Thoughts on Teaching – Wrapping up the first Unit – 10/3/2013
Week 5 in my hybrid class was the final class of the first Unit of the semester. So, we have essentially finished a third of the class to this point. In wrapping up the Unit, I tried to do two things. First, I took some time out to talk about research. Second, I set up a discussion about what united and divided the colonies in the lead up to the Revolution.
For the first part of the class, I started what will eventually be a three-part series on how to write a history paper. This is something that I find we do not do at the college level. (And, based upon what I see, is never taught before college either.) The only class where we actually teach students how to write is the introductory English class, and the only class where we teach students research is the second English class they take. Since my students are often taking my class concurrently with the English classes, they may or may not have any of these skills by the time they are writing for me. And, in the past, I have generally assumed that my students will be able to write effectively for me without ever teaching them how. In fact, I think that is how it is generally approached in most non-English classes — namely that we give them a paper topic and the next time we see anything from them is when they turn in the final draft. We just assumed they could do that without any guidance. However, the quality of the writing from that method was always rather poor, and the opportunities to teach them how to fix their problems only came in the comments left on their writing, which most students never read anyway.
So, I have embarked on a mission to try and teach them what it means to write a history paper and what it means to use historical sources in a paper. Some of this comes from my college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), where we are to teach research methods throughout the college. But it has also come just because I have grown sick and tired of never getting what I am looking for from my students. This first presentation, which you can see below, concentrates in on two things — the need for an argument and the method for reading and understanding primary sources. I started with the failings of high school education at teaching students how to make a historical argument, and I talked about what it means to make an argument. I showed them the difference between what I call an information dump paper, where you try to get everything you know down on the paper in the hopes that you hit the points the teacher will be looking for, and an argument paper, where you have an organized and coherent argument that runs throughout the paper. Then, I took them through a 9-point method for reading primary sources. This is key because students have very little experience reading documents from the past. They generally pick them up, read them, find them incomprehensible, and then put them down. Thus, when we assign them to read something, they come away seeing it as unnecessary torture to read something that they are not going to understand anyway. So, I take them through how they should be approaching a document, especially in getting them to think about the context of the document as a way to see why it might be something important. I stressed to them that I do not assign things out of spite or sadism but instead assign things that emphasize the ideas I am trying to get across in the course. I also talked about how it is important to try to read the document as if you were there in the past rather than as someone from today reading something in the past. This is a difficult thing to do, but it can help the students understand why I would assign something for them to read. As an example of this, I talked about William Penn’s “Plan for a Union” from 1697. That was something I had assigned for them to read, and it is something that is difficult and largely opaque to the students. What I pointed out to them was that if you considered the source and context, it could be a very interesting document, since it is a document that calls for political union among the colonies many decades before the Revolution.
Here is the PowerPoint that I used to hit these themes in my class: SourcesPresentation1. I don’t know how successful it was to talk to the students about these ideas, but I think it is important.
Going through those parts took between 30-40 minutes in each class. That left only about 35-45 minutes for the rest of the discussion. I put two columns on the board — Unites and Divides — and had the students talk about what they would put in each column to show the things that united the colonies and the things that divided the colonies. This is part of the bigger Semester Project that the students are working on, where they are asked to eventually write a long paper on the subject of whether we can consider the colonies/United States as united or divided. The main goal, and one that was met in all of the classes, was to get the students to see that all of the major issues could realistically be put in both the unites and divides column. As a specific example, I took the topic of religion. I wrote on the board the statement that the American colonies were founded on the Christian religion. Then we talked about how that could be seen as both true and false. The true part, of course, comes from the fact that 99.5+% of the people who formed the colonies were Christian, all of whom believed in the same God and read the same Bible. Colonial society, politics, and the like were all taken from a context of a people who shared very similar beliefs. Then, we talked about what might make that statement not true, namely that, despite all being Christian, the colonists were all from vastly different sects and backgrounds. In fact, many of the dominant sects very explicitly opposed each other and found the beliefs of each to be quite abhorrent. In fact, the varieties of religion could be considered to be so vast that calling them a common group of Christians basically elides the reality of religion in the colonies. As one of the students put it, it is not really a question of Christian values, but of which set of Christian values. I was rather pleased with how the students grasped this concept overall, not just on religion, but on the broader idea that most major ideas could be both uniting and dividing.
The other thing that I wanted to cover in some detail, but largely ran out of time on, was the question of who we were talking about. When we consider the question of what made the colonies united or divided, we are mostly considering the white, European colonists. I raised the question at the very end of the class about whether we should also consider the slaves and the Native Americans. We ran out of time to talk about this in any detail, but I was happy that I, at least, got to put the idea in their heads.