Francisco Marmolejo’s “Deficiency in Foreign Language Competency: What Is Wrong with the U.S. Educational System?,” which appeared on The Chronicle‘s website yesterday, is worth reading. I won’t summarize it here, but I do wonder if the attitudes he describes have anything to do with a comment I sometimes hear when I ask a student if he or she knows another language or plans to learn one: “I’m no good at languages.” I thought the same thing of myself thirty years ago. Fortunately, life circumstances and patient teachers later taught me that motivation and practice mattered more than mere aptitude.
When confronted with history too narrowly conceived or framed, I often think back to one graduate course I took, “Issues in British Literature,” which challenged me on a number of levels. To start with, the British historiography we learned seemed to have nothing in common with what I had encountered for German, French, and Russian history. Of course, different countries and different histories were involved, but not even the language or categories of analysis employed in the British historiography were as familiar as I expected them to be. This circumstance did not stop the authors from writing history and arguing with each other as if the assumptions that informed their language were self-explanatory. Their writings offered an odd mixture of history as common sense that rejected social theory combined with the expectation that readers should not dare question how they framed and wrote about history, because, well, readers with enough uncommon intelligence and specialized training would understand. The rest should not bother trying.
There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right.”
Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America’s culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See “Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls” and “If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . .“
In “History without Reading,” Jim Cullen talks about a dirty little truth: a lot of students in our courses do not read, but we teach the courses as if they had done the reading, thereby only making things worse, because the students are getting nothing out of their classroom time. He suggests that it should be possible to teach history and historical thinking in such a way that we do not assume that the reading has been done. One reason students do not read, he says, is that we teach history assuming that it is obvious why one would want to study history, instead of trying to sell the relevance of history to students in the first place. Indeed, “so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.” Cullen suggests that we not accept that and instead asks, “What would it actually mean to teach a course that presumed ignorance or indifference rather than one of preparation and engagement?”
I have been pretty happy lately with my approach to George Mason University’s required History 100 (Western Civilization); however, chronological confusion in many exams last semester made me long to try a textbook again. I might live to regret the attempt, since the course is only one semester long, but I have decided to try the abridged version of Mark Kishlansky et. al., Civilization in the West (Penguin Academics). Trying to squeeze everything into the syllabus was much harder this way, even after skipping the first 200 pages of the text, but I am hoping the textbook will assist me in conveying a better sense of the chronological terrain. I have never been against textbooks in principal. I just have not found them to be practical for a one-semester course of this kind. Will this book fit the bill? Ideally, of course, someone would write a shorter book specifically for this kind of class. Abridged histories are usually still too long. Nonetheless, I am hoping that this halfway affordable text will prove to be an exception.
There are two other reasons I am changing things. First, doing so might help to minimize chances of plagiarism, since there will not be a similar set of assignments already in circulation on campus. Second, change keeps my teaching fresh.
This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.
I had no plagiarism cases this fall. Maybe it is because I had an unusually ethical group of students, but it probably also had something to do with analysis they did based on short documents instead of books commonly discussed on the internet. With few exceptions, there were no answers to be found on the internet, though I took some chances with the inclusion of A Doll’s House in some questions. Even then, I did not let students focus on Ibsen’s play, but instead forced them to relate it to short documents that I made available on Blackboard. I have made similar attempts in the past, but usually by asking big synthetic questions based on two or three books instead of narrower interpretive questions based mainly on two or three specific documents.