Tuesday, March 17, 2009

That pesky textbook issue...

As someone who has not yet had the honor/pleasure/ to teach a large lecture class, I have had the luxury of deciding quickly and without much agony to just drop the textbook. Instead I created my own coursepackages consisting of primary sources paired with articles that I like. The thinking behind it was to make students realize that history is not a presentation of facts but an ongoing argument.

Did it work? Well, nope. Most students are so wedded to the notion that they need to memorize dates and events to succeed in a history class, that they read the articles and primary sources just for the information about facts/dates/events, and miss the whole "argument" part. I have learned to devote much more time to discuss with students "how" historians actually work. This, of course, comes at the cost of content delivery. But I am honestly starting to question whether this is really such a big deal. It would be different if we taught high school. But we don't.

I mean, why are we doing what we are doing? And to clarify - I am talking about teaching undergraduates here. Most of them (even the history majors) will not, I repeat NOT become historians. So what do we want to get across? Will there be a terrible void in our students' lives if they leave college without knowing about the Encumbered Estates Act? Probably not. I think the loss would be if they left college knowing every single detail about the Encumbered Estates Act but still thought that they understand the world; different cultures; different people; if they just cram dates and names into their heads and by being able to recite "a" narrative about the way things were/are.

There have recently been more and more discussions among our colleagues about whether the sciences can offer a useful model for the teaching of history. In the natural sciences you have the lab. Students learn-by-doing. In history, learning-by-doing often comes too short, I think. We teach a narrative first. Then we raise the issue that this narrative can be contested. We start with textbook readings. We quiz students on the textbook. And only then do we give them primary sources to analyze and to discuss. Maybe this is the wrong order? Could a survey class be like a wiki? Imagine this: your students read primary sources and articles. Then they write the textbook themselves: the weekly assignment could be to go online and write a paragraph of narrative in a wiki format. Many universities provide the necessary webspace. Mine for instance (big public northeastern U) provides instructors with blog space and wiki space. If you utilize a wiki, students can edit what's already being written. Every student builds the mosaic. It will be chaotic. It will be a mess. But imagine how much fun it might be.

Actually, if truth be told, I am afraid my main teaching goal is to have fun while doing it. I am a hopelessly frivolous teacher, I fear. But back to the textbook and back to serious: I think it already helps if you teach students to refer to the textbook like they would to a monograph. Don't let them get away by writing "the book says." Make them say, "As Hewitt and Goldfield argue..." That way, it's easier for them to wrap their minds around the fact that just because something was put in print it is not truth written in stone.

These are just my five cents. And bear in mind: I have not taught the survey, yet. I am spoiled rotten. I live in Disney land.


Teacher Scholar said...

I like the potential of the wiki idea, which would work well with a 'lab' model like you describe.

The larger 'textbook' question you raise is an important one. As most of you know already, the importance of conveying a narrative to students has roots in creating a sense of nationalism in students to make them citizens, and also to legitimate the government. But is that as important today?

In my senior seminar on historiography, I assign Appleby, Hunt and Jacob's _Telling the Truth about History_, in which they contend it is still important to convery a sense of national identity, it just needs to be a more inclusive and critical narrative.

I don't know that I am as convinced that narrative needs to be central. If anything, students seem to overflow with nationalism/patriotism. In my mind, teaching them skills to be better critical thinkers holds more potential to create improved (and hopefully more active) individuals in the small 'l' liberal sense.

To be fair, I teach American history, so student have (or believe they have) a sense of historical narrative. Different challenges certainly face Europeanists, never mind Asianists or Africanists.

The Daft Laird said...

I think you're both right about the problems of focusing on a narrative. At the local equivalent of "rate my professor," I've been distressed to find some students give other students advice about "what you have to know" for my class. The focus, of course, is on some obscure facts that I probably don't remember without looking them up.

I like the idea of using a wiki site to make students build a narrative (though I detest the science comparisons that seem to crop up everywhere in this discipline recently). I wouldn't want to see the lecturing "baby" thrown out with the old-fashioned narrative "bath-water," though. Maybe its the romantic in me, but I've always thought there something very exciting about a well-delivered lecture that challenges one's assumptions. Is a lecture really that different than a textbook or even and article? Often what I do in lecture is take interesting ideas from a couple of secondary sources and fashion them into my own story.

I suppose my point is that, while I'm sympathetic (and intrigued by) the "lab" model, I emphatically resist the notion that I should train my students as scientists train there students. Asking students questions during the course of a lecture and not being afraid to show them that you hadn't thought of the point they make can be a powerful tool to undermine the idea of a dominant narrative and to empower them.

CGB said...

Your "emphatic" objection to the science comparison makes me wonder whether my lab/science reference was misleading. The science comparison refers - in this case - not to an issue like "quantifiable learning outcomes," or "objective, measurable, data delivery." It refers to the idea of learning a discipline by actively applying its tools and methods - like scientists do in a lab. I believe that lecturing is part of the tools of doing history. And as long as you don't present yourself as the all knowing conveyor of unassailable truths, then I have nothing whatsoever against lectures.

I appreciate Teacher-Scholar's reminder of the link between teaching a historical narrative and creating a sense of nationalism. It is all the more important, I think, to teach students critical thinking. You can do that while lecturing and/or by working with small groups etc. But I think especially in the survey we need to be aware that many students come with these assumptions that what they learn has no relevance whatsoever to present-day issues. They don't see history as being used as a political device, for instance. And they are not used to questioning a narrative - especially not one that is delivered in an authoritative fashion.

So what to do? At one of the pedagogy/teaching panels at the last AHA one of the presenters (I forgot who it was--sorry) said that we (historians/lecturers) ought to model to students what it means to do historical thinking. Presenting primary sources in a lecture and actively grappling with their meaning, I think, would be a perfect way to do that. And I don't think you can do it once and expect it to sink in. For many undergraduates it will be a new way of thinking and it will probably take them a while to get used to it. I had to realize that in my last U.S. history survey in which I had a unit on "historical thinking" at the beginning. We talked about it for a week and a half and then we switched to narrative, textbook, quiz. And swoosh - they were back to old high school habits.

On the other hand, they came back to the lessons from the start of the course in their assignments. I had assigned only quizzes and book reviews as assignments. No mid-term, no final. And I think this mix worked quite well. Students had the incentive to study the narrative (read the textbook, take the quiz, get instant feedback on their effort etc.). But they also realized by reading the monographs that historians write different when they are NOT writing a textbook. (Some of them at least) So I had quite a few students who said stuff like 'wow - I had no idea how thin the ice is on which authoritative statements about cause and effect are built'. Okay, I am starting to ramble... I will leave it at that.

Teacher Scholar said...

I very much like the direction CGB takes in her comment, suggesting the use of primary sources in lecture. It provides students with a model or sets of models for wrestling with primary sources. I would add that students should practice this themselves, either alone or in groups, with feedback so that they can develop their skills.

Recently, Nancy Shoemaker addressed this question in an article for _Perspectives on History_ entitled "Where is the History Lab Course" (http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2009/0901/0901tea2.cfm). She argues, much like CGB, that "Instead of introducing students to college-level history with a survey course, literally weighed down by a 500- to 600-page textbook with timelines and arcane facts, we should devise a laboratory course modeled after that in the sciences." Shoemaker also notes that she no longer teaches the survey, instead teaching an introductory course entitled "The Historian as Detective" (see her Spring 2008 syllabus: http://www.history.uconn.edu/undergraduate/syllabi/syllabi_s08/Shoemaker135W.pdf).

It seems like a wonderful course (though it complements rather than substitutes for the survey), but I doubt that I could use this approach in my survey course because I do not have TA's to help grade for the 60-70 students I have in the survey each semester (assuming I am teaching only one survey course).

Instead, at UMSU, we have a course entitle "The Historian's Laboratory." It is a junior-level methods course, and while possesses some of the same goals as the Shoemaker course, it has a broader scope and different set of expectations. But this deserves its own post.

Teacher Scholar said...

Here are the links again, which seem to have been cut off. If you cut and paste the addresses, remove the spaces I had to place in them.

Shoemaker article:
http://www.historians.org/ Perspectives/issues/2009/ 0901/0901tea2.cfm

Shoemaker syllabus:
http://www.history.uconn.edu/ undergraduate/syllabi/ syllabi_s08/Shoemaker135W.pdf

CGB said...

Thank you for providing the links! I could not remember which one of "our colleagues" had made that science lab comparison. But it was exactly after reading the Shoemaker article that I started thinking about how one could to a "lab-like" think in a survey and came up with that wiki idea.

The Daft Laird said...

Thanks for the link, T-S, that is a good article. I think we all, at one time or another, encounter the notion that we, as historians, are simply fact-compilers. I do (despite my petty dislike of the word) like the idea of labs, though I'd want to use them to replace the discussion sections that I now do. So, instead of reading some book or article at the end of the week, maybe we could use a lab at the end of the week to explore one critical aspect of the narrative presented in lecture. This is actually how my college sciences classes went anyway; we'd have two lectures on the broad issues and then have a lab to "get under the hood," so to speak. Of course, those labs were two hours long, rather than 50 minutes.

I must say, though, that I'm not comfortable with the idea that Shoemaker suggests of starting with a methods course. This is because I do think a breadth of content knowledge is, in fact, important. And I don't think that every narrative is necessarily implicated in nationalism. A narrative can also be empowering and cause students to question a dominant mode of thinking.

Again, I'm not advocating straight-lecturing, just questioning the idea that we should start with the practical. That's in part because of the reasons I suggested above and also because I don't think "the historian's craft" is all we do as teachers in a university classroom. Part of what we should strive to do, I think, is introduce our students to new ideas and new ways of thinking about the world around them.

CGB said...

I like the idea of emphasizing the "lab" character of weekly discussion sections because it would get the idea across to students that now it is **their** turn to actively apply the tools and knowledge they were introduced to in class. This might just be a matter of presenting the exercises to them in a slightly different way. Like, maybe one could draw more on interactive web-based resources? Or: Present students with a concrete task/problem to "solve"? And I agree with Daft that students need to have a base of information to start out from. But I think you can combine teaching the methodology of history with teaching the subject. I really think we pretty much aspire to do the same thing: open up new perspectives to students, and make them see that ideas matter, am I not correct?

The Daft Laird said...

Absolutely, you are correct. Just think of me as the old man on the porch, shotgun in hand, suspicious of the new ways.