Taking refuge in the facts

My colleague and department chair Karen came to one of my world history sections today. She was there to do a formal evaluation for our new merit pay system, but when she got up to speed on what we were doing, she also jumped in and participated impromptu, as Virginia Woolf, in a roundtable with Elizabeth I and Nelson Mandela. (I was Emma Goldman but didn’t join a roundtable in this particular session.) It was a fine time.

Karen and I debriefed afterwards, and she made an observation that really helped me understand what I was trying to accomplish with the roundtables. Even though I’ve been doing them for years, to be honest I’d always thought of them as something of a soft gimmick, mainly useful to change the game and extract a drop or two of value from the end of a long semester. Karen helped me put my finger on why I had a feeling that they were at least potentially something better, and more consistent with my teaching objectives.

The roundtables are discussions among three or four students performing historical characters that they have researched. The model is, very loosely, Steve Allen’s old tv show, “Meeting of Minds.” That show was scripted, and consequently pretty dull. But the task for the students in the roundtables is to know their character so well that they can perform them on the fly in an open-ended conversation with unexpected partners for about 15-20 minutes. Today, as always, they did this with varying levels of expertise, gusto, and skill. Karen’s observation was that, as she put it, even the least inspired students were “driven to refuge in the facts.”

It’s true that through the years I’ve tried various things to keep the students from doing that awkward little icebreaker where, like a really bad tv drama or the world’s dullest party, each dramatis persona enters and stops the action by making an earnest declaration of her backstory and motivation. I can get pretty frustrated and disappointed about that. But from Karen’s perspective, what was happening was that the students were defaulting at a much higher and more productive level than usual. We struggle around here, as in so much public discourse, to get students to focus on anything that might count as a fact. When faced with demands for evidence, they default to silence, or declarations of their beliefs and raw feels. From this perspective, students who are taking refuge in the facts are a real level up.

How did it happen, and how did I miss it?

Well, first a little story. I was walking by a colleague’s classroom awhile back, and I heard it earnestly explaining to its students how to alphabetize a Works Cited page. Now, I have no doubt that the students are capable of generating strategic incompetence at this mind-destroying level. But I think catering to that is not just to stare into the abyss, but to jump in and take up residence. I think the students are perfectly capable of figuring out how to alphabetize, and how to write relatively cleanly, and how to cite sources, and all the other little chores of academic responsibility, without a lot of modeling and prompting and cajoling and reminding and general teachering. I tell students those things are like the ante in poker. You’re not even in the game until you’re doing that stuff, and you’ve got to play to win. Get in the game.

In short, that’s all trivia not to get lost in. I want students to figure things out – to discover, to interpret, to analyze, to organize and convey. You can’t even get to there from Schatzi, Brunhilde comes before Scheisse, Otto von. So what I want from the roundtables is a really rigorous commitment to understanding a historical person so fully that it becomes possible to react to unexpected lines of conversation as they would have. And what I often get is little biographical narratives and statements of principles. And I’m disappointed by that, especially after a long, grueling school year. But as Karen reminded me today, the arc from facts to understanding is much shorter and more doable than the arc from comma splices to a recognizable QE-1.

Karen reminded me, or more accurately minded me because I’d never thought it through, that the roundtables give each student both an expertise and a responsibility about that expertise. They are tasked with knowing their characters, and have to bring what they’ve got to a social situation that doesn’t work without their active input. Furthermore, by throwing their characters out of their comfort zones on mismatched panels with unfamiliar interlocutors, the cognitive bar is raised and the bottom level of remotely adequate engagement becomes that ‘refuge in the facts’ Karen identified. They have to at least know enough to babble out some true things. And they have to do that under the pressure not of regurgitating those facts, but actually conversing with other persons who are pursuing a line of discussion. Which means they have to do something with those facts: search for relevance, interpret, and present the perspective of a historical other in at least that rudimentary way. Well, I can live with that as process work.

Conditions, resources, strategies, charette

This has been a trying semester in my World History sections. The students have so far barely shown any signs of connecting to the conceptual rubric, which is conditions, resources, strategies. Two sets of papers have been thinly researched data dumps or gee-whiz History Channel handwaving. As far as I can see, I’ve set up all the same conditions I did in previous, more successful semesters, but the outcomes have been quite different.

Of course students bring conditions with them, and then act (or don’t act) as both conditions and resources for each other. I’m not seeing much sparkle out of that part of the dynamic this time around. I think it’s also fair to say that my own energy has been a bit low, for various reasons, not least of which the effects of routinizing a set of pedagogical strategies that worked their magic before as exciting experiments.

I could have just accepted the last batch of papers as evidence of a grim fate; I’ve seen many colleagues go that route. But I decided to get stubborn, refuse to accept the papers they’d given me as finished work, and make this week about an intense workshopping process. I told them it was optional and they could leave if they wanted (none did). Today we focused on getting the c/r/s analysis functional, and Thursday we’ll work on getting serious about research.

So for today’s sessions I went back to a strategy that’s worked before (thanks to John McCreery for this), the charette – basically an intense group brainstorm used a lot by design types. So I started by soliciting spitball definitions of conditions, resources, and strategies onto the board. Easy; the definitions aren’t the problem. Then in each section I pulled up a paper basically at random and we all read it on the projection screen. They got into small groups, and I gave them lots of sticky notes and the instruction to fill each one with a condition, a resource, or a strategy that they’d seen in the text or subtext of the paper they’d read. When they were done they plastered a white board with the notes, then I set them as a large group to organizing the notes.

The usual suspects did the actual shuffling, but the level of focused attention from the whole group was impressive. As the notes went into condition, resource, and strategy columns, arguments started to bubble up about whether the plague was a condition or a resource, or whether farmland or the Reichstag fire could count as a condition, resource, or strategy depending on how you looked at them, and how Germany’s unstable conditions made Hitler and Hindenburg resources for each other, and so on. In one section I had to prompt the students to pull some of the notes together into a focused analysis, in the other they did it spontaneously. In both, they did it with no difficulty. This had not happened in any of the papers. I pointed this out and there was lots of thoughtful nodding.

Should I have done this at the beginning? I’m not sure it would have worked then; there was clearly a scaffolding that they just hadn’t figured out how to assemble yet. Maybe before the second paper rather than after it, since it’s clear that all of the walkthroughs of this kind of analysis in class discussion hadn’t sunk in as doable practice. Well, we’ll see if this does either, but I’m encouraged.

Stuart Hall in Race and Ethnicity

I found out Stuart Hall died about five minutes before going in to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class. So I rooted around and found a handout I’ve used before in the class, a speech he gave called “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference,” published in Radical America. Copied it up real quick and handed it out to the class. Then I told them Stuart Hall was one of the most important influences on my intellectual development, a key figure in the period when my horizons were being expanded and my perspectives decentered by feminism, critical race theory, postcolonialism, and the other heavy hitters of official Otherness.

I looked around the room and no one was paying attention to me any more. They had all started reading. So I shut up, we read the piece together, and then we had a great conversation about it.

Going with the flow

I was about ten minutes late to my “Race and Ethnicity in Global Perspective” class today. I’m doing a study group off-campus with some students who got fascinated by Marx last semester, and because of the way my brain works around time and presence, I lingered too long. From long experience I know I can minimize the consequences of this as long as I deliver robust value in the time remaining, even turning the ethos of the class from a quantitative time-served model to a qualitative work-accomplished model. So although I prefer not to be late, I’m not fretful about it.

The last time I was late, I mentioned that since the class is discovery and discussion oriented, there was in principle no need to wait for me and they could just go ahead and start. I mentioned that my ideal class was one in which the students seized control of their own learning and made the authority position of the teacher obsolete. That little speech is meant to create a fermenting contrast, but it does not usually work any immediate transformation – the habits of passivity are very deep.

But! When I walked into class today, one of the students who hardly ever says anything was presenting information and making an argument from the section of the text we’re working through that his study group was leading discussion on. (The text, btw, is Reilly, Kaufman, and Bodino’s Racism: A Global Reader.) I sat down quietly and the conversation continued for twenty minutes without any input from me. As we had discussed in setting up the order of march, members of other groups regularly chimed in with connections to their own sections of the text. Broadly speaking, they were trying to make sense of the dynamics of ‘internal Othering’, and how groups that were tolerated or even absorbed in one context could be stigmatized and oppressed in another. Eventually they reinvented frame analysis together, and I broke my silence to tell them so.

I am so happy and proud about this group. It certainly matters that there is a focused, disciplined, and motivated knot of military students; I suspect they were the catalysts of self-starting. But all of the students (about 15 today) were engaged when I came in; none of them much noted my entry, or shifted their attention to me as if the class would ‘really start’ now. It probably helped that I just sat down with them and did not make a show of moving to ‘the front’. It probably helped that this was the second run of our discussion format. It probably helped that we had brainstormed and concocted the discussion format together, with them getting the last word on how we would do it. It probably helped that the format engaged all of them by making the ‘leading’ group prompters rather than presenters, and explicitly encouraging connections to all of their centers of expertise.

Would this have happened if I was on time? Obviously not in exactly this way; I think my absence was a productive accelerant. This is a place where INUS conditions apply, which is fun because they reinvented those today, too.

Figuring out figuring it out

(crossposted from Dead Voles)

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here. That this student has to ‘stop thinking’ in its next class is an amazing observation, and heartbreaking.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

What have you figured out?

We’ve talked a lot about recursive questioning, assembling knowledge from the investigation up rather than imposing it dogmatically. I’ve got my classes set up entirely that way now, so I tell the students virtually nothing and instead show them stuff to figure out, then guide them through what it looks like to do so.

It must be said that in a class of any size, a bunch of students fall through the cracks of this approach. My sense – supported by feedback from the more vocally disgruntled – is that they’re waiting to be told what to do to get a passing grade, and when they don’t get that they just sort of shut down. These days I explain all this in the syllabus and then explicitly cheerlead the process from the start, but for these students all of that must just sound like the usual teacherly harangue, so they just put their heads down and wait for something that sounds more like a test nugget.

I’ve had some good moments lately too, most notably a series of student conferences about research projects. It’s interesting to see how automatic the assumption is that there are fussy little rules that need to be followed to do well. I’m not saying they’re wrong about that. So when I ask them ‘what have you figured out?’ there’s always this little startle response.

One student I’m really enjoying came in for a paper review and I started asking it questions about how it conceptualized slavery, and whether it was quite accurate to talk about the Spanish colonial encomienda system as slavery. The student came back with something generic about organizing the paper better, which I pretty much ignored, and eventually we were talking our way through the subtleties of coerced labor in its various forms, the transition in ordinary people’s lives from one group of overlords to another, and the ways that familiarity and habit can structure systems of exploitation. We talked about whether Adrian Peterson is, as he has said, a slave of the Minnesota Vikings. What’s the point of all this? A good essay is not about hitting upon the right magic formula of ‘right answers’, it’s about figuring something out.

The student I worked with today is ESL and quite conscious of a language barrier (its English is actually superb). It has said that it loves the class, but has never before been asked to figure things out for itself and feels underskilled. It worries that its papers are just data dumps. I said like any skill, it takes practice. We looked at the paper; the first paragraph was clear and competent in a generic kind of way. I asked it what it had figured out. It launched into a passionate and sophisticated description of economic change in colonial New Spain, leading to inflation that benefited the upper class and burdened the lower class. None of this was in the paragraph. I opened up a review note in the document and said, ‘write all that down here’. It said, ‘but I don’t know how to say it!’ I said, ‘that’s fine, it’s only a note in the margin here’.

When it got done with its magnificent new introduction in that unthreatening little marginal note, we talked about how it didn’t feel like it knew the words it needed to say things ‘right’. I told it the story of how I learned Italian when I was 12, and how when I started working in Italian in graduate school I realized my 12-year-old Italian wasn’t really up to the task. I had to learn the vocabulary that went with what I wanted to figure out. We talked about not using words just to use words, but instead adding words as they become necessary to say what you want to say. The student had been saying what it wanted to say about colonial economy just fine, so there was nothing to worry about.

This is not meant to be a weighty post; it’s just a journal entry. I’m saying this as much to myself as to any readers. Like another of my students, who has not yet handed in the terrific paper it’s working on because it can’t get ‘perfect’ out of its way, I can get paralyzed by the feeling that each entry has to be a perfect little essay. This blog will only become what it could be when I get over that and make it a record of moments and processes.

Engaging students (c/p w/ Dead Voles)

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (but perhaps the larger discussion will be at Dead Voles).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with the Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?