Tag Archives: SOTL

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…

A Terrible Tip

In the December 2012 edition of the AHA’s newsletter Perspectives, Patricia Limerick, the new Vice President of the Teaching Division, announced a new Association project, “Tipping Points for Teaching.” The project, as described by Limerick, has two main goals: to (a) gather and curate teaching tips from AHA members that can then be disseminated via a web interface, and (b) to somehow use these examples of teaching to help persuade “voters and public officials to recognize the value of face-to-face education…”

I will admit that there might be some benefit that accrues from collecting and disseminating exemplary teaching exercises that members might contribute to the website. But on the whole, I think this whole effort is a terrible idea.

Because calling something a terrible idea is a pretty blunt statement, I want to be very specific as to the reasons for my criticism.

The AHA is the largest and most important organization representing historians in the United States, so any AHA project signals to not only members, but to the historical profession, and the general public what the Association considers to be important work. The message of this project, at least as it is described in Perspectives, is that teaching about the past can best be improved by gathering and disseminating “tips.” Such a stance devalues teaching as an intellectual enterprise, reducing it instead to a cluster of skills that can be learned through imitation, and worse, essentially ignores two decades of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history – an effort that the Association has fairly consistently supported throughout those two decades.

As described, “Tipping Points in Teaching” makes no mention of the pioneering work on teaching and learning history of American scholars such as Sam Wineberg, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, Lendol Calder, Robert Bain, Keith Erekson, and Laura Westhoff, or of our colleagues in the UK, Paul Hyland, Sarah Richardson, and Alan Booth, or of Stéphane Lévesque and Peter Seixas in Canada, or of Sean Brawley in Australia. Nor does the site’s workflow diagram offer any hope that the work of these scholars will have any place in the website. In other words, those AHA members coming to this website will have no way of accessing the most important research on the subject they are interested in.

Imagine if the AHA announced a new project focused on the analysis of an important historical topic and invited members to contribute their best public lectures on this topic in lieu of essays that cited evidence to support the author’s conclusions. There would be howls from across the country that these lectures offered nothing of substance – artful presentations, perhaps, but no substance. But because the subject of this project is teaching it is somehow okay to resort to collecting “tips”?

A second problem with this idea has to do with the goal of promoting the benefits of face-to-face teaching. If the Association’s goal is to somehow stave off what I’ve termed the Online Course Tsnami, a website offering visitors a database of exemplary teaching exercises is about the worst way I can imagine going about this defense of face-to-face instruction. I’m sorry, but a database of inspiring teaching tips is going to convince exactly no one that face-to-face instruction is too wonderful to be replaced by online delivery systems.

No amount of assurance by otherwise excellent teachers that their students really “got it” in class is going to convince skeptics that face-to-face instruction is better than online instruction. The case for face-to-face instruction needs to be made with data derived from research, or not made at all. Data driven research on learning outcomes is what will make the case, and nothing less.

If the Association’s intention really is to put its weight behind a defense of face-to-face instruction, then the funds the Association plans to spend on the Tipping Points project would be much better spent sponsoring serious research that has the potential to demonstrate how learning outcomes differ in face-to-face and online educational environments. Or, failing that, the AHA should use its resources to help a team of scholars secure grant funding to conduct these sorts of studies.

Finally, the way this project has been described in Perspectives betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Once upon a time it was the case that it made sense to have people submit content, curate it, then post it online. But the advent of Web 2.0 changed all that. Now the crowd curates the content, votes it up and down according to popularity and usability, and the staff that once would have done the curation is there to resolve disputes, monitor for abuse, and promote the project.

Back in 2008 the Association proposed something similar with respect to historical websites. That project was never realized. As planned now, this teaching project will be hugely staff intensive and if it does result in a flood of contributions, will at worst collapse under its own weight, or at best will simply become too large to keep up to date.

Given all these problems, I hope the Teaching Division reconsiders this plan. I would hate to see the scarce resources of the Division used on a project that really has little hope of success.

Remix History

An essay of mine on the ways that students are beginning to play with history using digital media, “But Mine’s Better”: Teaching History in a Remix Culture has just appeared in the May 2011 issue of The History Teacher (44/3: 369-378), and is the featured article on the journal’s website page for the new edition. You can download a copy of the pdf from their site. The essay is a meditation on what happens when students begin to play around with the past in ways we don’t expect and what that playing around means for the future of history education. If you have a chance to read the article, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. Comments are especially welcome, because I’m in the final throes of revisions to a book manuscript tentatively titled Teaching History in the Digital Age and so I’d love to hear what readers think before I submit the final version to the press. In the article you’ll get a good sense for some of the main lines of argument in the book.

The Five Page Paper and the History Degree

Over the past week there has been a lot of hand wringing in American higher education over a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “Is College Worth It?.” The study, conducted with The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes it abundantly clear that a growing majority of American adults no longer believes that higher education in the United States is worth the cost. This finding conflicts with another finding in the study–that an overwhelming majority of American college graduates think their degree was worth what they spent on that degree.

In other words, in my case, college was worth it, but in general, it’s not.

The Chronicle story devotes a fair amount of space to the argument that higher education should not be about workforce preparation, citing critiques of a workforce focus from both college presidents and faculty. But the story, and the data from Pew, also point out that there are very discernible class differences when it comes to the question of the purpose of higher education. The wealthier an institution is, the more likely a president is to pooh-pooh any talk of better preparation for that first job after college.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m a firm believer in the value of the liberal arts over the long term and have no interest in teaching history as a purely job preparation program. But those who want to draw a line in the sand in the defense of the liberal arts (Job preparation has no, NO place in our curriculum!) make that case with zero data to support their arguments.

Where are the data to show that “critical thinking skills” are a virtual guarantee of professional success? I think such skills are very important, but I don’t know they are. In what field of scholarly endeavor do we let our students make assertions unsupported by evidence? Certainly not history.

After reading the Pew study, it seems to me that one plausible explanation of the growing restiveness among American adults when it comes to the value of a college degree is that over the past couple of decades we’ve been shifting the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the user (student). The more a college degree becomes a private good–something a majority of the presidents surveyed supported–the more the purchaser of that private good is going to demand in terms of tangible results.

In educational systems where higher education remains a public good–much of Europe, for instance–the public is much more likely to support the idea that intellectual pursuits ought to remain the core mission of colleges and universities. When it is everyone who pays, rather than just those paying out of their own pockets, it seems to me, people will be more willing to see the cost/benefit of higher education in more abstract terms.

Which brings us go the five page paper.

Raise your hand if you can quantify, in any way, the direct benefit to your students of the five page paper (or some other length essay) you assigned this past year. Indirect benefits don’t count. I want hands only from those of you who can show tangible, direct benefits.



I’m not completely opposed to essay writing. I assign essays (although much less often than I used to). I think they have value, but I don’t know they do. In particular, I think they help my students organize their thinking about certain topics, they help me help them with their writing, and they help me see where their research and/or analytical skills need work. Note that two of these benefits are diagnostic. And yes, me being able to help them with their writing, research, and analysis helps them become more educated and, I think, over the long term, more successful in whatever they chose to do when they graduate.

I think these things.

What I know is that my students will need to get jobs when they graduate and that their future employers have every right to expect certain skills and knowledge from our graduates. As much as I’d like to wish otherwise, few of those employers are going to want their future employees to be able to explain the causes of the revolutions of 1989 in East Central Europe. Nor will they want a five page essay on nationalist movements in the Czech lands.

With each passing year I have, therefore, tried to incorporate more of what might be called “real world skills” in my classes. The work that my students now do is still very much history, but they write fewer and fewer papers. Instead, they spend more and more time on work they can point to in a job application or a graduate school application. At least some of what they learn while doing this work–archival metadata standards, a deeper understanding of the tensions between fair use and copyright, how to deal with a project team member who is a slacker–is going to be of interest to future employers.

They still learn why communist parties in East Central Europe went belly up in 1989, because I think it’s important for educated people, especially history majors, to know such things. They just write about it less than they used to.

Will my approach cure the restiveness of the American public when it comes to university educations? Not likely. But every little bit helps.