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November 16, 2006

Making It Up As I Go Along

Teaching undergraduates for the first time this semester, I am struck by the haphazard nature of undergrad teaching. Unlike K-12 teachers, who need a degree in education and certification by the state, college teachers are never really taught how to teach! Sure, we had GSI training, but it was a joke (no offense to our GSI mentors, who did the best they could without having any training themselves in teaching us how to teach). We had five hours of training before our first day in the classroom, and then five more two-hour sessions as two-week intervals over the first two months of the semester. These mostly consisted of bitch-fests, where we complained about what was going wrong in our classes.

There was one genuinely valuable session, however, at which a very experienced GSI came in to talk to us about how to teach critical thinking. This session was useful because our guest speaker had done her own research on pedagogy and shared that research with us. In other words, the information is out there. In education departments all around the country, scholars research and develop modes of teaching effectively. The problem is that there is no institutionalized communication between those scholars and those of us who teach at the college level. We can either seek out this research on our own, or just teach without it, making it up as we go along. The only reason I can fathom why college professors don't actively seek out advice on teaching from education experts is disciplinary pride, which verges on disciplinary hubris. We know that we are the experts on history, so how could someone without this expertise (someone whose degree is in education, which we all "know" isn't a "real" discipline) tell us how to teach our subject?

The problem, though, is that, as Sam Wineburg argues in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, historical thinking is a skill that one must learn, just like any other, and learning involves processes that historians don't necessarily know about. Wineburg is an educational psychologist who specializes in history, and has studies those processes by which students become historians -- how they learn to think historically.

Ultimately, historians learn our craft by imitating others. The fallacy of grad school is that our professors don't teach us how to do history, they simply evaluate whether or not we have successfully imitated them. In research seminars, we are not taught how to do research or write an article, we are simply set loose for ten weeks to write an article-length paper based on original research. Grad school is trial by fire.

Since we aren't taught, we have no model on which to base our own teaching, and we have to make it up as we go along. Thinking back to my own undergraduate education, I realize that my professors also simply did their best to figure it out. Some of them did it really well; I will be eternally grateful to the professor who taught my undergrad research seminar because that is where I learned to do original research. Others modeled their classes on graduate seminars, which means they didn't teach at all. I entered graduate school without knowing the nature of academic history or the purpose of historiography.

As a teacher, I have made up my teaching style as I go along, continually asking myself what I wish I had been taught as an undergrad history major. I have realized that my job isn't to teach names and dates, but rather to teach students how to read primary and secondary sources, and how to write history and historiography. I am also hoping to instill in them the value of using their colleagues as a resource. To these ends, I have done two peer editing exercises with them. For the first paper, I had them pair up and I gave them a worksheet to guide them in editing each others' papers. This worked well for those whose partners took the exercise seriously, but it seemed that some students were either too intimidated to critique others or simply couldn't be bothered. Yesterday I tried a different exercise. My challenge was that only about half of the students had written papers; they were given a choice of whether to write a paper in November or a paper in December. I modeled this exercise on the workshop, which I have found very useful in my own work, but we didn't have the advantage of everyone being able to read every paper. So I focused on arguments. I had each student write their argument on the chalkboard, and then, as a group, we critiqued each others' arguments. This exercise encouraged them to help each other, but I also participated, so that the students could see what I was looking for in an argument. I'm not sure what they thought of it, but I was pretty pleased with the results. I'm writing about this not just to brag about what a creative teacher I am, but also because I think that, in the absence of formal training in how to teach undergrads, those of us on the front lines need to do a lot more sharing about what works and what doesn't. We also need to be a lot more humble about the fact that we don't really know what we are doing, and a lot more willing to ask for help from whatever sources we have at our disposal.

Posted by eklanche at November 16, 2006 08:44 AM


It is quite shocking to realize how little training professors have at teaching. You certainly have gotten more than I did (sad, but true). It's also amazing to see some professors turn into phenomenal teachers without formal training. I think this is due in part to imitation, and also to passion. We tend to have more enthusiasm for our subject matter than K-12 teachers.

I think the biggest obstacle to prevent us from using pedagogical research to our benefit is simply lack of time. I'm personally interested in incorporating technology into the classroom more (through blogs, Wikis, etc.) and I've been meaning to look up examples of how this has been done in other settings and whether or not it's effective. Unfortunately, given everything else I have to do as a junior faculty member, this is low on my list of priorities. At the end of the day, only my research will get me tenure (again, sad but true).

Posted by: jpstamat at November 19, 2006 12:12 PM

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