Monday, October 23, 2006

Changing into our pedagogical hats.


Our Images--to the left, historical figure before Mills Kelly's lecture. To the right, after lecture. Actually, that is fifteenth century priest/reformer Jan Hus, and his hat-the birretta was the preferred headgear of the sartorially salient medieval scholar. Our four-pointed "mortarboards" are based on this design. Clearly, some people (yours truely) should not be allowed anywhere near Photoshop. Frantishek Palacky, the great Czech historian, must be rolling in his grave.


We get so tied up and excited with our research, we forget our main purpose for existence is to pass on our hard-won knowledge. Thank goodness the powers-that-be see a need for teaching history. However, I tend to be pretty cynical about this situation, and while most of us are in this field because we love it, certain entities find history to be a profound tool in the inculcation of proper U. S. Citizens. Morally, it could be worse-no historian will ever be asked to build a bigger and better bomb.
That said, I have found few people that anger me more than a resentful teacher. I have had great teachers, poor teachers, and teachers who were profound thinkers but couldn't organize a ham sandwich. I happen to really adore that last type. But I can recall a few individuals who were angry about having to teach, and these a$$#^%es left scars that may never heal completely. So number one, except for those fortunate few who work in archives and museums (and I realize even those havens have their drawbacks), we must resign ourselves to a life of teaching, and perhaps even learn to like it.
So I heartily applaud David Pace's fine article about real efforts to get historians trained in teaching methods. The institution from which I received my M.A., California State University, Chico, started as a normal school (a school for training teachers) and the Education Department was one of the best funded, best run, and most critical components of that school. However, who wants to study Education when Clio beckons? We were fortunate to have a compulsory semester of teaching history in the classroom. I'm not sure how many others schools enforce that idea. And I have noticed younger professors tend to work harder at course preparation, but I can't necessarily draw a causal relationship between that and more modern, scientific approaches to training teachers. But I will support Pace's contention that there is a difference between helping students better retain the historical facts they will need, and the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze source material. How do we balance these two disparate yet important needs--worse still, how do we teach these skills to huge classes when the requirements for the course call for covering all of Western Civ in two lousy semesters? Had you asked me which skill was more important, retention or analysis, when I first started my study of history, I would have told you the first was most inportant. Now, I am sure the second is more important. Ask me again in five years.
Dr. Kelly's experiment at Texas seem to have been the kind of study Pace was looking for-testing methodologies in teaching, and getting measurable results. I'm pretty sure one of my professors at Chico State took the article to heart, because she asked us to critically examine several Russian-based web sites. We saw first-hand how perilous research trips to the Internet could be, and it was a very valuable lesson.

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