Blog Post

Teaching History? Or Bringing Out Every Student's Inner Historian? A Midterm Exam Alternative

Teaching History? Or Bringing Out Every Student's Inner Historian? A Midterm Exam Alternative

Yesterday in class, a graduate student who teaches history as an adjunct professor--in short, way overworked, way underpaid--said she was trying to include progressive pedagogy in her class but it was simply too hard.


I hear this all the time.  And when I talk to people, it often turns out that what is "hard" is a tradition of over-assignment, over-preparation, over-work, and under-engagement.  The prof is burned out (and sometimes angry!) at being up all night reading the 200 pages assigned for the day's class, the students are indifferent (and mad or ashamed) because they had to "fudge" the reading (who can read 200 pages a week in a busy life, esp if you also work 30 hours a week as the vast majority of CUNY students--and elsewhere--do)?  

How can we get out of this overworking/under-learning/uninspiring rut?  History's in trouble as a discipline. It is important for the future of the discipline to emphasize why history matters . . . the current method does not do that. We need some better ways.

In this case, the class (a basic American history survey) had just read a historian's account of an incident in the year 1905.   I asked my own student, "what is your deepest goal beyond the class? Is it to have your students learn about 1905? Is it for them to learn the dates and the facts ... or, is your takeaway, that history helps us understand contemporary problems and it also, as a methodology, teaches profound, useful skills such as being able to sort through massive amounts of data to make a coherent, factual, logical, and interesting story?  Are students reading history books and memorizing facts in order to pass an exam?  Or do you want your students to be curious about the past and to learn how to be historians in their everyday lives, to use and apply these principles?"

That's not a binary--obviously, it's a little of both.  But I would say that 90% of history classes over-emphasize the extensive reading of historical articles and monographs by professional historians writing for other professional historians. They over-emphasize memorizing specific dates and facts, etc, and under-emphasize the "meta": why is history important?  why is history important to you?

If we don't help our students understand the importance of what they are doing in our history classes, what will they retain beyond the final exam? How will they be able to apply what they learn later?  And if they do not apply it later, then what in the world is higher education for?

Here's what my student and I worked out as an alternative midterm (I've done variations of this many times over the years, btw, so I know it works):   redo the midterm not as a test of facts ...  but of how they apply those to their own histories.

My favorite assignment for helping students to learn how to be historians:  Interview the oldest person you know (or can find). 

I usually prescribe the format of what they will turn in. 

Example: "Edit the interview questions and answers and turn in midterm exam of 1000 words or less that begins with a brief bio of the interviewee, how you know them, where you interviewed them,  (the journalist's basic Who What Where Why When and How) and then the interview."

That's it.   It can be anyone. They can be 30 or 103.  "The oldest person you can find."

I like to spend a part of the class before they do their assignment but after I've passed out the midterm exam question working, as a class, to come up with great interview questions.   And I base these on everything we have read so far.  Example:  What questions did X historian ask to write the article you read last week about the year 1905?  

Students go through the article, come up with questions, and we compile those and then everyone can to out to interview "the oldest person" they can find with a set of professional-level oral history questions. 

So they leave with a creative, open-ended exam question but one deeply situated in what they have learned so far.  They go out with a set of questions generated based on what they have read so far from which they can choose the best ones for the person they are interviewing (five is a good number). 

I build archival or other research into the assignment.  Example:  "If your interviewee tells you something you or your reader won't understand, do the research to explain this and make sure to add the documentation--a footnote citation.  Go beyond Wikipedia."

I ask students to edit the transcript (with citations and references).  If they are talented and really ambitious, I offer extra credit for turning those interview questions into a narrative, a story.   That is hard!!  So I don't require this.

But, in class, in the past, I have had students work in pairs, give their interview to another student, have them read one another's interview, and then the second student tells the class about the person interviewed.  THAT is becoming a historian!   Verbally, they turn the facts of the interview into a narrative, a story--and that is what a professional historian does.

It's also what one does in many different kinds of jobs: you do the research, you find information, and you then sort out the important points and turn it into a compelling "story" ... even if it is about why you need a bigger tech budget or why this product line is terrific and should be promoted over that one.

History is important.  In our overworking, over-assigning, we rarely convey to our students who it is important or how it can be useful in the rest of their lives.  We feel exhausted. They do.  And they miss both the usefulness AND (perhaps most important) the pleasure:  interviewing the oldest person you know almost always yields surprises and insights--for the interviewer, the interviewee, and the reader.  That's history!



Photo of statue of Herodotus, the ancient historian, courtesy of Wikipedia.  Creative Commons licensing.


No comments