Professor Recognized for Creating 'Common Language' for History Profession
Friday, Dec. 16, 2016
Dan McInerney is being recognized by the world's largest organization of historians, the American Historical Association, for his work in the Tuning Initiative, an effort to standardize learning outcomes among history students.
How does one explain the actual effectiveness of a history course or degree?
Future success on Jeopardy?
Calculus or chemistry questions can be answered with straightforward A B or C answers. But in history — indeed, all of the liberal arts – it is more complicated. There are many and complex variables historians must include in their calculations. How do historians explain those variables and know when students have learned what historians must know, do and understand?
Professor Dan McInerney has been asking himself this very question for more than 30 years.
Now, after many thoughtful, innovative strategies that he’s shared with colleagues worldwide, McInerney is being recognized by the world’s largest association of historians for his work in bringing a common language for describing and assessing their work to history instructors from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.
McInerney will receive the Troyer Steele Anderson Prize from the American Historical Association at its annual meeting Jan. 5-8 in Denver. The name may be unfamiliar, but that may have something to do with the fact that the award is rarely presented.
In an organization that boasts some 14,000 members, McInerney is only the 14th individual to receive this accolade since 1970.
The prize recognizes the individual that AHA leadership “considers to have made the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of the purposes of the AHA,” in other words — the professional world of history research and teaching.
“This is a real coup,” said Tammy Proctor, History Department head. “It’s a real honor to have Dan as a colleague.”
McInerney’s accomplishment will be celebrated at a reception for friends and colleagues at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 5 at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. The awards ceremony follows at 7 p.m.
McInerney, according to the AHA, has played an “essential role in AHA’s Tuning Initiative, a multi-year, faculty-led project to articulate the disciplinary core of history and the skills that students should have at the completion of their degree.”
At its core, said McInerney, the Tuning Initiative seeks to establish whether students are “getting their money’s worth” from history classes and history degrees.
“How do you define and defend what the History Department does?” asks McInerney. “It’s pretty straightforward. But it’s a question that most historians have not had answers to.”
Letter grades don’t really speak to actual, lasting results, he adds. “I mean, what the heck does a C- mean?” Instead, he said, instructors must determine and measure “what knowledge, competencies and understanding students are developing.”
McInerney said that many professors, in their defense, may respond, “We teach critical thinking skills.”
“But, what do we contribute to critical thinking skills that is different from a physicist or philosopher or biologist,” he said. “If we, the people who were trained in the discipline, don’t have an answer to this, we’re going to create a vacuum.”
The question was first raised in 1984 when a national study found that higher education was in a “dismal state,” he said. The study pointed to what McInerney describes as “the triple threat to faculty.” That is, accountability, assessment and accreditation: “The three words faculty members never want to hear — and the three conversations that are always going on,” he said.
After two decades of failed experiments seeking to assess learning outcomes, most of them managed by consultants or number crunchers, the focus has returned to the classroom, McInerney said.
“There’s been an awakening among faculty: Do you really want someone else to assess the learning that takes place in a history course? Because chances are that person is not a historian,” McInerney said. “It’s up to us, history faculty, to define what is it we want students to learn in a program or major.”
The Tuning Initiative was started in Europe in 2000. Its growth was pushed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which allowed multitudes of students to travel more freely. But, educators soon faced this dilemma: Was a history degree from, say, a Warsaw university equivalent to one earned in London?
The cooperative venture arrived on U.S. shores in 2008 and has spread quickly to Africa, Russia and Latin America with trials in Australia and China, McInerney said. In 2014, Japan came on board. Campus wide, it’s being addressed by other fields, including physics and education.
The Tuning Initiative was soon adopted by the AHA, which represents historians nationwide. “Historians are everywhere,” said McInerney. Not only are history degrees widely available, but history plays a significant role in general-education courses required by many universities and colleges.
“We’re dealing with students from their freshman year through their senior year,” he said. “We’re dealing with as many non-majors as majors.”
McInerney said the Tuning Initiative does not set “fixed standards, but just provides general disciplinary reference points.”
“Everyone knows we can’t hit every possible goal at every institution,” he said. “But let’s speak at least one common language about the goals or outcomes we set for our students. Let’s have a common conversation.”
In the USU History Department, those goals include increasing students’ knowledge, understanding and transferable competencies. McInerney said he’s worked with other faculty members, especially history professor Norm Jones, toward such goals as creating pre-majors, which create a “pathway” for history majors unsure where to begin.
The department’s curriculums have been reorganized to make history general education courses more meaningful for non-majors. Many instructors now take time from coverage of their actual subject to help students with skills such as library use and thesis statements.
“What we are finding is that we are getting students who are more prepared and more mature as they work into 3000- and 4000-level classes,” he said.
McInerney has spoken widely at conferences and other universities about implementing Tuning Project goals. And though he’s a national expert on Tuning, at USU itself, he laughs, “We hardly ever use the word ‘tuning’. We just call this ‘rethinking’ of our curriculum.”