Engagement: Part I. What Does It Look Like and Sound Like?

To those of us committed to reforming the traditional stand-and-deliver lecture format of the big survey courses in history, the concerns of those who currently lecture to crowds of students in such courses may initially feel like passive resistance to new ideas. Taking a step back provides a clearer perspective: When a professor asks, “How do you pull that off in a class with 320 students?,” the hidden meaning behind the question might actually be, “How do you pull that off in a class with 320 students?” One has to bear in mind that (1) few professors have been explicitly trained in how to manage transitions that involve student movement in the classroom, and (2) those who have received such training rarely have to manage more than 30 or so students at a time. The question, then, is a fair and practical question asked in earnest: What does this wonderfully engaging approach to teaching that you propose look like and sound like when I have 320 students packed into a lecture hall with fixed seating and only 4 teaching assistants?

The question itself introduces constraints that must be addressed and implies still others: How do I engage students who are in my class because they have to be, not because they want to be? How do I present all the content that I need to present, knowing that the lecture method is about as efficient a delivery method as can be devised? By extension, wouldn’t an emphasis on the processes involved in “doing history” severely limit the amount of content I can cover during the semester? By further extension, wouldn’t a narrower curriculum do a disservice to my students by letting them skate through my course without having learned those things that would make them culturally literate?

Again, all of these are fair questions that deserve attention and thoughtful responses. I aim to respond to each of them to the best of my ability, but I am neither so presumptuous nor so vain to believe that I can *answer* those questions to anyone’s satisfaction. Smarter people than I have grappled with such dilemmas, and there is an entire graduate-level course devoted to addressing these specific problems; my hope, then, is to offer some small contribution based in some measure on my own thought and experience and in a greater measure on what I’ve read and heard and processed from those with greater minds–including my classmates.

To clarify, nothing here is meant to be prescriptive or authoritative. It is simply the product of deliberate thought that would not be possible without the time, resources, and “encouragement” provided through participation in Designing History’s Future. That said, let us see what that deliberate thought has yielded one participant thus far, with regard to the questions posed above. In doing so, it will be necessary to examine the questions, root out assumptions, establish goals, and consider ways to achieve and assess the achievement of those goals. To add to the “pleasant frustration” of the task, we’ll accept as a given that we’re dealing with 320 undergraduates, most of whom are not history majors, in a lecture-hall setting with seats bolted to the floor.

Questions & Assumptions (in no particular order)

The question of content coverage versus process is a common one, and for good reason. One would expect a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin (or of any postsecondary institution, for that matter) to be properly equipped with the cultural literacy necessary for engagement in civil discourse. The expectation is that all students be familiar enough with “big-picture” history–especially US History–to requite themselves well at town hall meetings, dinner parties, and on the streets of New York City, should some late-night TV personality poke a microphone in the graduate’s face, expecting a response to a question that any ordinary 5th grader should know.

The following statements are not meant to dismiss the question of cultural literacy and content as irrelevant. That said, we must bear these things in mind:

  1. Quite a lot of what is “covered” in US History survey courses is forgotten soon after it is “learned,” so we must recognize that the connection between coverage and subsequent cultural literacy is, in many cases, an extremely fragile one.
  2. With regard to the scare quotes in item 1, we must recognize that what is taught is not necessarily learned at all. In fact, without frequent formative assessments (checks for understanding that inform our next lesson), we are unaware of what students are learning until midterms and finals (summative assessments).
  3. Given that much of what is delivered via lecture will be forgotten within months, and given that there are no guidelines dictating how much content must be covered in a survey course, the idea that we must cover every event and personage before or after 1877 (depending on the course) is a self-imposed constraint. That is, the professor, department, and university are not held accountable to mandated standards of content coverage in order to maintain tenure, prestige, and accreditation, respectively. Unlike secondary schools, we have the luxury of teaching fewer things of greater significance in greater depth and for better understanding.

The foregoing points may appear to support an abandonment of content in favor of a skills or process-based approach to instruction. That is not my intent. My intent is to put the concern about content coverage in its proper perspective vis-a-vis process: Just as arithmetic processes cannot be taught without numerical literacy (i.e., the numbers, the relationships among numbers, etc.), processes of historical inquiry cannot be taught or learned without fluency in historical content. Content is the “stuff” with which inquiry is done. Thus, although some historical facts and events may not even be mentioned in a survey that employs an inquiry-based approach, those that are learned in the course of examination, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation will be far stickier and likelier to be applied to useful ends in subsequent inquiries–in class and in civic life. This assertion deserves fuller discussion, and it will emerge again as we address other questions and assumptions.

Students have to take history and government courses whether they want to or not. How do I get disinterested and often underprepared students to engage in historical inquiry?

As posed, the question indicates an assumption: The students’ apparent disinterest and the fact that history courses are mandated are logically connected. Let us question the assumption. Although an engineering student may see US History I as a distraction from her purpose for being at the university, this does not mean that the student is disinterested in the early history of the United States. It simply means that her primary interests lie in engineering-related endeavors. But before we go much further with this engineering student, we must consider another macro-level problem: Many high school graduates hated history in high school, in middle school, and what little bit they got in elementary school. Thus, the professor is not the only one entering class on the first day assuming that the students are going to hate being there. Many students expect more of the same–more names and dates floating around in a boundless sea of facts their teachers have been calling “history.” We are under no obligation to fulfill their expectations in this regard.

Let’s return now to our engineering student. Let’s assume the worst–that she has enrolled under legislative duress and cares not a whit for the early history of the United States and brings low expectations with her from her previous experiences in history classes. She’d much rather study engineering-type stuff than waste her time in your class. Aside from these things–which she has obligingly stated outright to you in the hallway–what else do we know about her? What else do we know about any of the 320 other students in this section?

At the very least, all students are human and are therefore (a) rational and (b) social. An engineer who can pass up an authentic problem lying there on the sidewalk, with the tools for solving the problem scattered there alongside it, with a knowledgeable other potential problem solver standing there pondering it, is no engineer at all! The same applies to any 5-year-old, regardless of what his or her occupational aspirations may be. Everyone from Dewey and Vygotsky to Gee and Jenkins acknowledges the centrality of play to problem solving and learning. As Ken Bain states in his What the Best College Teachers Do (2004, p. 18), highly effective teachers “believe that students want to learn, and they assume, until proven otherwise, that they can.” Is it possible that an attitude adjustment on the professor’s part can contribute to student engagement? Let’s rephrase the question: If approaching the course with an attitude that the students are eager to learn can actually make it so, isn’t it worth a try?

The problem for the professor of US History I, however, is that the students don’t seem particularly eager to learn about US history. We’ve discussed some possible reasons for this above, and a prominent obstacle is that the student believes the course will be a parade of facts–“names and dates”–that may or may not have apparent connections with each other. Some professors are gifted storytellers who manage to deliver lectures in a way that clarifies connections and holds the students’ attention. The lecture is not evil. But if the professor is not so gifted, then again, little will be remembered to be applied by students in the future. Why not “leverage” the students’ natural human curiosity by having them “solve for x,” with x being whatever answer they can generate in response to a historical question that they get to choose from a menu of questions that you provide? You set the scope of the bank of historical dilemmas (which may produce multiple “correct” answers), so you’re still the conductor of this orchestra. But since you can’t possibly anticipate every “good” historical question that might really pique the interest of every student, you could invite students to suggest a topic of their own devising for your approval. Our engineer wants to examine the development of industrial capacity in the US from one-offs to interchangeable parts to Slater’s Mill, etc.

The professor is concerned. It’s far easier to grade a bajillion blue books when they all contain what should be very similar answers to the same few questions. That’s apples-to-apples grading, and it helps with inter-rater reliability, which is a concern when you have 4 teaching assistants doing the grading. Besides, merely figuring out who gets to write about what (and keeping track of individual progress, responding to content- and process-related queries, etc.) would be a logistical nightmare. Even with 4 TAs, that’s 80 students per TA. It’s simply unscalable, right?

Let’s look at our constraints again and see whether we’ve omitted any key resources available to us. Do you use a course management system, such as Blackboard or Canvas? Have you met with and discussed your needs with the people in the Undergraduate Writing Center? Have your TAs taken any of the quick and useful classes available through the Center for Teaching and Learning?

If we’re willing to spend some class time clarifying our expectations for student work by providing and explaining written instructions, rubrics for self-assessment, links to guides, an annotated bibliography (what do you use when writing your lectures?), and having TAs conduct “workshops” on topics such as primary vs. secondary sources, determining source validity, developing and supporting a thesis statement, etc., then our job becomes easier.

I have other work to do, so I’ll address one logistical conundrum before signing off for this week: How do we assign/approve topics for students to work on?

Let us first ask ourselves the question that will guide us through the rest of this experiment–namely, “What is my objective (i.e., that which I want the students to learn and understand and carry with them for years and years)?” The answer to that question will be some very important set of skills and knowledge that the students will be able to apply in future coursework or in life. If this is not our goal, then we are aiming too low.

This being history, we may want students to recognize patterns, when those patterns are applicable to new circumstances, when those patterns are not applicable to new circumstances, and why. In order for us to equip students to meet our lofty goal, which involves a lot of process, they are going to have to learn a lot of content as a matter of course; it’s inescapable.

Acknowledging that the analogy is worn threadbare, I’ll use “fabric” here anyway–you know, the tapestry of history. The “warp” and “weft” concept can help students understand our purposes for the things they’ll be doing throughout the semester. And since this is a history class (and not a mystery class), we will divulge all our intentions and secrets up front. The students will know what is expected of them, when it is due, how they will be assessed [frequently], and why they are doing what they are doing (our objective).

Since we have so many students, we will plan our choosing of topics so that (1) some students begin “warp” studies, which might be examinations of currents pertaining to races, classes, genders, sciences, literary movements, religious movements, warfare, political philosophies, and so forth, whereas (2) some students begin examinations of events and individuals–detailed analyses of the “weft” narrative that threads back and forth across the framework of the “warp.” As mentioned before, we develop the list of topics from which the students are to select. For many topics, we will have students choose a stance, to ensure that at least those topics have a “Historian Battle!” feature that examines differing interpretations.

If students complain that they did not get to study the topic they wanted to study, we will have already allayed their concerns in sharing our plan for the semester. The weft students will confer with each of the warp students throughout the semester. Students will confer with others of their choosing, based on whether they have similar topics (which might share sources) or are simply interested in what the other student is doing. Over the course of the semester, these studies may change hands many times and undergo much revision. Fortunately, TAs can see who added or deleted what and when within Blackboard. In this way, TAs can assess student engagement and assign low-stakes grades (if we so choose) along the way, depending on how substantive the student’s contributions are. (Remember the rubric? The students will be able to gauge whether they are contributing or not for themselves. They know that we’ll see if they’re simply adding and deleting the same text over and over to generate “percent contributed” points for themselves.)

The beginning of the course has the potential to be messy. However, once the topics are chosen and the expectations are shared and the students realize that this will result in a comprehensive student-written, student-edited history of the United States that will be published online with their names on it, then human nature, peer pressure, and the many supports available to the students will give them plenty of reason to get engaged. The students will be experts on some aspects of US history, very familiar with others, and cognizant of a lot more. Just as important, they will develop historical thinking skills that are transferable (I’m referring to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design [2nd. ed., 2005] when I talk of transferability of skills, but the authors reference Bloom et al., Dewey, Tyler, and lots of other important education gurus in their discussion), and they will develop skills that are integral to good writing and indispensable in civil discourse.

Yeah; I think this is a worthwhile endeavor.

More to follow.

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1 Response to Engagement: Part I. What Does It Look Like and Sound Like?

  1. Pingback: Designing History's Future | Engagement: Part II of a Compelling Series

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