Centering Pedagogy in History Teaching and Learning: A conversation with Dr. Natalie Mendoza

 Erstwhile contributing editor Caroline Grego interviews Dr. Natalie Mendoza, a postdoctoral research associate and founder of the History Teaching and Learning Project at the University of Colorado Boulder’s history department. The transcript below has been lightly edited, and the interview’s audio is available in the embedded Soundcloud file.


Caroline Grego (CG): Hello and welcome back to one of Erstwhile’s interviews. I’m Caroline Grego, one of the founders and contributing editors of Erstwhile blog. I’m here today with CU Boulder’s Dr. Natalie Mendoza. She’s currently a postdoctoral research associate and project lead for the History Teaching and Learning Project here at CU, a pedagogy project focused on rethinking the undergraduate Prior to earning her Ph.D. in US history at UC-Berkeley, Natalie taught high school history in northern California. Her research interests include Mexican-American and Chicana/Chicano history, U.S. Latina/Latino History, U.S. civil rights history, and the history of race and racism in the U.S. In addition to studying the past, Natalie’s research includes history and the practice of pedagogy at multiple levels. She’s co-organized two international teaching history conferences to support teachers and professors across the K-16 continuum. At the graduate level, Natalie designed a course that aimed to prepare doctoral students for the teaching responsibilities they will assume as faculty at all institutions of higher education and elsewhere by encouraging them to view their roles as teachers and researchers as equally important to what it means to be a historian. And we’re here today to focus mostly on her pedagogy work, so welcome! Thanks for being here today.

Dr. Natalie Mendoza (NM): Thank you Caroline, I’m so glad to be here with you.

CG: I guess I’d like to start just by asking you what brought you to pedagogy.

NM: As you mentioned in that lovely introduction, I taught high school before I entered graduate school, so I had some pedagogical training through the [high school] credentialing program. But I actually didn’t realize that pedagogy was important to me until I was in graduate school. It was at that point that I recognized that teaching history in high school was different than teaching at the college level. There was this misalignment between what students were being taught in high school classrooms that didn’t necessarily line up with what they would be expected to do in a college classroom. Once I was at Berkeley, it requires that grad students take a pedagogy course if they want to teach discussion sections – and ultimately if they want to get paid! So this was wonderful, this was great to have this pedagogy course as part of my graduate student curriculum.

But I wanted more. I had all these questions that stemmed from my perspective as a high school teacher, and then all of a sudden being in a college setting realizing that there was something different going on. I wanted to think about how I could use what I had learned about pedagogy in my credentialing program in a college classroom. Bigger questions included: what is the transition going to look like from teaching a discussion section as a graduate student to being an instructor of record? When transitioning to being in charge of my own class, what kinds of changes are happening there? What did I need to know? These were just a few of the questions I had. My response was to co-found a pedagogy group among the graduate students with a fellow graduate student, Sarah Gold-McBride, who is equally passionate about pedagogy and pedagogy training in graduate programs as I am. We co-founded the history graduate student pedagogy group in the history department at Berkeley to try to begin to tackle some of these questions and the pressing needs that we felt we had as grad student instructors.

CG: What is the goal of your postdoc position at CU? What projects have you been working on? How have you been bringing this knowledge from your graduate explorations of pedagogy to this position?

NM: Thankfully it worked out that I spent that much time thinking about pedagogy as a graduate student! – Which I recognize was unusual. And I still managed to file my dissertation! I have been able to bring that pedagogical experience to the project here. I’m the project lead for the History Teaching & Learning Project in the history department. Our central goal this year is to work with faculty to develop a set of department-wide learning objectives that all of the faculty can agree upon and to figure out how to teach and develop assignments that support these commonly agreed upon learning objectives. Ultimately our hope is to reconfigure the major pathway to reflect these learning objectives and, most importantly, to include teaching practices that will support those goals. The question then that we’re asking ourselves in this project is, what are the types of skills and habits of mind that a history major should have when they graduate from CU Boulder? What do we want them to have learned by the time they leave our classrooms? What does it mean to have a degree in history? What should a student with a history degree be able to do? How should they be able to think?

Last fall I interviewed all of the faculty, for a good hour long [each]. I asked them some of these questions and also what challenges they feel like they have as history teachers. I read through their syllabi – all of them – which was a nice bit of intellectual history to read it and see how the syllabi reflect their thoughts about teaching and learning. Between the interviews and the syllabi, I developed a preliminary list of learning objectives that even if the faculty weren’t identifying them as learning objectives explicitly, you could see that that’s what they were. So I developed a preliminary list, I put it together, I shared it with them, asked them what they thought about it, and they had a conversation about it. I’ve since pulled that together, and we now have a first draft of learning objectives that we will discuss during the faculty meeting in April.

There are several other things that we’ve done. We’ve invited history pedagogy experts to talk with the department. We had Dr. Anne Hyde, who worked on the American Historical Association’s Tuning Project, which had a similar goal of trying to define broadly what it means to think like a historian. We also invited David Pace, whose recent project has had a profound impact on other disciplines, not just history. It’s the “decoding the discipline” process, which is meant to help academics uncover the discipline-specific ways that we think and how to teach that to students. Both of these historians have done really excellent work with pedagogy.

We’ve also created a working group of volunteer faculty and one grad student who is you, Caroline!

CG: Full disclosure, yes!

NM: Yes, you’re part of the working group too. And so that group is very simply dedicated to discussing pedagogy. One thing we’ve talked about for instance is: what do students learn in high school history classes, and how does that then affect what we’re able to do at the college level? We’ve also discussed pedagogical methods for designing lessons and courses.

One last thing I wanted to add is that even though this project is focused on faculty, my interest in this really began as a graduate student and the lack of [pedagogy] training in graduate programs, so I’ve also done some collaborating with the history graduate students here in CU’s history department to support their pedagogical development. We had a conversation about what needs they felt they had as graduate students teaching or as the instructor of record. [Subsequently] I just did a pedagogy workshop organized by the History Graduate Student Association during which we talked about basic things they need to think about when they’re designing lessons, how to identify learning objectives, and how can you figure out whether or not students have actually learned what you wanted them to learn? These are some basic things that I think are missing from graduate programs.

CG: Could you speak a little bit to what you see as some of the most important learning objectives that we should be focusing on in history classrooms?

NM: The most important learning objective in history classrooms to focus on would be the conceptual ones. So I think that what we all hold in common is that we do try to focus on the skills. How do you read a primary source, and how is that different from reading a secondary source? How do you write a good historical argument? I think that for the most part we all do a pretty good job of that. But it’s the conceptual pieces, the things that really define what we do as historians – like understanding things like change over time, complexity, contingency, context. Context sounds simple. I think most history students know that they need to develop context or have context, but I’m not sure they understand quite how important it is for reading primary sources. You can only read a primary source on its own and get so much information. At some point you’re going to need context to fill in gaps, to make better sense of it, and to then get you to that analysis that we’re looking for.

I think the most important learning objectives are the ones that are tied to the conceptual things, the habits of mind, the things that historians just instinctually know to do. Those are the most important but missing sometimes in part because as historians, it’s so second-nature to us! So we just assume that the students will understand it – and they don’t! For whatever reason, they’re not historically-minded like that. That’s okay! They don’t have to be. But as experts that’s our job: to teach them that and to think about primary sources in that way.

CG: Could you give us some practical examples of your pedagogy in action? What do you do in your syllabi and in your classrooms to facilitate and improve undergrad learning and to implement these objectives and so forth?

NM: This project has been really great because it’s forced me to (in a good way!) be explicit about what a good pedagogy might look like and what clear learning objectives might look like in instruction. To that end, I’ve talked with graduate students and faculty about basic pedagogical methods. One of those is creating alignment in your courses. Admittedly, even as I was reading their syllabi trying to look for evidence of alignment (which I’ll explain in just a minute) I realized that I didn’t do some of the things in my own syllabus. I thought, oh jeez Natalie that’s not good! This project has been good for making me think about that.

Let me explain what alignment is. Alignment includes three steps. The first step would be identifying learning objectives. What is it that you want students to learn? We talked about skills, we talked about concepts, or content – any of those things could be learning objectives. The second thing is for you to think about those high-stakes assignments at the end of the semester that comprise the final grade. What types of assignments at the end of the semester will measure whether or not students learned the objectives that you set for them? What assignments will provide the evidence of learning that you need? And the third step is to think about what instruction you need to provide throughout the semester before students complete that final assignment. What instruction do you need to provide in order to support students? If you have all three of these steps in sync with each other, then you have alignment in your classroom. Your assignments and your instruction align with your learning objectives. At that basic level, your teaching will be much more effective. I would say too that your stress levels decrease dramatically! This is in part because you feel more like you’re in control and you know what you’re doing: I have a goal, this is how I’m going to do it, and this is how I’m going to know that I achieved it.

This semester I’m teaching Mexican-American History since 1848 for the first time, so I’m very excited about it. It’s a new curriculum for me too, even though it’s my area of expertise. What I’ve done then in terms of this alignment is I’ve tried to include more instruction throughout the semester. This is admittedly a difficult thing to do in a college classroom, especially if you’ve got a large lecture! How do you do instruction with 150 students? But thankfully I have a small class, so I’m able to try out more of these instructional things.

What this means is that I’m lecturing a lot less than I have before. This class meets three times a week, but I lecture only once a week. The rest of the week, students participate in workshops that focus on reading, writing, and thinking skills in history. Most importantly, once a week they work on a primary source set that I’ve provided them. The course’s central learning objective is for students to construct historical narratives. Having fewer lectures, more workshops, and more in-class instruction (especially that one day in which they work very closely with a primary source set), is all meant to support that bigger learning goal of constructing a historical narrative. Those workshops also provide an opportunity to practice what they’ve learned, the idea being that they practice it and they try it out before they complete the final assignment, which is to write a textbook entry.

CG: I know that I view lectures as a safety blanket in a way. I’m just teaching my second semester as the instructor of record of American History before 1865, and while I do have a discussion section built in, I have to say I find it really difficult to let go of lectures. I worry that they won’t get enough content, or they won’t get the argument or the story I’m trying to tell without it. So I’m wondering how did you let go of that to some degree?

NM: I’m not sure I have yet! And that, I think, is the big experiment for me. Lecturing is teacher-centered. When we create lectures, we as the teachers become a student in the sense that we’re learning it really well. It makes sense to us, and then we share it with the students. A learning objective of lecturing, for instance, could just be content delivery. And that’s a totally valid learning objective. I’m not sure that there’s any value in getting rid of lectures entirely, but suppose you have a class in which you lecture the whole time. So we might say the learning objective is content delivery. We might even say that you’re modeling how to make an argument – if you’re being explicit about it though! They might [otherwise] see it as just very simply a story that’s being told to them. So if the goal in lecturing is to model how to develop an argument, I might say that we’d have to be very explicit about that. It doesn’t sound elegant, but if that’s your goal–if you are insisting that the lecture provides a model for how to do it–then you’re going to have to be a little bit more explicit about it.

But even with that, students have to have practice doing it! Especially if  a course in which you are primarily lecturing has a final assignment that is a research paper or even a final exam. They, one, need to be explicitly taught how to do it, so you might have other assignments that support that goal. I think most importantly they need practice with it. I wouldn’t say that lecturing is a bad thing entirely but I think that there are more effective ways of using it. This is why I try to bring home the point of alignment because the first thing you have to do is think: what are my learning objectives? You can use lecturing as a teaching tool, but what goal does it meet?

In that sense I would hope that that would encourage instructors to think: if I’m not willing to let go of lecturing, what purpose does it serve? How that internal discussion turns out I don’t know, but again I would insist that you want to think about whatever it is you’re doing in your classroom. How does that meet some bigger learning objective you have? I’m not sure that directly answers your questions except that I don’t think you need to let it go necessarily, but just really think about how it’s helping you to meet the larger goals that you have. And then maybe adjust some!

For my students, I don’t know, maybe I’m bad at lecturing, but they seem to like the student-centered workshops better than listening to me talk! Maybe I’m just self-conscious. But I think though, to answer your question,  that they do enjoy the workshops. It might be that they enjoy your lecturing and may be getting the content out of it that they wanted. But I think you’d be surprised at how much they enjoy the doing part of history. I’m not sure that they get everything that I’m trying to say in lecture. I think we can all agree on that; we’ll get back exams that we think, wait, they didn’t pick up on what I said, how did they miss that, what did I do wrong? Part of me is not entirely sure that lecturing is even that effective for content delivery.

CG: Historians sometimes struggle to communicate the complicated academic ideas that they do in their research within the context of the classroom. Do you see any connections between your pedagogical work and your academic research, and how do you bridge that gap between academic speak and undergraduate teaching?

NM: This is such a challenge not just for historians but academics generally speaking. Part of me wonders if it might not just help if some academics might think of their classrooms as audiences that are not unlike others that they regularly engage with. As a historian, I want to make sure that my research is legible to a broader audience beyond the ten people (if there are ten people!) who are experts on my specific research topic, my dissertation, or whatever the current project is. This is something we do when we apply for fellowships, grants, and even jobs. We ideally imagine an audience of non-specialists, and we have to convince them that our research is important and worth selecting for whatever the position is.

This includes people in disciplines related to your area of study but this also includes undergraduates. They may not hold Ph.Ds., but they’re an intelligent group of people. Presumably they’re in your classroom to learn and take info away from you. I think most importantly they’re a bigger audience than that group of Ph.Ds. we write for. Some of those undergrads might be influenced by your research in a way that can reach an even broader audience and have a greater impact. I think that’s ultimately a goal we all have, and that when we do our precise and narrow research that we’ve invested the time in it because we want to make sure we do a thorough job, but then to share that with a broader audience.

I actually think of undergrads as a pretty important audience for my research. A way of thinking about it is that I view my research on Mexican Americans as making a historiographical contribution that historians can appreciate but more importantly I see it, if I can continue with this analogy, making a pedagogical contribution in the sense that I’m sharing historical knowledge with non-historians. My hope is that my research can help non-historians to think about not only the past but the present in a way that they might not have otherwise. That part of my answer is just to say that perhaps there needs to be a re-orienting about how we view undergrads, that bridging that gap means seeing them as part of the same audience in a broader sense.

In a more practical sense, sometimes I try to think of contemporary or current points of interests where I look for where history is in the present, in the news, that students can then easily identify with. I use that as a way to try to introduce the topic. Other times, I try to imagine what it is they likely know about the topic before entering my class. That is something that I learned in the teaching credential program when I was learning to teach high school. If I remember correctly I believe the term was “accessing prior knowledge.” What is it that they already know? How is that going to help you then teach? What is it that they know before entering my classroom? Or sometimes I just ask a question: what does it mean to study history, or why is history important to the present? In doing that I can identify what they do and don’t know, identify misconceptions that they may have, or what big ideas big conceptual ideas in history they may not have but which would definitely be important for moving forward in the class. Once I get a sense of that, I feel like I’m in a better position to design the lessons because now I know what to focus on.

And then of course there’s simply that task of avoiding technical jargon and using language that makes sense to them. I don’t have a direct solution for that except that you have to practice with your words and to imagine what it is that they already know—that’s key to figuring out what that simpler language is and how to get past the technical jargon.

CG: What words of advice do you have for graduate students who, as you know, are often given teaching positions without much formalized training?

NM: This was a huge, huge thing for me when I was a graduate student. I was actually really bothered by it! When you enter an undergraduate classroom, that’s a big responsibility. What I would say is that I would take advantage of resources that are on the campus. So usually you can find this in some sort of center for teaching and learning, and sometimes there are campus units that are focused on graduate students. These are good places for learning basic educational tools like alignment. They may actually describe it in different ways, but for the most part you can get those methods and those tools in centers for teaching and learning.

Graduate students and faculty are often turned off by these resources. One: because they have busy schedules, so it’s just one more thing to do. And with graduate students, of course you have a dissertation to write! As much as I think pedagogy is important, I also recognize that the reality is that the program is set up to make sure you get through and finish your dissertation. I would say that that is the most important thing; you do want to make sure you finish that dissertation. But on the one hand they’re turned off because they have busy schedules, but also because these centers for teaching and learning do often use a lot of this technical jargon that can feel overwhelming and confusing and people’s eyes get out of focus and they stop listening much like our undergrads sometimes do! What I would say is that I would still attend. I would make sure to attend. If you’re confused by anything, just ask, because all of the people I’ve ever encountered are so eager to help. In some cases, I’ve been told that they’re desperate for history grad students and faculty to come. They’ve identified history departments as being less willing to participate in some of these things. But like I’ve said, they’re really eager to help, and they’re so happy to explain these things to you if you’re willing to give them the time.

Related to that, it’s best to learn these basic educational tools before you finish a graduate program. Graduate school is a busy time, but once you begin teaching, if you can believe it, you’ll have even less time. Last year was my first year of teaching, and I knew that it was going to be super busy, but I just had no idea how busy I was going to be. And part of that is just that course preparation takes plenty of time on its own even when you have the skill set. There are other things you’re handling. If you’re lecturing or you’re adjuncting, you’re probably still on the academic job market and that takes time, putting together those applications, and if you happen to get an interview or campus visit, you have to prepare for that. Or if you’re on the tenure track you have service and other things that you’re doing. Of course we also want to make sure to reserve personal time for ourselves. I would suggest that this definitely happens before finishing the graduate program!

One thing I will say though which I still think is a big problem in terms of pedagogy for the discipline – for instance, some of those centers for teaching and learning may not have any resources that address discipline-specific issues that we deal with in the classroom. This is actually very important to have pedagogy that focuses on what it means to teach history. Unfortunately I think that some of those teaching and learning centers might not have those resources, though it just depends on the campus. Helping us address questions in our history classrooms, such as how do we teach students the importance of perspective in historical study and how that’s not necessarily the same thing as bias? Or helping them read primary sources with audience and motivation in mind. These types of issues probably don’t come up in a physics or engineering classroom. I wish there was more of that. There might be some such centers and I just don’t know, but I would imagine it would be hard to find that.

So this is a bit trickier to navigate as a graduate student, since the discipline as a whole has a way to go in terms of having a basic but especially a robust conversation about these specific issues that we have as history teachers. The good news is that there’s a group of historians who have worked on this for some time; gosh, I think at least twenty years now, they’ve been working on it. But it still could be bigger, and there could be more people involved in the conversation. I recommend that graduate students and faculty read the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. On the Boulder website for the HTLP, we have a library that has some suggestions. Otherwise you can just do a simple journal search for articles written by historians. David Pace, Lendol Calder, Laura Westhoff, and Leah Shopkow are historians who have done a great amount of work in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history and I think that graduate students and faculty, and historians generally, will find their articles accessible and relevant. I would also say that I would check out blogs written by people like Kevin Gannon, who I think you all have interviewed before, and Catherine Denial who I recently discovered on Twitter. These two have excellent ideas about how to approach broad problems in teaching but especially in history classrooms. They’re on Twitter, and they post all kinds of great stuff that I’ve found incredibly useful in my classroom.

One more thing! The AHA [American Historical Association] has and continues to do a great job providing teaching support on the website and in the Perspectives magazine. Their career diversity initiative, which I think most people view as addressing non-academic jobs outside of the professoriate (which is true, there’s a good portion of that initiative that focuses on that), but pedagogy is also an important piece of that. I know that they are planning to do more with pedagogy in graduate student training as they move forward with the initiative. I am keeping an eye out for it!

CG: As for a final question, I’m wondering what you hope will come out of your postdoc and also too this exploration of why history pedagogy is so important. And I think – isn’t this actually the only postdoc focused on pedagogy offered?

NM: I’ve had to think about that! In this position I’ve interacted with more people and I’ve learned more about what’s going on in other departments and institutions. But as for your first question, my biggest hope is that the HTLP we have here at CU Boulder can serve as a model for other history departments that are interested in improving their undergraduate education programs. That’s the biggest hope. Our department chair [Dr. Paul Sutter] and our undergraduate studies director [Dr. Anne Lester?] are in agreement about that, that we’d like to think about this in a methodological way, in a clear way, and to offer a practical model for other departments.

But as you say, one of the impressive things about the project is the postdoc position itself. There are pedagogical positons like mine at teaching institutions, at universities that prioritize (for lack of a better word) teaching. That maybe that’s a separate conversation about what we think teaching institutions versus a research institution! We’d expect that: for a pedagogical position like this to be at a teaching institution. But my understanding is that it’s harder to find this same position at a history department that’s at an R1 institution. And I hope I’m wrong about that! I’m not trying to make a claim that isn’t true. I hope that somewhere there is a pedagogy position in an R1 institution in the United States and that I’m not alone. But I have a feeling that that might be the distinction there, that might be the case.

We have a lot to learn from those teaching institutions. They’ve been doing this for years, they’ve been working on it for a long time, [and] they’re ahead of us in that way. My hope is that again going back to this wanting the project to be a model – perhaps I should revise that to being a model for R1 institutions. It might encourage them and provide a model for them in how they can be more proactive in their thinking about pedagogy in ways that the teaching institutions are already doing, and how what we’re doing here might be useful to that.

I’ve always thought that being a historian means you’re a teacher. I went to Sonoma State University in California, and all of my interactions with my professors – they were professors, but I always just equated that with teaching! One of my professors shared a chapter from a book he was getting ready to publish and that really surprised me. I thought, “Wow, he wrote a book!” And then I got into Berkeley and again I still was thinking, “Okay I’m here to teach.” And then someone mentioned during orientation something about publishing a book and I thought, “What’s this nonsense about publishing a book? No one told me I was going to be publishing a book!”

For me, being a historian means that you’re a teacher. But of course we are researchers of the past, I’m not dismissing that. We produce historical knowledge and that’s a huge part of who we are. But also that would make us really great teachers! We have that practical experience with it, we are the experts in that, so we should be the ones to teach it to students, and we should play a central role in teaching that. But we should also learn some pedagogical stuff to help us share that knowledge, the skills, the habits of mind. I don’t think that being a teacher is a small thing. It’s a huge thing. You’re impacting so many students’ lives, people who leave college and then go on to interact with other communities, small, big. I see these two roles as inseparable. My hope is that other historians – and maybe this is really lofty – will come to see that too and then embrace it.

CG: Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciated it.

NM: Thank you, Caroline. I enjoyed it too.


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