So what are you going to leave out?

24 11 2009

Randall Stephens at the Historical Society Blog and I saw the same Chronicle of Higher Ed article (subs.) in the last few days. Here’s Stephens’ summary (if you’re a non-subscriber like I am):

“Several years ago,” writes David Glenn, “a small group of faculty members at Indiana University at Bloomington decided to do something about the problem. The key, they concluded, was to construct every history course around two core skills of their discipline: assembling evidence and interpreting it.” Glenn goes on to explain some of the interesting assignments and exercises history students at IU are doing in and outside of the classroom.

Stephens buys it. I was more skeptical (perhaps because it was our campus assessment officer who forwarded it to me), so I went digging. Here are Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow of Indiana University in the March 2008 Journal of American History (via the History Cooperative, footnotes omitted throughout):

It is a story replicated in many history classrooms during the course of a semester. Students have once again done poorly on an assignment or exam. Their essays are the sites of massive, undifferentiated data dumps. They have paraphrased primary sources instead of analyzing them, ignored argumentation, confused past and present, and failed completely to grasp the “otherness” of a different era. A few students, as always, have done extremely well, but many have done poorly. What is wrong with these students? How can a teacher help them understand history?

These sorts of poor performance often result from a mismatch between what college history teachers expect of their students and what those students imagine their task to be. Most college professors learned how to be historians more or less by osmosis, without explicit instruction on how to perform many of the operations necessary to produce historical knowledge. They, like the minority of students who seem to perform historical tasks effortlessly, are naturals who have not had to reflect consciously on what they do automatically. As a result, professors often do not model for their students some of the most basic—and most essential—steps in historical analysis. As Sam Wineburg has noted, it is so habitual for historians to check the author and date of a passage before they begin reading it that they do not realize that such procedures are not natural for many of their students. Such intellectual maneuvers, unmarked by the professor and as invisible to the students as the sleight of hand of a magician, often leave students with the “facts” of history, but no idea of how they were created.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice this article when I first saw that issue, but now I can see that there are many parts of it that certainly speak to my experience:

We expect our students to know that the bias of a source does not necessarily disqualify it from usefulness. They may be asked to use the same primary source as a locus of information about what “really” happened in an era and also about the subjective perspectives that particular individuals brought to their experience. For students expecting a different kind of discussion this may seem like a walk into a confusing twilight zone.

Adding intention and argument into the mix renders history even more slippery and subjective. Students who read for the story and the facts, not for the argument and its validity, often experience a task such as identifying and evaluating thesis statements or arguments from sources as a major challenge. As one of our interviewees pointed out, many students “do not feel that they are qualified to critique someone who has written a book because automatically this person obviously knows much more than they do.” Such students do not expect to evaluate texts critically, and they are uncomfortable with inserting themselves into an ongoing dialogue about an event or issue of the past or with disagreeing with experts.

Then the article gets into exactly why the campus assessment officer forwarded the Chronicle piece to me in the first place:

As a result of the workshop, we now have a prototype with which to begin departmental discussions for reforming our curriculum, based not on geography or period but on the historical skills students need to learn. We do not envision that faculty will be required to teach these skills in any particular way, or that all faculty will focus on all of the skills. We hope instead that each faculty member will choose at least one skill pertinent to the class content and course level, and explicitly model it in a way with which he or she feels comfortable. Because many of these skills are interrelated and used in many different historical tasks, we believe that if each professor explicitly teaches and provides practice for one or more of these during each semester, more of our students will be better equipped to improve their performance in history courses. Ideally, by the time a student gets to his or her senior research course, the professor will not have to teach that student how to analyze a primary source or recognize an argument or compile a bibliography.

My department is currently being asked to do pretty much the exact same thing. The difference is that we have been told that we are probably teaching all the skills we want students to learn now, we simply have to map them in order to prove to accreditation bodies that we actually do assessment. Think of it as curriculum reform through improved marketing.

Oddly enough, I think I like our method better than what’s been going on at Indiana because it’s less invasive towards historical content. Perhaps I’m being technical, but to me a curriculum is not a set of skills or time periods, it’s a long list of historical subjects. When I started teaching, I had a picture in my mind of what needed to be covered in…say…a post-1877 U.S. survey course. That list has dropped steadily over the years as I’ve done exactly what the UI people suggest, teach skills like writing and source interpretation. [I’s probably a product of teaching too much historiography. It’s probably inevitable that all that stuff slips into your other classes if you teach it as regularly as I do.]

Nevertheless, I have always been acutely aware of what this practice costs me in coverage. Every moment I spend teaching how to write a paper is less time to spend on historical content. There are sacrifices I can live with (like the lead up to WWII, which ought to come in a world history course anyway) and ones that just kill me (like most of the pre-Brown v. Board Civil Rights Movement).

Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m a better teacher for covering more skills and less specific facts and I’m sure my classes are much more useful for students, especially the non-history majors. I just don’t think this manner of teaching should be marketed as a purely win-win situation.


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