Dr. Howard Coombs shares his experiences from the West Point Military History Symposium


Dr. Howard Coombs shares his experiences from the West Point Military History Symposium – 06-22 June

“I recently returned from my stay at West Point attending the Military History Summer Symposium (12 participants or “Fellows”) with the History Dept and thought I would provide some impressions of the United States Military Academy. It is a well-resourced and staffed institution with about 4000 students (Army only) across all years of the program.

The library is incredibly extensive and modern, as well as their archives.

All activities, particularly athletics, have national class support. There are many learning activities that well organized and are connected to the curriculum. Technology is used extensively within the classroom to further educational outcomes and there is considerable thought and effort put into designing curriculum. For example the history department has an interactive textbook that supports core history curriculum and is downloaded to an IPad, that will soon be changed to a web-based model. It has resulted in about a 23% increase in letter grades as well as increased interest and enrolment in the History Department.


Class sizes in the History Department are smaller than RMC despite the larger size of the institution. The max size of core curriculum classes are around 20. Teaching is integrated between civilian and military faculty. The latter are assigned to West Point for a normal posting and usually PhD candidates or in the process of applying for a PhD. Dept Chairs are Cols, and most key faculty positions are held by military officers with PhDs.

The equivalent of the Principal and Commandant for RMC are both General Officers at West Point. This model seems to work very well for them. Because of the variations of academic experience amongst teaching faculty a great deal of time and thought is put into refining pedagogy and communicating techniques to new faculty, in addition to regularly sharing ideas amongst existent faculty.

I had the opportunity to participate in discussions and seminars on teaching military history, from war and society to examining operational and strategic nuances within military history, plus a great deal of interchange on the use of technology in the classroom.

Half of the time I was there, about a week, was spent studying staff ride methodology (a variation of battle field tour) using the battles of South Mountain (1862), Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863) as teaching vehicles. It was indeed interesting to experience different techniques. As part of that I spent a morning drilling in Civil War tactics as part of the study group, including learning how to fire rifled percussion muskets, individually, in formation and while skirmishing. Although at first somewhat skeptical as to the value such re-enacting, I was surprised at how much that morning changed my perspective of time and space, as well as command and control on 19th Century battlefields. Photo attached.

There was a degree of interest expressed to me in engaging in joint academic enrichment activities between our two history departments. Of particular note was an idea for a joint staff ride to Ticonderoga and Saratoga to examine Burgoyne’s campaign during the American Revolution, which is already done by the USMA History Department. Whether this comes to fruition or not remains to be seen – Insh’allah. However, the desire to build some departmental links may be worth pursuing.

On the downside, they do experience similar bureaucratic challenges to those in Canada when utilizing public monies. A great deal of funding for educational enrichment activities is done through private or corporate donations.

As a personal first, I did get to fly as a passenger in a biplane – a 1929 New Standard D-25 – photo attached. I am the pax that’s grinning like a banshee. You can see the pilot’s head behind my cockpit.”