Review of William Caferro, Teaching History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2020)

caferroThis book might be categorized as a memoir or more precisely a set of reflections about teaching history. It is only secondarily a guide or how-to book about teaching history. Caferro has been teaching history at the university-levl for 35 years. He graduated from Yale, began his career as an adjunct teacher, taught for a while at the University of Tulsa, and spent most of his career at Vanderbilt University. His varied experiences give him valuable insight into some of the kinds of difficult positions professors find themselves in and he is sympathetic to their troubles while aware of his own privileges.

Caferro’s thesis is a common refrain, that teaching takes a backseat to research in university history departments. He hopes to instill from his own experiences some lessons in how history professors can improve their teaching habits and style. A positive aspect of this book is that it is not dogmatic in the least. Caferro recognizes that there are a diversity of successful teaching styles. He believes that good teaching can be learned, but that if you try to copy your style from another person, it likely won’t work. Teaching styles depend on personalities and what works one year in one part of the country might not work another year somewhere else.

This book is full of examples of teaching exercises, mostly told as stories about what the author or a person he knows does in class. But the book does not always stick to its promised theme, and chapters like “classroom management” (Chapter 3) become hodgepodge of ideas, sometimes about historical thinking, sometimes about textbooks – which he largely opposes – sometimes about assignments. Caferro knows a lot about teaching, but some readers might find it a problem that he doesn’t always expresses strong opinions about what works best. Some teachers, he notes, like shorter, more manageable readings for their students. He isn’t so sure about the effectiveness of this, since he likes students to explore larger, classic works. He defends lecturing, even though he calls himself a nervous lecturer. He also defends timed tests. He thinks student evaluations of professors are unfair. He includes a discussion about technology in the classroom, but it is quite general and basic.

Caferro teaches the “teaching history” class for graduate students at Vanderbilt.  On the first day of this class he assigns his students to write a teaching philosophy. Some, he says, might object to this as putting the cart before the horse. But, he defends the practice. It is practical (since all teachers will need to write one down the line), it encourages reflection, and spurs conversations about normative values in the classroom.

Caferro also advises young professors to seek advice from their colleagues about the teaching environment at the university where they are hired. The book could have been written as “Letters to Young Professor” in the style of an experienced colleague who wants to tell you how to fit in and get by. Caferro advises young teaches to “avoid the desire to be loved” (66). By this, he means that we shouldn’t try to show off our knowledge or become the center of all attention in the class. Instead, we need to let students take the stage, explore ideas, and find their inspiration for history.

The book had undertones of complaining about academia that seem fair but not novel. Caferro is concerned with unfairness, with gender bias, racial discrimination, and the division of scholars into the “elect and reprobate.”  His chapter five is more explicit about some of these themes. He complains about administrative bloat, “undercompensated” assistant professors  (although here one must ask the age-old economics question “compared to what/compared to whom?” ), and network inequalities – by which he largely means the advantages that some graduates students get from having prominent advisors. While large networks can help students in research and finding jobs, he notes that too many connections and professional activities can be a distraction. I found particularly welcome a paragraph on page 121 that stated what many of us in the profession know but have trouble expressing:

“As late as the 1960s, a third of American professors did not have PhDs. And in the 1990s scholars still entered history departments that contained old guard that had earned tenure without publication and often felt threatened by the more rigorously trained and discipline-savvy younger generation.”

He could have noted, however, that scholars entering departments in the 1990s now feel threatened by a generation or younger, hungry scholars who publish more than ever. A failure to do so might reflect his identification as a member of that earlier generation. At one point, Caferro complains that stories written about professors – in magazines and in movies – reflect the experiences of those at Ivy league schools. A Yale graduate at Vanderbilt is hardly that far down the academic food-chain, but Caferro’s personal reflections may more accurately represent the average or middle ground of the history discipline, with all of its paradoxical injustices.

One comment

  1. […] Michael J. Douma reviews William Caferro’s book Teaching History. […]

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