Inauthentic Assignments and Student Coping

One way of thinking about the lack of flexibility that scarcity imposes is in terms of what psychologist David Perkins calls “frames.” All disciplines, he claims, have four basic forms of thinking and knowing. The first is “informational.” There are data every practitioner is familiar with. Work in the field is otherwise impossible. Second is a command of classic problems and approaches. Why did Great Britain industrialize earlier than other European nations? is an example. Every historian of modern Europe knows how this question has been formulated and what the major schools of thought on it are. Third is what Perkins calls the “epistemic.” This is an understanding of how practitioners think. What constitutes a persuasive answer in a given field? How much evidence is enough to establish plausibility? What kinds of evidence are appropriate for what problems? Finally, there is the largely mysterious frame of “inquiry.” How do practitioners go about making discoveries?

We can use Perkins’ theory of cognitive frames to see how we mislead students and how they, in turn, cope with the demands of our courses without doing any genuine learning. We, like our colleagues in other disciplines, ask our students to master basic information. So far, so good. And textbooks deal in classic problems, as do our lectures. But scarcity decrees that the text will take a single approach. We can partially compensate for this by exploring others in class. Textbooks necessarily provide no sense of the “epistemic” in history. Chemistry texts, on the other hand, can. This is because chemistry does not require multiple approaches to particular tasks. Instead it has model problems. Working through them gives the student an insight into how chemists think. Such books often contain brief historical sketches of how Boyle or some other great figure of the past came up with an experiment that led to an important discovery. History textbooks do not contain accounts of great historians and their research, and for a good reason. Students can replicate Boyle’s experiment in the lab. They cannot replicate Huizinga’s work on medieval Europe.

Courses are what students do in them. In England students at Oxford and Cambridge read history. In the United States students take history courses. This is no mere matter of words. Read and take express a difference in approach. Our students study to accomplish specific tasks such as passing quizzes and writing papers. As a consequence, what we ask them to do matters enormously. The more time they spend learning pieces of information, the more that becomes the course. Students may complain, but they also comply. This fact lies at the heart of student strategies for coping with the demands we make. What they do is transpose questions dealing with classic problems, which is much of what we ask them to wrestle with, into questions of data. In Perkins’ terms, they switch frames.

Consider the previously mentioned case of the Erie Canal and the “opening” of the West. The students had given me the answer they assumed I wanted. They had successfully completed years of middle and high school history classes by coming up with similar answers. They had, until a moment before, confidently expected to pass my course in the same way. I had upped the ante. Now they would have to know the canal connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. Another factoid. A look of stoic resignation from many in the class. Too much of the time this is what we get from students: a couple of facts and a phrase that fits. My students did not see the canal as beginning the transportation revolution. They saw it as a short answer.

Since acquainting students with classic historical questions is limited to the essay portion of the exam, how do we introduce them to what Perkins calls the “epistemic”?  Typically we model historical thinking for them. For strong students this works. They think along with us. Most students, as already noted, are passive listeners. They do not work their way through a historical problem; they listen for answers. They do this because we give quizzes and tests by means of which we assess their progress. Figuring us out is more crucial than considering historical questions. If you think this verdict too pessimistic, recall the times students asked if something would be on the exam. It is a question for which there is no good answer. To reply that the students are responsible for everything simply produces frustration. To answer the question truthfully means telling them the test questions in advance. That means that students will listen only to those parts of our classes where we are teaching to the test.

There is a further complicating factor. Students only occasionally come to our introductory courses with much background. Most of us, as a result, assume that, whatever the topic, we are starting from scratch. Students will not know what “perspective” is in painting. They will not know what Luther meant by “faith” or “works.”  They may know something about the American Revolution and Civil War but not about the Second Great Awakening or the War in the Philippines. Each segment of a survey confronts students with more new information than they can readily assimilate. And each involves several styles of thinking. Our courses move rapidly from the visual to the theological, to the social, to the political, and to the economic. We talk of Utopia and The Prince and Gargantua. And then we recount the War of the Three Henrys. Students are grappling with keeping their Henrys straight, as we move on to the rise of monarchy as an institution.

Pedagogies of scarcity provide an answer to this flood of data, but of the wrong kind.  There are two sources for our students’ bewilderment. One source is the speed with which surveys move from topic to topic. The other is the genuine complexity of historical study. Scarcity addresses the first at the expense of the other. Look at the one-paragraph textbook discussions of Thomas More, Machiavelli, and Rabelais in the subsection of the Renaissance chapter dealing with humanism. What do students learn? That one was English, one Italian, and one French. That one was beheaded. That one authored a treatise on politics which, depending on the text, offered a realistic or a cynical view of early modern statecraft. That Rabelais’ works are “earthy.” And what do we in turn ask students to do? We do not dare ask them to compare More’s discussion in Utopia of princes and their advisors with Machiavelli’s. They don’t know anything about either writer that would enable them to think about such a question. We therefore ask them something they can answer. This they do by putting together two facts and a covering phrase.

We do, however, routinely pretend to ask students something more substantive. As noted in the Preface, when I was an undergraduate taking a course on early modern Europe, one of the four questions on the midterm was: Discuss the consequences of the defeat of the Spanish Armada?   I constructed a list: rise of British naval power, Dutch independence, the beginning of the decline of Spanish hegemony, and the strengthening of Henry of Navarre in his quest for the French crown. Then I was out of time. I received an “A.” I had not discussed anything. I had demonstrated that I knew a few basic facts which, of course, was the real question. Had I actually attempted to discuss the subject, the result would have been calamitous.

Not all of our essay questions are so blatantly inauthentic; many are. Here is a simple test: Would you allow a student to do a term project on the topic? My professor might have. He had all of us write on the causes, course, and consequences of the Seven Years War in twenty-five pages. This time I received an “A-.” I had stinted on the course of the war. No one got an “A.” Even the best of us had treated something too summarily. Most history teachers, we can hope, would not allow a student to write a term paper on the consequences of the defeat of the Armada OR the causes, course, and consequences of the Seven Years War. They would instead explain that either topic was too complex. They would work with the student to come up with a project that could be done in the time available. There is a double message here. Good students with an interest in history figure out that the term assignment is the real thing and the exam question is just a hurdle to jump over. Other students do not bother to ponder the dissonance. They just get on with each task.

Students of history need structure. Pedagogies of scarcity provide it but at the expense of intellectual flexibility. The more unstructured the discipline, the more intellectually flexible the practitioner must be, including the neophyte historian. And the more flexibility the student needs, the more structure the teacher must provide. In pedagogies of abundance flexibility and structure are complementary, not contradictory. This is especially true for introductory surveys.