Jock Jams for History Nerds

Remember Jock JamsVolume 1, perhaps, featuring the finest work of Tag Team, Snap!, and other fine artists, or Volume 4, which Chumbawamba took to number 20 on the US charts? Ahh, the Nineties…. Anyway, we historians and other academics could use something like that.  I’m not sure what CD I’d suggest — Matt Damon reading Howard Zinn, maybe? — but we definitely need something to get us pumped up for (the jam of) teaching.  I had a really flat day in class last week, and I’ve been dwelling on it.  Things had been going so well in previous sessions: students talking to each other instead of me, critiques of the text, insightful suggestions for further exploration of the topic.  And then, splat.  And while a nasty string of heat and humidity didn’t help, I take the blame.  At first I thought the problem started with my notes and discussion questions: not sufficiently provocative; too many yes/no questions.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that I just didn’t bring enough enthusiasm into the class.  I was bored with the material, and I’m pretty sure that came through in my body language and tone of voice.  The students picked up on that and responded in kind.  And so I’m going to try something new during class prep.  In addition to coming up with provocative, open-ended questions (paired with follow-up questions that anticipate where students might take the discussion), I’m also identifying the things about the reading and the topic that I find particularly intriguing and exciting.  In my Environmental Ethics course today, for instance, we’re talking about Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It vs. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  I think it’s an interesting exercise in understanding different forms of anthropocentrism and the policy implications of those differences.  But what gets my blood running is this proposition: because of the way Gore sets up the terms of the debate, Lomborg wins every time.  If humans are at the center of the justification for environmental policy, as Gore argues, then Lomborg’s cost-benefit analysis scheme might just be the perfect approach.  But that doesn’t feel right to me, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel right to some of my students.  That’s fascinating and exciting, and I’m going to try to bring that into class.  Enthusiasm can only get you so far, of course — you actually have to prepare the material — but I’m betting it’s a critical component of good teaching.  We’ll see.

Students Don’t Want Rigor

I learned from NPR this morning that “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift” in College.”*  It seems that, according to a study by two sociologists, students are spending less time studying (less than five hours/week) and writing (less than twenty pages/semester), leaving them lacking in the critical thinking department.  The authors suggest that some of this has to do with student evaluations: “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high.”  In a wonderful coincidence, I received the written comments on my evaluations yesterday, and here’s a sample:

  • “I feel this class was a little too demanding.”
  • “For a 100 level class there was too much work.”
  • “This should not be a 100 level class.”
  • “This class was more demanding than all of my other classes–even much higher level courses.  Work load was way too much.”

And wouldn’t you know it: in this class, I asked students to write 20-30 pages over the semester, and reading/studying required at least five hours/week.

This would seem to prove the implication of the “adrift” study: if you give students rigor, they’ll give you shit evaluations.  But I’m not drawing that particular conclusion (nor, I’d imagine, do the authors of the study, which I look forward to reading).  First of all, I’m happy to say that while the comments weren’t great, my numbers were pretty damned good — at or above the school average (which is pretty high, I should note).  Secondly, I don’t think the problem is that I gave the students too much to do.  It’s more to do with my accompanying message.  I’ve been putting more and more effort into selling the students on the idea that working hard is actually a good thing — that they should demand that much be demanded of them.  I’ll continue fine-tuning this message and the syllabi to go along with it.

That said, I’m dying to know what other classes my students were taking, and what, exactly, they had to do to get a good grade.  Show up and stay awake?  Or maybe consciousness wasn’t even a requirement — just keep the seat warm.  Were I in a position of any security and authority (read: if only I were tenure-track…), I’d ask not just for evaluation comparisons with the whole school, but between the humanities and sciences and within history.  I’ve got a feeling that 100-level sciences classes are keeping the critical-thinking bar pretty low: memorize and repeat your chemical concoctions and mathematical formulas, and you’ll be just fine.  The word on the quad is that history classes are hard, and I want to know where that’s coming from.

* Yes, yes, I know I’m late to this party.  Inside Higher Ed had something on this back in January, as have other bloggers.  My own rigor, it would seem, is lacking.

Time Out

I finally submitted chapter number two last week.  That capped off a busy few weeks in which I wrote and sent off a book review, finished one article, sent off the images for another article, did six weeks of (pretty good) teaching, and wrote the chapter.  There’s also the matter of my spouse’s new-found unemployment.  Put it all together, and it feels like I’ve been in a sprint for about six weeks.  It’s not as stressful as a proper job, obviously, but I think I need a time-out to get a handle on where I am and where I’m going.  Not a vacation or break, mind you, but just a couple days of deliberate reflection on what I want and need to do next.

This is one of the moments, I think, to take a step back and look at my academic mission statement and evaluate my progress.  On the whole, I think it’s going well.  I’ve written two interesting (although perhaps not “relevant”) chapters, and I’ve focused my teaching on getting students to think about effective storytelling, which is at the core of good history.  But that’s where I am now.  Next year will be different; no more guaranteed funding to allow me to write, and no telling if there will be teaching gigs to cobble together.  If I’m going to keep writing and teaching, I need to get myself positioned for jobs.  I need to write and teach today in a way that makes writing and teaching tomorrow (well, next year) possible and probable.  That means choosing my next chapter with an eye to the job market, writing teaching statements, making sure that I have evaluations (from students and colleagues) to supplement my application packages.  Can I do it?  Stay tuned.  Or not.

Oh, NO! Something I Haven’t Done Before! The HORROR!

It seems that in every class, there’s at least one student who gets freaked out by the fact that they’ve never done “this”–read a lot of books, write a research paper, whatever–before.  It’s not just worry or anxiety, but real frustration and anger.  Having reviewed the syllabus, the student will say something along the lines of “I’m really worried about how I’ll do all of this work,” which actually means, “Tell me how to get an A, right now, or you’re an asshole.”  I understand this, to some degree.  Students want and sometimes need good grades, and they want clear direction on how to do so.  Maybe they have received such direction in other classes, particularly those in entry-level science classes, where getting an A is a matter of answering 9 out of 10 questions correctly.  History’s a bit different, of course, what with grading that is (supposedly) partially objective and subjective.  I try to explain that aspect of the field, while also giving students a clear picture of what I’m looking for: thesis statements, supporting arguments, reasonable and logical explanations of those arguments, appropriate use of primary sources as evidence, etc.  I’ve also tried to design my courses so that the students make progress through the stages of writing history: we start the semester by talking about narrative and story-telling; then we move to a section on historiography; then a section on the use of primary sources; and then, as they are writing their final research papers, the process of putting together an original argument making use of all that other stuff.  I explain these steps to the worried students, and suggest that they take one step at a time.  I also relate to them that other students in the past have been in exactly the same situation and have yet emerged from the course with their wits in tact and, in some cases, As on their report cards.  And I try to remind the student of some other new challenge that s/he has taken on in the past and mastered–maybe cooking, or playing an instrument, or a sport, or whatever.  Finally, I tell the worried students that if they already knew how to do this, they wouldn’t need to take the course anyway, right?

But there always seems to be one student who isn’t persuaded, someone who, after this long discussion–okay, lecture–about how we all can, must, and should take on new challenges, doesn’t seem to have heard any of it.  S/he wants to know how to get the A, and wants to know right now, dammit.  And I have to strangle the voice inside me that wants to say “Get over it or get out of school.  If you don’t want to learn something new, then you have no business being in college.  You obviously only want to confirm what you think you already know.  How dull.  How sad.”  Alternately, I want to recommend counseling.  There’s something more going on here than concern about a grade.  This person has serious doubts about her/his abilities and perhaps even self-worth, and they need to speak to a professional about where that comes from.  I’m certainly not the person to talk to about it.  After all, I’ve never done that before.

First Day Jitters…Again

It’s always the same.  Today’s the first day of teaching a new class, and I’m feeling a wee bit anxious.  Part of this stems from the complete new-ness of the course; it’s not just that I designed a new course, but that I rethought the way that I teach material, in response to some poor student evaluations last semester and inspiration of a sort from What The Best College Teachers Do. I’m hoping that the re-think will help students get excited about the material and about the process of doing history, so I’m anxious to see how that works out.  But I’m also nervous because I’ll be meeting 15-20 new people and trying to impress them with my mastery of material, my abilities as a teacher, and my overall personality.  Were I cool, this wouldn’t be a problem.  I wouldn’t care what people think about me, and I would just do my thing, so confident that I wouldn’t even be aware of my confidence.  But I’m not cool.  I want the students to like the class, like the material, like me.  It’s pathetic, I’m sure, but I can’t seem to help myself.  So I’ve cleaned myself up real nice, ironed my clothes, and made sure to go over my notes at least a dozen times.  Deep breath, and….go.

Making My Dream Students Cry

Last night, I dreamed that the first day of class was so mind-blowingly awesome that my students cried.  The tears started when I explained why non-majors should care about the course, about why history is so important.  It was awesome.  Now, if I can just remember what dream-me said.  Damn.

Student Eval Smack-Down: My Racist and Sexist Pedagogy?

Is my pedagogy racist and sexist?  Am I racist and sexist?  I quote from a student evaluation:

I am/was concerned by the lack of analysis/discussions around systems of oppression and where we’re coming from as historians.  I think the professor could/should have addressed the biases and power construction as a mostly white class analyzing and making claims about African American history.  I also would really have valued moving more beyond the black (straight) male experience.

This from from the African American history (post-1865) course I taught last fall.  I got the evaluation in January and have been thinking–stewing–about it since.  I still haven’t quite figured out my response, but here are some of the components.

First and foremost: My sincerest thanks and applause to the student who was actually honest and thoughtful in this evaluation.  Providing this sort of meaningful and direct critique is exactly what I, as a new-ish teacher, need.  Plus, saying this stuff to a prof, or even an adjunct instructor, takes some serious balls.  Ooops, there I go again…

In response to the concern about course-required readings, I think I’d plead that the student try to understand the challenge of designing this course.  It’s a 300-level (third-year undergraduate) course, so it’s meant to be challenging.  So I can understand the student’s desire to get a broad array of perspectives.  But on the other hand, only two students had ever taken classes in any area of what the school labels ethnic studies.  The rest of the students started from scratch, not only in terms of history (there’s more to the Civil Rights movement than “I Have a Dream”) but also concepts (“racism” means more than confederate-flag-carrying white dudes who hate black people).  I chose readings that would give rookies a place to start, and veterans opportunities to explore.  Which is also why students also did their own historiography project–so they could explore more complex topics if they were in a place to do so.  Students did projects on African American agency in lynching; on black feminism in the Civil Rights movement; and on the work of bell hooks.  Finally, I don’t think the reading list was that monolithic.  Included: a white academic, a black intellectual, a former sharecropper, a radical activist, and the first black president.

Perhaps more damning is the suggestion–demand?–that the class talk about our (white) subjectivity.  I ask: to what end?  How would that have changed our discussions?  I foresee two effects.  The first would be to introduce a degree of relativity that is completely out of place for a history course.  We are in the business of telling meaningful stories about the past, the quality of which can and should be measured by the soundness of logic and the use of evidence.  I do not want the students leaving the course thinking that all stories are equally good–or equally bad, if they are told by people outside of the externally- and internally-defined boundaries of the group being studied.  The suggestion here is that, the white people in our class were unable to access, understand, and indeed even accurately portray the past of non-white people.  I reject this assertion.

That said, the student makes good points.  It is important to talk about one’s own subjectivity–in fact, I’m pretty sure we did, but perhaps not enough.  I think I might have gone too far in the direction of encouraging students to embrace the possibilities of evaluating the past as neutral observers.  In my limited experience, students are a bit too quick to dismiss challenging arguments as simply a matter of perspective and bias.  Everything is completely relative for students, and so I find myself insisting that no, in fact, there are some things that are objectively true–like the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  That actually happened.  In my head, I’m trying to manage a balancing act between truth and interpretation, but, judging from this student’s review, I may be swinging too hard toward the former.  Duly noted.  But what a challenge, right?  Maybe one of the reasons that I didn’t talk more about our class’s subjectivity is that I haven’t seen/participated in such a discussion, or at least a good one that doesn’t lapse into academic jargon bullshit.  I’d love to know how to do this.  Suggestions, friends?

As for the diversity of the reading list, I think the student stands on shakier ground.  I maintain that the list was pretty good–after all, readers of this blog helped me put it together.  So it’s your fault, really.  But maybe we could have done more.  Perhaps I could have provided supplementary reading lists for students who wanted to go farther.  Certainly I could, and probably should, have incorporated into my lecture material that went “beyond the black (straight) male experience.”

After thinking about this evaluation for, oh, eight months now, I’m left having learned some lessons: about reading lists, about lecture material, about discussing the position of the historian.  But I’m also left wondering if the student learned anything from the course.  Did the student think about C. Vann Woodward’s arguments about legal systems as foundations for racism?  Did the student consider in full the meaning of DuBois’s veil?  Did the life of Nate Shaw give the student any sense of what it was like to be a sharecropper?  Did Elaine Brown’s story bring any complexity to the student’s romantic, idealized ideas about the Black Panthers?  Does the student understand any better what makes Obama tick?  Most importantly, did the student learn that racism is not the same in every place at all times, but that it has changed over time?  Or did the student simply dismiss all of this because I am, apparently, a racist, sexist Philistine?  I hope not.  I hope that I never get in the way of what the material has to offer.