[Note: Since 2012 I have been working with the American Historical Association to improve history teaching and learning at the undergraduate and graduate levels. As part of that initiative, I was invited to speak at the AHA’s annual meeting in New York City on January 5, 2015. This as a summary of my remarks and comments on that occasion.]

Today we have gathered to ask the question “What’s the Problem with Teaching?” For fourteen years, I taught history at three universities in every rank–from visiting to tenure-track to tenured–and at every level from undergraduate to doctoral. Last June I became the director of the LDS Church History Library and transitioned from encouraging students to go to an archive to overseeing those who help them when they arrive.

The archive is central to what historians do and to how we talk about what we do, from the 19th-century origins of our profession in the work of Ranke and his students to this very conference that seeks to re-connect history with related disciplines. So, where is the archive in our teaching? In an article published in the Journal of American History in 2011, I argued that teaching about historical thinking needs to occur in the places where historians think–one of which is the archive. I argued that such teaching was possible, shared successful examples of past archivally-placed teaching, and sketched out what such teaching might look like in the 21st century.

But now I sit on the other side of the reference desk. Instead of sending students merrily off to the archive, my team waits for them to arrive. Would you like to know how your students fare? Most show up having read some literature and with a topic or question in mind that shows some signs of having been narrowed. Good work. But very few of ours students know how to move from topic to answers. Here are some of the questions we might help them consider: What kinds of sources might answer my question? Where might those sources be today? Who might know about those sources and collections? How is a library catalog more powerful than Google? What is not in the catalog or online? Once we get them asking these questions we must prepare them for answers both expected and surprising–sometimes there are many sources, sometimes none; sometimes the sources are in one repository, most often they are in many, sometimes they are in very unlikely places; library catalogs do (!) know more than Google, but less than finding aids and the humans who produced both.

Therefore, I invite you to consider not just what students should do when they encounter a primary source in your classroom, but how to imagine that a source might exist somewhere and then how to go and find it in archive. If the archive is central to our work as historians, but has no place in our teaching, then are we really teaching our students to do history?

The AHA Program Committee has scheduled this session for:
Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM | New York Hilton, Sutton North
272. What’s the Problem? Turning Teaching Questions into Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Research
Co-Sponsor(s): AHA Teaching Division
Chair: Laura M. Westhoff, University of Missouri–St. Louis
Lendol G. Calder, Augustana College
Keith A. Erekson, University of Texas at El Paso/LDS Church History Library
David P. Jaffee, Bard Graduate Center
Leah Shopkow, Indiana University Bloomington

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