Saturday, June 09, 2007

Required classes

Required Classes


In the comments to this post, New Kid and sqadratomagico disagreed with me on whether or not history should be a required subject. I really think that it's important enough to require -- not so much for content as for teaching people how we do history. I've argued before that history is not necessarily -- should not necessarily -- have to be relevant to our students. I think that's very true in terms making connections between, say, what the Romans did and what we do. More importantly, I think that kind of emphasis and (mis)use of historical learning lead us to the kind of thing Matt Gabriele talks about here.
So how do we teach history and not fall prey to teaching false analogies in order to make it 'relevant'? I think -- and this is just a suggestion -- that it is not so much the content that we should make relevant.

Let me 'splain -- No. It is too much. Let me sum up.* I think the information we teach in inherently relevant and interesting. But it's relevant because of the questions we ask. This is at the root of why I think history should be required, and taught in ways that try to inculcate in our students the fundamental processes of inquiry, reason, and explanation that allow students to then look at history by themselves. It's relevant because the questions that we ask and try to answer about the past are the same kinds of questions that we should be asking about the world around us. If we go a step further, we can help students to understand why, for example, neither Vietnam nor The Crusades are good comparisons for the current situation in Iraq or for the cultural conflict between Islam and the industrialized West. If we do our jobs well, I think our students should come out of our classes with the confidence to say, "Yes, I can understand that you think the Iraq War and the Vietnam War look something alike on the surface, but what about X? Y? Z? If we look at those things, we can see that they are not really that much alike. But the answers to X, Y, and Z help us to figure out what really is going on." Or something like that. To really sum up, I think that it's the way historians are taught to interrogate their sources and ask and answer questions that are the most relevant and most transferable skills we have to offer. The content is always there, and I think that we humans always want to make analogies. That need is what drives many people critique and understand the present through the past. And yeah, I think that, if more people had some decent training in history, people might be a little less complacent. It's that tension between the desire to find explanations through analogy and the discipline of picking apart those analogies for a better understanding that lies at the heart of what we do. If we teach that part better, I think we'll be doing a better job and creating a greater appreciation for history. The hard part is that really, what I'm calling history isn't what most of my students think history is. Still, the best comments on my evals come from people who praise the emphasis on primary sources. Go figure.

OTOH ... I was thinking last night that, when I taught at several campuses where history was not required, I had better students. My life was much happier when I had students who actually cared about doing well in my subject, rather than just passing a required class. These days, I have rockin' FTEs, but I also have a ton of students (depressingly, many of them are education majors) who take my classes because they have to, and see themselves as clocking time towards a piece of paper. Alas, my post on student attitudes must wait.


*Apologies to The Princess Bride and Inigo Montoya.

13 comments:

negativecapability said...

This is exactly how I feel about teaching literature.

I also don't believe in making it "relevant" to the present for the same reasons you describe. Thinking about the questions we ask and the way we ask them is always relevant; we don't need to bend the history/lit/whatever to fit into the present.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Welcome! I didn't know you lurked here!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

See, in light of negcap's comment, I completely agree with you about all the reasons why history is important and what it offers. I just don't think that, in a good liberal arts education, history is the only thing that can teach such lessons, which is why I don't believe history per se should be required - just courses that require students to do things you talk about.

And you know, I agree about the student attitudes thing! Ironically, the history majors at Former College who'd take my survey medieval courses were some of the poorest in terms of attitude, because often they were taking it because they needed something from before 1500. I'd so rather have an engineering student who chose the class because it sounded interesting than a major who's only interested in the (US) Civil War who has to take my class for the degree! (Of course, the engineering student who has to take my class is probably the worst... no offense to engineers out there...) (The seminars at Former College were pretty decent, because even if the students were only taking mine for the pre-1500 credit, they were advanced enough in the major that they were usually up for taking it seriously. But the sophomores in my survey class... :-P)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I agree with you about History teaching valuable analytical skills, to those who will learn. I also think that we, as teachers, have to occasionally point out to our students that -- Hey! Guess what? You can apply this same critical thinking when you read the newspaper! If they make that connection, I think we have done a valuable service to society.

But this doesn't stop me from being grateful to be in a field (like you, a medievalist) whose students tend to be self-selecting. That is: on average, my students are much more likely to *want* to be in my class than those in, say, an introductory U.S. History survey.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I get probably half of all incoming freshmen in my civ surveys. *sigh* I really love it when they wait till they're seniors and then complain my class is too hard.

negativecapability said...

Have I not commented before? Weird how I always assume that people in the blogworld are somehow magically aware of my presence :)

In my perfect world, in light of New Kid's comment, the required course in any discipline would be the "intro to methods" course and not the "survey" course. Whenever I teach a survey, I try as much as I can to demonstrate, through an introduction to methods, how that "survey" was itself constructed, and not just that certain texts are important, but why they are important.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, in my ideal world, I would have students who could write in complete sentences and state and defend a thesis. And use actual books. And not plagiarise. And ...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Ayyy-men to that.

squadratomagico said...

You make a very good case for the usefulness of History, ADM. I guess i just feel that required classes seldom inculcate the lessons they are supposed to. For example, I imagine a physicist could make an excellent case for the usefulness to the citizenry of basic science literacy. And I agree with these points as well, as I would for similar arguments on behalf of many other disciplines. I have a basic intellectual curiosity about most everything, and ideally, I'd love to be able to know some basic physics, and the classics of sociology, and philosophy and so forth, in addition to the fields I do know a little about.

But I cannot know everything, not only for reasons of time but also for reasons of temperament: not all forms of learning come equally easily to me. Like most people, I ended up pursuing those disciplines that are rewarding for me personally, and I get much more out of exposure to those fields than I would trying to pursue others.

All of which is a long-winded way of stating what others already have pointed out: the students who take classes because they are required often are not learning very much. And, however frustrating it is to teach them, it also is frustrating for them to have to study something they find dreadfully boring when they could be in another class that really floats their boat, where they would be learning a lot. So my attitude is: maximize the students' ability to learn something, and maximize the professors' ability to teach something, by allowing students a broad latitude to select their own intellectual commitments,

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hmm ... i remember taking some required classes in college that I hated, but there was always enough choice that I could find somethign that fit a requirement. Of course, there were no substitutes for the History requirement. OTOH, had it not been required, I would not have ended up with a History degree, because I detested History in High School. There were a few classes I didn't much like, and my grades weren't as good because I didn't study enough for them, but I can honestly say that every one of the classes I took has come in useful.

Steve Muhlberger said...

As someone who would have to implement a history requirement, I'm agin it. I want to chase all the people who don't like the course they signed up for and save my efforts for those who are willing to meet me halfway.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, so this conversation is ancient in blogyears now, but wanted to comment:

Of course, there were no substitutes for the History requirement.

See, I had the loosey-goosey requirements that squadratomagico mentions (in fact, sq, your undergrad - if I've pegged it correctly - was my undergrad's homecoming rival in alternate years!). I had no history requirement - I just took it because I was interested. The college's curriculum was, I think, slowly swinging back towards more requirements, but they generally weren't discipline-specific.

FWIW, both Rural Utopia and Former College have curricula in which to graduate you have to complete some kind of "historical perspectives" requirement, but it doesn't have to be done through the history department - there are, for instance, language courses (like a French Civ course) or music history courses that will count. It's true that the vast majority of such courses are offered by the history department (and occasionally history courses *don't* fulfill the "historical perspectives" requirement, usually if they fulfill something else like "diversity" or "societies and institutions," because in some places you can only give a course one such label, and students find it incredibly confusing!). And the difference is a little bit one of semantics (this interdisciplinary approach makes more of a difference in other fields, I think, where if you want students to fulfill a "scientific reasoning" requirement - which I don't think is called that, I just can't remember the real name - they can take physics, chemistry, or biology, and probably math or CSci or geology as well. But in general, history classes tend to be taught by the historians - something that probably has a corollary in the fact that all the history major requirements I've ever seen have only required history courses, where a bio degree requires courses in chemistry and probably physics as well).

But overall, while I can get behind requiring students to acquire "historical perspectives," I don't think that has to be fulfilled only by taking a class in the history department. That's what I mean about not requiring history. I'm kind of reluctant to say that students MUST take a course in any one department, to be honest.

Anyway. Will stop beating a dead horse now! ;-)

xx said...

cheap goose jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
goose trillium parka jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada goose freestyle vest online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Chilliwack Bomber sale online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Mens Citadel jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
cheap Goose Expedition Parka coats online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
canada goose snow mantra parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Yorkville Parka Jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Chilliwack Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Expedition Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Kensington Parka Jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Montebello Parka jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Solaris Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK.