My Favorite First-Day Activity

classroom

I came up with a version of the following activity for a tiny U.S. history class about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve revised it and used it successfully in both world and U.S. history survey courses, for classes ranging in size up to thirty-five students. It’s become my go-to exercise for illustrating what history is and why it matters.

I make minor adjustments to fit the course and the students, but here’s how it usually goes. I call it “The History of Your Lifetime,” for obvious reasons. It happens on either the first or the second day of a survey course.

Step 1

First I ask students to form groups of three or four (just based on where they’re sitting) and take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves and get to know each other a little. This obviously has the benefit of encouraging a little first-day conversation and promoting neighborly interaction.

Step 2

Then I direct the students each to take out a piece of paper—any paper will do, just something to scribble onand individually write out a list of seven things he or she would include in a history of the United States (or the world, as appropriate) during his or her lifetime.

The things on the list can be events, people, inventions, trends, ideas, whatever. (They don’t have to be things the student remembers personally, as long as the student was alive for them.) I encourage my students to be creative with their answers–but to remember that the goal is to list things that might help our descendants understand what the world was like.

Step 3

Now I have the students compare lists within their small groups. I direct them to decide as a group what seven things to include on a combined group list. I ask them to talk together about their criteria and reasoning in order to come to agreement before writing down their group’s answers.

By now, the room is usually buzzing fairly loudly. Undergraduates often like comparing notes on how they remember their childhoods, and the exercise typically leads them into general conversation once they’re done with their lists. Even fairly shy students often respond enthusiastically. Especially in a larger class, I often have to interrupt the proceedings for the sake of time.

Step 4

Now I stand in front of the class at the blackboard and call for volunteers to name some of the things they put on their group lists. As they do, I write their answers on the board. I keep calling for nominations until the board is mostly full; if necessary, I prompt the students to contribute things they don’t see on the board yet, or things that might seem offbeat, or things they weren’t sure about including, or things that didn’t make the cut for a group list.

The September 11 attacks are always among the first things students mention. (If you call for a show of hands to see who had September 11 on the list, virtually everyone will put a hand upan instructive fact.) This has held true even for students who increasingly have no clear personal memory of that day. (Remember, traditional college freshmen in 2018 are likely to have been infants at the time.) So I ask my students why there’s so much agreement on this point. Why do we all agree that September 11 is crucial for our descendants to know about? They usually furnish excellent answers to this question.

Then I continue asking questions about how they arrived at their lists and about what they see on the board for the class as a whole:

  • “What did you decide to leave out of your group lists? Can you explain a criterion you used in order to reach your decision?” (Often students will realize that they tried to focus on things that seemed to have a big impact in the worldi.e., things that caused other things, including other things on the board, to happen. Sometimes I draw lines between them to indicate this.)
  • “Where are you getting your memory of these things? If you don’t remember them all personally, where did you learn about them?”
  • “Look at the board as a whole. If we wrote a detailed history of our lifetimes based on this list, using it for a rough outline, would our audience get an accurate impression of the world we lived in? Why or why not? What’s missing? What’s distorted?”
  • “What kind of a story would we be telling about our lifetimes?” (Answer to this question often include “It’s depressing” or “It’s full of conflict.” In world history courses, students often realize that their answers are very U.S.-centric.)
  • “Is this how you remember your own lifetime? Is this the world you lived in, or is this a misleading picture?” (Answers will vary, but they’re often pretty emphatic in one way or another.)
  • “What is missing from this story we’re outlining? What things should we add in order to give future generations a more accurate picture of the world we lived in?”

Finally, I try to wrap up the exercise with something like the following observation: “To complete this exercise, you all had to make judgments about significance. You were deciding what, or how much, these things meant in some bigger scheme of things. You didn’t just write lists of facts. You were thinking about how to tell a story that would be about somethinga story with a point.

“Well, that’s what historians do when they write about the more distant past. They are figuring out how to use pieces of informationabout all kinds of thingsto tell a true story, usually about things they don’t remember personally. It’s basically the same process.”

Then, if I think of it, I try to ask one more question: “Do you think your lists would look any different if you made them again twenty years from now?” That lets me talk about how our perspectives about what matters can change over time, even when the facts don’t change.

In the years since I started using this exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it really fail.

The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed

epistemologybooks

Ask undergraduate students about the reasons for college, and you’ll probably get a mix of answers heavy in “to get a good job” and “to learn.” Ask academics and policy makers, and the answers will include “critical thinking skills.” And if you ask what makes a college education unique, critical thinking may top the list.

The truly distinctive goal of higher education, however, rarely gets much discussion.

Continue reading “The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed”

Investing in a Part-Time Community

St Peter's Cathedral, Scranton, Pa.

My teaching season began today. The summer isn’t over, but for the next two weeks, I will be participating in faculty development seminars offered by the Jesuit Center at the University of Scranton.

These seminars focus on pedagogy and the vocation of a teacher. Most participants today said they came to learn how to teach better. However, there is also a larger institutional purpose. The University of Scranton encourages its instructors to think of our work in explicitly Catholic ways. We are not expected to be Catholics—although I suspect most participants in today’s seminar were at least raised that way—but we are encouraged to place our teaching within that tradition. We are asked to “support the mission,” in the typical language used on campus; these seminars are designed to help faculty members across different disciplines conceptualize what that means.

At this point, I’ll confess to mixed feelings, but not about Catholicism. I’m not Catholic myself, but I’ve spent many years living and working in various kinds of Christian communities, and I admire Catholic theology’s ways of framing education as a work of deep love for the created world. I love its characteristic insistence that education should be part of a search for meaning, not simply a process of narrow knowledge-creation or knowledge-dissemination. On a practical level, I have taught in three Catholic institutions, each with a slightly different mission, and although this also means I know some of Catholic education’s limitations, I’m profoundly grateful for each.

My mixed feelings come instead from my work’s liminal place in the institution. Because I’m an adjunct, part of me resists the idea that I should contribute anything to the institution, as a specific organization, unless I get paid for it. The university has made no long-term investment in me, so I would be foolish to make long-term investments in it. This arrangement can lead to deep cynicism, and I don’t think I’m alone among contingent faculty members in experiencing that problem.

But however little faith I have in institutions, I’m not cynical about teaching. It’s a thing of joy and a work of love, and I’m willing to do just about anything that will advance it. It’s exciting to see any university cultivate it, even if just in theory, as much as this one has. So I’m optimistic about the next two weeks, and I hope I will be able to contribute something useful to these discussions.

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Image: Postcard, “St. Peter’s Cathedral and Rectory, Scranton, Pa.,” mid-twentieth century. Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, Boston Public Library.