Natalie Mendoza (Ph.D., 2016) on teaching as a historian

January 18, 2020

Natalie Mendoza (Ph.D., 2016) is Assistant Professor of U.S. History at University of Colorado, Boulder, where she specializes in Mexican American and Chicanx history, US Latinx history, US civil rights history, and the history of race and racism in the United States. In addition to studying the past, Dr. Mendoza has an active research agenda in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History (HistorySoTL). Dr. Mendoza has also done extensive work to improve history education at multiple levels. She has consulted for K-12 social studies teachers in both California and Colorado, taught a pedagogy course and facilitated workshops for graduate students at UC Berkeley and CU- Boulder, helped found the Teaching History Conference to support teachers and professors across the K-16 continuum, and served on an ad hoc committee for the American Historical Association tasked with drafting a statement on the value of SoTL in History to the discipline. Dr. Mendoza currently serves as a regional officer for the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History, and as an advisory board member for #PlainTalkHistory, a website resource for critical history lessons for a multiracial democracy.

Her current book project, Good Neighbor at Home: Mexican American Identity and Civil Rights during World War II, examines the impact of geopolitics and war on intellectual thought, identity formation, and civil rights activism within the Mexican American population in the pre-Chicano period. She is currently on leave for the 2019-2020 academic year to take residence as the David J. Weber Fellow at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies in Texas.

Derek: Please tell us a bit about your work since Berkeley. What path did you take to your current position? Have the years since Berkeley been as you anticipated them?


Natalie: I’m currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), and surprisingly, I got to my current position because of my interest and active engagement with history pedagogy research and teacher training that I developed as a grad student. I say surprisingly because in grad school, I never would’ve imagined that the work I was doing at that time with history education would make me a competitive or an appealing candidate on the tenure-track job market. I don’t mean simply having plenty of experience in the classroom as a teaching assistant, since most of us in the Berkeley program would fulfill that criterion. Rather, the work I did consulting for Bay Area K-12 communities through the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project (UCBHSSP), the graduate student pedagogy group I co-created, the pedagogy research position I held for one year in the department, and the experience I had co-organizing the Teaching History Conference—these were all things I brought forward in my job application materials as strengths in my professional profile, and which did not, as we are sometimes told, diminish my appeal and competitiveness on the job market. When CU-Boulder, for instance, posted an ad for a pedagogy postdoctoral research associate position, I easily met the required and desired qualifications listed in the posting. At CU-Boulder I led what came to be the History Teaching & Learning Project (HTLP), a pedagogical effort aimed at rethinking and improving undergraduate education by developing department-wide learning goals and examining teaching practices and assessments. We relied upon history pedagogy research, including the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History (HistorySoTL)—a body of literature that uses evidence- and theory-based research to explore common problems in the teaching and learning of history—to pursue these goals. In the two years (2017-2019) that I worked as a pedagogy postdoc at CU-Boulder, the history department came to see the value of having a historian with an expertise in history pedagogy research, and it decided to pursue a tenure-track line for me. As a grad student, I never would’ve thought it possible to hold a tenure-track position in a history department—at a research-intensive institution to boot—that prioritized teaching in ways that aligned with my own pedagogical experiences and values.   


Derek: When you reflect on the course of your Ph.D., are there particular moments--for better or worse--that you would point to as having a major influence on your development as a scholar? Would you offer any particular guidance to current students who might encounter similar situations?


Natalie: One year—2013, I think—the Berkeley history department had been selected to participate in an American Historical Association (AHA)/Teagle Foundation collaboration focused on revamping graduate student pedagogy courses. Under the auspices of this project, the department hosted an event in which leading history education and HistorySoTL scholars visited our campus and shared their work with us. It was a turning point for me because it was the first time I had seen historians engaged in their teaching as a practice of intellectual inquiry—these folks identified problems in the classroom, read the existing scholarship on these problems, and then set out to make changes in their own classroom, collecting data as they went to determine whether or not these changes had worked. This was my introduction to HistorySoTL, and it was very exciting to me—the idea that historians could have a dual research agenda of the past and in history pedagogy. This visit had made such an impact on me that I co-created the graduate student pedagogy group shortly thereafter. It was also the encouragement I needed to continue the work I had begun doing with UCBHSSP in K-12 communities (and which ultimately afforded the opportunity to co-organize the Teaching History Conference).

The key takeaway here is to do work, outside of your dissertation research, that is meaningful to you, that excites you, that is important to you. PhD curriculum is designed to aid you in completing your dissertation, and so it’s not likely that you’ll find opportunities there to explore and develop other professional interests you have and to think about how these align with the work you do as a historian. It can be hard to find those opportunities on your own, but I think the first step is to be open and willing to look for those and to make time for these, where you can in your schedule, and even in the smallest ways. I was fortunate that I had several opportunities presented to me for the thing that excited me the most—the AHA/Teagle visit was one such opportunity, certainly, but also the many chances I had to work with UCBHSSP. I suggest getting involved with other campus units or with local organizations doing work that is important to you, and it’ll be easier to find those opportunities. 


Derek: Given your extensive work on pedagogy that spans primary through university History education, it seems fair to say that you haven't strictly followed the conventional path of professionalization. How has your sense of what it means to be a professional historian developed over the years?


Natalie: I actually started grad school thinking of historians working only as professors, and that this, in turn, meant their only responsibility was to teach (this, admittedly, was shaped by my own undergraduate education in the California State University (CSU) system, where the professors teach a considerable amount more than UC professors). I knew historians did research, but I didn’t think of this as the central piece of their career, let alone a key part of their professional identity. Starting the PhD program at Cal, then, was eye-opening (to say the least!), and my understanding of what it meant to be a professional historian changed accordingly. First, I became very excited about the high level of research—asking questions about the past, working in the archives, writing narratives—I was exposed to since these were things I’d not had too much experience with before my time at Berkeley. I enjoyed it very much. Both my previous experience teaching high school and my CSU undergrad experience, however, led me to view teaching and research as equally important parts of my professional identity as a historian. Now that I am an assistant professor, I also see that this view maps onto the practical reality of the daily work I do as faculty: even at an R1 institution, much of my time is spent on teaching—designing my courses, preparing materials, grading coursework, interacting with students, and being in the classroom—and it is here that my research and expertise has just as much impact as it does at a conference or with a peer-reviewed publication. Both roles mutually reinforce each other and, truth be told, together they make me a better historian.  


Derek: Is there any particular experience you had or skill you developed at Cal that has been surprisingly helpful in your work beyond Berkeley?


Natalie: Organizing the Teaching History Conference gave me the opportunity to develop and practice skills that I used as the HTLP pedagogy postdoc at CU-Boulder: communicating with guests we invited for workshops, developing those workshops, creating text about HTLP for public consumption, and fostering professional relationships on campus and elsewhere—these were all skills I first developed as a grad student member of the conference leadership team. Interestingly enough, these are also skills I still use in the work I do as an assistant professor (and which were not part of the PhD curriculum).  


Derek: Were there points when you considered careers outside of the tenure track? For Ph.D. students contemplating this, what skills or experience would be most useful for them to pursue as they go through the doctorate?


Natalie: I was on the academic job market for four years, and by my third year I began to think about how to pivot out of academia if I didn’t get a tenure-track job within the next year or two. By that point I was in my first year of the pedagogy postdoc at CU-Boulder, and that experience had exposed me to a career possibility I had not considered before: pedagogy consultation. Most of what made this a viable career option for me originated from the pedagogy work I had first done as a grad student and then as a pedagogy postdoc at CU-Boulder. So, within that first year at CU-Boulder, for instance, I had been invited to be the pedagogy consultant for three different events: one was a teaching institute for historians, the other was a new faculty orientation, and the last was a professional development workshop for secondary school social studies teachers. These opportunities came about for a few reasons. The director of the teaching institute for historians, for instance, knew about my pedagogy work from my Twitter account. I had begun to ramp up my Twitter presence by updating my profile and sending tweets that showcased the pedagogy work I was doing at CU-Boulder. A dean for faculty development had been in the audience when I presented at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), in which I had spoken on a panel about the importance of pedagogical training in graduate programs in order to better prepare students hoping to find employment on the tenure-track. Shortly thereafter he asked me to participate in the new faculty orientation at his college. And through my UCBHSSP connection, I was invited to lead a professional development workshop with Colorado social studies teachers.


These opportunities allowed me to imagine a different career, and especially one that was intimately tied to the work I had long been doing since at least grad school. They built upon that early pedagogy work, and in hindsight, I think that this was actually an important first step to imagining a career outside of the tenure-track—my grad school experience was a critical foundation, in other words, for considering other possibilities. Having a more active and visible Twitter presence, participating in the AAC&U panel, and the social studies consultation would not have mattered or been possible without the projects I worked on during grad school. I think the best thing doctoral students can do now is to begin exploring work that is not based solely in their dissertation research and, when possible or feasible, to gain basic experience in that work. This is important for building up a résumé, but it’s also important for understanding how you would feel using your expertise off the tenure-track—Is it satisfying work? How does it compare to what you know about being on the tenure-track? Would this line of work support or complement the kind of lifestyle you hope to have post-PhD (here I’m thinking work-life balance)? For that matter, would a tenure-track position? (As you might’ve guessed, it would be useful to talk with faculty about working on the tenure-track in order for you to make this comparison). There is no magic formula for gaining employment as a PhD off the tenure-track—much of what I say here is what others will tell you—but I suppose what I would like to stress is for doctoral students to think about these big, reflective questions now since grad school is when you are in an optimal position to do something about them.