My first full-time job out of graduate school was a one-year gig at a small liberal arts college. When I arrived there for my interview, the department chairman told me straight out that I was the fourth candidate they had interviewed since none of the others was comfortable teaching both halves of the U.S. History survey class. I assured him that I was. I remain so to this day.
Happily for me and my students alike though, I no longer have to teach both halves of the survey. While I teach a course on American slavery sometimes (a remnant of my early specialization in American labor history), I’m much better after 1877, and am most comfortable teaching anything between 1877 and 1937.
Anybody who teaches World History reading this is laughing hysterically at me right now. Sixty years? They need to know six centuries, if not longer. More importantly, rather than specialize in a single country on a single continent, they have to follow the story of humankind all over the world. What’s impressed me most about the world history superprofessors I’ve been exposed to is just how well they do this since their breadth of factual knowledge is so great.
In Philip Zelikow’s case, his Virginia students can ask him tough questions about the MOOC lecture content they watch in their dorm rooms during a weekly hour-and-fifteen minute discussion section. That must be tons of fun for him. All that boring lecturing is already in the can, so now he can engage in an intense give-and-take with a lot of really gifted, motivated students. But what about the people who’ll eventually flip their classrooms with Zelikow’s MOOC lectures on other campuses? What are their discussion sections going to be like?
What started me down this train of thought was the line I wrote the other day about my old algebra teacher, Mr. Manzer, going from desk to desk as we worked through our math problems. What, I wondered, would a flipped college history classroom look like?We don’t have worksheets, we have texts. My students (hopefully) do their reading at home, then (among many other things) we discuss the texts in class. If they have to watch videos at home, when will they have time to do their reading? Getting them to do one thing at home is hard enough, so what will happen if I try to make them do two?
And what happens if the students ask content questions about subjects that the non-super professor knows very little about? Since Adelman and Zelikow teach discussion sections based upon their own lectures, they can certainly answer questions about anything they said on tape. Hire a poorly-paid proto-TA and hopefully students will get an expert on some aspect of World History, but they won’t necessarily get an expert on the aspects of World History that any particular superprofessor chooses to emphasize. Being underpaid is bad enough, but being an underpaid adjunct trapped teaching somebody else’s content is my definition of a living Hell.
We teach what we love not only because we love it, but because we bring more enthusiasm to our favorite material and therefore presumably teach it better. Do we want English professors teaching novels they don’t like? Economists teaching theories with which they vehemently disagree? Of course not. That’s because separating content selection from pedagogy is a recipe for bad pedagogy.
Yet the MOOC cheering squad is determined to do it anyways. Josh Kim, in a well-meaning but incredibly naive column writes:
What students (and their parents) will pay for is what cannot be gotten from a MOOC. They will pay for interaction with the faculty member. They will pay for relationships with educators. They will pay to be able to enter into the process of knowledge creation.
The large lecture class designed around the delivery of curriculum is dead. MOOCs have killed this model of education, and good riddance and about time. The classes that will replace the one-way learning large lecture courses will be superior, but more expensive in every way.
We will look to build in robust methods of formative assessment into our course designs (following the examples of the MOOCs). No longer will a system of mid-term and finals (summative assessment) feel adequate – particularly when quizzes for learning are so embedded into the MOOC design.
We will place an increased emphasis on active learning. On faculty and student interactions that are flexible and personalized to the needs of the learner. We will devote resources to flipping the classroom, moving content delivery out precious “face-to-face” time, reserving in-class time for interaction, exercises, and exchanges.
But unless students attend a university with its own superprofessors, they won’t get that face-to-face time with the person who knows the most about the exact content that they’re learning. All they’ll get is a surrogate who’s had the most important prerogative of any professor – the ability to decide exactly what content they want to teach – stripped away from them. You can be the greatest teacher in the world, but you’ll never teach somebody else’s material nearly as well as you’ll teach the material that’s nearest and dearest to your heart, not to mention your particular area of expertise.
Mr. Manzer might have benefited greatly from flipping his classroom because, as I understand it, everyone pretty much teaches the same algebra everywhere. History, on the other hand, is going to be at least a little different in every professor’s classroom (as well it should be, for both pedagogical and cultural reasons). For world history, it’s likely to be very, very different from classroom to classroom.
Too bad the people pushing MOOCs on all of us don’t really give a damn.