by Peter Felten
Inspired by European initiatives and by calls across the United States for higher education to be more accountable for student learning, the American Historical Association has coordinated a nationwide, faculty-led project on Tuning the History Discipline in the United States that aims “to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.”
Tuning has been critiqued, fairly I think, for emphasizing transferable skills at the expense of the study of history (and the liberal arts more generally) on its own terms; in short, the discipline has value, critics of Tuning assert, far beyond the discrete skills and competencies develop in the major. Despite that important caution, however, the January 2016 conference of the American Historical Association demonstrates that Tuning has had at least one significant positive outcome – it has prompted colleagues in many history departments to have serious conversations about the purposes and goals of teaching and learning history in the undergraduate curriculum (for examples of what results from these kinds of conversations, see these six reports in a 2013 issue of the AHA’s Perspectives on History).
In an AHA conference session on “Making Learning Outcomes Work,” Lendol Calder made a provocative claim. I may not get his words precisely right, but in essence Calder argued:

Tuning and the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL) need each other to thrive. Without the rigorous inquiry into student learning through SoTL, Tuning leads to superficial conversations about teaching and students. Without the discipline-based discussions at the heart of Tuning, however, SoTL lacks influence on our campuses and in our disciplines.

Calder’s observation echoes what Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise have called the distinction between “knowing about” and “knowing how.” Blaich and Wise point out that “knowing about” a problem with student learning is not sufficient to spark most faculty or departments to change how they teach or how they structure the curriculum. Instead, “knowing about” only leads to productive action when it is linked to “knowing how” to make productive change.
Calder suggests that Tuning and SoTL need to come together to yield meaningful change. That assertion reminds me of the recent work by Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, and LaMahieu about “learning to improve.” Bryk and his colleagues identify several steps necessary to support faculty-centered improvements in teaching and curriculum. The three key steps, it seems to me are to:

  1. Make the work problem specific and user centered: Effective improvement efforts typically focus on concrete, clearly defined problems that are of concern to the people involved in the effort.
  2. See the system that produces the current outcomes: Whatever you are trying to improve exists within a context, and that context matters. By looking at both specific problems and the environment that produces and sustains those problems, you will be more apt to recognize both resources that can aid your improvement efforts and challenges that will need to be addressed.
  3. Use inquiry to drive improvement: Inquiry is a powerful tool for improvement, particularly at academic institutions where many people are trained and motivated by research. (adapted from Bryk et al., Learning to Improve, 2015, pp. 12–17)

These steps include the best of Tuning (step 1) and SoTL (step 3) with a crucial piece that too often might be missing in our work, a focus on the contexts and systems that shape teaching and learning within individual classrooms. Indeed, Steven Conn recently has argued that inattention to systems has fundamentally distorted the way many academics understand the “crisis of the humanities”; the solution to the crisis, according to Conn, is not “newer, sexier courses” nor is it Tuning our discipline to emphasize career-ready skills, but rather “restructuring the market” of transfer credits and general education.
Conn makes an important point, yet I think historians (and others academics in and beyond the liberal arts) would be wise to integrate Tuning, SoTL, and systems-level analysis to help our students learn our disciplines deeply.

Peter Felten (@pfeltenNC) is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and professor of history.

How to cite this post:

Felten, Peter. 2016, January 19. Tuning the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from