Teaching and Learning (Week 13 RR)

I very much enjoyed this week’s readings on a number of levels. So far, I haven’t had an opportunity to teach history, but occasionally I am handed an undergraduate Latin lecture, and I have been tutoring a set of Greek and Latin students privately for the last several years. Teaching ancient languages has some notorious challenges. One major example is understanding its high attrition rate: students tend to learn very well or not at all (and the why is not always simple). Although I prefer tutoring to teaching for all the usual reasons, the problem seems (so far) to remain even in a close one-on-one situation in the same ratio. My working hypothesis is that this has a great deal to do with how we transmit/receive, come equipped with/scaffold (cf David Jaffee’s essay in our Academic Commons collection of VKP essays) mechanisms for learning and integrating the pieces of a method into a framework.

Sam Wineburg’s description of teaching as the making visible of the practitioners’ processes resonated for me. This is the challenge of language pedagogy as well as that of history (at least where we’re training thinkers and not temporary repositories for facts), to make the steps and pieces of a whole system visible in coherent, digestible packets. Another parallel challenge for the instructor is that achieving sufficient preparation to teach is tantamount to having internalised specialised knowledge to a degree from which it becomes difficult to teach (i.e. to recall the smaller structural components of ones own learning) although the knowledge and methods review we can get from teaching something is one of its primary rewards.

Michael Coventry, et. al., in the JAH article featuring the Visible Knowledge Project ask broadly about what the student brings as far as assumptions, past training, literacy, and education (writ broadly) that make a difference to a) how well the modes of teaching selected by the participant instructors work, b) how they must be modified in order to work. Sharona Levy’s piece in the Academic Commons set describes her exploration of this problem as she attempts to devise and operate a metric for how students read. Far from revealing a formula, her process is iterative, the metric serving to expose the gaps in her methods and pedagogical problems generally; she observes the shifts of her adjustments.

A corresponding piece by David Jaffee tracks student progress with a set of activities designed to teach visual literacy, or, more accurately, historical thinking with images. He likewise was less interested in the “success” of his formula, which he evolved several times to promote different results, than in in some way meeting his objective of teaching ‘historical thinking’, especially the finding of problems. In this he responds to Wineburg’s call to arms to teach historical thinking as a set of critical skills any educated person should have in daily life. Jaffee found great success in his student project that dealt with the image of an assimilated Native American leader paired with an archive of primary texts students could select for working with, not because the students came up with a satisfactory answer, but because they found problems. But he also took pleasure in the fact that he had taught them to ponder “the relationship between choice and constraint” as they problematised the whys of voluntary assimilation to an invading culture. As much as I myself agree with him on the lesson, this leaves me a little unsettled. In his conclusion, Jaffee does complicate what it means to think historically and reminds us that this is also not a neutral question. The categories used on the HTM are much cleaner (how to source, how to read closely) as tactics rather than highly contextualised questions, but as always, our tactics have a context too of which we must be aware.

This is all very obvious stuff, but I found it quite stimulating both for thinking about the ‘value’ of history and about my own experiences, problems, and aspirations for teaching.

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