Assessment in the Survey: Three Experiments (Part I)

grailly-oxbow-from-mount-holyoke-cleveland-museum-of-art

This fall, I’m implementing a new scheme to assess overall student learning in my introductory courses. When I say “overall learning,” I mean learning not with respect to particular facts and skills—that’s what the existing quizzes, exams, and assignments are for—but in the form of changes in the way each student conceptualizes the whole topic of the course.

I’m adapting a simple and brilliant exercise described a few years ago by Jennifer Frost, a U.S. historian at the University of Auckland. For a course on the Civil Rights Movement, which she designed to challenge the top-down “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative that she believed most students would bring into the classroom, Frost devised a pair of assignments for the beginning and end of the course.

The first assignment directed students to “write a brief overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement: when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved.” At the end of the term, the second assignment referred explicitly to the first: “In your overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, you commented on when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved. Do you still agree with your overview? How would you change or modify it in light of what you’ve learned this semester? You are not rewriting your overview, but rather reflecting and analyzing on what you originally wrote.” Frost reported that her students were eager to show that the course had changed their thinking―specifically by correcting misconceptions they had held.*

Now, Frost’s entire course was organized around the principle of questioning a certain grand narrative, which probably took a fairly explicit form in students’ minds when they began the course. The linked assignments were part of that design. They were meant to shape student thinking as well as reveal it.

My goal in adapting Frost’s linked assignments is a bit different. With the notable exception of my early U.S. survey, I hypothesize that the first linked assignment will show most students how much they simply don’t know (or aren’t sure they know) about the subject of the course. The second assignment, if all goes well, will show them that they now have the ability to articulate a basic (narrative-shaped) explanation of the course subject, including subtopics of which they previously weren’t aware at all.

In the early U.S. survey, however, my goals are closer to Frost’s. I assume that many students will enter the course with a certain grand narrative distinctly in mind. I hope that the course will challenge and complicate that narrative as well as present students with new information.

With those goals in mind, here are my initial drafts for the prompts I will give my students next week in the first linked assignment.

  • World History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what has happened in the world since 1500. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of world history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • Western Civilization I: Write a brief statement (about 250-350 words) explaining how you might define “western civilization” and then describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the history of western civilizations between prehistory and the 1600s. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of western history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated as participation, not graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • U.S. History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the United States (or in the places that later became the United States) up to 1865. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of American history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)

Students’ answers will be due as homework in the second week of each course, giving me time to provide a bit of coaching and reassurance about the assignment in class but also ensuring that students’ answers will reflect minimal exposure to course content.

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* Jennifer Frost, “Using ‘Master Narratives’ to Teach History: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement,” The History Teacher 45, no. 3 (May 2012): 437-446, esp. 441.

Image: Detail from Victor de Grailly (attributed), The Oxbow Seen from Mount Holyoke, after 1840. Bequest of Mrs. Henry A. Everett for the Dorothy Burnham Everett Memorial Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art. Public domain / CC0.

The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

Continue reading “Parachutists and Truffle Hunters”

Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

Continue reading “Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey”