Monday, September 15, 2008

It's all in the Timing

It's All in the Timing

I'm having a teaching crisis. Last year, I wrote a sign and posted it in my office: "It's the students' job to keep up with me, not my job to wait for the students." And this semester, I seem to have forgotten. One of the things I've been trying to refine in my teaching over the past few years is teaching students to think like historians. If I have to pick out one thing that makes studying history relevant, I would say that it is the approach to primary sources that many of us are trained to use.*

The problem I'm running into is that this approach that I've been honing and tweaking over the last few years worked fine at Jesuit U, and at the CCs, and garners praise from colleagues, but it doesn't seem to be working at SLAC. I think part of this is that the approach depends on the students having done and internalized the background readings. Mine aren't. About 70% just can't handle the textbook (and it's World History -- inherently more confusing), which is currently the one written by a bunch of Princeton folk. It's a lumper's book -- really, it's an anthropologist's book, I think. But in many ways, it's better than the last book I used. But part is that they just don't get it. If there are words they don't understand, they don't look them up. They don't look at the maps when they are reading -- to them, they don't matter; they don't have anything to do with the text. They don't notice that an excerpt of a primary source in the text is related to another excerpt from the same source that I've asked them to read online, nor that the textbook actually discusses that source in detail. Ideally, they would read the book, I'd come in and either give more specific information about the civilizations we're supposed to be working on, and then get them to discuss relevant primary sources, picking them apart for evidence and then tying them back to the readings. Instead, I spend about three times more time than I should just asking them what I think of as warm-up questions -- who are some of the peoples you were supposed to have read about? Where were they located? um ... yeah.

And the primary source discussions ... we don't necessarily get to talk about what they tell us about the societies they come from, because some of the concepts -- polytheism, polygyny, slavery based on debt or conquest and not justified by some wacko racial theory -- are just totally unfamiliar. I am fully confident that I am teaching my students something. I'm just starting to worry that I am not teaching them enough to qualify for credit in a college-level history course. I think that one way to tackle this is to go back to chalk-and-talk. Come in and deliver well-organized lectures on important events and themes, and then test them on that content with objective questions AND essay questions that rely on internalizing that content and applying it to defend an argument on a specific historical question? But there's no active learning there. Still, it was good enough for survey classes in my day. And damn, if I were just coming in and lecturing, I would have all my prep done much more quickly and have some time to do research and write!

But then there are the students who are getting it -- and they don't want to come in, listen, and regurgitate creatively. So I end up using teaching methods and strategies geared toward the better students, at a pace that kills some of us, but is comfortable for the majority. And I'm honestly not sure who is better served -- only that doing this is killing me. It's combining all the hardest parts of teaching, with few of the rewards. And there's no sign that the students will get better anytime soon. So I'm left worrying about them and about me. Because it's burning me out, fast. And I'm pretty scared that, if I do this too long, I will fall behind in my research AND lose my ability to teach at the level that many other SLACs expect. What if teaching at this SLAC actually makes me less employable else where?

Next time ... upperclassmen who don't read.

*By many of us, I mean generally pre-modern people. Although this is not an absolute, I have not yet met a modern historian (including most Americanists) who approaches primary sources the way Classicists and Medievalists do. From what I've gathered in conversation, this seems to have something to do with the number of sources available. We are pretty much expected to be able to draw on a primary source canon, where no comparable canon exists for them.


Anonymous said...

This sounds rotten. I remember my first teaching gig I really didn't know what to do with people who hadn't done the reading. Of course, I was also coping with a lecturer who kept failing to give their survey lectures so the poor schmucks really *didn't* know anything. I'll not name the lecturer, but you're familiar with their work... Anyway, I hope they start to grip, because it seems to me that really it's the students who have the most potential to improve this situation. Others will likely have more useful advice.

Was that asterisk in the first paragraph going anywhere?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

*thinks madly and suspects*

Yes! Must add related asterisk and note -- will do so as soon as I get to the office. Thanks!

clio's disciple said...

I've taught at places with similar issues, and never did find a good solution to it. Regular quizzes had at least some impact on whether they did the reading, but I hated feeling so nanny-ish.

Kelly in Kansas said...

Isn't it interesting how students in each institution are a bit different?

Some of them have a harder time than others making the transition to college - esp. given that their pre-collegiate teachers are struggling to cover a zillion standards each day and have little or no freedom related to actual teaching right now in most states.

This also underscores why we need more research along the lines of Sam Wineburg and Bob Bain about how students learn so that we can at least try to get them engaged.

You're absolutely right that world history is so much more difficult to grasp given the range of geography, culture, etc. Lots to think about here . . .

Another Damned Medievalist said...

And much to post about -- I think I feel another post on how teaching WH in college won't work unless the students have some geography under their belts.

Thoroughly Educated said...

A few thoughts:

1) With your load, and with what you have on your plate this term, you need to do what you can not to create extra work for yourself. Give yourself permission.

2) The best students can still get a lot out of a lecture course. I'm still dining out on Useful Knowledge I got from history and art history survey courses I took when I was a disengaged sophomore.

3) Wisdom from a great teacher in my old department, whom I had the chance to observe: he gave reading quizzes at the start of each class and did a quick switch-papers-and-grade as soon as the quiz was done (no additional grading load for him), but the really genius thing was he made the going-over-the-answers time into an explicit segue into discussion. He'd elicit a quiz answer from a student and then work that student through followup questions: how did you figure that out from the reading; what follows from that; how does that relate to what we were talking about last time. He also didn't hesitate to use the going-over-quiz time to gently humiliate those who hadn't prepared. The quiz time definitely did not feel like a dumbing-down exercise.

4) More wisdom from a different great teacher: plan explicit time in each class for "pre-teaching" the assignment for the next class. That doesn't mean telling them what's in the reading they're supposed to do, but it could mean orienting them to how the coming chapter is structured, what to look out for, questions to track as they read, biases to watch out for, etc. If they truly cannot do this for themselves, then modeling it is what you need to do. The same wise teacher advised making explicit in each lesson what was old knowledge (or supposed to be so) and what was new. Honestly, I think making one's pedagogical structure a little more explicit is good for both teacher and students. It helps free both parties from the bafflement-disappointment cycle.

Michael said...

Just a quick note on the "not doing the reading" problem.

The single best teacher I ever knew taught me this trick, which she called "The Jewish Grandmother Method." I don't know if it would work in the particular class and situation, but I did use it once successfully (and once very unsuccessfully, so be wary).

On a day when it's clear from discussion that a significant portion of the class has not done the reading, Prof. Shaw just sighed, said "I'm really disappointed." closed her book, got up, and walked out of class.

The next class, everyone had done the reading.

Steve Hayes said...

Yes, I've done that when students have not done the reading -- "Well, no point in continuing then. Lecture postponed until you have done the reading."

One of the problems of course is students at different levels. Some interested in the topic and eager to lerarn more, others just using the course as a filler.

I haven't followed closely with your students, but perhaps when dealing with primary sources it might be best to do something closer to home, if the aim is to teach them the use of primary sources. If the primary sources are on the other side of the world, they will only learn about them from secondary sources anyway.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

TE -- Thanks!

I think I will try most of those things.

Michael -- I've done that. It will work with a few of my students. I know one of my upper division classes would cave, but they aren't the problem. My surveys are filled with people who are there for the Gen Ed credit. About 2/3 of them would be thrilled to not have to go to class. They seem to think it's high school, where they pass even if the person at the front of the room isn't there.