First week review: turns out my students are anti-evolution

I am doing two new things at once. Teaching a fully online class, and committing the uncoverage act upon said class. Because it is online, and only six weeks (winter session) I haven’t been able to fully implement Lendol Calder’s entire syllabus, but have extracted the core elements—not the celebrated “not covering everything,” but the focus on the “cognitive moves” essential to historical work. This class is World History, 1900-1950 and I have chosen four points on which to practice the cognitive moves: Japanese modernization, Middle Eastern partition after the Great War, the modernist-fundamentalist conflict in America, and life in totalitarian states, particularly Nazi Germany.

On top of the cognitive moves I have worked into class materials the rhetoric of Sam Wineburg in regard to historical thinking “as an unnatural act.” And if I wasn’t overloading it with enough pedagogical excitement, I’m throwing in the Tracy McKenzieJohn Fea tag team on how historical thinking creates good habits for modern civil societies.

Had face-to-face (via Google+) meetings with students this week and the good news is that they seem vaguely aware that this particular history class is not devoted to a lot of reading and essay-production, but to work that rehearses ways of thinking. Only time will tell if they actually get it or if it was all just flattery. Students are good at flattery, and young professors are good at falling for it.

The crux of this course is structured and progressive engagement with primary sources, so I decided to first collect a baseline for how untrained undergraduates approach sources and think about them. I gave them this pamphlet and asked them to “analyze it,” submit their analysis to me, and then discuss it in a forum post.

I made these generalizations about their “analysis.” Students have a tendency to be judgmental about the author’s statement. They want to engage the author in debate over the statement he made. And they felt compelled to state if they agreed, or disagreed, with the author’s statement.

These observations are interesting and somewhat expected. Fortunately, it gives me a pivot point to better explain what we will be doing with primary documents in this class, and to collect a list of things not to do for future use.

Their statements on the forum, however, left me feeling rather ambivalent. Now, I picked this document, an anti-evolution-in-public-schools pamphlet from 1926, because it is somewhat relevant to our time period and one of our modules. In the freer atmosphere of the discussion forums, the students did not engage the historicity of the document—or the document itself—at all. They took the opportunity to state their position on the teaching of evolution in schools today. (And much to my surprise, a plurality of them are against it. It would seem that in my beloved state undergraduate knowledge about what evolution actually is comes from home- and Christian-school teachers.)

But their opinion on that fraught subject is not really the concern of myself or this class. Should I have used this document? It is good because it is relevant (to the class and to the cultural currents of the students’ lives) and it is engaging. It is not good because the topic—as proven by the forum—distracts us from the work at hand, and—even though no arguments broke out (though some tension is evident)—this is a polarizing topic that I don’t need in my virtual classroom. My only intervention into the discussion was a mass email noting my observations and suggestions that we will be approaching documents differently from here on out, and a note that historical thinking skills will help break the bad habits of contemporary cultural war rhetoric.

I am going to hold fast on a decision here because I want to re-use the document in the last week by having them analyze it again, this time using the skills they have rehearsed.

At least they are engaged and I am excited. But we’ll see if their level of engagement can be sustained as next week we examine primary documents on early twentieth century Japan and do an exercise roughly adapted from Calder’s workshop assignment #1.

I will let you know how it goes.

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