I met Fryer a few years back at an American Historical Association meeting; I think you will find this article to be most insightful as it addresses the nature of academic work in an independent school. Because I have only wanted to teach in an independent school history department, I have found those who have more experience than I to be the most insightful, especially faculty members at tier one national independent schools. I have asked a few people from various schools to contribute to a discussion on teaching, research, and doing academic work.
Some academics view high school teaching as the epitome of failure-a fall-back plan for those who can’t make it in the world of higher education. After four years of teaching in a well-regarded New York City independent school, I’ve concluded that my present institution is more rigorous, and offers a more intellectually satisfying teaching environment, than many colleges and universities. Many independent schools, in fact, more nearly resemble miniature liberal arts colleges than the high schools that we may remember from our youth.
The top independent schools have a standard teaching load of four courses (typically three preparations), each of which meets for 160-200 minutes per week. Other independent schools often have a teaching load of five courses (also three preparations). Job candidates should note that this teaching load is similar to the prevailing load at community colleges and smaller state universities. Classes are small: often fewer than 15 students and certainly fewer than 20. A common pattern is for each instructor to teach two survey courses plus an elective for more advanced students. Many electives focus on particular regions-Atlantic World, Islamic World, Africa, East Asia-while others introduce students to disciplines such as art history, intellectual history, and political science. Some independent schools offer “topics” courses, in which advanced students study highly focused topics (the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the history of New York City) for a single quarter or trimester
Both historiography and primary sources are often central to independent school history courses. Primary sources are usually introduced in the early middle school years; by high school, students are expected to quote and analyze primary sources in every essay they write. The school at which I teach formally introduces historiography in the 10th grade; students read excerpts from Ulrich Phillips, Kenneth Stampp, and Eugene Genovese, write a paper in which they analyze an excerpt from the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass from each of these three perspectives, and then learn about more recent trends in the historiography of slavery. In 11th and 12th grade courses, students read books and articles that exemplify various approaches to historical analysis, such as new social history, narrative history, and environmental history. In class and on tests, they may be asked to compare and contrast theories they have studied or apply them to particular primary sources.
Independent schools expect students to do a great deal of writing. A year-long survey course typically requires about four essays of at least 3-4 pages each; advanced courses often require a substantial research paper in addition to two to four short papers. The quality of the papers varies greatly, just as it would in most college classrooms. The best papers make very ambitious arguments. Many independent schools now subscribe to databases such as American National Biography and JSTOR, and teaching students to use these resources is an integral part of the research curriculum.
The Independent School Culture
In some respects, independent schools require a greater commitment from faculty than colleges do. For example, independent school teachers usually write separate reports (75-100 words) on each student three times per year. As at many small colleges, faculty members are expected to be on campus every day and be readily available for informal meetings with students. It’s not unusual to be asked to cover an absent colleague’s class or to speak at an assembly on, say, the electoral college. As academic departments are small, one may find oneself serving as a point person for regions and eras in which one has little or no training; though trained as an early Americanist, I am now my department’s primary contact for the entire Western Hemisphere. (Of course, when the time comes to order new library books, this is a pleasure.)
Independent schools also expect faculty members to perform significant service outside the classroom. Typical assignments include academic advising, mentoring a club, helping coach an athletic team, chaperoning field trips, and serving on faculty committees. Good independent schools grant faculty members considerable discretion in choosing their own service activities; these extracurricular assignments sometimes present unexpected opportunities to revive and develop old interests. As a teenager, I studied German for nine years; as an American historian, I scarcely ever use the language. But I now teach an introductory “Taste of German” course to seniors each spring.
An increasing number of independent school faculty seek to publish scholarly books and articles. One is also likely to have colleagues who work as poets, performing artists, and literary translators in their spare time. Independent schools seldom oppose such scholarly and artistic activities, but neither do they offer the support that research universities provide. Summer vacations usually last two months, not three. School libraries, though often magnificent for their size, are not adequate