Notes from the Classroom: Week 1

temple

Well, the first week of a new semester is behind us. How did it go? What new strategies did you try in the classroom? How did you try to get the students engaged and as excited about the material as you are? What was important for them to know in week one?

I’m still at the stage where I have to step back now and then and think about how bizarre it seems that I am teaching college students. This is higher education today: undergraduates pay more, and in return receive their instruction from less qualified teachers. Great!

My course, The Making of American Society, is a GenEd class in the history department. 50 students, two sections, majority freshman, and a grand total of two history majors. When we came into class at 9am on Monday morning, for some students in the room it was literally their first college class ever. So it was important to me to try to put them at ease and cover some basics first. Last semester I began with a very interactive opening class, with mixed results.

This time, instead of asking nervous freshman to talk right away, I gave them two short questions to answer on paper. I wanted to know where they think they’ve learned history—the classroom, parents, movies? And I wanted to know what their experience with history instruction in high school was like. (By the way, 20% said family was the most formative influence on their historical views, and half a dozen students specifically said their fathers talk to them about history. No one mentioned their mothers. Not sure what that means but it’s interesting!)

I devoted most of the first class to introducing the 5 C’s of historical thinking, a framework that will guide the class throughout the semester. As we grapple with difficult issues, these five concepts can help students to think more deeply about the material.

On Wednesday I jumped right into a heavy lecture. I emphasized that the very last thing they ought to do in response to the lecture is to assume that they now know “the history” of x. The 5 C’s of historical thinking invite us to think about the central role of interpretation in historical narratives. Rather than giving them “just the facts” I am constructing an interpretive narrative to make sense of the past. They ought to scrutinize that narrative and see if they find it convincing.

But in our current political dispensation, it is perhaps just as important to help students understand that there are irreducible facts about the past. While President Trump promotes a nihilistic attitude toward truth—acting as if the veracity of our words does not matter—historians work hard to be as accurate as possible. Interpretation and reinterpretation are the lifeblood of historical work, but we’re working with raw materials that have tangible reality to them. We don’t get to make stuff up. In this era of information overload at our fingertips, I think students are very confused about the relationship between facts and interpretation, and how to evaluate whether or not a source is credible.

Today, for our last class of the week, we simply had group discussion about the readings I assigned. I posted on blackboard a reading and discussion guide with lots of questions on it so students would know in advance what we would be talking about. I think this improved the quality of the discussion. It seemed that most students had already begun to think through the issues before they arrived in the classroom.

The discussion was about national identity and national myths, and what we want to get out of learning history. I tried something I haven’t done before: an in-class poll. It worked well and I expect to use it again. Here’s the result from section 2:

poll

I was surprised by how lopsided the results were. In the first section it was 96% to 4% in favor of A. In the future I will have to try to craft questions that produce less consensus. In light of these results, I challenged the class with the reading that emphasized the perspective of answer B. Why might someone feel that a patriotic narrative is more important than an accurate one? Are there costs to answer A? The students raised a lot of thoughtful points and produced a good discussion.

If this poll were run nationally, I wonder if the results would be much more evenly split.

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