With 30 minutes left in class, the instructor stops lecturing. “Let’s get into groups of five and talk about the photos,” she says.

Finding students to pair up with is not difficult in a class of 200. Figuring out how all five of you are going to examine the trio of images is a bigger challenge.

You opt for the stairs on the edge of the lecture hall. At least here all three photos can be laid next to each other, unlike on the tiny tablet arms of the seats. The steps aren’t comfortable, but your group can gather around them—something impossible in the seats which are bolted to the floor.

Small-group discussions of readings, images, and objects is common in history courses, and instructors are increasingly incorporating collaborative assignments into their syllabi. But the infrastructure is not up to the task.

“Every course’s success to a large extent depends on the classroom shape,” said Professor Hitomi Tonomura. “It governs my ability to communicate with students— but even more important, students’ ability to communicate with each other.”

Large lecture halls are hardly ideal, and smaller-sized classrooms with mobile chairs and tables often lack the proper technology. While more tech-forward spaces already exist on campus, increased emphasis on group learning in a variety of disciplines means an increased demand for these types of classrooms.

At U-M History, students are working together more than ever before. HistoryLabs are intensely collaborative, relying on digital platforms to share research with the public. Other classes incorporate small-group assignments on a regular basis. The department needed its own space to house these experiences. 

This fall, 1700 Haven Hall debuted as History’s new team-based learning classroom. Combining two former faculty offices and a small seminar room, this new 1,000-square-foot classroom features a variety of screens with multiple display capabilities and movable whiteboards. The tables and chairs are mobile to allow for maximum flexibility, allowing instructors to continue reimagining their courses. 

Plan and 3D rendering of the team-based classroom in 1700 Haven Hall.

“Professors have been delivering lectures since the middle ages,” said Deborah Field, whose course is in the new classroom. “Teaching in a space like this really encourages instructors to use lecturing as just one of many methods, rather than the default.”

For Tonomura, the new classroom is a good match for her teaching style. “I want to be approachable and be able to talk about any of the features of our lessons at any time with any student or group,” she said. “I can walk around the whole time and talk to or listen to various students throughout the class time, to be able to share their surprises or puzzles or disgust or whatever.”

The team-based learning classroom is not the only way U-M History is reimagining its spaces. During the summer, the department combined the faculty and staff lounges into one, which left a perfect-sized spot for an undergraduate student lounge where History students can collaborate, study, and socialize. The new space has four mobile tables that can be pressed together for a conference style gathering, or kept apart for small group studying; three cozy lounge seats with laptop tables; power towers for charging devices; and four large glass boards. The space will also be used as a dedicated History Club “clubhouse.”

“We’re really excited about having a space where we can still give academic-style presentations while also having lots of comfortable seating and hangout space for more social activities,” said History Club President Nina Naffziger, “I’m hoping it will allow more History students to discover the club.”

U-M History’s new undergraduate student lounge, located across from the main department office in Tisch Hall (photo: Gregory Parker).

U-M History’s summer renovations also included the main office in Tisch Hall, which needed some rethinking. Gone are the cube fortress for a front desk and odd-angled cubicles that left unused corners. With a fresh coat of paint and a new layout, the office now has an open, welcoming quality. The front desk was stripped down, allowing guests to immediately notice the smiling student worker instead of walking right past their cubicle hideaway. The remaining staff areas were squared with the windows, allowing natural light throughout the entire space. Comfy seats were placed near the front desk adding additional spaces for collaboration within the main office.

The department will wrap up this phase of construction projects with the creation of a multimedia studio. History is increasingly digital, and historians embrace digital media for research, teaching, and public engagement. The studio, located in the department’s main office suite, will provide easy access to all the necessary tools: professional microphones, high-quality webcams, lighting, a green screen, and a computer with the latest production software. 

These tools would allow for a range of uses: A History Honors student working on a short documentary film could conduct interviews, record voiceovers, and edit the final project in one convenient location. A professor invited to appear on CNN about their latest book could conduct the interview from the studio, with professional audio and video equipment. Two graduate students could collaborate on a podcast showcasing their research and expanding their digital literacy skills. The studio is scheduled to open in early 2024.

In 1979, in a letter to the department chair the Undergraduate History Association made a modest request: they wanted a gathering place, “nothing too fancy, just a place to throw our hat: a desk, a few chairs, perhaps a typewriter or filing cabinet.” U-M History has striven to be a place of collaboration and community for years. It now boasts the infrastructure to further support these efforts.


Originally published in the 2023 edition of the History Matters magazine.