Rational Educational Choices

Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

For the students I have talked to, a credential mostly meant insurance against precisely the kind of cultural assumptions that the knowledge economy wants: a worker who embraces and embodies a new type of social contract. The students I spoke with wanted the credentials so that they could keep the promised social contract of the post-industrial economy—the contract of guaranteed employment, dignified work, and health and retirement benefits. Capitalists see credentials as evidence that workers have eschewed those old-economy expectations for the new-economy realities. It is a setup for collision that dovetails with flexible, accessible credentials that can be financed when the labor market eventually and inevitably sends aspirational workers back for more training.

The problem of information asymmetry, wherein prospective students are provided the information to make rational decisions about enrolling in a college, assumes that there is a rational educational choice that can be made. Given the character of the new economy, one that by definition is risky and highly variable, for millions of people that simply isn’t true.

—Tressie McMillan Cottom

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (New York: The New Press, 2017), 172-173

PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 2


Part 2: Shortcuts for Smooth Presentations

In the previous post in this series, I discussed three key design principles. 

Today, I want to consider the actual moment of delivery. You’re in a classroom or conference venue; you have a PowerPoint slideshow ready to go; you’re hoping not to fumble around like an idiot in front of your audience. What can help?

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume you’re using a recent edition of PowerPoint on a Windows PC, since that’s the most common scenario for presenters in American classrooms. The following technical tips can make your PowerPoint delivery much smoother. Perhaps you know all these tips already, but unless you’re fairly experienced, there’s a good chance something in this post will be new to you.

Continue reading “PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 2”

The Moral Obligation to Be Interesting


College teachers often complain about students who seem bored. This can be about their work ethic: “Nobody does the reading,” you often hear, or “They just don’t want to study.” But sometimes frustrated professors mean something deeper. They believe their students are morally wrong not to take more of an interest in the academic subjects themselves.

I’ve complained like this too—although not so much (I hope) lately. Usually I whine about a supposed lack of “curiosity.” Some of my colleagues make much harsher assessments.

Our impulse to complain is understandable. We invest a lot of labor and emotion in the subjects we teach. We believe these subjects are important. Indeed, many of us probably endorse what John Erskine called a “moral obligation to be intelligent”—a duty to take an interest in how the world works:

[W]e do not insist that the more saintly of two surgeons shall operate on us for appendicitis. But … an action can intelligently be called good only if it contributes to a good end; [so] it is the moral obligation of an intelligent creature to find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end; and … any system of ethics that excuses him from that obligation is vicious.

We flatter ourselves that taking our courses is necessary to understand the world, and thus to know right from wrong. (Occasionally, we may even be correct.) As pragmatists, we view a lack of educational interest as a moral failing.

However, if we’re going to be pragmatic about the morality of knowledge, then we need to direct the pragmatic gaze at ourselves, too. We know people can’t simply will themselves into being interested in what we teach. After all, each of us could name topics that other people find both fascinating and important but that simply don’t interest us. We know perfectly well what it’s like to be bored. Let’s extend a little empathy to our students for the sake of ethical and useful teaching.

What can we do to make our courses more interesting to students? Three routine practices seem crucial for any history course:

1. Stating the stakes.

We already understand why our courses matter. Our students typically don’t, and that makes sense. Most of the time, it’s as unreasonable to expect students to know the stakes  of a course already as to expect them to know the content. Spelling it out is our responsibility. We should try to express our implicit questions explicitly. We should sell our topics as something important—every time.

2. Being specific.

Much of a history education is about making generalizations. But no generalization will make sense or engage the imagination unless we can illustrate what it means specifically. We need to discuss examples. We should try to talk about individual people, at least occasionally. We should quote directly from them when we can.

3. Creating suspense.

Most historians, truth be told, are not world-class storytellers. But we know the value of simply dropping a hint about what’s going to happen later in a narrative. We know how much more interesting a story is when its characters face a dilemma. We know better than to give away a punchline too early when telling a joke. When we keep this basic intuitive knowledge in mind, we can make even the dullest topics more interesting.

Above all, what will keep history fascinating for students is the awareness that we could be telling a different story. The world could have turned out differently. That is precisely what makes our work as historians important in the first place.

To fulfill our moral obligations as teachers, it’s not enough to be correct. We need to strive, as much as is within our power, to be interesting as well.


Image: Johann Peter Hasenclever, Die Dorfschule, Jobs als Schulmeister (1845), Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, via Wikimedia Commons

The Deadly Quiet Negative

Hot contention, raucous argument, and loud protestation cannot kill a state’s educational future. Only calm indifference, self-satisfied silence, and the deadly quiet negative will do education in. We can afford to make proper concessions among conflicting interests, formulary compromises among educational purposes, and fiscal adjustments in the name of sound economy in the state. But one big fact should be kept straight: for popular ignorance, for a state’s undereducation, there can be no price but public ignominy.

— Harry Huntt Ransom, “Educational Resources in Texas,” 1961[*]

[*] The Conscience of the University and Other Essays, ed. Hazel H. Ransom (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 19.

PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Part 1


Part 1: Design Fundamentals

This is the first installment of a series designed to help historians use Microsoft PowerPoint effectively in the classroom. (You may want to read the series introduction first.)

Today, I’m writing about the big picture of PowerPoint design. This post is about how to set up a slideshow to communicate in the classroom (or conference hall) clearly and effectively. It’s not really about the technology, per se—at this stage, we’re just talking about how to build a visual communication element into a history talk.

As you design your presentation, you should keep three core principles in mind:

  1. Minimalism
  2. Argument
  3. Flow

Continue reading “PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Part 1”

PowerPoint Basics for Historians: Introduction


Let’s face it: If you teach or make other kinds of history presentations, you probably use PowerPoint.

Microsoft’s presentation slideshow software is more than thirty years old. It’s a standard piece of classroom technology. Students expect it. Instructors rely on it.

Yet many of us are sheepish about it. We complain about presenters who simply read their slides aloud. Some teachers warn that relying on PowerPoint is dangerous; a good professor, they say, can walk into any classroom and teach no matter what technology is available that day. Many claim the premise of PowerPoint is flawed because the lecture itself is an outdated teaching method. Also, a lot of presentations are really ugly.

There is some merit to all of these complaints. And there are other slideshow software programs on the market. But the chances are good that if you’re teaching history, you’re using PowerPoint anyway.

There are good reasons for that. PowerPoint is an excellent tool.

I learned some of PowerPoint’s virtues the hard way in my first training-wheels-off teaching job. Hired at the very last minute for a U.S. history survey, I hit the lectern before I even had a university email account or network login—and without the opportunity to assign books ahead of time. My students were lost for the first few days, my printed handouts notwithstanding. PowerPoint, when I could finally access the classroom computer, probably saved the course.

Lately, on course evaluations, students leave me a surprising number of comments like these:


I’m certainly not claiming that PowerPoint is the only way to present history. But it can be a powerful way. Contrary to some critics’ expectations, using it effectively means more than simply projecting text on a screen. To use PowerPoint well is to design a more immersive narrative for your course. And your PowerPoint slides don’t have to be ugly, either.

In this series of posts, I plan to explain some of the things I’ve learned about using PowerPoint in history classes. Some of what I have to say is very practical–it’s about avoiding basic technical hiccups. Some is about graphic design. Some is specifically about using PowerPoint to craft a story and exhibit historical evidence.

Tomorrow, in my first post, I’ll begin with a few fundamental principles.

Academia, Teaching, and Thinking

Alan Jacobs’s little book How to Think, published last year, draws an interesting contrast between “academic life” and “teaching”:

Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sort of things that your professors like to hear.

So again, no, academic life doesn’t do much to help one think, at least not in the sense in which I am commending thinking. It helps one to amass a body of knowledge and to learn and deploy certain approved rhetorical strategies, which requires a good memory, intellectual agility, and the like. But little about the academic life demands that you question your impulsive reactions ….

Being a teacher, though: that’s a different thing. I have been teaching undergraduates for more than thirty years now, and generally speaking undergraduate education is a wonderful laboratory for thinking. Most of my students know what they believe, and want to argue for it, but they also realize that they still have a lot to learn.[*]

This provocation deserves some pondering.

Continue reading “Academia, Teaching, and Thinking”

Cafe Country

If one lives in exile, the café becomes at once the family home, the nation, the church and parliament, a desert and a place of pilgrimage, cradle of illusions and their cemetery …. In exile, the café is the one place where life goes on.

– Hermann Kesten (1900-1996)[*]


[*] Quoted in George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World (New York: Other Press, 2014), 170.