Subjectivity, Identity, and the Case of the Missing Paradigm in College History Courses

Some common and useful ideas from Gee (2007) and Wineburg (2001) come to the fore in thinking about how to solve the “problem” of teaching history survey courses. The roots of these ideas run far deeper than the publication dates above suggest; I mention this because of the relevance of the fact that both authors arrived at those ideas via different pathways. Thus, Gee and Wineburg both demonstrate the possibility of learning truths by means other than being directly told “the Truth” by the Possessor of Truth–namely, the Professor of History.

Wineburg, for instance, warns us against maintaining our longstanding love affair with the metanarrative. In one sense, “metanarrative” refers to the history-by-[almost]-consensus that we find in adopted textbooks and that reflects the curriculum standards of a few states (such as Texas) whose textbook approval and purchasing process grants them a louder voice in what gets heard in that metanarrative. In another sense, however, “metanarrative” refers to the disembodied, apparently impersonal, impartial, and *objective* voice of those textbooks. Hedging–or the use of terms like “may have been” or “is believed by some to have been”–is not a common feature in such a metanarrative. The presentation of the content is the presentation of Truth in terms of finality, banality, and certitude. There is no room for counternarrative, even if a student’s grandparents had repeatedly recounted to their grandchild stories about their firsthand experiences–which happen not to match what is stated with such authority in the 8-pound textbook (which “literally” has heft, weight, gravitas). Whence subjectivity? Whence point of view? Surely one’s identity–one’s situation, station, race, class, gender–may [note the hedgeword] result in disparate interpretations of experiences. In fact, let’s add “experiences” to that list in the preceding sentence.

Gee’s take on subjectivity incorporates identity as well. He notes that, even within the context of the very same game, the experience is markedly different when he is playing as a female elf, male elf, and so on. Although he is playing the same game, alternate perceptions (i.e., subjective realities) are possible–hence, “truths,” which grow out of the interactions of one’s experiences with his or her [fluid, yet presumably somewhat stable] identity, which we have just stated comprises, among other things, prior experiences.

So far, we have concerned ourselves with “micro” or individual-level matters of identity and subjectivity. If, as a substantial body of literature exhorts us to, we adopt “student-centered” instruction, it immediately becomes evident that the first words out of a professor’s mouth on the first day of class should not be, “Despite de jura equality, de facto inequality was evident in virtually every aspect of life for the newly freed slaves.” Such an approach is instructor centered and is predicated on the assumptions that (1) all students are in the same “place” with regard to their knowledge and understanding of the metanarrative of US History up to and into Reconstruction, (2) all students learn equally well–and best–by hearing and reading the metanarrative, (3) all students possess the necessary academic vocabulary to comprehend the input that they will receive exclusively through listening and reading, and so on. Unless the instructor has conducted what might be variously called needs assessments, interest inventories, diagnostic assessments, or baseline exams (among others, depending on your discipline’s lexicon), he or she is ill equipped to pursue anything resembling a student-centered “curriculum”–especially when the lectures that constitute his or her current curriculum are based on so many assumptions of what “all students” know, as well as of their ways of knowing.

One thing that is commonly [note the hedgeword] missing–and no, I’m not at the “missing paradigm” yet–is the opportunity to interact in authentic, social ways with a genuine purpose in mind. That is, the grade is not the purpose, but is a score [if one chooses to see it that way] that is typically meant to reflect the expert’s (instructor’s) assessment of how well the student played the game of achieving that genuine purpose. At present, our genuine purpose–our objective–is to create [higher order thinking per Bloom et al.] an approach, model, module, lesson [note the open-endedness] that provides students of history with *at least* what they would have gotten from Professor De Facto, but in ways that are more likely to “leverage” students’ natural drive for inquiry in the short run, hold students’ interest long enough for them to practice the skill or strategy or whatever to mastery [which Dewey would call “discipline,” whereas we will be reserving “discipline” to signify subject areas, such as history, project management, cognitive psychology, etc.] in the intermediate run, and prove “stickier” and of utility in solving more complicated problems in the long run. The assignment is entirely doable, even if the “problem” is not one that can be definitively “solved.” In fact, rather than view instructional decisions as problems to be solved, let us instead view them as dilemmas to be addressed. Doing so frees us from the right/wrong binary while acknowledging the importance of all I’d said above about subjectivity.

During the course of teaching in a student-centered way, the teacher (instructor, professor, etc.) will, as a matter of course, encounter myriad dilemmas. As he or she guides the students along their educational paths, there will be countless decisions to be made with regard to delivery, grouping, assessment, ethics, reteaching, and on and on. It is a sad fact that few [note the semi-hedge] professors in the disciplines (e.g., history, physics, etc.) teach with a student-centered approach at all, and are therefore unaware of all but the “traditional” ways of teaching and assessing that have been associated with their discipline and passed down from generation to generation. Of content knowledge, they may possess great quantities. Of how to effectively teach that content knowledge, they may possess a thimbleful.

History presents a particularly opaque dilemma, in that there is not just the knowing of history (content knowledge) but also the doing of history. For some, merely transmitting the knowledge of historical content is a good day’s work. For our purposes, however, we will insist on both historical knowledge and historical thinking. One does not transmit historical thinking; it does not lend itself to the “banking model” of knowledge transmission as described by Freire, nor to assessment methods that rely on the filling in of bubbles (or other multiple-choice tests). Historical thinking is learned via historical inquiry.

So by insisting on student-centered instruction and by insisting on teaching students the “how” and “why” of history in addition to the “what,” we have complicated the game. We have added elements that are sure to provide pleasant frustration. The decisions to be made in planning, revising, implementing, assessing, planning, revising, implementing, and assessing (in a continuously iterative process of incremental improvement) will be informed by the content, yes, but also by what we know about how to plan, present, and assess the content. That knowledge, which has been largely [hedgeword] ignored by history professors, is “pedagogical content knowledge.” This is the “missing paradigm,” and it has been missing from history teaching because instructor-centered teaching requires so little of it.

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