The Internet: Coping with an Embarrassment of Riches

John McClymer, May 2003

In the Internet we have a wonderful tool and a wonderful toy. It comes fully assembled but without instructions. How are we supposed to make the most of it and have the most fun? These are open questions and are likely to remain so for a long time. The good news about that is that it removes the temptation to try to sound definitive.

The Internet has moved us from a situation characterized by scarcity to one of abundance. The point is easily made. Scroll through the course web site at Assumption College, where I teach: http://www.assumption.edu/HTML/Academic/history/Hi118net/honors2002.html for Modern Europe and United States I, 1453–1815 (honors) or II, 1815 to the present; http://www.assumption.edu/users/McClymer/his260/) for 19th-Century United States; http://www.assumption.edu/users/McClymer/his261/ for 20th-Century United States; or http://www.assumption.edu/HTML/Academic/history/Hi113net/Hi113Syllabus.html, for Women and the American Experience, and you will quickly see something of the abundance of materials available.

Let's begin by jumping into the middle of one course, look at what the students were up to, and then step back and discuss the whys and wherefores of this sort of teaching and learning. The key theme will be ways of providing structured access to abundance.

On October 18, 2002, in the Modern Europe and United States course we began to examine what Jacques Barzun, in his book, From Dawn To Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, calls "The Reign of Etiquette," that is, life at Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. For that Friday students were asked to read the Barzun chapter plus an excerpt from the Duc de Saint-Simon's account of life at court, a text which Barzun comments upon extensively. The students' assignment read:

Oct. 18: Discussion of life at Versailles. Submit annotations, at least one hour before class, from Saint-Simon's account of life at court that deepen, complicate, and/or confuse the portrait drawn by Barzun.

I edited the notes submitted by the students and posted them to the class web site. I then used the notes to structure the class discussion. To give you an idea of what this is like, here is an extract from one student's notes:

Saint-Simon's Account: ...

Somewhat confuses Barzun's account by saying that his greatest weakness was his love of flattery, because according to Barzun, his ability to make everyone in his Court wish to flatter and fall into his good graces was actually his genius and not his weakness . . . . continues with this idea by recounting how he was able to be talked into going into war merely through flattery; Louvios simply praised how strong and mighty his army was and that was all it took to persuade him to battle. . . .Saint-Simon again confuses Barzun's account by referring to the "entertainment," the cookery, the masquerades, the dressing of the soldiers, ceremonies, etc., as obsessions of the King himself, which he loved to dwell on, and which his Ministers once they learned how to master him were able to keep him occupied with these things while achieving their own interests—in Barzun's account, these entertainments were in fact the King's method for keeping the citizenry busy to prevent rebellion. . . . knew how to make the most out of a word, a smile, or a glance, expands on Barzun's account by describing how he knew that how he bestowed the favor was as important as the favor itself

For the next class, students chose one of four painters, all discussed by Barzun. After an introductory class on baroque art and sculpture, each submitted links to three or four works by their chosen artist along with a paragraph for each explaining what the student found "interesting, intriguing, and/or puzzling" about each. I then created a simple online gallery with their paragraphs serving as commentary. Here are one student's comments on a painting by Poussin, The Rape of the Sabines (available online at http://www.abcgallery.com/P/poussin/poussin37.html):

The Rape of Sabines (1637–38). This piece is definitely ten times more baroque than the last two I described. This painting was characteristic of his works of the 1630s. At this time, history became the main subject of his work and he was attracted to situations in which the moral qualities of people reveal themselves. These scenes are often complex with many characters, similar to classical tragedy on stage. This is definitely true of this piece, filled with chaos and confusion—characteristic of the baroque movement which moved away from calm. ...

Next we looped back to Versailles via the plays of Molière and the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Again, students chose which writer and which work to examine. Here are the instructions given to them:

Oct. 25: Oral Reports. Submit notes which you will use in making the report. Both Moliere and La Rochefoucauld were social critics, often quite scathing in their portraits of Louis XIV's France and the manners and mores of "The Reign of Etiquette." Cite specific examples and connect them to specific features of Louis's regime.

We come out of these four classes with impressions, questions, but few hard-and-fast conclusions. This is as it should be in an introductory course. Students should not have to pretend to understand 17th-century French monarchy or baroque art based upon a week's worth of study.

What are some of the characteristics of this way of structuring access to abundance? Its first goal is to draw students into an ongoing scholarly conversation as participants. Hence the annotating assignments in which students draw upon primary sources to read Barzun. This not only changes what they read and examine. It changes how they do so. Thomas Jefferson maintained that one should never read a book by itself. You needed to consult the books the author had in mind. So he designed a reading desk with several book caddies on the principle of the lazy Susan. Students, even very good students, have usually learned to read in precisely the opposite fashion. They pigeonhole everything. Rather than listen to a conversation, they hear a sequence of disconnected monologues. Getting them to read in a Jeffersonian mode takes more than exhortation. It takes a certain sort of course structure.

What sort of structure? I routinely ask students to choose one of several points of entry into a topic. Students have different learning styles. And students need to develop a whole repertoire of learning techniques. So I let them find a way into the material that piques their curiosity. This means that their choices structure class discussions. I do not know until a hour or so before class what precisely we will be talking about. But I do know that we will have a lively, informed, and productive discussion since I get to pick and choose among their notes.

I also seek to banish the notion of "closure." A recurring instruction to students is to choose specific instances in the materials which "deepen, complicate, and/or confuse" their understanding of a particular topic.

Why is this so? Why is it that a good student can, over the course of a semester, become proficient at integrating equations, but cannot achieve anything like the same mastery over the rise of the nation-state? Historical studies lie at the opposite end of the spectrum of human knowledge from mathematics. Euclid provided a set of axioms from which the geometer could derive the complete set of theorems, proving, for instance, that two figures are congruent. But in history, there is no comparable set of axioms, because we study human beings, not equilateral triangles. We seek insight into how and why people act, think, and feel. Much crucial evidence required for such insight is unrecoverable. The objects of our study, furthermore, learn. Their own grasp of their situation changes as their experience (much of which is forever closed off to us) deepens. What this indeterminacy at the heart of our disciplines means is that, for the historian, narrative is as close to explanation as he or she can get. Ill-structured fields like ours require what some cognitive psychologists call "cognitive flexibility." If you have seen one equilateral triangle, you truly have seen them all. Not so with revolutions.

Why do we routinely teach in ways that belie the nature of our discipline? The short answer is that we practice "pedagogies of scarcity." We have all grown up in the world of scarcity, a world in which we must choose a single way—deemed the best way—of approaching complex questions. Scarcity underlies virtually every assumption about teaching and learning we make. And it leads us to teach history as though it were a well-structured field although we know that we are giving students a very incomplete notion of what doing history is like.

In contrast, the Web is about abundance. While it cannot make the semester any longer, in every other way it eliminates the regime of scarcity. But it does not tell us how to teach under these new circumstances. There are a few things I think I have learned.

  • Take advantage of the interactive nature of the Web. Students send me notes of their readings for virtually every class. I know what they are getting out of the materials. It makes it possible for them to get immediate feedback, both via e-mail and from the daily web page which we use to structure class discussions.

  • Take advantage of the connective nature of the web. It is the electronic version of Jefferson's desk. It enables my students—and me—to read contextually.

  • Take advantage of the recursive, nonlinear nature of the web. In using hypertext, each student will read the materials in a somewhat different way by clicking on some links and not others in different sequences. This enriches class sessions because students can see how one's choices affect one's perspective. They can also see how multiple perspectives complement, contradict, and confuse. Real learning is not about reciting, say, five "factors" that contributed to the coming of some historical development.

Giving students choices and encouraging flexibility requires more structure rather than less. If you are going to allow students to experiment with different approaches and materials, you have to provide a way in which they can find their bearings. Class discussions aid in this, but the overall arc of the course with its recursive connections to texts, themes, and events is the essential scaffolding.

—John McClymer teaches at Assumption College. This essay builds upon a paper he presented at the 2001 OAH meeting in Los Angeles, and which appeared in H-Net's Teaching and Technology series (http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/teaching/essays/mcclymer.html).