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.


  1. This reminds me of how impressed I was watching high school debaters zipping through comparative arguments about weighing sources and credibility on the fly, when college students often impervious to such questions in their lit classes. The debating or role playing games require lots of prep, but can really pay off in just the ways you drescribe.

  2. Hi Dave! Yes, I’ve seen the same thing. I’m now thinking about how much more of the course could be worked through that dynamic. I’ve long had the idea of picking a year and studying it in depth; doing that by populating the class with characters, researching them in depth, and then roundtabling them could be pretty illuminating.

  3. You might be interested in James M. Lang’s experience with the Reacting to the Past pedagogy, which he describes in his Chronicle column, “Being Nehru for 2 Days.” Here’s a link, though I think it’s behind a paywall. Let me know if you need a pdf.

  4. The link worked, thanks! I’ve read about RttP before, and it’s intriguing, not least because it reminds me of a great Model UN experience I had at Haverford College when I was in high school. It also reminds me of Wineburg’s stuff.

    This all makes me think about how I’m leery of these packaged pedagogies, for the same reason I’m leery of textbooks and got sick of Dungeons and Dragons right quick. No matter how good they are, they’re someone else’s concept and can’t help but intercept some of the development that comes from working something out for yourself. I realize that sounds a little puritanical, but as I tell my students sometimes when they try to play limpy, the weight someone else lifts doesn’t make you stronger. I think the best move is to use this kind of stuff as an inspiration rather than letting it take over.

    I may still be hungover from last semester, when the very same strategies that had worked great the semester before came pretty close to failing completely. For me at least, it’s the process of working something through that works; the established algorithm, even if it’s my own, is deadly.

  5. OK, that’s stupid. Obviously there are ways to use any materials that develop discovery, connection, and creative reconfiguration. RttP is especially friendly to that process, on purpose, which is terrific scaffolding. Obviously it’s working here. It has that recipe feel to me, but that’s my hangup. So yes, great stuff.

  6. Pingback: World history in the tranches | Attention Surplus

  7. Pingback: Your attention please! | Attention Surplus

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