Some Macro-Level Issues Concerning Teaching
A Conversation with Richard E. Bond
One of the indispensable favors Rob Townsend at AHA did me as I worked on this project was asking Richard Bond to read the penultimate draft. Rich had worked at AHA for three years while finishing up at Johns Hopkins in colonial American history and, as of the summer of 2005, was about to start teaching full time at Virginia Wesleyan College. He brought, as Rob hoped he would, a pair of “fresh eyes.” These enabled him to raise questions that reflected the concerns of potential readers just beginning their teaching careers. In the process, he brought a new perspective to issues that all of us, no matter how much experience we may have, still wrestle with. This last suggests—correctly I want to emphasize—that I have no definitive answers to his questions. But I do have some comments.
Many of your classes appear to be (based on the examples you include in the text) very topical, which, I am increasingly becoming convinced, may be the only way to teach the survey (though the worrier in me wonders if I don't make an attempt at comprehensive coverage in the survey, when will students get it?). Such a topical construction raises real macro-level questions about how a class needs to be constructed. What are the driving topics and themes in the course? How do the individual examples reflect, expound upon, or even confuse these themes? And, more directly related to this guide, how does technology and new media alter the traditional ways that classes are put together?
Rich is right about the nature of the examples and also right to worry about comprehensive coverage. All of us, whether we use new media or not, face the breadth vs. depth dilemma. This is a function of the fact that the material we want to cover continues to expand, sometimes very rapidly. How does the availability of new media complicate the inevitable, and inevitably unsatisfying, trade-offs we make? One effect is obvious. We can no longer comfort ourselves with the thought that, no matter how interesting a topic might be, we really did not have effective access to the relevant materials. We have to make more choices. If there is a silver lining to this, and I am convinced there certainly is, it is that the notion of comprehensive coverage no longer has much coherence. It was always impossible to cover everything we thought students should know. With the abundance of resources we now have that impossibility looms ever clearer. So, why is this a silver lining and not a cry of intellectual surrender?
One reason is that it frees us to play to our own strengths and to empower our students to play to theirs. I try to illustrate the second of these claims in the text by discussing the multiple points of entry I provide for students. They choose among sets of materials and report back on what they have selected. As for the first, I do not mean that I arbitrarily ignore topics I do not fancy. I mean that I can choose a set of key themes that I find intellectually rich. For example, in my introductory-level “Modern Europe and U.S.” surveys, I assign Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Barzun does not pretend to cover the last half millennium of western civilization. A comparison of the indices in his work to the index found in the typical textbook will make this immediately apparent. There are omissions—lots of treaties, battles, for example—and there are entries, often very extensive, for figures altogether missing from the standard text. Yet Barzun provides an intellectually cohesive and challenging framework for making sense of the last five hundred years of western history. Instead of history by committee characteristic of textbooks students encounter a single voice, one that invites them to participate in an ongoing conversation. Where is the web in all of this? The Internet facilitates reading, as I seek to show. It changes the way students approach a book like From Dawn to Decadence by enabling them to read some of the sources Barzun uses, to look at some of the works of art he discusses, and to listen to some of the music he analyzes. I can then ask them questions on the order of: How does Barzun’s discussion of Vasari’s influence on how we look at Renaissance art illuminate, deepen, and/or confuse your understanding of Vasari? Of your understanding of a specific artist?
Not every course we teach has a work like From Dawn to Decadence we can use in place of a textbook. Nor are we going to agree on the value of the books that do exist. Most of us, for that matter, will continue to use a standard text. This leads to Rich’s comment about the “driving topics and themes” needed to give any course intellectual coherence. Textbook publishers seek to differentiate their books from the competition by claiming their take unique approaches that highlight specific themes. We can all decide for ourselves how much stock we wish to put in those claims. I would like to argue for a pedagogical principle here. Our courses should NOT follow the texts. Textbooks are resources. They are both expensive and very limited in what they do. We need to decide what our courses are going to be about and then, and only then, factor in how we want students to use the text. Developments in publishing have made this far easier. Companies invite us to customize readers and indeed texts. The web makes it easier still. An American historian like Rich can go to HistoryMatters at George Mason, for example, and find an array of resources to use in lieu of the textbook treatment.
The Internet does alter the traditional ways classes are put together, as Rich suggests. It opens up choices where, under the regime of scarcity, we faced necessities. We had to assign most or all of the selections in the reader. Otherwise we faced a revolt from students demanding to know why they had to lay out all that money for a book we were hardly using. We had to live with the choices the authors of the text we chose made about the single best way to explain the Reformation, even though we were not very happy with it, because we very much did like the book’s treatment of the Renaissance and the French Revolution. And so on and so forth. Students were even more the victims of necessity. We at least got to pick our own poison. We chose the readings. They got to choose us, provided there was room in several sections of the course and they had room in their schedule for several time slots. Not uncommonly the student sat in our class because she had to take the course and this was the only section she could get into or this was the only time available given the rest of her schedule. The web does not add to the number of sections or free up her schedule. Using the web, however, does enable us to enable her to choose her own ways into topics.
I also was left with questions about how one addresses assessment in classes heavily reliant on new media. Do you use traditional essays and papers? Or are there alternate ways of addressing assessment (as you allude to with the notes students submit)?
Like the question of coverage, assessment is a perennial problem for instructors. As my comments in the pamphlet make clear, I have very definite ideas about it. Let me begin by addressing Rich’s question in the terms in which he posed it. I do use traditional essays and papers; I also give students the choice of submitting some untraditional projects that may or may not entail the use of new media. I do not use quizzes. As I argue at some length, this is because I think there are no meaningful short answers in history. Further, quizzes take time, and not just ours. They take up lots of student time. Asking students to “identify” the Paris Commune or the Social Gospel is a waste of their time and ours. And such questions necessitate a whole ersatz discourse that is the antithesis of real historical thinking. Asking students to submit notes prior to class meetings, on the other hand, can be a way of beginning a genuine historical conversation. If we stipulate that beginning students are indeed beginning, that we do not expect any sort of closure, that confusion is a legitimate response to challenging materials, we can learn a lot about how individual students are faring in our course; and they can learn a lot about how historians learn.
Notes function as an intellectual journal. I try to identify strengths. And then I meet with students individually to discuss how each might build upon some interest to craft a project. The word individually immediately raises another of Rich’s questions: How might this approach work in a class of 300? I will get back to this. For now let me say that students and I can almost always find a way for them to work on a project they find intellectually gratifying. What they produce is not always as gratifying. But these students see that they fell short because they did not follow through on their own initiatives. And very often they produce very good work. This may take the form of the traditional term paper complete with endnotes and bibliography. It may be a Powerpoint presentation, also complete with notes and bibliography. Students occasionally produce web sites. A student interested in disputing Barzun’s dismissive view of abstract impressionism, for example, produced an online gallery with labels for each work. Another, also seeking to dispute Barzun’s notion of cultural decadence, produced a CD of punk rock selections along with liner notes in which he discussed each cut. This last project involved a fair bit of negotiation. I had a number of issues I insisted he discuss. The finished project more than met my expectations.
This might work with a class of twenty-five, Rich asks, but what about a large lecture hall with 300 students? I have spent some time discussing this with colleagues who have such classes and have especially benefited from my exchanges with Tom Dublin who teaches at the University of Binghamton in the SUNY system. The onus falls upon the teaching assistants and upon the supervising faculty. The TAs are the ones who encounter those students in discussion groups of twenty-five. They are the ones who can set up appointments to talk with individual students about projects and papers. They do the assessing. As graduate programs, at least some of them, take more seriously the responsibility to help graduate students develop as teachers, supervising faculty will need to focus upon just these questions.
...many of your examples point to the connections that were made by your best and brightest. What about those students who get lost in the amount of the material, or in the large jumps that teaching with abundance requires a student to make (listening to jazz while reading The Great Gatsby and looking at images of urban culture, for example)? Have there been failures with students who like to only focus on one topic at a time? In addition, how does one prepare a student to assimilate all the material? You posit that students come to college prepared to deal with such an informational assault (the woman who maintains she cannot read a book without the Internet), but is this assumption true, or true only at Assumption? How do teachers introduce students who may not be ready for such different materials to it? Or how does one introduce non-traditional students to such material?
I am especially grateful to Rich for these questions. One of the underlying questions every teacher faces is: Can I get my students to read this or that document? Can I get them to grapple with this specific set of questions? Rich is correct in noting that some of my examples cite work produced by gifted as well as dedicated students. Some, but by no means all. Most of the examples draw upon the work of students doing B or B- work. And while Assumption has become significantly more selective over the years, its students are not, on average, drawn from the top quintile of high school seniors. Their combined SAT scores average 1100+. In a typical class there are about 20% who graduated at or near the top of their high school class and/or took AP courses. Another 60–70% graduated in the top two quintiles and scored comparably on the SATs. And there is a group admitted into the college as part of the First Year Program that provides them with faculty mentors and a variety of resources at the Student Learning Center. Assumption students, in short, are a lot like yours unless you teach at an elite institution.
Implicit throughout this pamphlet, and explicit in places, is the argument that students are capable of doing much more and much better work than we assume they are. This may prove that, after decades of experience, my head is still in the clouds. When I first started teaching students tended to complain that my expectations for them were too high. My expectations now are considerably higher. And some students continue to complain. I once shared an e-mail from a colleague at Rutgers with my students. It was a response to an online essay that included examples of their work. How, he asked, did I get my students to do three times as much as his were willing to do? One student immediately raised her hand. Did this mean that she and her classmates could all cut back on the effort they were making? Absolutely, I replied. “And you’ll cut back on our grades,” she continued. “Absolutely.” There has to be a high level of trust in a classroom before this sort of banter emerges.
What, beyond a lot of student good will, makes it possible to challenge students? The answer is multivalent. One component is trust. Students know that I want them to succeed and will make the extra effort to help them. They also know that I will encourage them to find and build upon their strengths. Because I do not insist upon everyone mastering some mythic one-best-way of approaching a topic, something that new media very much facilitates, they see themselves as active participants in the course. Because they get to choose topics and ways into them, they work harder. Finally, because we all insist that what we are doing only scratches the surface, students do not have to pretend to a level of expertise they cannot attain. I do not have to pretend to judge their work by professional standards while actually measuring whether they know two or three factoids about a particular topic.
Rich raises a relevant issue here. I encourage multiple points of entry. I emphasize the synergy that comes when you combine diverse sources. What about the students “who like to only focus on one topic at a time?” Some students are going to find listening to jazz a distraction as they read The Great Gatsby. Rich of course is correct. No approach works for every student. Some students are going to turn off the jazz. Some are going to turn something else on, hip-hop perhaps, that will do nothing to evoke the twenties. That said, history is not a discipline that permits its practitioners to do one thing at a time. If Langston Hughes avers that you need to hear jazz when you read his poems to appreciate the rhythms he uses, then you need to listen to the jazz he had in mind. Perhaps not while you read. But you have to have those sounds in your head. Similarly, if you are going to write about FDR’s Fireside Chats, you need to listen to them. And, if he discussed unemployment, you need to be able to picture lines of despairing figures, all seeking a single job. Chemists can do one thing at a time. Historians have to multitask. One of the greatest challenges we face is to build our pedagogy on the intellectual demands of our discipline. Intellectual flexibility is a fundamental requirement for historians.
Almost all students can and do multitask. We need to be specific about what we want them to do, why we want them to do it, and how they can get started doing it. Let us go back to Langston Hughes and jazz. Hughes did not insist you must be able to analyze jazz or identify specific players. He said you needed to hear certain rhythms. These would guide you in reading his poems. To get started you simply need to listen to some of the jazz he would have heard when he was writing particular works or would have had in his head from having heard certain songs beforehand.
If we are going to get some insight into the Harlem Renaissance, students quickly see, we are going to have to grapple with the ways in which practitioners of the various arts influenced each other. We are going to need to get some notion of the excitement this synergy produced. Hughes and the “jazzers” and the painters and the actors and the novelists were all caught up in something they saw as somehow connected. They could not formulate all of these connections themselves. And I and my students do not expect that we will either. People who do one thing at a time expect to complete that one thing and move on to the next. That is not how historians proceed. We never expect to come to a final word on the Harlem Renaissance, or on anything else.
Non-traditional students, in my very limited experience, do not encounter special challenges in this regard. If anything, they are better able to take advantage of the choices this approach offers. They may not have read much poetry. But they may be big music fans. And they leap at the opportunity to approach the poetry via the music. Or they welcome the chance to encounter a Fireside chat by listening to it while they read the text. And, when they get to the phrase about one-third of the nation being ill-housed and ill-clad and ill-fed, they are eager to look at the “Migrant Mother” photographs at the American Memory site. Non-traditional students often have developed a high level of intellectual flexibility out of necessity. They have not been able to yield to inertial forces that would carry them safely to college. They have had to strategize, to break with the routines of their peers. And they usually have a very healthy appreciation of how much they have to learn. So do we all. But they are more conscious of this common necessity.
Finally, Rich asks:
...what is lost by moving to new media besides time for the instructor and the class? Such a class will require a massive commitment by both parties in terms of time, and you are... clear as to what students and instructors gain by the experience. What might they lose? Also, do you have any failures that are particularly revealing (assignments that really did not work at all)?
What is lost is a species of control and a sense (mistaken, in my view) of closure. I discuss the matter of control in the body of the pamphlet. We are used to controlling the agenda not just of our courses overall, something we do not sacrifice by moving to new methods via new media, but also to setting the agenda for each class. We select the topics. We choose the way we will open the discussion. We raise particular questions in a given order. We determine, in short, what will happen next. And that is what we give up. I know the universe of choices of materials my students are operating in. I learn, an hour or so before class, what they think about questions I have raised. At the same time, I learn some of the things they are finding confusing. This enables me to pick a place to begin. I ask some student to comment on something she has written. She may simply repeat what she wrote. Or she may add something. I then have to find a way of moving to another student’s notes. And from here on out I have very little control over the order in which various ideas and questions will arise. From experience I know that, sooner or later, pretty much everything I want to touch upon will come up. But, instead of proceeding from one point to the next according to a logic of my choosing, a logic of exposition, I have to adapt to the more or less haphazard order in which they do come up. There is an implicit logic here too, a logic of discovery, which I have to make explicit. My task is aiding students in seeing what they are, in fact, doing.
This can be very daunting. The constant temptation is to interject too much. We are used to explaining, not to listening to students fumble around. I vividly recall the first time a senior member of my department came to observe one of my classes. This was in the 1970s, long before the advent of the Internet. The class was working their way through a collection of documents about Lincoln and slavery. That day we were looking at the Emancipation Proclamation. “Who did the proclamation free?” I asked. There was an uncomfortable silence. Students realized immediately that the answer could not be “the slaves” or I would not have bothered to raise the question. After a few seconds I told them to start reading the document and to raise their hands when they thought they might have gotten to the answer. After the class my colleague told me he had actually timed the ensuing dead time. Just under one hundred seconds. After about forty-five seconds, he said, he was so uncomfortable that he wanted to either shout out the answer or jump out the window. I started to apologize. No, he said, what I had done had worked. Students had actually read the proclamation. The resulting discussion was much livelier than it would otherwise have been. He was even thinking of doing the same thing himself. But he wasn’t sure his nerves would permit it.
I no longer inflict silence upon myself or my students. But I do let them talk themselves into confusion. I do let questions hang or comment that there is no short answer or that I do not know enough about the matter to help much. And this leads to the other loss—a sense of closure. We come out of our study of the Reformation with more questions than we had when we began. This is as it should be, I maintain. Studying the Reformation is NOT like learning about derivatives in Calculus. You really do learn what a derivative is. You do not, you cannot, learn how the Reformation changed Western culture. That is the work of a lifetime. And the impact of the Reformation will continue beyond that lifetime. This is difficult for students to accept, as I discuss in the text. It is also hard for us to accept. When we say that we “cover” the Reformation, we mean that we have touched upon all of the topics on a checklist we carry around in our heads. Yes, we explained justification. Yes, we talked about predestination. Yes, we mentioned Luther’s appeal to the German nobility by way of introducing the decisions by princes in Germany, Scandinavia, and England to ally themselves with the cause of reform. Yes, we told our students about the Peasant Revolt of 1525. This is what we actually mean by “cover.” And, if we have gotten to all the items on the list, we have achieved a sort of closure. We have “done” the Reformation.
I have put the matter in these terms precisely because I want you to squirm. I want to emphasize the lack of fit between this sort of closure and actual historical practice. I want to stress its ersatz nature. But I also want to concede the comfort it affords. My students and I deal with all the aspects of the Reformation listed above. But we are not confident we really get what Luther meant by justification. We are confused by the democratic promise implicit in the notion of a priesthood of all believers and how that fits, if at all, with Luther’s notion that princes are “called” by God. We do not know how to take the religious protestations of Henri IV. But we do have some inkling of what a momentous upheaval the Reformation proved.
Last, but by no means least, I want to emphasize that Rich is entirely right to wonder if some of the exercises I come up with do not fall flat. I refer to several in the text that succeed only very partially. But I have not included any that proved to be complete disasters. This is not because I am reluctant to share my failures. In 1975 my colleague Kenneth Moynihan and I published an essay in The History Teacher on “The Essay Assignment as a Learning Device,” our contribution to the writing-across-the-curriculum movement that was just beginning. In it we devoted several pages to discussing an essay topic that proved spectacularly unsuccessful. Not only did students produce awful papers, but they were also hopping mad about the whole experience. I daresay few assignments have ever failed as completely. At the time, The History Teacher editor commented to us that we were, to date, the only authors to go on at length about something that did not work. All of the submissions to the journal were about successes. Ours was too, of course. But we had first explained why one version of an assignment was so bad to illustrate why a subsequent version worked so well. This made our article unique. I daresay I could have achieved the same distinction for this guide.
Why not? Because there was a virtually universal belief in the historical profession in 1975 that one could design effective essay assignments. Our disaster was clearly ours. It did not originate in the inadequacies of the essay as a form. There is no comparable conviction that new media can inaugurate a new pedagogical regime of abundance. It seems, therefore, imperative to stick to what works.