In May I was in La Crosse, Wisconsin for the annual conference of the Economic and Business History Society. I was presenting on a panel scheduled for Saturday morning. A presenter who was part of another panel scheduled at the same time half-jokingly told me that he doubted that anyone would show up to his. I laughed and assured him that would not be the case; after all, my panel was about teaching, while his focused on “real” topics in economic and business history. I really wasn’t expecting a big turnout at our session. Much to my surprise, our audience ended up being one of the largest for any session at the conference (not bad for a Saturday morning). They were very engaged, with a lot of discussion—even after the session.
If you’re wondering why I was surprised, let me give you some background. I’ve been active in EBHS for about 15 years. As the organization’s name clearly states, this is a group of scholars from the fields of business, economics, and history with common research interests. Many are college instructors, but this is a venue for presenting research in content fields, not pedagogy. Only in recent years have we had pedagogy panels, and these have not usually drawn well. This year the difference was not only quantitative, but qualitative.
The three papers on the panel generally focused on how to more effectively teach economic history. Two of them (including mine) examined the use of specific pieces of literature to accomplish this, while the third looked at the methodology of a well-known economics instructor from a century ago. If I may say so, the papers offered a number of useful insights, from content coverage to effective assessment to classroom methodology. That said, the presentations were pretty straightforward. (You can find them in the conference program here) In short, as I’ve thought about it, the level of audience engagement (both quantitatively and qualitatively) was not so much the result of good presentations, but rather an indication of academics’ increasing interest in effective teaching.
Perhaps this may not seem all that startling. After all, most of these folks teach in college; it would seem logical that they would be interested in doing so effectively. Yet in years past such interest has been generally lacking. Many college instructors did not focus all that much attention on their teaching, but rather on their content research. (This made sense, as they were trained to focus on their research in graduate school, and then in their subsequent careers, where both institutions and peers rewarded them primarily for this work.) Yet this has changed recently, as the EBHS session evidenced.
Fully explaining why teaching has become a topic of interest amongst academics in content fields would require more space than I have herein. I’ll simply make the following observations based on my experience at EBHS. One, many more academics find themselves at “teaching” institutions. A look back at the early days of the society shows that many key people were from “research” institutions (relatively large flagship universities). Yet in the last couple decades of the society, most of its leadership (and participants) come from smaller regional state or private schools, where a 2/2 courseload is an unheard of luxury. To put it simply, many of us are teaching a lot more, and it plays a greater role in our academic lives. EBHS is hardly an outlier in this regard; in general, more academics are found at such institutions. Two, teaching has become an increasingly important factor in our professional development and advancement. Teaching evaluations have become a “given” in academic life, while teaching portfolios are becoming a requirement for job applications, as well as tenure and promotion files. These do not represent mere formalities. Even at larger research institutions, there is a growing expectation that professors ought to be effective in the classroom; one can observe this simply by perusing news stories in the media. Meanwhile, many smaller schools rely on effective teaching as their “bread and butter” in attracting students, and thus have placed an ever-increasing emphasis on it. In light of this, it is no wonder that our panel attracted a broad spectrum of academics from various institutional backgrounds. The audience was also geographically diverse, with a number of scholars from Europe and East Asia. This was a bit of a surprise; I must confess that I generally perceive the interest in college pedagogy as an “American” thing. Yet the interaction on our panel demonstrated this is not the case. Many scholars in other countries share this interest, as they too face growing expectations of effective teaching. My initial thought is that this is a product of our globalized world, as students have ever-increasing options for study abroad, and education becomes increasingly standardized. Whatever the case, the interest in effective teaching is crossing boundaries.
At the end of the conference, one of our board members suggested that EBHS ought to have a dedicated pedagogy forum, one which could include articles, blogs, and discussions. This is a sure sign that this interest is not likely to wane soon. I find this quite encouraging for a couple reasons. One, as a historian with an interest in effective teaching, I welcome any initiative that advances this. Two, as a historian, I also know that such initiatives are likely to produce better results; to put it simply, academics in content fields are more likely to listen to their peers when it comes to discussing effective teaching. In the end, that promises more pleasant surprises.