Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher: History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part I

by David Arnold

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series. Be sure to look for part two in our February 2017 issue.

“Am I a professor? Then what will I say today? But if I am a teacher, what will they do today?” [1]

Every few years an article is published in one of our profession’s flagship journals calling for history professors to give up their stodgy old lecturing habits and embrace pedagogical reform. The first came in 2004 with the publication of David Pace’s landmark article in the American Historical Review, “The Amateur in the Operating Room.” One of the early proponents of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in history (SoTL), Pace argued that most history professors were “amateurs” when it came to teaching. “Why,” Pace asked, “is the classroom a place for the uncritical perpetuation of folk traditions when the operating room is not?” Writing two years later in the Journal of American History, Lendol Calder similarly decried traditionalist professors practicing “wrongheaded” and “worn-out pedagogy.” He claimed that the lecture-based coverage model was “cover[ing] up” and “conceal[ing]” more than it was revealing and called for “uncovering” the past through inquiry-based methods where students would “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” Embracing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Calder called on history professors to develop a “signature pedagogy” based on historical thinking rather than force-feeding students a facts-laden diet of lectures and textbooks. In a 2011 piece also published in the Journal of American History, Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker built on Calder’s critique of the coverage-based history survey and called on history professors to finally embrace pedagogical reform and “dispense with the notion that content mastery is an end in itself.” Their call for a “question-driven, argumentative model” for the history survey course tapped into the zeitgeist of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in history, which denounced the “facts-first” transmission model of conventional history education and used cognitive theory to promote active-learning. In short, SoTL reformers in history seek to destroy the authoritative “sage on the stage” professor, who sees history teaching as simply transmitting content from his mouth to students’ brains, and nurture the “guide on the side” who focuses on student learning rather than the expertise of the professor.[2]

What has been the result of these calls for pedagogical reform? Have history professors heeded the lessons of cognitive scientists and teaching and learning experts and transformed their pedagogy? How many of us have become practitioners of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, a phrase which keenly implies that we should bring the same scholarly rigor to our teaching—and to student learning—that we bring to our historical research? Ironically, most of us, slogging it out as adjuncts or professors in community colleges or lower tier regional universities, are too busy teaching to delve into the SoTL and reform our pedagogy. I teach at a community college, where talk of “student-centered learning” has filled the hallways for decades, and yet it took me sixteen years of full-time teaching before I seriously consulted the SoTL, and only then because of a summer grant from my college to explore how it could be applied in our history survey courses. In other words, I have been an “amateur in the operating room” since 1998, practicing my trade on thousands of unsuspecting students without any formal training other than a graduate school teaching assistantship. Like most of us, I have relied on my content knowledge, my passion for history, my stunning natural charisma, and a few tricks I learned along the way from mentors—the “folklore” of teaching that Pace and Calder question. If that is not professional malpractice, then consider this: since I teach at a community college where the base load is ten survey courses per year, not including summer quarter and overloads (of which I have taught too many), in eighteen years I have most likely already taught more history survey courses (and more history survey students) with my “haphazard, on-the-fly approaches to pedagogy” than most university professors will teach in two lifetimes.[3] Let the lawsuits begin.

During the summer of 2014 a grant from the Columbia Basin College Foundation enabled me to educate myself in the SoTL, a body of scholarship its practitioners call “the most useful, the most generative, and potentially the most transforming field of research that most college and university historians have never heard of.”[4] That fall our department at Columbia Basin College began to apply the lessons of the SoTL in our U.S. and World history survey courses. Driven by a desire to improve our teaching and also pressured by the need to clarify and justify our goals and assess our students, we conducted a series of projects based on the foundations of the SoTL. We revised our history program outcomes, redesigned assignments, and crafted student surveys as well as pre-tests and post-tests intended to measure historical thinking. We also began to change our approaches to the classroom, emphasizing depth over coverage, primary-documents over textbooks, and disciplinary-thinking over facts-first lecturing. We attempted to introduce our lower division students to historiography and reveal to them the messy sausage-making that lies behind the smooth historical narratives of our textbooks.[5]

As our fledgling project continues, however, so many questions have emerged. Is the SoTL really improving the experience of history education for our students? Is student-centered “active learning” really more efficacious than lecturing in large survey courses filled with non-majors? Are primary documents really the best way—or the only way—to get freshmen and sophomores to think historically? Should history professors be in the business delivering coherent narratives that lower-division students can master or be driven by the goal of getting non-major undergraduates to think like historians and actually “do” history? Are we subjecting our history classrooms to a tyranny of pedagogical experts? At the bottom of things: what application, if any, does the SoTL have in our college classrooms, particularly the lower-division survey courses in lower-tier institutions where large classrooms filled with non-history majors, large teaching loads, and little institutional support restrict our teaching choices and militate against the active, inquiry-based learning advocated by the SoTL?

Why Do History Professors Resist the SoTL?

There are many practical reasons why college history professors have not embraced the SoTL. Most obviously, the rewards system of higher education does not promote the scholarship of teaching and learning. Publications about pedagogy do not carry as much weight for tenure promotion as pure historical scholarship; “history has no associations dedicated to promoting critical discourse about teaching and learning” nor “does it have annual conferences or established workshops exclusively for this purpose.” But even if professors—and entire history departments—become proponents of the SoTL, Stephen D. Andrews notes that “reorganizing the introductory course along these lines also poses significant logistical challenges, particularly at institutions where introductory courses enroll large numbers of students.” When Alverno College revised their history curriculum to promote active-learning and historical-thinking, they reduced their class caps to twenty-five students for introductory courses and fifteen for advanced levels. Putting “students at the front and center of classroom discourse,” the college also changed the class schedule to accommodate fewer classes which met for longer sessions. Hurray for the far-sighted administrators at Alverno but as Sipress and Voelker admit, “outside of small liberal arts colleges, the economics of higher education virtually dictate large general education class sizes that can inhibit discussion and place practical limits on writing assignments, particularly where graduate teaching assistants are not available.” In my department, we had to ask ourselves: can we realistically embrace the SoTL at Columbia Basin College where our history surveys have class caps of forty-five students? Is lecturing more effective (and more practical) than active learning in our large classes? Further, do we really want to transform our students into miniature historians when, in the fall of 2014, we had less than 1 percent (three out of four hundred) of our students claim that they were majoring in history? Are the SoTL methods appropriate only in K-12, where a homeroom teacher nurtures the same students every day for a year, and universities, where history majors need to be socialized into the disciplinary habits of their profession-to-be?[6]

Indeed, institutional constraints may yet prove to be the ultimate obstacle in spreading the SoTL to more students. Andrews wonderfully describes the institutional inertia that prevents radical curriculum changes:

In many departments, the procedure for changing curriculum is cumbersome, even if the desire is present. A department needs to begin with a sense of collegiality and a dedication to spending time and energy on what promises to be an intensive process. This kind of change requires numerous meetings, the formation of committees, and the patience to shepherd a revision through departmental, college, and university bureaucracies. Given the work often required to add a new course to the catalog, the thought of transforming the entire curriculum appears understandably daunting. With the annual challenges of hiring, budgets, and staffing, even the most collegial department might see remaking the curriculum as an impossible, impractical, or unwise task.[7]

Given that most of us inhabit institutional cultures where “administrators are concerned with enrollments and are watching departments and faculty members’ full-time equivalent generation,” is it possible, at community colleges and lower-tier public universities, for history departments to fully embrace the SoTL? Can we afford the extravagance of smaller classes and more writing assignments? If we are teaching ten or more survey courses a year, do we have the time to restructure our courses, create scaffolded research projects, and provide our students with timely feedback on their research?[8]

It does not go without notice that the most active proponents of the SoTL in higher education are ensconced at universities where they teach less and receive more funding as well as graduate research assistants to carry out their scholarship on teaching and learning. I do not begrudge scholars like Sam Wineburg and Bob Bain their well-deserved positions: my point is that if community colleges and regional publics are to jump on board, they will need institutional support for curriculum development and educational research, and these are in short supply in our age of austerity. The Indiana University History Learning Project (IUHLP) provides an example. In a wide-ranging project that involved many professors at one of the flagship history programs in the nation, funded generously by the Dean of Faculties Office in 2006 and by the Spencer and Teagle Foundations in 2008, the department saw “the act of teaching transformed from a solitary struggle to a shared project.” In recent years, however, funding has slowed. Their promising website remains an unfinished testament to the SoTL’s tenuous foothold in academic history departments—the SoTL is alive but not thriving. Professors at Indiana, such David Pace, Joan Middendorf, Leah Shopkow, and Arlene Diaz, should be congratulated for making the effort to stimulate faculty discussions around the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, but other departments have not followed their lead, and many faculty even at IU have reluctant to jump on board. If even our leading university history departments cannot support durable programs in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, what hope do we have of projecting the SoTL to all the departments, and all the students, far less endowed?[9]

Beyond these practical considerations, there are philosophical and pedagogical concerns raised by the SoTL. As history professors, is our goal to provide our undergraduate non-majors with a coherent historical narrative? Is our goal to teach them about the past or to teach them historical thinking? Do we desire to transform our students into miniature historians or simply to introduce them to enduring themes in the humanities? Are we to lead them towards these goals as “sages on the stage” or “guides on the side”?

Most proponents of the SoTL do not unequivocally denounce lecture or suggest that there is “one method or style” to which all history teachers must adhere, and yet, the SoTL makes it perfectly clear what is considered good teaching—the “guide on the side”—and what is not: “endless droning from a lectern, reliance on a single textbook, emphasis on memorization, assessment through multiple choice testing.” SoTL reformers like Bruce VanSledright can barely contain their contempt for history lecturers who “regale their audiences with stories about the past on the assumption that, if you tell them—that student audience—the story, they will know it.” This style of “teaching as telling,” VanSledright explains, is based on little more than “the quaint notion that telling results in learning and knowing” as well as the “cognitively outdated premise that students need to know the ‘what’ of history before they can think intelligently about it, wrestle with its ambiguities, understand the discipline’s dynamic nature, and make sense of what to do with competing accounts of the past.”[10]

The SoTL instead encourages history professors to embrace the “guide on the side” model, like Lendol Calder, who conducted his courses from the background, designing exercises for his students to sharpen their skills and “uncover the routines of historical thought” but making “no attempt to cover the topics thoroughly or to provide a seamless, authoritative narrative or argument.’” He likened his role to a “soccer coach, throwing questions into play from my position on the sidelines and then watching as students kick the questions around.”[11]

In promoting active learning and disparaging the effectiveness of lecture, the SoTL and its proponents, many of whom are researchers in the field of education, have aligned squarely with the latest trends in educational research. The contemporary critique against lecturing is not only that it breeds passive students, or that it conflicts with cognitive theories that claim students need to do things to learn (and, apparently, taking notes in a lecture hall does not count), but that lecturing focuses on teaching rather than learning, or, according to Maryellen Weimer, the author of the Teaching Professor blog and a longtime critic of traditional lecturing, the “distorted” view that a professor’s job is to dispense expertise without ensuring that their students are learning anything. “Teaching without learning,” says Weimer, is an “an activity without justification,” and so, apparently, is straight lecturing, which, in a classic exchange nearly a decade ago in Change, she described as little more than “intellectual showmanship.”[12]

Weimer argues, simply, that the “research says [students] need to be actively engaged and involved with content in order to learn.” Her core message is that “successful teaching isn’t measured by what [we] have covered” but “by what students learn.” Weimer’s teaching blog regularly features scholarly research that proves “active learning trumps lecturing.” Such studies are not hard to find: in the last two decades a voluminous number of investigations have indicated that lecture does not work. Researchers have deduced that “lectures can be useful in conveying information” to large numbers of students “but that they do little to promote thought or problem-solving abilities.” Weimer claims that today that “there is less defense of lecture than there used to be and more apologizing by those who do.” In a recent blog touting yet another round of studies supporting student-centered learning (or, as she likes to call it, “learner-centered”), Weimer concludes triumphantly that “the evidence is in. The case is closed. Active learning wins.”[13]

Of course, not everyone agrees. A 2010 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School concludes that, despite the wisdom of recent educational research, lecturing is actually more effective than “active and problem-oriented methods.” [14] Among historians, there is also plenty of skepticism: Bodo Von Borries contends that “‘open,’ ‘innovative,’ ‘modern,’ ‘student-centered,’ and ‘autonomous’ strategies of teaching history cannot be shown empirically to be superior to more traditional ones.”[15] For many of us, lecturing is the heart of what we do—it is the professing that makes us professors. It is how we learned history and how we now teach our students. In the next installment, we will examine history professors’ ongoing romance with the lecture and ask why even traditional, lecture-oriented professors might benefit from the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in history.


[1] Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” The Journal of American History, 4 (March 2006), 1370.

[2] David Pace, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” American Historical Review, 109 (October, 2004), 1172, 1189, 1191. His arguments echoed those made two years earlier by Lendol Calder, William W. Cutler III, and T. Mills Kelly. See Lendol Calder, William W. Cutler III, and T. Mills Kelly, “History Lessons: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” in Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, eds. Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwin P. Morreale (2002), 46. Calder, “Uncoverage,” 1358–62. Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” Journal of American History, 97 (March 2011), 1064, 1050, 1063, 1062. These now ubiquitous terms, “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the Side,” which oversimplify the distinction between “teacher-centered” lecturing and “student-centered” active learning, were coined by Alison King in “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side,” College Teaching, 1 (Winter, 1993), 30–35.

[3]Calder, Cutler and Kelly, “History Lessons,” 47.

[4] Calder, Cutler and Kelly, “History Lessons,” 45. For an introduction to the SoTL, see the articles cited above by Calder, Pace, and Sipress and Voelker as well as Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, 2001); Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York, 2000) and Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow, “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ its Students,” Journal of American History, 4 (March 2008), 1211–24.

[5] See David Arnold, Chris Herbert, and Meg Woods,"History Teaching and Learning Project 2014–2015 Final Report,” We are currently in the process of writing an article based on our experience. See our revised Program Outcomes online at

[6] Calder, Cutler, and Kelly, “History Lessons,” 46–51. Stephen D. Andrews, “Structuring the Past: Thinking about the History Curriculum,” Journal of American History, 95 (March 2009), 1096. John C. Savagian, “Toward a Coherent Curriculum: Teaching and Learning History at Alverno,” Journal of American History, 95 (March 2009), 1123–24. Sipress and Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course,” 1065.

[7] Andrews, “Structuring the Past,” 1096.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Díaz et. al., “The History Learning Project,” 1224. See also the website of the IUHLP.

[10] Calder, Cutler, and Kelly, “History Lessons,” 45–46; 57–58 Bruce VanSledright, “Why Should Historians Care about History Teaching?”.

[11] Calder, “Looking for Learning,” <> and “Uncoverage,” 1365.

[12] Maryellen Weimer, “What is Teaching without Learning,”The Teaching Professor, June 17, 2015. Maryellen Weimer, “Do Lectures Really Need Defenders,” Change (Jan.–Feb. 2007), Volume 1, 5 in Letters to the Editor . She was responding to Mary Burgan, “In Defense of Lecturing” from What Ever Happened to the Faculty: Drift and Decision in Higher Education, published in Change, (Nov.–Dec. 2006), 31–34.

[13] Weimer, “Do Lectures Really Need Defenders,” 5. Steven M. Wright quoted in Maryellen Weimer,“Four Lessons about Learning Discovered on a Chairlift,” The Teaching Professor, March 19, 2014. Maryellen Weimer, “More Evidence That Active Learning Trumps Lecturing,” The Teaching Professor, June 3, 2015. See, for example, Donald A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures(2000); Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More (2006); Maryellen Weimer, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (2002); Dan Berrett, “Professor’s Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 13 2014. Doug Ward, “Why Change Our Approach to Teaching,” Teaching Matters; Berrett, “Professor’s Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side.” Maryellen Weimer, “More Evidence That Active Learning Trumps Lecturing.” See also Berrett, “Professor’s Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side.”

[14] Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann, “Is Traditional Teaching really all that Bad? A Within-Student Between-Subject Approach,” Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard Kennedy School, June 19, 2010. See also Abigail Walthausen, “Don’t Give Up on the Lecture,” Atlantic Montlhy, Nov. 21, 2013.

[15] Bodo Von Borries, “Methods and Aims of Teaching History in Europe,” in Stearns, et. al., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, 257.


DAVID ARNOLD is Professor of History at Columbia Basin College where he teaches survey courses in US, World, and Native American history. He received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1997 and is the author of The Fishermen’s Frontier, an environmental history of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. After nearly two decades teaching at a community college, his current scholarly interest is teaching and learning, particularly how to effectively teach history to non-major undergraduates.