One of my colleagues from another department visited my second World History section today. It also teaches large intro sections to mostly non-majors, and was looking for a different perspective on the process.
Other than talking about how odd and sometimes unilluminating a single visit to an active / interactive classroom can be, neither of us made any particular preparation, and I just went ahead with my usual m.o., which is to go in with a rough idea of what I want to get at that day, a couple ideas about how to do that, and a commitment to guiding and prompting rather than dictating.
I opened by asking if they were ready to start talking about the papers they’ll eventually need to be doing. Got a positive on that, so then I asked if they’d rather get in the big discussion circle or stay in rows with me recording the conversation on the board. Even split in those expressing a preference; I broke the tie for circle, because I’d done rows the section before.
The energy was good; we bantered a bit as we rearranged the classroom. Then I asked them what would make an analysis they had to write or read a good one. This got some eyes to glaze over, and some fairly generic responses from others. Hit the high points, truth, create interest, the 5 Ws, that sort of thing. Sadly I noticed that none of our prior conversations, let alone the extensive guidance in the syllabus, were yet processing as available accounts of our project.
Judging the question too abstract and out of context at this stage of their introduction to the standards and practices of quality analysis, I brought up the Super Bowl. What would make an analysis of the game a good one? Instantly, fans expressed their biases. I asked leading questions about whether we could learn much about the game from people committed to one side or the other. (The end-game of this, after a couple turns, was to point out that the problem was not so much the partisanship itself as the way it influenced selection and interpretation of information – making ‘high points’ a tricky standard for good work.)
Somewhere in here, my colleague (who to my delight had jumped right in as a participant) chimed in with the observation that not everyone cared even a little bit about the Super Bowl. So we explored the question of whether ‘interest’ worked well as a reason to learn about something. A silent student I called on turned out to be paying attention, and suggested that a ‘to each his own’ approach might be perfectly alright. So I talked about knowledge silos, and discovered that drawing impromptu silos on the board is tricky business. A couple students studying the history of mathematics and the history of firefighting (in 1915, our focus for the first part of the term) talked through how their projects might actually be of mutual interest, and from this we extracted curiosity and making connections as other reasons to attend to knowledge not otherwise immediately ‘interesting’. We further agreed that just slinging work at a requirement was soul-crushing, and that making the process substantive and meaningful was worth some effort in itself.
I’m compressing a lot of backing, forthing, redirecting, and awkward-silencing into a (semi-)coherent narrative from a particular perspective, or in other words, doing what I was trying to get them to start thinking about.
Eventually I suggested we had most of what we needed to construct an outline of the elements of a good analysis. What I got back this time was a little better albeit still pretty generic: organization, a focused point, cause and effect, credible sources. Credible sources? Judging that this gave the conversation a chance to resolve from frustrating abstraction into satisfying concreteness I pounced, and redirected to a student who hadn’t said anything yet. What’s your topic? Physical education. OK, everyone, what would this writer need to show you to earn your attention and respect? A question; something to be figured out; understanding of the times and their issues. Because another student asked, we talked about whether ‘obesity’ or even weight management was any part of physical training in the early 20th century, and agreed we didn’t know yet.
Are we interested in what we think is important, or what they thought was important? Them, clearly. What would that take? Credible sources. How about some examples? Health journals; medical journals; government policies and standards. Long conversation here about whether historical sources are stably reliable. Files get lost or destroyed, but also interpretations change. Did historians fifteen years ago worry about obesity? Another student who hadn’t spoken yet said, no. People then were just fat, it wasn’t an issue like we know it is now. (We know?) So, interpretations of history also have a history.
Time’s up! Find a primary source for your project, and bring it next time. Some good eye contact from people who seemed to know what I meant, and why, but we’ll see. I don’t expect to get this sorted out all at once.
How did this all look to my colleague? We’ll talk later; I could only guess now. It was typically friendly while running off to its own class, but it’s hard not to worry that the procedings looked like a bunch of talking around in circles with no definite accomplishment. Which, in fact, it was. What I hope, and expect from prior experience, is that a lot of the loopiness comes from this all being a completely foreign mode of engagement with learning for many of the students, and that gradually as they take refuge in the comforting definiteness of their own research projects, they’ll do so with a dawning sense that there’s something of value and unsuspected depth there. Again, we’ll see.