Instead of introducing students to college-level history with a survey course, literally weighed down by a 500- to 600-page textbook with timelines and arcane facts, we should devise a laboratory course modeled after that in the sciences. Several years ago, while on a university-wide committee to develop new general education guidelines, I had to contend with colleagues in the sciences who did not see history as vital to general education because, they said, it was just about memorizing facts. That they all tested their students using multiple-choice exams when we in history used essay exams did not shake them from their view of history as mere transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.
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I envied the scientists’ defense of why science is important and particularly their talisman, the lab course. They did not just want science to stay in general education. They wanted the lab course to stay. A better metonym for their discipline than the primary document is for ours, the lab course replicates scientific inquiry from inception to discovery to interpretation of results. Most eye-opening for me was how the scientists, if they were to have only one opportunity to communicate to students what science was, wanted that moment to be spent immersed in scientific practice, not scientific content.
Because “[i]ntroductory surveys only make students knowledge consumers” instead of “knowledge producer[s],” she therefore has developed a lab course (or “as [she] prefer[s] to call it, ‘workshop’ course”) she calls “The Historian as Detective.” (Shoemaker doesn’t mention it, but The Historian as Detective (1968) was also title of a book edited by Robin Winks popular in the 1970s and 1980s for undergraduate “introduction to the History major” courses. I read it in the late 80s as an undergraduate, and even had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Winks when he visited our campus that year.) Shoemaker writes, “I modeled my course after Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem witchcraft course, which they had taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts and which eventually led to the monograph Salem Possessed (1974):”
For my topic, I chose the most infamous American whaleship mutiny without a published book-length account, the 1857 mutiny on the Junior. The Junior mutiny had drama, mystery and sufficient obscurity to frustrate students Googling for an authoritative voice to provide “the answer.” In a writing-intensive seminar, 18 sophomores spent a semester with all the primary sources I had been able to collect on the topic and produced a book, collaboratively researched and written, in which they recounted the events of the mutiny, its aftermath, and its larger meaning and significance. They now know a lot about whales and whaling history, some ocean geography, and some of the history of labor, prisons, and pardons in 19th-century America. More importantly, they did the work of real historians and along the way discovered the pleasures of the hunt, felt exhilaration when new information transformed understanding, and realized the satisfaction of piecing together bits of evidence from the documents to tell a coherent story. They also encountered the frustrations of real historical research: the inevitable gaps in the documentary record, questions that remain unanswered, and bad handwriting. I have yet to figure out how I will reproduce the experience on a larger scale, but I know that Boyer and Nissenbaum achieved that at the University of Massachusetts, where they taught large classes with sections led by teaching assistants.
Ah–but why should Shoemaker try to “reproduce the experience on a larger scale?” (Aside from university bugetary reasons, I mean.) There are no pedagogical or disciplinary goals that would be served by taking a seminar of 18 sophomores and turning it into a survey class to serve 100 or 250 students. Indeed, I’m sure that one of the things that made the course especially valuable to Shoemaker’s students is that they could take a class as a sophomore with a professor and fellow students who knew each other’s names and had conversations with each other about historical research. But, I of all people know what it’s like to teach at a large state school. It’s all about the F.T.E.s, baby–I get that, and teaching a History Lab course to 100 or 250 is a better idea than offering the same students standard survey classes. And if you could have one T.A. for every 20 students, it would be a dream. (For me, who has just one graduate T.A. for 123 students–kind of a nightmare, actually!) Still, as I have said before, we all know what works–but who will pay for it?
Shoemaker’s History Lab course is a specific solution to my generalized critique of the survey course and the damage that it does to students, professors, and our discipline. I love it–now all I have to do is figure out who will pay for it!
And for those of you who just can’t seem to get enough history pedagogy, you should head on over to John Fea’s blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. He’s had a series of provocative posts this week about history teaching called “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” and is up to part 9 so far. Check it out–and congratulations on the sold-out hardcover book and the release of the paperback, John!
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