As we get closer to September, I wanted to take a break from the reflective writing and get back to talking about some of the really practical tools I use when teaching. By the time students reach us at the college and/or university level, they have often stopped demanding: “why are we doing this?” But many of them continue to ponder that epic question: “what’s the point.” This is especially true if, like me, you teach about a period where the men pranced around wearing stockings, the vast majority of people had no say in the major political decisions of the day, and everyone was really interested in talking about religion all the time. Although the recent popularity of the The Tudors has, admittedly, increased student interest in this period, most of them come in wanting to learn about the salacious details of Henry VIII’s sex life, not to think about the contested nature of the British reformations. The result is that more than a few of them wonder why I teach what I teach, and why I don’t devote more time to court scandals.
[I imagine my students doing this whenever I get too esoteric]
Coming up against the “so what” is a central part of what we do as intellectuals. In my discipline, being able to answer that question is what separates the historians from the antiquarians. And yet, many of us forget this when faced with the daunting task of teaching a survey class. This is because these classes cover so much ground that even the instructor can lose sight of potential narrative threads or common themes, never mind their relevance. At the other end of the spectrum – specialized seminar courses, that is – instructors can forget that that the significance of the assigned reading material is not necessarily obvious to less experienced readers. This is why I want to talk a bit about why I think explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is so important.
Explaining ourselves in the classroom is particularly difficult because it is always a 2-tier process. Each lesson we teach begs the question of how the material is significant with respect to the course and the discipline. A good teacher, however, will also be approaching the material with an eye to teaching more generalized skills – things like critical analysis, argumentation, and attention to detail. These are skills which students will need regardless of what career they ultimately pursue. And while undergraduates might be bored by the issue of scholarly significance (especially if the subject matter doesn’t speak to them), many of them are extremely interested in developing career-relevant skills.
When I meet a class for the first time, I am therefore completely open about the fact that 95% of my students will never need to know about Tudor/Stuart history ever again. But I’m also open about the fact that I don’t care, and there’s more to be learned in my classroom than names and dates. I promise to make the lectures interesting – and in the end, most of them end up thinking that 16th– and 17th-century British history is actually pretty great – but I also tell my students that I am much more concerned with teaching them to become critical thinkers and active citizens than I am in making sure they know the ins and outs of any given historical debate. As part of this process, I provide a rationale for every assignment that explains how the work will help them along the path to becoming historians, but which also outlines how the assignment will help develop broader skills that they can take with them wherever they end up.
Taking the time to provide a rationale also helps me. This is because it forces me to make sure that each assignment has a purpose, and clarifies how the lectures, assignments, and seminars are connected. So far, students have responded well to the inclusion of a rationale with all written work. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that it can help clarify the nature of the assignment, especially for those students who are in first year or new to the discipline. In other words, I have a hunch that if you tell some why they’re doing something, it helps explain what they’re supposed to be doing. At the moment, this all seems very abstract, so I think the best way to end this post is by providing some concrete examples. Below are the rationales that I appended to the research proposal and independent research essay that I assigned to my Modern European History class. As always, please tell me what you think in the comments below!
[Writing up a rationale helps you and your students reflect on the purpose of their work]
Rationale: Essay Proposal
This assignment is designed to teach you how to ask critical questions and engage with topics that might otherwise seem daunting. We live in a world where we are constantly presented with crises about which we are asked to form opinions and to which we are supposed to enact responses. But how do we begin? Whether the issue is climate change, tuition rates, or the War on Terror, it is impossible to have an informed response unless you ask the right questions and situate your answers/opinions/actions alongside what other people are saying and doing. The former is obvious if we wish to gain a deep understanding of a topic and come to our own conclusions instead of being told what to think. The latter is necessary because we do not engage with – or react to – our world in isolation.
Scholars use the same process when conducting research. Once a topic catches our attention, we then need to ask a question that will help us understand it more fully. After we have formulated that question, we need to answer it with reference to other scholarship. We cannot simply take what other people tell us as “fact.” We need to ask ourselves what “perspective” other scholars bring to the topic, and then decide if we agree, disagree, or partially agree with them.
Rationale: Independent Research Essay
Your research paper is the natural extension of your research proposal. It is the place where you must eloquently respond to the question you set yourself in your proposal. It is therefore an important part of learning how to actively engage with a topic. Not only does writing a paper demand that you perform a critical analysis of the information you have unearthed, but you must also convince your reader that your analysis is valid. This is the process that politicians, consultants, professors, journalists, etc… employ to present information and justify their conclusions, with the ultimate aim of winning over their audience.
Since you are doing all of this outside the confines of the classroom, research papers also provide practice at independent learning. You must gather, vet, and re-deploy sources on your own, communicating the results of this process in writing. This requires time management skills and self-discipline, as well as critical thinking and the ability to convey difficult ideas in an accessible way. More often than not – in any context – this is the way true learning occurs, and it is an essential skill for everyone to learn.