Blogs > Cliopatria > OAH convention; the Teaching American History grant session

Apr 21, 2006 10:06 am

OAH convention; the Teaching American History grant session

On Wednesday, the OAH opened with an all-day session on the impact of the Teaching American History grants on the profession. I became a project director of one of those grants last fall; so it seemed logical for me to soak up the accumulated wisdom of the day. (For another take of the session, check out Rick’s column (scroll down).)

There were over 130 people at the morning session. The room was packed and overflowing. From the standpoint of the organizers the interest was gratifying, but I must admit that I was having flashbacks to my Northwest Airlines middle seat in coach the day before. Happily for my claustrophobia, the afternnon sessions were less packed, but still extremely well attended. Here is a link to the online program (big download, go to page 30) if you wish to see a list of who spoke.

To understand what follows you need to know some basics about the grants. They are for three years (though the programs they fund often stretch to four). The fundamental assumption behind them is that history education in the classroom will improve if social studies teachers have a better foundation in history and in historical methods. Grant projects are supposed to be coalitions of K-12 institutions, academics, and public history institution such as museums. However, the lead institution in the grant is the K-12 one. I would love to know what percentage of grants are written primarily by one institution that then goes and looks for partners and how many are collaborative from day 1. I would suspect that the latter have fewer problems implementing their programs.

Despite the topic, the conversation often drifted away from the impact on the profession to more “practical’ considerations of what worked and what didn’t in organizing and implementing the various grant programs. That was fine by me. Although my history department has been involved in three grants and there is a lot of in-house wisdom that I can draw on, I’m still looking for lots and lots of advice. The discussion of planning a field trip that actually works well and has a long term impact was worth the coach-class flashbacks by itself.

What is the historical community?

Still, larger issues did emerge. I think some of the most contentious discussion can be summed up by looking back at the session title: “What Hath TAH Wrought: The Impact of Teaching American History Projects on Historians and the Historical Community.” My summary question, “What is the historical community?”

This question emerged several ways. One was in the continued disjunction between K12 teachers and academic historians. Although the grants have led to some good collaborations, there was some resentment at those professors who “parachute in” and give presentations that suggest a certain disdain for their K-12 “country cousins” (my phrase, not a quote from the session).

That question also emerged when one of the moderators asked for a show of hands how many people present were academics. We were roughly 40% of the audience. At one level, that’s a sign that the OAH has had some success in reaching out to K-12 history teachers. However, given that the large majority of convention attendees remain academics, it is also a sign of remarkable disinterest in one of the major new sources of funding for history teaching that has emerged.

The same show of hands also tapped, quite inadvertently, some resentment from representatives of public history institutions (for examples, local museums and libraries), one of whom wondered why no one asked who made up the 60% majority. She had a point. If there was one failing in the organization of the day it was not addressing those institutions and their roles with anything resembling equal interest. (To be fair, it was clear that the audience was dominated by teachers, both K-12 and academic, so perhaps it would have been hard not to have such a bias).

Focusing on the academics alone, historians from “first tier institutions” were notable by their absence. Perhaps it is not surprising that academics at second tier colleges with a strong education mission (and often hurt lately by budget cuts) have embraced this opportunity with more enthusiasm. Still, it is a telling absence that tends to confirm the widespread assumption that the most visible academic historians are the least interested in K-12 education.

Finally, many of the academics present said that despite the importance of TAH grants purpose, and despite the money, that on a personal level, obtaining and managing such a grant was either career-neutral or actively harmful if it delayed publications. I talked to one person who was more or less pleased that her institution was about to state that one TAH grant equaled two articles.


There was considerable discussion on assessing the impact of these grant programs, but that requires from me more thought and a separate entry.

Finally and more positively

There are a lot of innovative programs out there. If one assumes, as I do, that there is a correlation between increasing the historical knowledge and understanding of teachers and increasing the quality of their students’ education, then that quality is increasing. Finally, there was a deep passion for teaching and engaging students throughout the day. Many times I felt humbled when I compared the lifelong efforts of some of the people there with my own. First tier historians may not be that interested, but a lot of first-rate ones are, and they are matched by some truly talented history teachers and public history professionals. On the whole, I left the day worn out but quite impressed.

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More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/22/2006

Very good point! Without for a moment regretting the existence of TAH I do wish that it addressed history teaching generally, or that there were other similar grant sources for non-US history.

However, as the OAH convention concerns United States history, my comments related to those American historians who ignore the impact of the programs still have merit.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2006

I don't know the answer to that question. I do know, though, that it includes more than Americanists. Those of us outside that clan have felt no "impact" from the TAH grants whatsoever.