History without Reading

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?”

Much of my teaching makes just this assumption, because the Western Civilization survey that I regularly teach is a general education requirement at George Mason University. People have to take it, whether they want to or not. I usually ask myself how I can teach a given class in a way that lets everyone get something out of it, no matter how well prepared they are. Of course, a well-done presentation can convey information to everyone, if they are engaged in it, but working with source material, visual or short texts, is often more helpful. Still, if the assumption that students read too little, if at all, frequently guides my preparation for individual classes, I refuse to accept it as a premise for a whole course. In the end, I want students to read, because it is impossible to do everything in class, and much of history is about reading and critical thinking. I want students to read and connect this reading to what goes on in class, and I want to hold students accountable for that reading.

Hence, last semester I began doing regular “surprise” reading quizzes. I usually posed the questions in a way that allowed students to answer in five minutes in a paragraph or with bullet points. Some questions would work if students had just done an internet search on the subject, but rising above a very low grade required actual reading. In the end, the carrot and sick that is the reading quiz seemed to work; however, it also increased the grading workload considerably, which is why I plan to vary formats in the coming semester. (See Plagiarism Again.)

Of course, doing things this way feeds into a system of rewards and punishments that still does not get across to students the value of studying history. I still need to convey why we are doing the work and even encourage them to want to do it. But relying on these factors alone does not seem to be enough, not even for the most engaged students in an elective history course.

Last week I listened to Daniel Pink talk about rethinking traditional carrots and sticks in the workplace. Pink argued that our minds and hearts do not always follow such logic, and employers could get more out of us with more nuanced approaches. His ideas found their limit, however, when a philosophy professor called in. Pink thought the professor was right to use the carrot-and-stick approach there, because it would work. On the other hand, the fact that the caller felt the need to ask indicated a certain level of dissatisfaction with her own approach, as I feel with mine. Pink himself added the caveat that students who learned only to react to incentives and sanctions would be ill-prepared for many workplaces that required more autonomy and initiative.

This last concern worries me, but maybe it is okay to ignore it in my large survey courses. After all, undergraduate education includes more independent work too, once students advance and specialize. Moreover, just getting to class and fulfilling the requirements of the General Education courses can help to train students in other ways, both intellectually and in terms of life habits such as self-discipline and task management.


First published on this date on the now closed Clio and Me.