TALK ABOUT TEACHING AND LEARNING: Kathleen M. Brown
September 17, 2013, Volume 60, No. 5
Testing the Students’ Knowledge of Process and Analysis
Kathleen M. Brown
Last year I decided to become a new teacher. That is, I decided to step away from history courses that presented my knowledge, to ones that illuminated student pathways to knowledge. I abandoned the goal of coverage and substituted instead a focus on method and process.
The spur behind this new approach was a chance to teach a team-taught course with my colleague Walter Licht. I began the fall semester 2012 expecting that this would be an experiment confined to this one class, but I quickly discovered that what I learned transformed all of my teaching. Instead of teaching one new course, I found myself teaching new material and with new techniques in three of my four courses. Even in that fourth course—the only one in which I repeated material from a previous iteration of the class—I found I was a different teacher.
How can I account for the landslide effect of creating one new course and finding myself redoing all my courses?
First, I combined this dramatic shift in approach with a dramatic shift in technology. As a younger professor, I regularly incorporated slides, films and audio into my otherwise conventional lectures. But as slides went the way of cassette tapes, I found myself unable to close the technology gap quickly enough to maintain the same use of images. For a few years, I showed films but almost no slides. Occasionally I had some images but they were peripheral to the content of the lecture. This year, eager to make up for lost time, I started down the slippery slope of PowerPoint and I got hooked. I made all the classic mistakes of a PowerPoint “newbie.” I transferred too much of my conventional lecture material onto PowerPoint slides; my slides were way too textual. I used the PowerPoint to help me work my way through material I was trying to cover rather than to initiate a more dynamic and open-ended learning process. I also came to class with way too many slides. In those first few weeks of the fall semester, all I could see were students hunched over their laptops; all I could hear was the rapid-fire tapping of frantic fingers on keyboards.
Being reasonably sensitive to audience dynamics, I made some adjustments. My most successful moments as a new teacher were when I honed in on the process of knowing and avoided the pitfalls of trying to cover all I felt the students “should” know. The intellectual challenge of making this shift was to enable students to become mindful of the process through which they learned history rather than simply to tell them what I knew. “How do you know what you know?” became my refrain as I struggled to assemble combinations of primary source documents and images that would provide helpful context for their growing awareness. Rather than give them a chronological narrative of the growth of the North American slave economy, to take one example, I showed them an advertisement for an escaped slave couple, the man Angola-born, the woman Virginia-born and “big with child.” Their owner had provided excruciating details about their demeanor, their linguistic abilities, their speech patterns, their skills, their bodies and their clothing. Then I gave the students the text of a seventeenth-century law that burdened the child of a slave woman with the inheritance of slave status. We compared the slave advertisement to advertisements for escaped servants of Irish and mixed race, and for lost horses and cattle. We noticed that all of these ads contained way more identifying detail than the simple notices for runaway wives. When a man wanted his property—human, animal and textile—returned, he took great pains to provide careful descriptions. When he simply wanted to notify other men than he wouldn’t be responsible for his errant wife’s debts, he need only print her name.
I also tried using PowerPoint to teach students how to interpret texts written in an unfamiliar style (i.e. most historical texts). In successive slides, I would highlight a word or phrase from the larger excerpt and invite them to crack the code of its meaning. By the time we returned to the full excerpt, students had replaced intuitive, superficial, or erroneous definitions of terms with historically grounded meanings, derived from primary sources or images we had considered in conjunction with the text in question.
The examinations for these newly-minted courses test the students’ knowledge of process and analysis. Rather than an essay on the impact of the Industrial Revolution or on the rise of the women’s rights movement, I ask them to spot anachronisms among a series of statements or to solve a “History Mystery.” This latter assignment involves unpacking the meaning of a passage they have never seen before based on its content, tone, use of language, imagined audience and connection to historical debates we have discussed in class.
As I have tried to become a new teacher, I have learned to define new teaching goals. Rather than provide my students with a solid and seamless meta-level narrative of historical knowledge—a coherent story that incorporates a number of different dynamics of historical change—I require my students to make their own way from their micro-level knowledge of individuals, laws, documents, rebellions and images to the meta-level narrative that attempts to make sense of it all. The results are messier than if I simply gave them the narrative I have already worked out (and continue to work out). But they have actually had the chance to try out the historian’s tools, using the historian’s sources and the historian’s methods. They may not remember what I said about the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but I hope they will be better prepared to assess how the society around them uses, abuses and forgets the historical past.
Dr. Kathleen M. Brown is a professor of history in the School of Arts & Sciences.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.