Drink Wineburg’s Kool-Aid, “Pleasant Frustration” Follows

As a graduate student – mired in book reviews, seminar papers, conferences, and grants – I have often wondered if and when I would pick up the (seemingly innate) set of teaching skills that allows a professor to thrive in an undergraduate lecture hall. Though my teaching debut is still years away, I often feel a creeping anxiety at the thought of standing up in front of a classroom with no formal teacher training and basically shooting around in the dark until I find what works. This trial-and-error method seemed the most practical way of tackling my inexperience, particularly since I had often heard veteran teachers claim that the only way to learn to teach is, in fact, by suffering through the classroom growing pains and missteps until you find your footing.

That’s why, as I was reading Sam Wineburg’s work, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, I felt as if I had found a very clever and experienced friend who could sit me down and say, “take a deep breath, here’s a roadmap to the classroom.”

Through research of all kinds, Wineburg uses his training as a cognitive psychologist to shed light on huge questions related to  “the specific challenges that historical texts posed to young people” in the classroom and, more broadly, to examine “the role of history in changing how we think” (Wineburg, 10-11). More than simply bemoaning the failures of our current educational system, however, Wineburg also offers numerous “Models of Wisdom” that detail exactly how we can start reconceptualizing our pedagogical methods to ensure that the discipline meets its full humanizing potential.

Beyond offering examples of innovative ways to run a classroom, Wineburg manages one of the best articulations of the historical mindset in all of its glory, trappings, and pitfalls that I have yet to encounter. When put in conversation with James Gee’s work, What Video Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, I found myself thinking about Gee’s notion of the “Identity Principle,” or the idea that learning involves trying on, accepting, and/or rejecting certain identities, particularly as one comes to understand what it means to be “inside” of the particular discipline or field (i.e. what it means to be a historian versus a biologist). As someone who is still training her mind to think like a historian, I had the pleasure of reading Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts while in the midst of experiencing Gee’s identity principle in my own educational career. I can readily remember the first time that I tried on the mental skills that it required to be a historian, and how challenging and frustrating it proved as I pushed my mind to the limits of its prior experience. More recently, I have started to adopt an identity as a scholar that allows me to comprehend and appreciate the historical mindset that Wineburg prizes. In other words, this book seems to have entered my orbit at the perfect time.

As I mentally prep to enter the college lecture hall, I am now armed with a much richer knowledge of some of the pedagogical goals that I should be striving towards, the multi-faceted obstacles that could stand in the way, and the possible methods to break those barriers down. Though Wineburg never comes to close to claiming that he has “the answers,” this book is the perfect diving off point for anyone considering, or reconsidering, their teaching style. In fact, before I had even made it halfway through the book, I found myself in an undergraduate lecture as a TA trying to imagine how I could take Wineburg’s models and my own experience in large lectures to create a classroom environment that made students fidget in their seats as they experienced deep learning in a “pleasantly frustrating” way. Even as I write this post, I am experiencing the “pleasant frustration” that comes with learning something new (or gaining the scaffolding of current pedagogical debates) and then trying to apply that knowledge to solve immediate problems (increasing student success in large undergraduate courses). It’s already a mentally trying and somewhat overwhelming exercise, and my feet are barely wet, but Wineburg makes it seem possible. No small feat, in my opinion.

So, in sum, I clearly think Wineburg’s book is chalked full of valuable insights for historians, teachers, and learners of all kinds. If you don’t read Historical Thinking for its extensive research, crystal clear synthesis of complicated data, or its valuable pedagogical roadmap, read it to be reminded of the value of what historians do and, better yet, how that valued skill set could AND should translate into the undergraduate classroom. Drink Wineburg’s Kool-Aid, you’ll be glad you did.

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