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Back with a semi-vengeance

20 January, 2005

Back with a semi-vengeance

I’ll be summing up my experiences at the AHA soon, but first, a short digression brought on by actually opening the latest copy of the AHR before tossing it into the “read when I have more time” pile.

Last night I opened up the October 2004 AHR and saw the usual interesting-but-not-in-my-field essays — except for the review essay. To anyone interested in teaching History, I heartily recommend reading David Pace’s review essay, “The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” Despite the wordy title, it’s a great read and pretty to-the-point. It was also especially apt, as Pace discusses different approaches taken in different studies to dealing with (and recognizing, for that matter) our own assumptions about what our students should know versus what they think they’re supposed to be learning, identifying what we’re trying to teach them, and how to best teach ourselves and each other to use that knowledge to make history teaching better. It’s a great overview of the subject and fits in nicely with some of the things that Tim Burke recently said.

Pace does not go as far as Burke does, by any means. In fact, it sometimes appears that he only sees a grudgingly-given place for scholarship of history teaching among historians, but argues pretty clearly that some of us do need to focus on this, and to serve as a sort of liaison with our more research-oriented brethren. If there is a weakness to the essay, that is it. Pace insists that, by and large, we all want to be great teachers. I’m not convinced that that is exactly true. If teaching were that important to all historians, then senior research professors would not balk at teaching undergrad courses — or courses at all, in some cases. I might even venture to suggest that one of the reasons that many institutions are able to rely on a teaching underclass of adjuncts and grad students is precisely because enough people at the top of the academic heap are either unwilling or uninterested in the subject of good pedagogy, except in those cases where students (or their parents) complain. I think it’s probably more the former than the latter, because making sure that a department has good teachers just boils down to more work for the faculty in the long run. It also means fighting administrations that want to pack as many students into a class as possible, despite the fact that those giant lecture classes, while perhaps great at delivering material, are almost completely passive. Such classes usually have discussion sections, but often those sections are taught by untrained grad students who have a great grast of the material, but have yet to articulate the connections between materials in a way that will teach the students anything useful in the long-term.

Despite the fact that by the end of the essay I almost felt that Pace wanted a few of us to fall on our academic career swords for better teaching by all, I was encouraged by the fact that anyone was willing to suggest that, since history really is a discipline with its own epistemological methods, some of us should be involved in crafting better ways of teaching and assessing in our field, rather than leaving it all up to the education experts. We have internalized the rigors of our discipline, and most of us seem to know when something historical is presented badly, but we do often rely on silly arguments like, “but historians wouldn’t see it that way,” and a general assumption that our expertise (and those impressive documents on our office walls) is enough to back up that pretty weak argument. That may have been true once, but today’s students and, sadly, many of their parents and our employers just don’t buy it. We have to be able to articulate why and we have to do it sooner than later.

Why did this article strike me, you ask? OK — apart from the obvious, that I’m always interested in better ways to teach — the bits about what we assume students know struck me. It wasn’t particularly epiphanous. One of the things I tell my students from the start is that my courses are really history boot camp — I will be trying to teach them as much about how and why historians know what they know, and come to the conclusions they do, as I will be teaching them any given narrative. As I’ve mentionedbefore, I sometimes struggle with that question and its application, but I have enough students who say that my approach makes them like history to think it’s a good approach. My particular challenge this quarter (in addition to dismally low enrollments — it is very hard to teach surveys to five or six people, since the critical mass for good discussion seems to be more like 15-20) is my assumptions about information literacy and curiosity.

My courses are all hybrids, and we use Blackboard for the online portion. The first two days of class I spend going over the course admin stuff — there’s a lot, and I divide grades up among many different kinds of activities. Journals are graded differently from tests, and class discussion and online discussion parameters are a bit complex. A couple of my students added class late, so they didn’t get the grand tour. I asked them to catch up by reading the syllabus and the individual handouts posted below it that explained in more detail the different kinds of activities mentioned in the syllabus. “Read those documents, e-mail me if you’re confused about anything, and catch up with the assignments as quickly as you can.” So we’re now in week three, and one of the students is still clueless about what we’re supposed to be doing in class. Just seems out of it. So immediately after a class discussion on the paper proposals they have due this week, he finally says he can’t find any due dates for the assignments. I tell him that all of the major due dates are in the syllabus. He claims they aren’t, so we truck off to the library to look. Turns out they are there, but he has only explored Blackboard as far as the “Syllabus” button. Has not clicked on the “Assignments” button in two weeks — if he had, he’d have seen that each week’s assignments are laid out in separate folders, with links to the online readings and discussion boards in the order in which they need to be done. Bad teacher assumption number one: do not assume that your younger students who have pretty much grown up with the internet and computers are more computer savvy than you are. On the other hand, proof that the course addresses the Information Literacy Gen. Ed. outcome!

Bad assumption number two: Do not assume that students will read actively and with curiosity. This takes us back to Pace’s article. I assume students don’t know how to pick documents apart, and I assume they will veer more towards synthesis, so I structure our primary source assignments to ease them from the latter to the former approach. But I did assume people would use the freakin’ dictionary! Today, after Michael Woods told us all about the High Renaissance, one of the students who seemed particularly obtuse about Joan of Arc and why she was executed then claimed that it was really odd that people in the Renaissance were so worried about clothing, yet there was so much nudity in the paintings. The book talks about sumptuary laws, so I could see where she got part of it, but then she also said that Joan of Arc had been burned for wearing men’s clothing. It was a great teaching moment, but only because it showed me how much the students were not making ANY connection between the readings and our discussions. So we talked about what exactly was reborn in the Renaissance — took them 5 minutes, but they got to the classics in the end. Then J of A made her appearance, and we slipped off to 1429 for a few minutes — why is Joan on trial? The English didn’t like her helping the French to win. Er … ok, so let me put it another way, what are the charges against her? Dressing like a man. Really? look again. Heresy. Ok, good — so who’s in charge of the trial? The English (I think they thought she was actually tried in England). Why would the English army try her for heresy? Try again, please. The Church? Yes, how do men’s clothes fit in? They think she’s not acting like a proper Christian woman because she wears them (mentions of gay-ness and discrimination). Look at the document again — what does it specifically say about her clothes? Like a Saracen. What does that mean? Ok — (and this is where I blow just a bit) you all don’t know this word. That’s OK, you get lots of new vocabulary in college. But did anyone look it up? A Saracen is a synonym for Moor, which is …? A Muslim? Yes!!!! How would a comparison to Muslim custom fit in the context of a Christian heresy trial?? .

So, for the last part of class, we talked about how the assignments were really crafted so they could make connections, and my high school student saved everybody’s bacon at the end. I asked about the pope mentioned in the documentary who died within weeks of Raphael — who was he? And I pointed out that this was where notetaking (as I’d recommended) comes in handy — HS kid comes up with Leo X and I mention that they should be familiar with him. From the readings. Kid looks thoughtful, and says, “Hey, isn’t he that cardinal guy?” After a mad flurry of looking at notes, they then connect him back to the Medicis and non-nobles gaining vast political power in a new economy and patronage of the arts and classicla education, but boy, was it hard. Bad assumption number 3: Students — do not assume you can slide by, because sometimes knowing what words mean is important. So I guess we all learned our lessons.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 January, 2005 10:13 pm

    I really enjoyed the Pace article, too ( A lot of my classes now feature some form of reading summaries, and I may have to start using on-line forms of it just to manage the flows of paper. But making students do the reading and write on it, even just in the form of a simple summary, has dramatically improved the quality of my in-class discussions. Daily quizzes worked almost this well, too, but this has the added benefit of being a built-in study guide for them when tests come around.I used to think that the most important skill I teach (aside from historical knowledge and causality) was writing; I’m coming to believe that it is actually reading.

  2. 21 January, 2005 3:36 am

    I think it’s both. My students are supposed to answer a set of questions for each document we read before we discuss them in class. They have to keep them in a journal that makes up 10% of their grade. Easy questions — what’s the central issue, who’s the author (the real who, not the name-of who), what kind of document is it, and three specific examples of evidence that a historian might use and how he might use it (or, if they are really stumped, they can bring in concrete questions about the doc). It makes a huge difference, although they frequently forget that they’ve taken notes at all until something strikes them.

  3. 21 January, 2005 6:10 am

    Jonathan — how funny! I read your piece when it was first posted, but it didn’t really register. And you said it much more eloquently than I, although you don’t seem to have had quite as many reservations.

  4. 22 January, 2005 5:06 am

    Great reaction to the article and you’ve hit the nail on the head (;-)) by saying that we can either cede this territory to the education specialists or join them and get involved, too. I like the term content-specific teaching stratgies since I think that while there are some general strategies that apply across the board, teaching calculus bears little resemblance to teaching history . . . . history only appears simple to those who know little about it and/or only have a surface-level understanding. The best students of history (even those with PhD in hand) understand that the more you learn, the more you know you need to learn . . . .

  5. 23 January, 2005 3:08 am

    Just wanted to say re: Blackboard stuff, you may already do this, but I just heard a suggestion that you should post directions for how to navigate the site and what’s where. You may already have this and the student just ignored this–happens all the time.I used to teach literature and I was constantly amazed by how students missed some of the most obvious facts. Reading is difficult; most students approach it very passively, as you pointed out.

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