Reflective Essay on Effectiveness of Biafra Project
My memo reverses the order of the evaluation proposal. I do a lot of reflecting on the front end and then address the specific questions toward the end of this statement.
My original hope for this project was to promote a greater student sense of historical thinking rather than inculcating a specific body of knowledge. Part of this effort was to make students aware of the historical world that lay beneath their initial, surface impressions that, for many of them, are all there is to the past. To achieve this I tried to combine aspects of electronic technology with primary sources on a topic unfamiliar to students but present in a general way in most textbooks-decolonization and its aftermath. I think I have been successful at this task although I have had to work through a lot of issues in my mind to reach this conclusion. A key element in reaching this conclusion has been to work out alternative definitions of "success" in the professional and specific academic setting where I teach. What is "success" in terms of a history project in the eyes of professional historians and what is "success" at an open admissions college with a 50% failure rate? In short, I think I developed a good project from the standpoint of the goals of teaching historians and students who are truly transfer material (they will finish a significant amount of work at GTCC and successfully transfer). I do not see at this juncture that this project addresses the needs of marginal students with little goal orientation who need to acquire study skills, direction, work habits and so on. In other words I do not think my project breaks new ground for historians seeking to advance traditional open-admission, community college goals.
A related goal was to work with a largely unfamiliar field to gain a sense of the problems that teachers might encounter when trying to master the history of vast stretches of history they will have to deal with in order to move from western to world civilization courses. I have a more mixed reaction here because I only worked with one small element of the vast field of African history. And, to date, no expert in African history has reviewed this work.
ASSUMPTIONS/ISSUES UNDERLYING PROJECT
1. I start with (and for the moment continue with) the general goal of trying to accomplish the types of tasks laid out in the "guidelines for project evaluation." I try to instill some habits of historical thinking, some elements of methodology, and some concrete historical knowledge. But in making these traditional statements, I am assuming that historical understanding in the world of electronic media will remain essentially the same as in the age of print. In the long run I am not certain this will be true. My paper for the AHA, "Did the Sansculottes Wear Nikes?" is a good indicator of the range of my concerns on this issue.
2. If the ends of historical study remain unchanged, then the electronic age seems to promise at least a change in classroom activity. Many historians and others see the new classroom as structured around a "learning to learn" model rather than a "transmission of knowledge" approach. I tried to put this new element into my project with the assumption that members of the class would read different primary sources and then share their findings with others and thereby develop both an awareness of thought processes and the ability to do focused work (stay on task) with groups of classmates. At the end of this project I feel that we may be overstating student interest in collaboration. While they like the idea of collaboration and the idea that their opinions will be respected (and not subjected to scrutiny), they also seem to be card carrying members of consumer society. This last point means that at least in portions of their lives that want "recipe knowledge" which they can memorize and restate for credit. The working out of the relationship between collaborative approaches to learning and the ease implied by customer-friendly learning is not clear in my mind--although I have a lot of "customers" in my classes.
3. What is success at a community college--or at least at this one? What is the minimal competency in skills and knowledge that students should attain before receiving college credit in a survey course? This project--the introduction of a new means to achieve the traditional ends of an academic discipline--assumed that these logically prior issues have already been addressed and laid to rest. At least at this college and in my mind, the issue of where the distinction lies between good college outcomes and deficient work is still up in the air.
GTCC is a community college where the entire college transfer program experiences a 50% drop out rate. Faculty are cajoled to reach as many as possible and some faculty have received memos about the need to improve their retention/successful completion rates--or be gone. In this setting--and partly from my own tendencies--I hope for (more than work for) higher success rates. For this reason my initial focus on my classes at the end of the course is in terms of the people I "lost" along the way rather than the (few) really excellent students and the many "OK" to "pretty good" folks we do encounter. I "hope" rather than "work" for retention because the college advertises that we offer the first two years of college and that students can transfer as juniors and be on a par with students at receiving universities. I do not feel that it is professional (as a historian) or appropriate (as a recipient of the taxpayer dollar) to pass students whose work is significantly below college level performance. One of my initial hopes for this project was that it would connect with previously "unreached" groups of students and enhance the number of successful students at the end of the course. I did not achieve that goal.
3. There are a significant number of students who work only to specific, graded activities. Because the journal was only graded at the end of the project, a number of students did not participate in the cycles of reading and reflection that were actually the core of the project. And they tried to shirk the reading, take notes on discussion, and write a series of statements addressing journal topics in a single sitting.
ATTEMPTED TOO MUCH?
WHAT TO DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME
FINAL CONCLUSIONS [where I address some of the specific issues raised in the evaluation format]
The primary sources I used were very useful. Most of my previous use of them has been either exemplar documents (selections from Locke's Second Treatise, e. g.) or selected documents from readers at the rate of one or two unrelated documents per topic. Using a large concentration of documents on a single topic gave students an immersion in historical reflection that they usually do not get. This is not of course a special trait of an electronic approach to historical study--the posthole approach has been around for a long time.
Although I can regard the technology as "neutral" in some aspects of the course, electronic connnectivity did help in others. Some of what I have put online could somewhat easily appear in a Kinko's coursepack. But I also had some connections to materials "out there" in cyberspace that would not have been part of a course pack and I was able to create more juxtapositions of materials that would be possible in a course pack. Ultimately the promise of bulletin boards with discussion threads should add a new dimension to the course. Furthermore some students were attracted to the computer-based study even if it may not have offered a truly new dimension to learning. I don't know if the feature of working from the near present back into the past actually required electronic media but I do not that the computer authoring tools made this part of the project easier to conceive and develop.
My approach probably did not convey content more effectively than a pure, straight forward lecture approach would have. However the approach used in this unit did promote a greater awareness of how historians construct their understandings of the past and how the past is more complex than students realize. Teaching historians must be supported in their efforts to promote historical thinking skills because they do seem wasteful uses of time as long as the acquisition of the content is the litmus test of teaching effectiveness.
Although I did introduce the role of questioning as an important activity of historians, I did not make as much explicit use of this feature in the course.
I hope these comments are helpful. I will be happy to expand on any of these points or to answer additional questions on the project.
David S. Trask email@example.com