, and one group that will decide to follow the doctoral route. Instead, let’s prepare all our students, and our communities, as if they are historians already. In reality, they are. They just do not know it and do not have the proper skills for it.

Approaching our profession as an ecosystem opens the resources of our campuses, local institutions and governments, and even private entities to our field. I have never been a faculty member that sought to stay in a specific corner, and I have found that venturing beyond the confines of my department, division, school, college, and university has allowed me to widen my discussions of history well beyond anything I could do in my classroom. Moreover, I am able to more fully engage with peers in ways that allows my perspective as a historian to be shared, and I sometimes even have a say at moments of decision making.

I view myself as part of a history ecosystem because that connects me and my community college with our local universities, cultural institutions, private corporations, NGOs, activist organizations, chamber of commerce, local/state/federal government, neighborhood organizations, school districts, and anyone and everyone that in some way “acts in or narrates” history. I am one part of this broader ecosystem, and I am not isolated from it. As such, all the parts of this ecosystem must start looking at themselves as agents that depend on and affect each other, for good and for bad. If we individually sink our heads into the sand, the decisions that alter our field will continue without us, and we will have very little say as to where it goes. It is crucial that we avoid this, for, as Trouillot warned us, history “does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it in their own hands.” Let us, as historians in schools, colleges, universities, museums, parks, organizations, companies, etc., take our history ecosystems where we want them to go, and ensure that they survive by promoting, fostering, and developing relationships that tie us more closely together than ever.

Author 

Cristóbal A. Borges, originally from Puerto Rico, earned his Bachelor of Communications and International Studies from the University of Washington (1999), Master of Science degree in Radio, Television and Film from the University of North Texas (2003), and doctorate in history from the University of Texas at El Paso (2014). While pursuing his degree, Cristóbal worked with the Oral History Institute at UTEP in the Bracero Archive Program, and the H-Borderlands website and list serve. Cristóbal is a tenured faculty member in the History Department at North Seattle College where he teaches US, Latin American, and Pacific Northwest history.