Monday, February 18, 2013

Students and Historical Thinking

This Lenten season I decided to give up on making negative comments about my students to myself or others, and to focus on helping them learn and develop their skills.  I figure that shifting focus is good for both me and my students in the long run, so it isn't a sacrifice in traditional Lenten terms, as it is an exercise in self-development.  I knew that this would be difficult due to my habit of grumbling about poor writing skills and lack of effort, but I didn't think this first week would be the challenge that it is presenting itself to be.

Last week my online students were assigned to complete what we call a "WOW Discussion" where they picked an interesting, unusual, or shocking tidbit from the chapter and wrote a paragraph on why they found it interesting, then posed three questions about the topic, along with short paragraphs proposing answers to the three questions.  As is normal for my courses, all of this is supposed to have standard parenthetical citations showing where they got the information.

So far this sounds pretty straightforward right?  I'm happy to report that most of the class did pretty well on the actual activity, even though some could have used longer responses explaining the answers to their questions.  That's really no big deal - I just explain to them that in the future they need to approach it like they are explaining the subject to someone who is reasonably intelligent, but doesn't know anything about it.  They are essentially trying to teach the topic to the class.  No big deal.  Most of them just aren't used to thinking about assignments in that fashion.

So what is driving me to the edge of my Lenten goal?

We spent the last two weeks studying ancient Greece. Usually the only problems are that students always want to draw a direct line from Athenian democracy to American democracy, or that they see Greece in terms of modern nation-states rather than independent city-states.  That's easy enough to deal with most of the time, and it provides a good way to discuss differences in government an economics of the major Greek poleis.  This semester, I got those issues during last week's content discussion, but something less common.  This time my classes focused themselves on the issue of Greek, especially Spartan, sexuality, practices of eunomia (exposing weak or deformed infants), and Cretan cannibalism or children.

These topics come up every once in awhile, and we discuss the issues that might have led to them pretty rationally, and try to historicize things.  This week my students went straight to condemnation of Spartans as unfeeling pedophiles who were brainwashed in to doing and accepting these practices without trying to understand the environment that they developed in.  The Cretans also came in for abuse - one student said that reading about the "dirty Cretes" made him physically ill.  Although I gave them my standard bit about not judging people in the past, that our job was not to condemn, but try to understand why cultural practices developed, I don't think it really sank in.

So, my issue now is how do I introduce my varied group of community college students to the concepts of historical thinking?  That it is fine to be shocked by things that happened in the past,  but to try to understand them before leaping to indignation and condemnation?  Would appropriating portions of John Fea's virtual office hours be a suitable place to start?

Any suggestions? Does anyone out there have some suggestions for materials or exercises that might be helpful for this?


  1. Thanks for the mention. I am thrilled to learn that you are teaching historical thinking skills at the community college level. Yes, I think that the Virtual Office Hours (perhaps minus the more specifically Christian stuff that I have done in the last couple of segments) might be a good place to start. Let me also suggest my forthcoming book *Why Study History*. It will be out in September.

  2. Thanks! I'll be sure to check out the book when it comes out this fall. I try to add a little bit of historical thinking for a few reasons: our courses transfer directly for credit to the state universities in Colorado, and we have some state mandated requirements to teach historical methods and critical thinking. I also just think it's a good idea to try to steer students away from the most egregious examples of presentism in how they approach the past. I also try, with varying levels of success to get across the ideas that even large groups aren't homogenous - this is most obvious when gender issues come up, as I try to get them to refrain from lumping women into a single homogenous group without regard to issues of class, religion, or location.