What Do History Professors Do? (Part 1)

In 2008, I wrote a long Facebook note about what I actually did as a history professor. I intend it to help explain my everyday work life to friends and family outside of academia. I’ve edited the note here to explain some things more clearly, but I’ve left it mostly as I wrote it two years ago. I’ve also divided it into two parts to make it a shorter read. Enjoy.

Lots of people seem to think that history professors drink wine, smoke pipes, read books, and pontificate to starry-eyed students who hang on their every utterance.

The life of a history professor, at least this one, is not quite so romantic. So, I am going to give you an idea of what I actually do.


I typically teach two introductory courses (general surveys of U.S. history, either from origins to 1877 or from 1877 roughly to the present) and one upper-division course in a specialty area (Jacksonian America, Civil War/Reconstruction, African American history, the American Presidency, or Conspiracy Theories in American Society). If I am teaching a course for the first time, then I have to write a syllabus, prepare lectures, design writing assignments, and select multimedia clips (music and/or video). The lecture writing process can be laborious. It usually takes me several hours to write a lecture for one day of class; this time does not include the reading needed beforehand to actually write the lecture. I am slowly migrating parts of some of my lectures to Powerpoint. Powerpoint can be a very effective teaching tool if used appropriately, but it can also be a very poor pedagogical tool. I am trying to find a happy medium that allows me to use it effectively, yet does not constrain the flexibility that I like to have in a class.

(By the way, my students would likely find laughable the idea of my classes being flexible. What they do not realize is that I usually walk into a classroom with only an outline in my head of the objectives that I want to accomplish and a general idea of how to cover them. How we get there is 75% up to them.)

I usually assign 4-6 books per course for students to read. I like my students to read both primary and secondary sources. (Primary sources are sources from an historical period that we are covering; secondary sources are usually sources written by professional historians.) Primary sources are the heart of historical research, and students need to wrestle with those speeches, letters, political cartoons, etc., from the past in order to experience the authenticity of the historical profession. It helps them get their hands dirty. On the other hand, students also need to encounter the perspective that only a professional historian can provide. They get that from me in lectures, but they also need other perspectives, because I know a lot about some subjects, but not very much about almost everything else. It is also good for them to see that history is not monolithic in its interpretation. Historians can look at the same evidence and arrive at vastly different conclusions.

I also assign 3-4 multi-page essays, on average, for students to write. I have used other assessment tools that I do not like as well (exams, for example), but, to me, having students write is a good skill for a number of reasons. My essay questions are designed to help students grapple with historical evidence, think critically about the evidence, and formulate a well-written and compelling argument. As I often tell them, there is not necessarily a right answer, although there are answers that are “more right” than others. I am looking for an essay that makes a convincing argument, supported by evidence, that is well written and shows some intelligent thought.

I also assign research papers, which students universally hate. That always surprises me, since the process of writing a research paper actually shows a student what being an historian is really like. You start with a subject or hypothesis (or both), compile evidence (sources), analyze the evidence, then form an argument in written form, with citations to show how your evidence supports your argument. My suspicion is that students like the historical narrative (the stories, if you will), but what they often fail to understand is that someone has to do research and analysis in order even to get the basics of an historical narrative.

The #1 complaint that I get from students is that I am too demanding on the mechanics of writing, as if a paper could and should only be assessed on content. I tend to ignore those criticisms, as they usually have no basis in fact other than a student’s desire to have a higher grade (the ubiquitous “grade-grubber,” as those students are called).

As part of my teaching responsibilities, I am required to set aside a number of office hours per week. These periods are for students to stop by and discuss the courses that they are taking with me. Students rarely take advantage of them, which only makes it more frustrating when they complain about my lack of availability to assist them. Today’s students seem more inclined to e-mail rather than speak face-to-face. That has some advantages, but it also has led to what I perceive as a lack of professionalism on the part of students. E-mails that read like text messages do not speak well of a student. Students also seem to find it easier to be rude in an e-mail. Whether or not the intention is always to be rude, the lack of visual cues and the poorly written nature of many e-mails allows them to come across that way.

Some students do take advantage of those office hours, though. Those students tend to do much better in my classes. They discover that, while I will not spoon-feed them exactly what they need, I will give them direction that will help them get to where they need to be. For me, it is about teaching them to fish, not simply giving them a fish. There are also students who stop by just to chat. I am not naive; I know that some of them do it to suck up. Most of them, however, are truly interested in history or in my advice on something related to university life. On rare occasions, students are actually interested in learning something about me or in sharing something about themselves. I am very careful about maintaining professional boundaries, probably to a fault, but I relish those occasions of talking as human beings and not just as professor-student.

Part 2 will follow later this week.

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8 Responses to What Do History Professors Do? (Part 1)

  1. Rick Bell says:

    Great synopsis of the teaching aspect of the job. By the way, the pipe is great. You need to break it out sometime. However, I am not sure the Titans shirt matches the intellectual feel of the pipe.

  2. Lori Ward says:

    Cumberland University was blessed to have you as a student roughly 15 years ago. It is even more blessed to have you as a professor – more importantly, a professor who enjoys his subject and cares about his students!!! Keep it up – we need more teachers like you in every grade, from Kindergarten through Ph.D. programs.

  3. I appreciate your comments about office hours, and how email communication can often be more rude than is either necessary or intended.

  4. Eric Cummings says:

    Very good, and I like that you are taking up valuable research and planning time with this missive. I assume that all the fun administrative stuff like WEAVE comes in the next part? We at the SoE&PS are pleased that you used the word “pedagogical.” Most of our students can’t even define it. I was especially glad to hear your comments about complaining students. I don’t think college profs can claim any pedagogical cache unless a good 50% of students (minimum) are complaining about how hard the class is. I was disappointed the other day when a student I had had in my intro to Ed course said “it wasn’t a hard class, but I learned a lot.” One of two goals achieved, at any rate.
    We’re glad you’re here at CU.

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