Does Playfulness Crowd Out Rigor?

If you’ve been a reader of what I’ve been writing about teaching and learning the past several years you’ll know that I’ve been arguing that historians should make room for a more playful approach to the past in the undergraduate history curriculum.

I’ve never argued that playful teaching and learning should be the only way we pursue our goals in history education. But I do think we need to lighten up a bit and make room for courses that are not so dependent on the classic style of history teaching: the lecture or seminar that has as its primary goal the writing of one or several analytical essays and, perhaps, a final presentation to the class, with a mid-term and a final examination.

The fact is that the vast majority of undergraduate history courses taught in the United States are taught in pretty similar ways.  Students have every right to be bored with the sameness of it all and, I suspect, this sameness is one of many causes of the continuing slide in history majors around the country.

Way back in 2008, I started to experiment with more playful approaches to teaching and learning. My forays into teaching students to create online historical hoaxes generated more than their fair share of commentary and controversy around the world. That course, and my more playful version of the historical methods seminar [syllabus], also generated some blow back within my own department.

When I came up for promotion to full professor in 2012-13, my departmental tenure and promotion committee (which ultimately voted against my promotion), wrote the following in their letter to the dean:

Nevertheless, members of the department are concerned that the playfulness of Kelly’s courses can crowd out rigor. Some faculty are concerned that Dead in Virginia [my methods course] was offered as a section of the required historical research methods course yet did not require students to do as much analytical writing as do other sections of that course, which is designated as writing intensive.

Because no one on the committee ever spoke to me about the course, I don’t know, but I suspect, that the concern about the supposed paucity of analytical writing in my version of the methods course arose from the fact that instead of a 10-15 page essay, I required my students to write a series of database entries and the first two pages of a long essay (which I then iterated with them). My students wrote a lot — just not in the format historians are more used to — the 3, 5, 10, or longer essay.

The bigger and more interesting issue here is whether, by having my students write in chunks rather than in long form, I was adequately preparing them for the rigors of our capstone seminar, in which they must write a 20-plus page essay built on primary sources they acquire through their own research.

The promotion and tenure committee also criticized me, quite correctly, for not testing the claims I made in my most recent book [relevant chapter] about the success of the more playful methods course “by comparing the outcomes of Kelly’s section with those of other sections.”

Ever since reading their critique I’ve been a little worried that, in fact, I had not adequately prepared my students for the rigors of the capstone seminar. So, I decided to do what I should have done all along — compare my students’ outcomes with those of other sections of our methods seminar.

To get at that information, I asked the registrar’s office to pull student data from all the sections  of our methods course offered in the semesters when I used my more playful syllabus (spring 2011, spring 2013). I compared student grades in the methods seminar (HIST 300 here at George Mason) to the grades those same students received in their capstone seminar (HIST 499). I did not teach the capstone seminar to any of these students.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. My students outperformed the students who enrolled in other sections. Of the students who took my section of the methods course in 2011, their average GPA in the capstone seminar was an 88.47. Four of my colleagues taught methods that same semester. Their students’ average grade in the capstone seminar was 88.28. In the spring 2013 semester, 64 students took methods (22 of them in my section). The average capstone seminar GPA of the students who took the course from someone else was 88.06, while the average GPA of the students who took the course from me was 90.15.
  2. More of my students have completed the capstone seminar. Only 80% of the students in the other 2011 sections ever went on to take the capstone seminar, while 100% of mine have done so. Given the slow pace of some of our students, it’s likely that more students from the 2013 sections will take the capstone in the coming year. As of now, though, 69% of the students who took the methods course from someone else in spring 2013 have taken the capstone seminar, while 80% of my students have done so.

I will admit to being much relieved that the students who took the methods course from me did not suffer from having taken a more playful version of historical methods in which they wrote database entries rather than a long essay. In fact, quite the opposite happened. They did just fine.

While I’m relieved, I’m also a little peeved with myself for letting the criticism I got during my promotion year convince me to go back to teaching methods the more traditional way. I’m teaching the course again this fall and can’t ditch that more traditional syllabus entirely for the more playful one. I will certainly ditch the 10-15 page paper in favor of more shorter and iterative writing assignments.

And, like a zombie, Dead in Virginia will rise again…