Are We Giving Students Something Worthwhile to Talk About?

David A. Gerber | Jan 12, 2018

I struggled for years to stimulate classroom discussion in undergraduate courses, and mostly was unsuccessful. I alternately blamed the students and the format of the courses I taught, especially the two-semester US history survey—an unpopular requirement for all students. But advanced undergraduate elective seminars shaped around student participation were equally a problem.

Stanislas Petit, "Engineering," n.d. (c. 1905?). Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0The fault lay basically with me, because I was busy trying to teach disciplinary knowledge, whether in the form of a conventional narrative of US history I regarded as necessary for all literate Americans, or of insight into what historians do—how historians derive interpretations from evidence, how interpretive traditions develop, and how interpretations of the same events and processes might so radically disagree.

Of course, these are wholly legitimate intellectual goals, but I never saw greatly positive results from this sort of history pedagogy when it came to stimulating discussion. Over time, I came to understand why. It wasn’t the failure of history, nor the fact that my students were destined semester after semester to be disengaged and uninterested. It was that I did not understand what there was in the study of the past that might engage them. I was busy laying on them notions of what they should value that they did not understand and that did not comport with what moved them to become engaged with learning. Teaching the narrative of the past too often descended into chronology and stipulating facts, which left nothing to talk about. Trying to teach the average undergraduate non–history major how historians think—say, the so-called four C’s (context, causality, contingency, and complexity)—and extracting conversation about that tended to demand a level of abstraction many couldn’t handle comfortably and were not interested in pursuing.

In What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), Ken Bain, the president of the Best Teachers Institute, urges instructors to engage students by moving away from excessive dependence on the conventional scripts of the disciplines and from conventional disciplinarity itself, and to abandon what he calls “bulimic education” (asking students to cram information before exams). Such methods only succeed in preparing students for tests, and after those tests, which encourage them to give us back exactly what is necessary to get a respectable grade, the subject is forgotten. Using our disciplines as a foundation for more meaningful investigation, Bain calls attention to another goal: exploring “the big questions.” By this, he means, for example, the moral and ethical issues that lie at the heart of defining the purposes of the nation and that invite us to interrogate who we are, if we aspire to be right-thinking individuals.

Students rose to the position of moral power they were asked to assume and usually willingly addressed it, because it mattered to them.

Sounds good, but what does it mean for classroom practice and stimulating student participation? Long before I read Bain, I had begun to come to his conclusions, mostly because everything else really did not work, and I found making the same errors repeatedly dispiriting. My first venture into departing from my usual script was to base a survey discussion section on President Truman’s decision in 1945 to use atomic weapons against Japan. The purpose of the discussion was not why the president used the bombs, which an assigned reading addressed, but rather another question: “If you were Truman, would you have used the atomic bombs?” A “big question,” to be sure. The former question had three possible answers: to defeat Japan; to assert American power and intimidate the Soviet Union; and the old, reliable “Why not, maybe, both?” The latter question has had as many answers as there were students in the room. They rose to the position of moral power they were asked to assume and usually willingly addressed it, because it mattered to them.

Later, I extended the search for an engaging model for stimulating discussion by teaching undergraduate seminars on Supreme Court decisions concerning the First Amendment (whether regarding the religion clauses or freedom of speech). I invited the students in court decision after court decision to interrogate their values, fears, and aspirations, and to balance order and justice, as the justices have to do. No one could escape involvement, because every week a third of the students were charged with arguing the case of the appellants and another third that of the appellees. The rest sat as the sitting justices, with one chosen by peers to be chief justice. The next week at the start of class the court majority presented its ruling, and the minority, if there was one, its dissent (or dissents). The historical context for these cases was, mostly implicitly, presented by the students in arguing their side of the case.

The benefits of such instruction go beyond soliciting student participation. Students are encouraged to hear one another out in a civil fashion, work cooperatively toward truth (or truths), and above all perhaps develop the habit of caring about caring, all of which assists in reviving civic education, which is much on the minds of many people in higher education. That “the big questions” usually have no one right answer, and that many of us aren’t always sure exactly how we will answer them, is a continuing and productive challenge at the personal level for an instructor. If that position is shared with students, it contributes a democratic, “We’re all in this together” feeling to class discussions.

My advice is to break loose of conventional disciplinarity in the classroom and find your own “big questions.” Student participation may well then take care of itself.

David A. Gerber is University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus. He continues to teach undergraduate seminars on the First Amendment.

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