“You made history enjoyable, which let me tell you is no easy task!”
This particular quotation came from one of my undergraduate students last semester who wrote this in the comment field of our end-of-semester course evaluation form. I’ve been reflecting on it for a couple of weeks now, because over the past few years I’ve had dozens of similar comments from students and they bother me a lot.
Why? Because they speak to what I think is a fundamental problem in the teaching and learning of history. For too long now, those teaching history have managed to drain the fun out of a discipline we love. And it’s not just us who loves history. Just go to any mass market book store and see how much shelf space is devoted to books about the past. A few other sections of the store are larger, but only a few.
So why is it that undergraduates show up in my classes with such low expectations of history courses?
It would be easy to haul out the old canards complaining about high school teachers who do little more than require their students to memorize one fact after another. But my experiences with high school teachers over the past five or six years has convinced me that this is more of an urban legend than an accurate picture of how history is taught in high school.
So if we can’t blame high school teachers, who can we blame. As Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The past twenty years or so of reform in the teaching and learning of history at the college level–the place where today’s high school teachers learn how to teach by example–has focused on the close reading of primary sources. I’ve taught in five different colleges and universities and visited countless history departments over the past ten years and everywhere the professors I met or worked with proudly told me about the various exercises they had created to help students become better, closer, more critical readers of primary sources.
Or, at least, that is what far too many of our students think.
Don’t believe me? Just ask them. Ask them questions like “What is it about history that you like?” or “When you think about a history class, what do you think you ought to get out of that class?” Ask them at the beginning of the semester–now for instance–rather than waiting until you’ve taught them for 14 weeks and they have a sense for the answer you’re looking for.
The answers you get will, almost certainly never be a version of “I really like learning how to read primary sources carefully” or “I think it’s really important to be able to analyze primary sources.” Sure, sure, a few bright and devoted history majors will say back what we’d love to hear, but most won’t.
Now think about the moments in one of your classes where the students really caught fire, where they went way beyond your expectations, where you could see real learning happening. Write those moments down. Then make a list of the characteristics of the assignment that sparked the learning, that set off that discussion where all you had to do was sit back and watch, that resulted in papers you were excited to grade.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll share my list and we can compare notes.
3 thoughts on “A Crisis Diminishing Expectations?”
I’m guessing your headings towards making use of excellent secondary sources as well. In my undergrad history classes we had text books which combined primary sources and commentary (e.g., “How to Read Church History vol 1&2). If I was taking a class on Rome, I’d be keen to read Plutarch and Cicero and Pliny, but it should be contextualized/motivated by Peter Heather’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Yes, I would include secondary sources as well in my critique. Too often I hear that “our students don’t want to read books any more” from others teaching at the college level (not just historians) and I think this is dead wrong. What students don’t want to do is read books that are written at such a high level of abstraction (i.e., most historical monographs produced these days) that only five or six experts can actually understand what the author is saying or books written at such a level of generality (i.e., probably every history textbook available) that they don’t really say much more than, “This happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end.”
But they will read (and write positive reviews of later) an engagingly written analysis of the past that their teacher has given them a very good reason to read. By “a good reason” I mean the book is set up by other work that the students are engaged by, rather than counting on the book to provide that engagement. Thus, for instance, I have excellent success with Jan Gross’s Neighbors not because it is an engaging tale of the Holocaust in one Polish village, but because I set it up as a historiographical problem. Gross challenges our notions of how evidence ought to be evaluated and in class that’s what we focus on. The story helps, because it’s a horrific one and Gross writes well. But there is a fundamental issue raised in the book that students can rally around/against. Sometimes our discussions of that fundamental issue end up spanning two classes because the students have so much to say on the subject. But, I’d submit, only because I’ve been challenging them all semester about veracity and authenticity.
Comments are closed.