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Keeping In Tune With History

Published: August 18, 2014

CSULB’s History Department wound up its participation in the American History Association’s (AHA) “Tuning Project” in July with the goal of producing a statement for the field called the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP).

“Although the Tuning initiative originated in Europe as part of the Bologna Project, in the U.S. the Tuning project is funded by a three-year grant from the Gates-supported Lumina Foundation,” explained History chair Nancy Quam-Wickham, a member of the university since 1994. “The idea of the Tuning project is for disciplinary specialists—historians in this case—to get together and work on a statement for the field—called the Degree Qualifications Profile. Ideally, the DQP will be adopted by every history department in the nation—community colleges, liberal arts colleges, M.A. comprehensives like CSULB and doctoral-granting institutions.” This AHA project brings together accomplished history faculty from more than 60 institutions across the country.

“At each degree level, the DQP lists a set of ‘competencies’ for degree holders,” she explained. “This isn’t just content knowledge— it’s what we in our department focus on: historical skills development. These skills—like research, reading documents for bias and perspective, analysis, attention to chronology, writing—are highly transferable from one field like history to others like business.”

Quam-Wickham thinks the Tuning project is very worthwhile.

“My feeling is that if specialist faculty teaching in the disciplines (history, psychology, marketing to name a few) don’t do this, it will be done for us by assessment ‘experts’ and administrators,” she said. “This is not good. This is an effort where faculty have real power over the curriculum and can participate in the planning of degree programs for years to come.”

Tuning, Quam-Wickham explained, is a collaborative process which convenes experts in a discipline to spell out the distinctive skills, methods and substantive range of that field. Participants then work to harmonize or “tune” the core goals of their discipline and the curricula that support those goals on each participating campus.

A draft of the DQP was released in January 2011 with the goal of establishing specific, rigorous learning expectations for graduates receiving associates, bachelors, and master’s degrees. Toward this end, the DQP provides a common vocabulary for talking about what students should know and be able to do, a mechanism for better understanding how institutions of higher education can foster the development of these competencies, and reference points for accountability that focus on student learning as opposed to job placement rates or test scores of graduates. The DQP proposes that students be proficient in five areas—specialized knowledge, broad integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning and civic learning.

One primary goal of the History DQP is to measure skills in research, said Quam-Wickham.

“CSULB history majors have to know how to perform historical research, which is different from sociological research,” she said. “The historian’s approach is different from the scientific method. We don’t start with a hypothesis and develop an experiment that endorses or disproves the hypothesis. We craft an argument based on our sources.”

Photo of Nancy Quam-Wickham
Nancy Quam-Wickham

The skills students acquire in research are transferable to many disciplines, according to Quam-Wickham. She cites an example offered by her colleague, History’s Jeff Blutinger: “Say a history major graduates with a bachelor’s degree then gets a job working for the Dodgers’ home office,” she said. “Say a VP of scouting plans a visit to Japan and the student is tasked with the job of studying any cultural issues the scout would need to be aware of. It would save the scout from making inappropriate remarks or gestures. At the beginning of class, most students said they would Google it. That’s not really sufficient. Library research represents a significant skill set that is transferable because, if the scout encounters those cultural obstacles, the student would be out of a job. The students ought to be able to prepare a document that is literate and verifiable while at the same time allowing the scout to do a great job.”

The decision not to participate in the Tuning project was not an option, Quam-Wickham said.

“There are risks to the History Department if we did not participate,” she explained. “History does not have its own accreditation mechanism the way nursing or business do. When the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) does its accreditation visits, the department must be seen to have a rigorous curriculum. Any faculty member who had the chance to participate in the Tuning process would be foolish not to. There are certain skills any student graduating with a bachelor’s degree ought to have.”

Quam-Wickham is proud of the History Department’s participation in the AHA Tuning project.

“The History Department at CSULB always has been at the leading edge of history education,” she said. “This department publishes The History Teacher journal which is the only peer-reviewed pedagogical journal associated with the AHA. Students in the credential program in history have a very good background with which to walk into the classroom. Our goal is to create well-educated young people.”