No, not that president. I’m not that important. The college president stopped by and visited my class on Thursday. He did this last school year as well. I asked my Dean about that last year, and he said that the president considered it to be his right to stop in and see any class he wants to. At the same time, I don’t know of anyone else who has been visited, and I certainly don’t know of anyone who has had two visits in two years.
What was interesting, however, is that, unlike last year, the president talked to me this year afterwards, in an email. He made three observations:
- The students showed a striking lack of critical thinking.
- There was one student who was very disruptive.
- There was one student who was smoking a vapor cigarette in class.
So, how did I address those things.
For the first one, I confirmed what he saw. I said that students come to us from high school with very limited skills. They have very minimal critical thinking, writing, or reading skills. The nature of high school history in my state is dismal, with history generally being one of my students’ least favorite classes when they come to my class. Then, I talked about what I do with my students, that this is one of the big things that I emphasize over the course of my class, and that it is a very slow process to teach them something that they have not successfully learned in the 12 years before that. I also said that if I have the chance, that I generally see the biggest improvements when I have them for two semesters at a time. This is absolutely true. The students who stick with me and work through the assignments in my class over two semesters come out stronger. I’m not trying to brag, but when I can work with the same student for a whole school year, I can really start to make a difference.
On the second one, it was easy. I have an autistic student, and I have been warned by the college that he is likely to be disruptive. As he has as much of a right as any other student to be in my class, I have to manage it as best I can. The president agreed that I was doing the best job I could on that one.
The third took a bit of back and forth. The school policy is no tobacco products, and we have no policy on the vapor cigarettes. They apparently give off a water vapor when smoked, and, when I first saw it, I thought we had a fire in the classroom. After it was explained to me what it is, I really had no idea what to do with it, so I decided to let it go. However, the president was adamant that I should have stopped it in class, as it could be considered a distraction. What I replied back is that when we have no policy on those things specifically, then I really don’t know what to do about it. And, so, the result of that is that, as of Friday, we now have a policy on them that says we do not allow them in class.
So, it was an interesting day. Again, I don’t know if there’s any agenda in the president visiting my class two years in a row. But, like so many other things, I don’t really have any choice in the matter, and so, like so many other things, this is what we do.
I promised that I would return to this article, and so I will here. I had read it earlier and just revisited it now. I was quite impressed with the thought that went into the article, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. I especially liked these ideas here:
- “Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class “prepared,” i.e. having done the reading that’s been assigned to them — occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?”
- “We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.”
- “We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choicewe made. Big mistake.”
- “For one thing, there’s too much “material” to “cover” (as if history must — can — be taught sequentially, or as if what’s covered in a lecture or a night’s reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: “what we need to know for the test”). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we’ve entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they’re scholars, not performers.”
- “Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.”
- “Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.”
OK, so if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are looking for more than just a bland repeating of what someone else said. So, here are my own thoughts on the matter. I think this is spot on with regard to the assumptions that we make in teaching history. I have long since given up on the idea that my students actually do the reading that I assign, although I do my damnedest to get them to. I put together more and more complex quizzes that the students have to complete on each chapter, with the hope that they will not be able to complete them without reading the chapters. Actually, I won’t even say I do that, as more of the approach I make is that it will be much easier and faster for the students to complete the assignments they are required to do if they have actually done the reading. What is funny, and really a failing on my part, is that I still run the class as if they are doing the reading, even though I know they don’t. This is exactly the fault at which this article is aimed.
I also fall victim to the idea of coverage. I feel that, as long as I am lecturing, then I am expected to fully cover the material for the course, telling the students everything that they are supposed to know. I adopt that “sage on the stage” persona so easily that it is scary. All it takes is for me to stand up in front of the class, and I can talk for 75-minutes on the subject, never asking questions, never stopping for clarifications, and just going, going, going. I do that day after day without really trying. Despite my best intentions, I have the standard lecture class down pat, so much so that it takes very little preparation on my part these days to be able to walk in and deliver that lecture. I wish this wasn’t so, but I feel that I’ve actually gotten lazy with my teaching, just delivering the same old series of lectures, which are now on their 4th year since the last set of revisions. I’m no better than that joke that we all laugh about of the old professor going in with his old hand-written notes on a legal pad that he did 20 years earlier and delivering the same lecture. I have fallen into that trap. Instead of innovating in the place where it matters most, I am stagnating. I have innovated everywhere else, but day in and day out, I do the same old thing.
So, what can I do? Well, I have already been planning it out in this blog, and the more I read things like this article, the more I am convinced that it is time for a radical change. I don’t mean incremental change with some modifications to the lecture and so forth. I mean radical change. Blowing up the lecture class. Flipping the classroom. Whatever you want to call it. I need to approach the students and deliver to them, not do what I and my colleagues have always done. And when I step down from my teaching high each day, I look around at the students, and what do I see? They are gazing off into the distance, texting on their phones, watching me, surfing the internet, taking notes, dozing, and all sorts of things. Yet, all of those things are passive. Sitting there. Letting themselves either be entertained or annoyed at having to be there (as if I’m forcing them to get a college education). I want an active classroom. I want the students to be engaged. I want to teach history, historical thinking, critical thinking, and so much more. I don’t want to just lecture, deliver. To do that, I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone. I’m going to have to stop going in with my pre-made lecture and talk for 75 minutes. I will have to do it all differently. I will have to change. It will be hard. It will be a lot of work. It will be uncertain. But I hope it will also be valuable to my students and to me.
We had a presentation today from one of the major publishers, and in the process, we had an impromptu conversation about teaching history as well. It got me thinking about my own assumptions about teaching history, so I thought I needed to sit down and work out some things here.
What got me going was something that I have already encountered before and that really irks me, that history teachers at the college level can’t manage to cover the material that is in the assigned history course. We split up our American history course at 1877, but I seem to be the only instructor that actually tries to cover the time period of the course. As far as I can tell, the rest of the department usually gets to around 1850 in the first half of the course and to about 1950-60 in the second half. To me, that is outrageous, but I seemed to come off as some sort of traditionalist fuddy-duddy (if that’s really a word) for raising the idea that we ought to teach the period that we are assigned to teach. I cover the first half of American history to 1877 and get to 2001 in the second half of the course, and I just assumed that should be what everyone should be aiming for. Instead, everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that teaching American history that covers a certain period of time does not mean that you have to actually cover that period. And the easy acceptance of that has me thinking if I’m somehow wrong in my own thinking. I remember having surveys that didn’t complete the time period going all the way back to jr high/high school, when we ended in around 1850 and started up in 1877, meaning that I did not have anything on the Civil War or Reconstruction. In fact, since I didn’t have to take the surveys, I didn’t actually take a course that covered that period until I took the actual Civil War and Reconstruction course at Rice. To me and my fellow history majors, this always seemed like a big joke that a person couldn’t cover the finite ground of American history and bother to actually complete the course, and I made that a priority in my own teaching that I would always make sure that the students got the full coverage. And this is not just because I feel that they should hear about everything, although that is something that I do believe, but that I think that if students are going to understand how history is relevant to their lives, you can’t just take a few bits here and there and leave out the rest and expect them to get a full picture of how the history of the country has affected how their own world is today. Yet, I seem to come off as naive in my department for believing that actually covering the Civil War and Reconstruction period or the period after 1960 is somehow relevant and something that the students should have as part of their course sequence. Some of them do argue that they cover all of it because they do assign all parts of the textbook and quiz them over the chapters that are not covered in class, but that seems to be a quite limited argument at best.
I was reminded that the current state standards for history don’t actually say anything about the subjects we are supposed to cover, but instead look at communication, social relations, and other aspects. So, maybe I am the one that is backward. If nobody but me believes that you should actually cover the material, then maybe I am the one who is wrong here. So, as I said to start here, I’m trying to think about why it is that I believe in full coverage in the survey. To me, it is just what you do, so it is hard for me to get my mind around not completing the course, so I am having quite a bit of trouble here. I especially am troubled by the fact that when others don’t complete the course, and I then get them, I am referring to material that they are then unfamiliar with, as they didn’t get that coverage in another course. But that is a fairly irrelevant argument really, as we all teach the class in different ways, so the emphases will always be different from one class to another. There’s also the argument that if we are more concerned with teaching critical thinking, writing ability, and the like, then the actual specifics of the subject we teach is irrelevant. But then, what am I doing teaching history at that point. I’ll just teach a critical writing and thinking course with a few historical examples instead and call it a history class. Is that where I’m supposed to be going? If that’s the implication, that the actual history we study is irrelevant to the teaching process, then I have really been doing it wrong over the years. When I say that I want to move beyond the lecture and flip my class, I am not talking about ditching the history all together, but that seemed to be the implication today, that you should just do your best to cover the material, but that the intention of turning the students into thinking people afterwards was more important than covering the material. I don’t know if I’m characterizing what I heard incorrectly, but I am just troubled by the implications of it.
Here’s an illustration of what I find a problem. This is from my syllabus, where I lay out the course objectives for my first half of American history course:
Course Objectives for HIST 1301
- Students will understand the following historical themes:
- colonization of the New World
- formation of the English colonies
- development of a unified colonial America
- creation of a revolutionary ideology
- development of a slave system
- creation of a national identity
- development and changes in religious, cultural, and social identity
- development of a divide between the North and South
- causes of the Civil War
- consequences of Reconstruction
- Students will understand the development of an American nation and how it is relevant to the world they live in today.
- Students will learn how to analyze historical evidence for validity, reliability, and bias.
- Students will understand how to use evidence to prove an argument.
- Students will understand the concept of historical significance, allowing them to put an event, idea, or person into historical context.
- Students will learn how to write coherent, well-thought-out material that presents their ideas and evidence in an organized manner.
- Students will be encouraged to question the standard assumptions of American history and use the history studied in this course to evaluate the place of the United States in the world today.
So, in what I understand about what I am trying to do in teaching American history would remain largely the same. I’d just lose 9 and 10 from the first learning objective (and pieces of the others as well). Is my course lesser because I don’t cover that material? Am I doing my job if I don’t cover those parts? I think so, personally, but, again, I seem to be in the minority. This whole thing makes me very uncomfortable. As one of the instructors in the room today said, there may be 17 chapters in the first half survey, but he only does 13 of them because he spends the first month going through the idea of “what is history” with the students, and that the time he has left over only allows him to get through Chapter 13 out of 17. When I objected to this, I felt like I was belittled because I found it important that the instructors cover all 17 chapters. But that’s really not it, it’s not that I think all 17 chapters are important, and I leave out a hell of a lot when I do teach a survey, as we all do. But, when these are things that I have identified as fundamental to what the students should do in the course, then I can’t help but question whether I’m wrong or what.
I’ll have to come back to this when I have had more time to think about it, as I’m still a bit bewildered at the moment.