by Clare Ibarra, History
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
The reality of teaching History at the university level is that the professor and the student walk into the lecture hall with two totally different expectations of what it is they will accomplish in that space. While students believe they will enter the classroom being asked to memorize dates, place events in chronological order, and flesh out details in fact-oriented essays, the professor does not see History in this way. Rather, the professor will ask their students to see History as they do, to step away from the realm of what happened to develop narratives of how and why things happen the way they do. Professors and students don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to defining what History actually is, and this continues to be one of the largest hurdles I have faced in the classroom as a graduate student instructor. With my own experience in stumbling through this very transition (from high school history to university-level History), I have tried to bridge this gap in my own classroom, building upon the skills students learn before arriving to college to develop those skills that History professors will expect of them.
Upon becoming a graduate student instructor this past fall, I became committed to working with my students to build what I call historical “muscle.” To flex one’s historical “muscle” is to be able to move beyond basic comprehension of individual facts and assess the information they are given by its significance and usefulness to an overall narrative. Week after week, I realized my students were great at remembering dates and fun facts, but could rarely tell me why these things were important in the long run. My goal is to build the necessary skills to assess why a particular date or event is important in a larger scheme or story, helping them to bridge that gap between high school History and learning History at university.
In order to accomplish this, I created a lesson plan that would help my students learn the first skill to university-level History: asking the right kinds of historical questions. Before delving too deep into the particularities of historical inquiry, I decided to start my students off with an assessment of their pre-existing knowledge of “good” History. I have learned through experience that in order to get students to perform a task where they are creating their own intellectual work (i.e. creating a “good” historical question), it is helpful to introduce them to the subject matter through a set of examples. I gave them a handout of “bad historical questions,” which I then had them assess together as a group. We then made a list on the board of the qualities that did not lend themselves towards genuine historical inquiry. One by one, my students dissected these “bad” historical questions, and developed a list of qualities that would make for good historical inquiry, showing that they actually did know something about History.
With this list on the board, I asked my students to take this pre-existing knowledge and put it into practice. As part of their homework, each student came to class having read a short, two-page primary source from an assigned online collection. I then split my students into small groups, so that they could discuss the documents’ contents, determine what kind of document it was (a memo from a government agency, a transcript from a television interview, etc.) and then create questions of historical inquiry that were complex enough to be interesting, but not too complex so as to be unanswerable.
The discussions my students had in their groups no longer focused on what specific things happened in a text, but why these facts and data were important, how they could be used in different contexts, and how a close-reading of a primary source could lead to a “good” historical question. These conversations proved that my students were making the necessary steps to move away from the realm of what happened to how and why something might have happened — to that university-level History thinking that the professor expected of them. This lesson plan was also important in the scheme of our course, as the students were required to write a research paper, in which they posed research questions and developed a narrative from a large amount of documents and data to answer that question. The lesson plan proved fruitful when, two weeks later, my students submitted paper proposals that showed careful reading of primary sources and questions that were not only interesting, but answerable.