History department introduces labs into new curriculum

Undergraduates discussing John Smith's "Description of Virginia" in U.S. History and Constitution to 1876. From left, clockwise: Tara Smith, Bailey Weems, Breanna Reynolds and Samantha Kineke.

SIUE’s Historical Studies department has begun using a revamped, rewritten curriculum this fall. With its new curriculum guiding them, history instructors are striving to go beyond traditional lecture and storytelling methods, bringing experiential and even scientific ways of learning to the history classroom.

Associate Professor Dr. Christienne Hinz and Assistant Professor Dr. Jeff Manuel led the effort to rewrite the department’s curriculum. Together, Hinz and Manuel studied these new teaching methods under a grant from Excellence in Undergraduate Education last year.

When rewriting the curriculum, Hinz and Manuel, along with the rest of the history faculty, examined the curriculum by looking at their assessment data. They asked themselves, what area were students not doing well in?

“One of the things we found that we’re not yet satisfied with….is the degree at which [students] are sophisticated at handling raw data,” Hinz says.

The solution was to encourage the use of more primary documents, or raw data, in the classroom so that students could get more practice at examining raw data instead of only textbooks and lectures. Hinz says that the history department’s goal is to make teaching history “more about documents and less about storytelling.”

To introduce students to primary sources, or raw data, history courses now have lab designations under the new Lincoln Plan. Upon enrollment in history courses, students are automatically enrolled in the labs and do not have to register for separate lab sections. In these labs, students will use the scientific method to evaluate and analyze historical documents and objects, much like labs in the hard sciences.

SIUE is one of the very few universities in the country that offers history courses with lab credit. While the department has talked of integrating more primary sources into its classrooms, Hinz and Manuel, with their research, took the initiative to make this innovative teaching method a reality at the University, even if it was one of the only institutions to adopt it.

Part of making the new curriculum a reality was deciding the best teaching methods using the primary documents, which was Hinz’s focus. Hinz conducted research on the human brain and how it works when people learn and when people teach. She used this information to help her colleagues and to write a manual for the department that describes how to put the new methods into practice.

Equally important as learning how to teach with primary sources is how the raw data will be available to instructors. Dr. Manuel specializes in working with SIUE’s IT department and with other universities to learn how the University can best use technology in the history labs.

Under the grant, Dr. Manuel spent time researching at Cleveland State University, which is seen as national leader when it comes to using technology to teach history. An essential part of the history department’s curriculum change is to have easier technological access to the primary sources used in the labs, making the change smoother for both students and faculty.

While observing the practices at Cleveland State University and other universities, Manuel felt that he found a plan that was perfect for SIUE.

“We’re going to use it as a basis for…how we can make sure we’re teaching our undergraduate classes [in a way] that aligns with the Lincoln Plan and the College of Arts and Science’s emphasis on experiential learning and with the best practices that we’re seeing within the discipline of history…That’s part of our national conversation with other history faculty around the nation, not just SIUE,” says Manuel.

Hinz and Manuel believe that having these labs will bring the focus of history onto the primary sources, and instead of absorbing the stories of their instructors, students will be able to become story makers. As Hinz puts it,

“There is no story for a historian. There’s a bunch of paper. And then we make a story. It’s not like we knew a story, and we learned it. We’re writing stories.”

With these labs, students will be shown the concept of “history as a way of thinking,” says Hinz. History as a way of thinking integrates problem solving and initiative. Hinz and Manuel believe that these labs will change the way students think about history.

“Sometimes students come in with a perception that history is essentially a list of stuff that happened in the past, and your job in a history class then is to memorize them,” Manuel says. “We say that this class makes very clear that that’s not how history operates. We’re going to make this very straightforward and clear with this new lab system.”

Hinz and Manuel predict that students are intimidated by having to take a lab with a history course. Hinz, in fact, knows that students are intimidated, as she has taught history using primary documents for the past 10 years.

While Hinz found that students were indeed hesitant to embrace this method, she also found that once they did, she noticed more excitement and increased involvement in learning, especially when they found that she used less textbook information and more things like old letters, objects, and pictures to teach.

“Textbooks became increasingly irrelevant, and so students were amazingly relieved to never have to look at a textbook. The only thing they had to look at is data,” she says.

Even without the amount of experience Hinz has had, Manuel, too, is optimistic about students’ reaction to the new method. He believes that rather than feeling intimidated, students will feel “uncertain” about a history lab, as it is not familiar to them. Nonetheless, he feels that students will be more excited to be “doing” history once they get into it, and they will learn much more, too.

Additionally, students may find excitement in the fact that these labs are not only teaching them about substantial events in human history but also teaching them skills that are applicable to furthering their academic and professional careers. While many SIUE history students are preparing themselves for a teaching career, others may find themselves in other fields, thanks to what they have learned in history.

“Beyond [teaching], a whole range of professional information age careers are based on the same skills that we’re teaching students here,” Manuel says. “If you’re say, the vice president of a corporation….maybe the primary sources you’re working with aren’t historical per se, but the same skills that we’re working through are exactly the ones that person will be using.”

These skills, according to Manuel, are being able to effectively answer questions by careful evaluation and communicating effectively and persuasively. “History is a fantastic building block for that,” he says.

The department’s de-emphasis of traditional methods is no light task for both students and faculty. Having labs with history classes is going to be a challenging endeavor for the College of Arts and Sciences, but in the process, SIUE’s history instructors will convey a new understanding of history to students, which is quite an accomplishment.

“It’s a big deal for our department to say, ‘We can teach history, in a sense, as if it were science,’” says Hinz.

Manuel, too, predicts that this new curriculum and the fresh ideas on teaching history is indeed revolutionary. “We see ourselves being on the forefront of a change on how history is taught,” he says.

As the new curriculum unfolds, Hinz and Manuel will continue working to find what helps  increase students’ learning and knowledge of raw data and how faculty can accommodate the curriculum changes to their teaching methods. They anticipate and hope that continued assessment of the new techniques will take them and other faculty members to conferences and publishing opportunities.

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