Hooray for Historiann! Or, Why the More Time I Spend Doing "Assessment," The Worse I Become as a Teacher; And Vice-Versa

by Paul Harvey

[warning: short but ill-tempered and rather off-topic rant to follow]

This is a brief, off-topic rant, -- as blog czar, I get to do that once a year or so, the rest of you, don't get any ideas -- just to get it off my chest before the school year starts and I resume my mind-numbingly time-consuming duties as "assessment coordinator" for my department (translation: gin up some "assessment numbers" from mid-term surveys and the like, so that the committee that oversees that at my university will leave our department alone and not throw yet more tedious make-work, errr . . . I mean assessment strategies, our way -- courtesy, ultimately if not completely, of Margaret Spellings and her crowd).

[side note: I'm not referring to the work done by the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning, or the like, just to be clear. I have read and learned much from the scholarship on teaching, that comes from such groups; the point here is the constant exhortation by experts to do what we do all the time anyway, in contrast to the silence on far more important subjects].

Historiann asks:

In sum, why are there so many workshops urging faculty to learn to teach better, and so few workshops urging universities to hire more regular faculty and dramatically improve the faculty-to-student ratio?

Many higher education bloggers and writers, Historiann included, publish and post regularly on the ongoing demise of tenure-track faculty, not at elite institutions but most everywhere else, as the adjunctification of higher education proceeds apace. There's the real scandal, not whether liberal arts professors should be denied hall passes because they haven't adopted clicker technology or "formative assessment questionnaires" yet.

Historiann's cri de coeur is in response to Homework for Profs: Perfect the Art of Teaching?, an article which advises us that "Liberal Arts educators “need to talk more about what and how we teach college students” so that we can “engag[e] 21st century college students in the kind of learning that will lead to success in life, work and citizenship.” Oh, yeah, dang, I've completely forgotten to do that almost every day of my professional life, guess I'll start doing it now.

And then, from the same piece : “[E]veryone’s teaching needs regular rejuvenation and context.” Hell, everyone needs someone to lean on, I guess; this author, however, needs a new sentence to lean on. "Everyone' teaching needs . . . context" is like saying "everyone's sink needs water."

I'll finish with Historiann's words of common sense:

I write this not as a skeptic of the value of thinking about pedagogy and of improving one’s teaching–but, and level with me, dear readers–isn’t that what we do all of the time, throughout the year, without going to workshops or special “colleges?” Isn’t this what we do, when we assign all or mostly new books to our classes each term, so that we can keep up with the current literature in our fields (and not incidentally, avoid boring ourselves with the same old readings)? Isn’t this what we do when reviewing previous drafts of lecture notes to see what’s outdated or less useful, and to add new material based on your current readings and research, or to speak to the specific themes we;re emphasizing in this or that semester? Aren’t we always adding new visual images, new ideas, and new slides to our PowerPoint lectures? Do any of us set out intentionally to bore our students to death? Do we enjoy being out-of-date and out-to-lunch in public?

I remember hearing about that legendary college professor who worked from yellowed note cards, or off of lecture notes on legal paper from the 1930s that hadn’t been revised since they were first drafted. Remember him? Me neither. I never met that guy or took his class–it was always someone’s brother’s roommate, or someone’s girlfriend’s sister who was in that class, and usually at another college or university. That professor is largely an urban legend, but “Centers for Teaching and Learning” are set up and funded to guard against him in universities across the country. (Do they also sponsor a “Center for Defense Against Unicorn Attack?”)

I feel better already! So now, back to American religious history.


John Fea said…
Great rant Paul--you are certainly entitled and I agree with wholeheartedly with most of it.

However, I wonder if we often mistake the "pedagogy of teaching" for things like powerpoint, new technology, assessment, and the like, and in the process miss a very rich literature on the teaching and, especially, the learning of history.

My friend Lendol Calder--a fine historian of 20th century consumer culture--has devoted a good chunk of his post-first book career to working with the Carnegie Foundation to think about the way that historical thinking is taught. Lendol has published essays in the JAH and other places related to this work. There is also the work of folks in education departments like Sam Wineburg who have described thinking historically as an "unnatural act" that is not easily learned by students. I have praised his work here before.

Don't get me wrong, I am as fed up as everyone else with assessment strategies that make no effort to adapt to the way history students think and learn. I am also, of course, in favor of the notion that a professor who is "up" on recent trends in her/his field will ultimately be a better teacher. But I also think that there is some good stuff out there, written by social studies types in education departments and an increasing number of historians like Calder, that is actually quite helpful and takes us beyond the "keep up on the literature" approach to good teaching. This literature forces us to actually think about the ways our students LEARN about the past.

I once heard Calder deliver a lecture on this topic in which he suggested that a history professor cramming for a lecture five minutes before class would be better off reading literature on history teaching and learning than scanning a recent monograph on the subject matter for some additional lecture content. I think he was exxagerating to make a point, but the point he was making seemed to be a good one.
Paul Harvey said…
John: We have no disagreement, and I'm going to change the title of this post so I don't create a misunderstanding. In my ranting, obviously I may appear to be bashing all thought on making one's self a better teacher. Of course, I'm not; I've led many a teaching workshop myself, for god's sake, and have served as a faculty development mentor and things of that nature. Rather, I just object to the cliche-driven drivel that has become standard operating procedure for "pedagogical practice" at many places, most especially state universities I think.

I by no means intended to bash the Carnegie Foundation or the kinds of thing that Calder and others have done, where thoughtful people who actually know their disciplines reflect on how we might deepen student thinking. This is the sort of thing, after all, that frequently apears in the teaching section of the Journal of American History, in the OAH newsletter and Magazine of History, and the like.

But note: what they're doing is quite the opposite of what I'm ranting about here.

Because I have to spend a lot of time filling out assessment forms and other bogus measures of "productivity," my rant-o-tron goes off easily. Thanks for your reasoned response to my irritability.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the link, Paul. I think one reason we so easily slide from discussions of CTLCs and "assessment" (as many of my commenters did too, not just you) is that these are bogus bureaucratic inventions that take time away from the real work we're supposed to do. And, I'm quite sure that attendance at CTLC workshops is something that is "assessed" and used to offer proof of the high quality of teaching on our campuses...

John, the thoughtful scholarship you cite is worlds away from what I was talking about in my post. (Note that these articles are published in high-traffic history journals--so they're articles that people will stumble across while they're actively engaged in keeping up with current scholarship on history!) You say you saw one of these guys argue that "a history professor cramming for a lecture five minutes before class would be better off reading literature on history teaching and learning than scanning a recent monograph on the subject matter for some additional lecture content," but that's a ridiculous and false either/or. If your definition of "keeping up with the literature" is "five minutes of skimming before class," then you're working on a different planet from most of the rest of us. Nothing done in five minutes before class is going to be worth a tinker's dam, and it doesn't help the pedagogy people to denigrate other people's efforts to read and incorporate the insights of new research into our teaching. It doesn't have to be either/or.

And yes: real scholarship on pedagogy is worlds away from assessment, which is a bureaucratic exercise and doesn't lend one to new insights about teaching.
John Fea said…
Paul and Historiann,

Thanks for the your comments. We are in complete agreement. I am sorry for stirring up such a hornet's nest here. I am with you totally on this. (And I write on the eve of a full academic year of assessment in our history department. Ugh!)

My only concern was that the posts do not leave the impression that all good teaching requires is to stay current in one's field. (For many of our graduate school readers, "staying current in one's field" would mean being up to date on content oriented mongraphs. Very few graduate students in history read stuff on teaching).

Thanks for the clarifications and I am sorry for the confusion.
Anonymous said…
Good luck with the assessment work, Paul. I truly feel your pain. Perhaps I should send you a quart-sized mason jar of Pisco Sours to help the time pass more pleasantly?

Do read the new article I've included in an update to my earlier post (scroll to the bottom). The man's take on assessment is still too respectful of the concept for me, but I think you'll appreciate the nuances and variables that must be considered (and yet, of course, are not), most especially the students' active role in determining the quality of their learning.

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