I have mixed feelings about a widely shared Washington Post opinion essay published Monday by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate. The current headline: “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.”Continue reading “Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed”
For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which “offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.
I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme right—including the man’s background in the humanities.
That’s what I want to focus on.
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.
This fall, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a course in a university honors program. (I’ll leave the institution unspecified since I’m not technically an employee there yet.) It’s also the first time I will teach a western civilization course as such. I started the basic planning weeks ago, but now that my last spring courses are finished, I can focus on the task properly.
My new course is unusual. It is part of a “triple” of first-year honors courses: My students, as a cohort of about eighteen people, will take a literature course and a philosophy course concurrently with my history course in the autumn. They will do the same thing again in the spring. Thus, their first year in college is designed to take them on an interdisciplinary journey through the history of western culture.
I’m really excited about this opportunity for a lot of reasons—including my own background in a university honors program, which provided access to a far richer undergraduate liberal-arts education than I might have had otherwise. I’m also nervous for a lot of reasons, including the politically fraught nature of any project framed in terms of “western” culture—though I usually enjoy politically fraught teaching. (I’ll leave most of that discussion for another time.)
I will coordinate with my literary and philosophical counterparts in the coming weeks, trying to align our courses as much as we can. In the meantime, I have been carefully considering how my course is supposed to fit into a larger education at this university. This is a chance for a more systematic approach to course design than I often get to take. There are several layers of objectives to consider.
First, I’ve been told that the honors program specifies that my course should meet the following official university-level institutional learning objectives (ILOs), which, together with ten other objectives, are part of the framework of the undergraduate core curriculum:
- Understanding diverse perspectives. (autumn)
- Information literacy. (spring)
The first of these ILOs seems natural for a course that surveys many different societies over a long span of time. (Stating it as an objective for a survey course even risks banality.) The second ILO, however, implies a definite shift in focus—from appreciation to research, or from accepted historical knowledge to critical historical knowledge, or from a survey to a workshop format. When I see the two objectives together, I begin to tell myself a story about how my students’ skills should evolve during the academic year. And I see what specific role the university believes historical understanding should play in the development of skills that apply to many other domains of knowledge and living.
In purely practical terms, this sequence of objectives implies that I should expect my students to engage in more sophisticated research and communication projects in the spring than in the fall.
In addition, I’m told the history department lays out four specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) for every section of the autumn half of this course:
- Students will identify those significant events, persons, institutions, and processes, which have shaped ancient, medieval, and early-modern western history.
- Students will carefully and critically read, analyze, and discuss a variety of primary and secondary historical sources.
- Students will learn to think historically, asking questions of the past and developing research methodologies to answer them.
- Students will develop clear expository and analytical writing skills.
Initially, those four objectives suggest to me that this course should meet all the content-coverage goals (SLO 1) and all the basic conceptual goals (SLOs 2 and 3) of any introductory survey course, but should also develop the student’s own research and writing skills (SLOs 3 and 4) more than a typical survey course might. None of these objectives in isolation would be unusual in any undergraduate history course. But the combination—if taken seriously—seems ambitious for a first-year course. (Which, obviously, is the idea.)
The temptation will be strong to skimp on content coverage in order to meet the analytic and skills objectives. That would be consistent with my experience taking honors courses in college; my professors usually designed them less to provide discipline-specific information and more to teach transferable humanist habits of mind. But that might be inconsistent with the university-level ILO for the autumn: to develop students’ understanding of diverse perspectives. Diversity necessitates breadth of coverage.
Furthermore, this course, as I understand it, will replace a regular history course in the general education core for my students. That is, any failure in content coverage on my part is likely to be a permanent gap in my students’ basic undergraduate education. And that is a problem I take very seriously.
During my years of teaching, I have grown suspicious of the tendency to prioritize concepts over coverage—not because there’s any problem with transferable habits and skills but rather because it is far too easy for students to evade basic knowledge throughout their formal education, and because that kind of basic knowledge is fundamental for sound thinking. I want rigor of information as well as analysis.
Possible Informal Objectives
Meanwhile, my own informal goals for a western civ course—whether they should be stated explicitly or simply pursued as the semester unfolds—might include some of the following:
- Students will learn regional and global contexts for western history, including knowledge of other religious and political traditions that western societies have used creatively as sources and foils.
- Students will critically examine western civilization and the western intellectual tradition as evolving concepts that reflect various modern ethical and cultural commitments and various conceptions of community—and which often have been put to invidious polemical use.
- Students will learn to appreciate history as a process of both investigation and imagination, with the object of attaining better factual knowledge as well as better understanding, rather than as a body of existing or closed knowledge.
- Students will gain insight into several causal mechanisms by which the so-called western intellectual tradition has been transmitted across time and space. That is, students will learn to appreciate the roles played by environmental, social, and political forces in intellectual history.
- Students will become more comfortable taking intellectual risks, resisting the notion that a university education can be reduced to a set of grades or professional competencies.
Finally, as I plan the course, I also need to keep a few problems in mind from the start.
First, I foresee a difficulty in the chronological misalignment likely to happen when a history course is linked with parallel courses in literature and philosophy. My course, for example, may take weeks to reach Homer or Plato, which may be roughly where the other courses begin. I will want to present all my lessons with this in mind, understanding that my students may experience any history lesson as a flashback or preview for something else in the other two courses.
Second, given the potentially vast scope of the course, I expect to need to identify from the beginning a few overarching themes that can provide some unity to the content and lines of inquiry. In a world history course, these would include general themes like “circulation,” “exchange,” or “authority.” In a western civilization survey, they might include more specifically appropriate ideas like “citizenship” or “liberty.” However, specificity is dangerous. Any theme that the course implies is specific to western civilization is likely to become (and may inherently be) a teleological imposition that reduces “the West” to a specific set of contemporary ideas rather than a set of recurring questions. Then again, in any survey, thematic coherence always involves that sort of risk.
Third, on a practical personal level, I have been asked to teach other western civilization survey course at a community college in the fall. I will be developing both courses over the summer. At the community college, although I have wide latitude on assignments and scheduling, I am required to use a specific assigned textbook, which I would prefer not to adopt in the honors course—and obviously two courses will require substantially different assignments and grading criteria in any case. My commuting time will also be considerable, in addition to the time I will spend putting together new lectures. Thus, although these two western civ courses will be far from identical, I need to design both courses together to maximize the efficiency of my own work—so that I am effectively creating, let’s say, one and a half new courses rather than two. This may be a difficult problem to solve.
Despite these challenges, which may seem much more intimidating after the semester begins, I’m very excited and hopeful as this work begins.
Image: Detail from Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Public domain. The woman in costume has often been identified as a representation of Clio, the muse of history.
Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:
Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.
‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’
Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.
“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.
The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.
Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.
In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.