November 16, 2005
Digital Classroom -- Scott -- Hey, where are the flash cards?
As someone who doesn’t plan to teach after grad school (although I did teach one U.S. history survey course after I got my M.A. and it was quite an experience), this week’s assignment covered areas I hadn’t really considered before. All I could think of after reading the assigned articles, checking the websites, and the class discussion was that perhaps we’re seeing the final death throws of the traditional Survey course I remember so fondly from my freshman year oh so many years ago?
Memorizing dates, names, places, battles, and all of that! Was that so bad? Although I don't remember much from my World Civ survey courses I had to take except that 1453 was a big year, so was 1066 (French kicking Saxon butt?); Napolean shouldn't have invaded Russia, the 30 Years War were not kind to the residents of whatever Germany was called then. . .Elizabeth I was an amazing queen, etc., etc.
To what end, I wonder, is this new thrust towards getting students (most who aren't considering a History degree??) think like historians? Isn’t it important to remember some key dates, figures, battles and events? Begin such training to think this way that early in the college career? Wouldn’t it be better to cram the information down them like ducks being force-fed in a foie gras factory just like me and what I had to go through? It's not fair! I had to suffer, so should they. But heck, what do I know.
If recursive reading is a sign that the student is actually “learning,” then the professor is right to head in the direction of the digital classroom at flank speed. Just think, students today will never know the joy of making flash cards with dates or the names of key figures, battles, and events on the front with descriptive narratives on the reverse, staying up way past midnight with fellow students, “flashing” each other until your brain no longer functioned effectively and you barely made it to the final exam that next morning. Are we witnessing the passing of the old guard or are students in my age-ballpark going the way of the Dodo?
Did anyone else like Professor Kelly’s quote from Samuel S. Wineburg that historical thinking is a “fundamentally ‘unnatural act [that] actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.’” Never thought of it this way, odd, isn’t it? I always assumed that we, as historians, thought along the lines of lawyers, scientists, doctors, etc. in developing hypotheses, logical thinking, objective evaluation of sources, etc. But perhaps I have been off-base here. If the “unnatural” argument is true, then this new way of teaching, really introducing, I guess, the subject of the study of history, through a greater use of technology, is the only way to go. How better to achieve all of the competencies that Professor Kelly notes as a measure of how effective teaching is for the study of history? After all, as Pace noted in paragraph 12 of his essay, each discipline is unique and that “all academic learning is discipline specific” and there are no “generic strategies” to improve teaching across the board; we as historians are free to pursue our own strategies to teach students in a better manner. If Professor Kelly’s semi-scientific test results are any indication, then he is on the track to get young scholars to “learn” better.
Although in his concluding paragraphs he notes that once a professor uses the web in his class, students really begin to understand the use of primary sources and also it encourages “original thinking.” Doesn’t this ultimately lead us down the road of making the academically-trained “historian” obsolete? If you’re basing your lectures on having students really peruse original sources, why have the “filter” of having a historian’s narrative get in the way? That was what was so interesting about the “Who Killed William Robinson” website. I couldn’t access the interpretive essays so I had to form my own opinions based on the original documents. Whether or not it was a better learning tool than say a lecture on 19th century race relations in Canada or not is something I’m not sure I am qualified to answer. The whole map exercises too were interesting and in a sense got me to think in an “unnatural” way. I did enjoy listening to the explanations given by GMU historians, including Professor Kelly, on interpretive techniques for various forms of documentation in the “Women in World History” website. Discussing our actual craft, how these different sources are important to achieving and overall understanding of a period in the past was interesting! But then again I’m a graduate student in the field and not a freshman who plans to study aeronautical engineering and find myself having to take a mandatory history class. Will the web change teaching such courses for the better? Yes, I think so but I won’t have to worry about it. Good luck to those who plan on teaching, it is a noble profession and attempting to do it in a better, more comprehensive manner is a worthy goal. I just wish that such thinking was in place in the late-1970s so that I might have benefited when I started college. Although I do miss those flash cards. . .
Posted by sprice7 at November 16, 2005 04:24 PM