Another Theme for Spring: Presence

Surveying the smoldering ruins of academic Twitter this week, one thing I observed several times (not that this is anything new) is that pedagogical main-character-of-the-day controversies—e.g., a controversy this week over whether it’s ableist for a professor to refuse to distribute a full course syllabus before the first day of class—rarely seem to be examples of useful good-faith disagreement about actual teaching practices in a complex emergent environment. These controversies tend instead to feed on sloganeering and hyperbole. They exemplify mainly how people want to be seen publicly as teachers by other academics who will never know anything about their real-life teaching or its results.

Artist’s impression of a collection of academics examining each other’s tweets for signs of carceral pedagogy

Last week, I wrote briefly about my struggle to identify potential adjustments to my teaching approach that might best help several dozen specific students during the new spring semester. Well, as of yesterday, all my in-person classes now have had their first meeting, and based on those meetings, I’m optimistic that my changes will be effective—on balance. But I have no illusions about it being easy to implement these changes well.

Above all, what’s going to be necessary is that I put in the work of responding creatively, week after week, to the needs of the students who are actually in the room—including, by the way, needs that may well be contradictory. Such contradictions are typical in a real-life classroom, not exceptional.

So in addition to seeking simplicity this semester, as I wrote last week, I’m also seeking a greater sense of presence. I’m trying to be better at adapting to what’s actually happening for my students—specific people in a specific time and place—rather than adhering to what I had planned or to any abstract ideological prescription somebody tries to impose on others’ classrooms. And, to some extent, I hope my students will be able to see that this is what’s happening.

Postmodern Gradgrindification

In the great pantheon of Charles Dickens characters, one of the lesser lights is Thomas Gradgrind—that’s Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, sir. You may be familiar with him.

In the opening chapters of the Dickens novel Hard Times (1854), Gradgrind operates an experimental school. There, in the polluted northern British industrial city of Coketown, he sees to it that young pupils are trained according to the best principles of modern utilitarianism and empiricism.

Gradgrind’s poor students—typically “poor” in more than one respect—will not waste their time daydreaming. They will be prepared with absolute efficiency to enter the adult middle-class world of the industrial nineteenth century.

Continue reading “Postmodern Gradgrindification”

French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib

The Rio Grande (downtown) campus of Austin Community College
Cropped from a 2014 photograph by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.

The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.

A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.

Continue reading “French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib”

Things I’m Reading to Prepare for Fall

We’ve somehow reached that the point in the summer when I suddenly have just four to six weeks left to finish planning all my fall courses. That means I need to find my focus and motivation … fast.

Typically, for me, that means reading things that could fire the imagination, generating excitement about what’s possible in the upcoming semester. This week, I’ve queued up a few freely available publications—open resources that don’t require access to a library (or venturing out into the heat).

First, there’s The APA Guide to College Teaching: Essential Tools and Techniques Based on Psychological Science (PDF), published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education. (It was inspired by an earlier publication for K-12 teachers.) This 46-page report identifies 21 evidence-based principles for teachers working in higher education, pairing each principle with brief but specific advice.

For the sake of balance, though not necessarily contradiction, I’m also reading a brief appeal the English instructor John Schlueter wrote for the AAUP’s newsletter in 2019, called “In Search of What We Do”—together with a classic article that helped inspire it, Elliott Eisner’s 1983 essay on “The Art and Craft of Teaching.” Both of these texts warn against overly prescriptive and rationalistic (“teacher-proof”) theories of undergraduate education, which run the risk of making us forget that getting a college education is about liberating one’s imagination as a member of specific and dynamic communities of students.

Next, to assist with my effort to do a better job helping burned-out COVID-era students identify the importance and relevance of history—and perhaps also to teach U.S. history more persuasively in the current political climate—I’m studying the American Historical Association’s 2021 report History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (PDF). This 112-page publication offers very detailed information for thinking with, as well as a series of ten summary statements on the “challenges and opportunities” the data reveal.

I’m also revisiting a great article by Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” which was published in CBE Life Sciences Education in 2013. Why am I reading an article for biologists? Because it’s applicable to any undergraduate course. Tanner’s article is an especially clear and well-organized discussion of basic challenges and almost two dozen practical techniques for encouraging participation from students who otherwise might be left out.

Finally, because I’m teaching at two Catholic colleges again this fall, I’m rereading a 1993 educational statement released by the Society of Jesus: “Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach” (PDF). Most history teachers, of course, don’t need to worry about the specific theological commitments than animate this text. But the Jesuit order has a 500-year tradition of conceptualizing education as an imaginative, reflective, and aesthetic enterprise that prepares learners to become leaders in the world. Though not a Catholic myself, I always find this text energizing.

A Conversation About Pedagogy

Today, Danny Anderson, who teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in central Pennsylvania, invited me onto his Sectarian Review podcast, a wide-ranging religious humanities program, to talk about an essay I wrote here last year, “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements.”

Our conversation went in a lot of different directions and covered a number of controversial topics. I can only hope I treated the positions of all my colleagues fairly, given the constraints of the medium and my typical shortcomings as an extemporaneous speaker. We certainly didn’t exhaust any of the topics we discussed.

Later in the interview, I talked about two articles from the March 2022 issue of the Journal of American History: “Meet Me in the Classroom,” by Olga Koulisis, and “Historical Thinking and the Democratic Mind,” by Lindsay Stallones Marshall and John R. Gram. I tried to explain why I lean toward Koulisis’s position, but both of these essays are rewarding.

The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements

There’s something I want to get off my chest. It’s about whether Blue Book Diaries is a left-wing blog, and about whether my teaching is left-wing instruction.

I have been ruminating on this since I discovered recently that a stranger on Facebook has repeatedly called me a “commie”—ironically, because I said the Trump era is a good time to teach history.

Similarly, my most popular post here, which has drawn more than 10,000 hits, has been denounced as leftist propaganda. After I posted it in June, during the protests after George Floyd’s death, it elicited a stream of angry messages. An email I received from Greg, who was using an IP address in West Texas, will give you a pretty good idea of the general mood. Here is the full text:

Message: Your article on how to teach the civil war is as far left as any I have ever seen. I to have grown up in Texas and calling us insurgents is offering to me. My son went to Iraq to defend us against them we are not those kind of people. The wanted to live it's on way weather you think it was right or not and the the north or union would not let them. I my self do not think it was about slavery but about not letting the government tell them how to live. You want insurgents and rebellious people you should have watched the looters on tv.

I’m not sure how extensive someone’s intellectual exploration can be if something I wrote is the leftmost thing they’ve encountered. Nevertheless, that seemed to be a common impression among those who were displeased—even though the blogpost in question is overtly patriotic and even pro-military.

To be thus politically pigeonholed, in such disregard for the actual content of work I spend a lot of time crafting? It rankles. I have been successfully rankled. And I think it’s time for me to address this problem.

What I write today is unlikely to have much positive effect on Greg—or on anybody else who believes insurgent is an ethnonym. But it might be soothing to other history teachers who are feeling a bit out of joint.

You see, I suspect that many of us working in U.S. educational institutions see our own work as deeply conservative, at the same time that today’s organized political right is attacking us for supposedly “hating our country” and “breeding contempt for America’s heritage.”

Such attacks notwithstanding, many of us are proudly doing exactly what our predecessors have done for generations. We are teaching history in a politically conscious but nonpartisan way, out of a sense of respect for the past and concern for our communities in the present, and we are using methods pragmatically adapted to the needs of our students and the results of historical scholarship.

With that in mind, let me identify some of the aspects of my own history teaching that I think are fundamentally conservative.

But first, I should explain what that term means.

Continue reading “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements”

Fall 2020: Two Propositions

I get the sense that a couple of things aren’t clear to everyone responsible for making decisions in U.S. higher education right now.

  1. Regardless of your opinion of online teaching—and most of us, broadly speaking, are at least mild skeptics—most U.S. colleges and universities will have to move to all-online teaching by the end of the fall semester. (In many states, governors will make that decision for them if they don’t make it themselves. Many may have to switch to all-online teaching before the semester even starts.)
  2. You have to give college instructors months of advance time to plan if you want that to go well.

Granted, if your college or university is like most, it routinely hires adjuncts at the last minute—sometimes a matter of mere days before courses begin—to teach your gateway undergraduate courses. In normal times, it can get away with that, to some extent, because those are usually standard courses; either we have taught them before, or we have seen them taught many times, or we have taught courses fundamentally similar to them before.

But almost nobody has taught all of their scheduled fall courses—general-education, upper-division undergraduate, and graduate—in an all-online format before. And a vanishingly small number have ever taught them in whatever HyFlex panic mode your administration has tried to devise in order to keep campus open.

In general, instructors teaching college courses this fall will have to redesign them—often all of them at once, and often from the ground up—in order to have any hope of teaching in a reasonably effective way throughout the semester.

We needed to have clear, reliable guidance about formats and methods all this spring and summer to make this happen. Had received it, we would still be hard pressed to make things work.

As it is, it’s now July 15. Most U.S. colleges and universities will be in regular session within about a month and a half, and many have opted for early start dates. Right now, most U.S. colleges still claim that they will be open in a traditional face-to-face format this fall.

It was one thing to make an emergency pivot to online teaching in an unforeseeable crisis this spring. What’s about to happen this fall is something quite different.

I really hope I’m wrong about this.

How Did You Learn to Tell Stories in the Classroom?

storyteller-tiepolo

This semester marks seven years since I taught the first college course of “my own”—being solely responsible for writing the syllabus, choosing all the readings, designing all the assignments, and planning all the lectures and activities. I was hired at the last minute. On the first day of class, I didn’t even have password access to the classroom computer yet. The bookstore was still selling my students books that somebody else had chosen, which I didn’t intend to use and didn’t have copies of anyway. I don’t think my university email address had been activated.

I’m not absolutely sure, though, because at this point, I barely remember anything about that semester except a general feeling of panic.

What I do know is that one of my biggest challenges was simply learning to narrate history in the classroom. This was crucial because—in a single-semester U.S. history survey course—my students wouldn’t have a traditional textbook to carry that burden outside of class. (And The American Yawp had yet to be written.) The course’s narrative of U.S. history, all of it, both in the overall course arc and in each topic we covered, had to subsist in whatever I could accomplish in the classroom or through short readings scavenged from different sources and posted online.

I had a fair amount of teaching experience, but almost nothing of that nature. I had never been a gifted storyteller in person. (Not even close!) And to my recollection, despite a fair amount of pedagogical development in graduate school, I had never been provided with any specific instruction or advice relevant to this situation.

That first course … probably wasn’t great.

Even if my last-minute hiring made the need unusually acute, I don’t think my situation then was unique. I can’t speak as much to the experiences of primary- or secondary-level educators, but my sense is that in college, many people trained to teach history (or trained in the many other academic disciplines that also teach historical topics) never get any training in the basic task of building a historical narrative in the classroom until they show up in their own classroom for the first time.

But I want to check whether my intuition is right.

If you’re willing to leave a generous comment on this post (or email me if you need to communicate privately), I’d like to know what your experiences have been as a teacher (primary, secondary, college, university, whatever)—in history or any other field where the need comes up.

  • Did you have any formal training in how to build a historical narrative in the classroom?
  • Is this a problem you’re still trying to solve for yourself?
  • Have you found any instruction books, online courses, etc., helpful?
  • What aspects of storytelling or narrative-focused course organization have been the most challenging for you?
  • If you are a naturally gifted storyteller, have you faced any challenges bringing this skill into an academic setting?

_______________

Image: Detail from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Storyteller, 1770s. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?

America's most movie-friendly classroom

An interesting new study conducted at Harvard University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that undergraduates in introductory physics courses learn more in classrooms that employ active-learning instruction methods (specifically, problem-solving in small groups) than students taking notes on “passive” lectures—but think they learn less. The researchers propose that this discrepancy between actual and perceived learning happens because active learning requires more effort on students’ part; it feels frustrating or inefficient. They also warns that this means that relying on student evaluations of teaching could lead instructors to use “inferior (passive) pedagogical methods” in their quest to achieve the popularity of “superstar lecturers.”

The study (full version in PDF format here) seems excellent in design and careful in its conclusions. Unfortunately, Harvard has publicized it with a news article that draws a tiresome false dichotomy between lectures and active learning, going so far as to quote the peer-instruction proponent Eric Mazur—who helped with the study—this way:

‘This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures,’ he said. ‘It also explains why instructors and students cling to the belief that listening to lectures constitutes learning.’

Of course, the study does no such thing as Mazur’s first claim.

Continue reading “What’s a Good Small-Group Activity to Illustrate the Concept of a False Dichotomy?”

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”