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.

_______________

* 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.

Teaching the Long-Term in a Time of Crisis

We live, as the imprecation says, in interesting times.

In part because most American historians are now on a summer break—a time for rest, research, writing, stock-taking, and other critical activities we set aside during the regular teaching year—many of my friends have been reflecting on their need to feel their work is somehow significant to the world. Do the things they write actually matter? Is academia a worthwhile use of a short lifetime? And how does anybody find a way to focus in this environment?

A few friends have commented, however, that their sense of living in a time of crisis makes them eager to return to the classroom. They can’t wait to talk with students again, to tell a story about how we reached this point and explore the turning points along the way and encourage students to take action.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager for summer to end. There’s a lot to do before the end of August. But otherwise, I’m as eager as anyone to teach through this moment. The question is, how should I approach that task? This autumn, as usual, I will be teaching mostly first-half survey courses that end with events of either 150 or 500 years ago. My spring courses usually involve a lot of direct commentary on current events, simply by virtue of their chronological structure, but most of my autumn courses don’t—unless by careful design.

There’s a lot to say about how I can engage in that kind of design, by highlighting certain topics and training students in certain critical tools. I will probably write about that on other occasions.

In the past few years, however, I’ve grown more conscious that these first-half survey courses are also crucial for understanding our own time in less direct ways. Here’s how I’ve shifted my teaching approach to make the most of the opportunities they present.

First, I’ve been trying to cover more material in more detail—of all kinds. When I began teaching college, my overriding concern was to capture the imagination. I wanted to make history interesting and cultivate habits of mind that would keep people studying history after the course was done. I haven’t abandoned that commitment at all. Now that I have a repertory of techniques for meeting it, however, I’m working a lot harder to cover many different topics that may come up later as background for the news, and to test my students’ factual knowledge about them. Basically, this means I’m trying to do a better job dispelling (or anticipating) all kinds of misconceptions and myths about the past, not only the ones that seem most salient right now. (In some ways, I suppose, this makes my teaching approach more old-fashioned than it used to be.) So far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

Second, I’m trying to show my students the difference between the myth that “history repeats itself”—a notion that tends to make people easy to manipulate with bad analogies—and the truth that humans in different times and places tend to have similar concerns and make similar mistakes in all kinds of different combinations, but in ways that cause long-term structural changes. I haven’t come up with a pithy way to say this, but I do like the joke that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think this insight is crucial for preparing students for creative action in the world.

Third, I have become more conscious that students need to understand how slow, hard-fought, and fragile most great historical changes have been. This means, for example, that instead of grouping everything about a topic in one place—an obvious and infamous case would be the way some US history courses throw everything about slavery and abolition into one week—I try more and more to scatter references to any particular struggle across the course so that it pops up repeatedly in something more like real time. I think this is something I’m still learning how to do well; I have a long way to go.

Finally, in times of obvious crisis, I think it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the existence of mundane beauty, goodness, and resilience in past times and places.

The way we teach history can promote apocalyptic habits of mind: If anything interesting is happening in a human society, our students infer, it’s either a catastrophe, a marvelous deliverance, or a slow steady march of progress into utopia. When students perceive themselves to be living in a time of crisis, the last option is completely unavailable. I believe this is corrosive to healthy attitudes. It’s not simply that this way of teaching nurtures paranoia and makes ordinary life more difficult. For many people, a bit paradoxically, it’s also destructive to political willpower in the long term.

Of course, there certainly are plenty of truly apocalyptic moments to talk about in any history course, and they’re crucial to cover well. But most of human experience, and indeed, most of the human struggle, consists of people trying to make meaningful and reasonably happy lives together under difficult conditions. All people—from the most vulnerable to the most powerful—do this in circumstances that, when everything is accomplished, lead to their deaths. Mortality is the most reliable historical fact, the most insurmountable social problem. Apocalyptic thinking (as a general state of mind), oddly enough, is based on the implicit denial of its universality.

Nobody gets out of the past alive, but that doesn’t make the past a desert. We have to find ways to honor this fact. That task is critical if we want to avoid pessimism. The ultimate lesson of history must include the insight that everybody lives, not only that everybody dies. So I’m trying to get better at finding ways to portray the everyday vibrancy that’s there in the past. I want my courses to have more voices, more experiences, more forms of happiness and quotidian triumph.

I think that attending to these long-term, structural features of any history course can be as important as anything else teachers do. It may well be as important for teachers as for students.

_____

Image: Front page of the New York Tribune, June 29, 1914. Library of Congress.