Patrick and I have been talking a lot about what makes education ‘sticky’. The reason being that we keep working through analysis discussions with both our groups of students, to where they seem to be ‘getting it’, and come back next time to find that we’re basically starting from scratch. I actually find this process so mentally exhausting that I don’t have much more to say about it right now.

Speaking of mental exhaustion, at least part of the problem is that they’re not doing the reading. This may be some playing limpy, but even when they do the reading, they don’t understand it. It’s hard. Which creates an obvious vicious circle. And a further problem is that the readings are in some ways deeply unfamiliar to the students, even when the conceptual level is not forbidding. And a further problem is that because these are history classes we can’t pause too long on a familiarization strategy to create interest and comprehension (‘this reminds me of me because…’) – time, place, and change matter in history. It’s how they’re NOT like us that we’re after, in large and essential part.

In my introductory World History classes I handle this by turning the bug into a feature and doing very close readings of very short texts in class, to get the process of critical reading, uptake, and analysis fairly well ingrained before getting too fancy with coverage. It doesn’t feel like I should have to do this as much in upper-division classes – these are ‘more advanced’ classes, more ‘in-depth’, and I want to be able to dive into a more extensive and conceptually rich content without grinding through the skilling preliminaries. But once again it’s not working very well. Eventually I may even learn from my experience about this. Apparently I need to think about what has made my own education in this area less than sticky.



  1. Ah, yes, the reading conundrum. It’s tempting to treat it as a “skill” that students “ought” to have mastered before arriving in your composition/major/graduate school course, but here they are, and here you are. Anecdotally, my colleagues in literature and history feel that their students seem to have less and less ability to negotiate the same reading assignments they gave 5 or 10 years ago; part of it seems to be the historic dwindling of the “pleasure-reading” part of the population that once majored in English and History. At least this is how it seems to many of my colleagues. I’m agnostic about this, though I do think that independent reading is hard to manage in today’s classrooms.

    I don’t have any easy answers about this, except to say that you’re doing what I do, which is to try to make students aware of the importance of reading, and to introduce them into active and reflective reading strategies, with modeling small bits, breaking it up, etc. One useful exercise on blogs or for reading assignments generally is the “difficulty” assignment, where a student identifies a specific passage that gave them difficulty. Students are paired off, and try to help each other with the questions raised, then bring those to general discussion. All these kinds of metacognitive exercises are useful, but their time-consuming nature means that students will spend a lot more time learning how to process your discipline’s arguments, evidence, and sources than actually plowing through the content of the course. However, if you can make headway in this area, your students, whatever they do or do not know about Chinese history, will still be significantly more accomplished than the majority of their peers.

  2. Thanks Dave, I completely agree with that prioritization of agenda. And I really like the ‘difficulty’ assignment – it’s a more focused version of what I already do, as you say, but I appreciate how it makes ‘hard’ explicit and explicitly something that can be overcome with reflection, discussion and investigation.

    Sometimes the ‘here they are, here you are’ just smacks ya between the eyes. Last night we were discussing the first few pages of The Quaker City, in which Lippard establishes authority with a deathbed conveyance of documentation, then promptly undermines that authority by launching into detailed narrative inconsistent with any such documentation. This seemed really obvious to Patrick and me, but not at all to the students – even when we pointed it out, their goodwill and inexperience with these genre conventions made them want to take the text at face value. It’s really hard to get to content at all when its uptake is burdened like that, especially when the next move from ‘it’s all good’ is ‘it’s all bad’.

  3. Take a look at this essay, which I might have mentioned earlier, David Jolliffe about college-level reading: .

    [I’m assuming you have access to JSTOR; if not, let me know and I’ll email]

    Weirdly, we have discussions like this all the time in composition and literature departments, but I think this issue of underdeveloped skills of reading argumentation and assessing evidence affects academic performance across disciplines, and is particularly hard in history, because the preferred mode of delivery tends to be large lectures that assume out of class reading. Mistake.

    One other way to get them aware of how these things break down is to dis-assemble an article or chapter, to show them what they’re supposed to be looking for. I’ve done this in my information literacy assignments (annotated bibs), so that students learn to recognize thesis, evidence, and conclusion “zones” and can begin to compare them for analysis. The lesson is that once they begin to recognize the conventions, they learn more from comparing sources than intensively studying a relatively finished single source.

  4. That looks really interesting Dave, so much so I’ve been fighting with JSTOR to give me access for two days. Every time I get to it JSTOR forgets I’m logged in for some reason. (Also, although JSTOR knows who Jolliffe is, it doesn’t seem to know about that article except when I navigate directly to it through the url or the journal). I should really go troubleshoot at the library – maybe we don’t have access to that part of the collection – but if your finger happens to slip and you email it to me….

  5. I have a memory of when my own education started to stick.

    But first, you know what I always hated about math class? I hated that my teachers were good at math. As in, they “instinctively”(?) (?) (!) understood how to do the stuff, and as a consequence never had to translate (or guide someone else through the process of translating) the unknowable into the knowable. It was incomprehensible to them that anyone couldn’t do it. So they taught us the formulas but couldn’t explain why they worked. They said “show their work” but couldn’t illustrate why doing so would make a difference. Etc., etc., etc.

    I’ve been feeling more like one of those math teachers this semester than ever before. As Carl so aptly writes, we “get it,” they don’t, and the distance between our side and theirs frequently feels unbridgeable. And I’m more sympathetic to those math teachers than ever before, too. Obviously being in a different position changes things, but I’m more apt to view their (and my, in math terms) not getting as stemming from a lack of effort on their part. And I’m not entirely wrong, either. Their words betray them: as one example, they answer in one-word platitudes that they only move past if we push them, making it all too clear that the problem isn’t always their comprehension, it’s their willingness to be pushed. Still, naming that failure is easily as frustrating to me as my eventual transition into a welfare-deriding neocon supply-sider will be. It’s one of our society’s traditional markers of getting old, and feels exactly like giving up.

    So . . . solutions? Dave’s “difficulty” exercise is one. I’ve been doing a version of this in my US History survey this semester, wherein I’ve essentially abandoned my lesson plans and instead asked, “what didn’t you get about this document? What was hard?” If the students are honest, and usually they have been (in this class, if not in others), we then devote most of our time to figuring out what’s difficult and then trying to solve those problems. That’s a fun process, and it leads us to other fun processes, in which we break down sentences to find their subtexts, or look for repeated words and repeated contexts in order to see what an author is getting at, and suchlike. Sure, we abandon some of the narrative (or, more often, we squeeze the narrative “point” into the last five minutes of class as a “punchline” to all our nice document analysis), but at least it feels like the class moves from one point to another.

    But Carl’s original problem, of course, is not that the students can’t move from point A to point B, but that they Keep Having To Be Told To. Like, every day. In both our classes together, this has resulted in our telling them repeatedly that they need to buck up and analyze stuff on their own. We do this in ways that I approve of pedagogically–for instance, we tell them they need to be analyzing more on their own almost exclusively after they demonstrate their ability to do so when pushed, meaning that we’re not just dangling some mystical “analysis” that we can do and they can’t. That separates us from my math teachers, who almost never helped me see that I could do what they could. But it still feels like hectoring.

    Back to sticking, though. I remember when my education finally stuck–when I started thinking of myself in frankly professional terms, realizing that there were high standards out there and that I desperately wanted to hold myself to them, and then doing the arduous, repetitive, and almost orgasmically exciting of figuring out how. It was my first year in college, and do you know what’s lame about that? I can’t say how it happened. It. Just. Did. Like I imagine it just happened to my stupid math teachers.

    Still, I’m capable of noting that there were some differences between the atmosphere in which things “stuck” for me and our students’ less sticky atmosphere. The one that stands out for me today is peer pressure. It was enormously clear at my college that analyzing and thinking critically was what the cool kids did, and I desperately wanted to do what they were doing. (Another way of putting that might be “an intensive intellectual atmosphere, built up by years of the hallowed traditions of protest and activism.” Potato, potahto.) For all sorts of reasons, our students don’t have anything comparable to that. But recognizing the difference is still useful. If nothing else, it at reminds me that the way we talk about analysis is important. I wanted to “get it” when I was in college, but I didn’t think about it in those terms; I would have perceived those terms as somewhere between meaningless and demeaning. What I thought about was getting the key to the best private club ever. Helping students see that they’re in that club at the end of class when they’re working hard, and not in it at the beginning, when they’re hoping to get a free pass, is worth something.

  6. I think it’s really killing us that we’re teaching together, for that peer / club reason, because the aspirational conversation we can normally defer gratification on when we’re in community with just the students is sitting right there but also, except for occasional short demos, maddeningly out of reach. We should probably try to figure out how to turn that to advantage.

    I also note what we were discussing last night, which is that new habits are hard, and they’re especially hard when they have to be installed over, around, or despite existing habits. So in the day section yesterday we had that really nice moment when they ventured that marriage in QC was an identity ritual, and almost figured out that it was a status transformation. Isn’t that also what we want education to be, and what it was/is for us? Yet, they think they’re here to jump through hoops and get ‘a piece of paper’.

  7. I think one of the things the two of you are rediscovering here is the non-linearity of your students’ learning, and the fact that they absolutely need the recursive loop of whacking their heads against texts day after day to get a dim sense of what they need to do the next time they read something. To me, this sounds like the kind of learning discussed in Meyer and Land’s “Threshold Concepts,” the troublesome knowledge that disturbs existing understandings and forces them to reintegrate their new knowledge in a new way. According to M/L, this is how we learn how to “think like an X [insert your discipline here].” But this also means the activity is not as open-ended, perhaps, as you two think: I suspect that you both have particular goals, and particular ways of [historical? literary?] thinking that you’re striving to elicit from them. Or maybe your ultimate goals are clearer than the tasks necessary to get them there?

  8. I don’t have an answer here but I most definitely recognise the question. I do wonder, in these cases, whether everyone else is maybe somehow asking them to do different things and the reason people blank when I ask close-reading questions is because they simply don’t do this elsewhere. In my current luxurious (but nearly finished) position I can safely take the position that they *need* to do this and are all bright enough to learn it, and I then get to feel good about it when they say that their medieval option really taught them how to deal with sources. But when teaching in the position that spurred that post I linked to, and dealing with a lot of people who just had to get a medieval option off their list of obligations for that piece of paper, it was harder to justify not covering the course content so that they learnt enough skills to do something with the content. Even as it was I wound up getting anonymous complaints that I made them feel stupid, so I was obviously not playing the game right…

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