Gabrielle Bisset

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A History Lover's Lament

I have a day job that I do so I can eat.  I love the basis of my day job, just not some of the particulars.  I teach college students history.  In many respects, it's a dream job.  In the fall, for example, my first class isn't until 2pm.  And I don't work until late at night either.  My latest class runs until right after 9pm, and that's just once a week.  My Fridays involve two hours of work.  Yes, two.  It's a sweet deal, no doubt. 

Even sweeter is that I get to talk about a subject I love at work.  While other people must slave over a hot grill making food, deal with irritable customers in food and retail service, and perform manual labor, I talk about history, a topic I adore.  What could be better?

Well, there's a problem.  The people I teach either know little to nothing about my subject or don't care to know more and are only there to fulfill a 3 credit requirement in humanities. They take my class because it's the least of all evils among the humanities, which also include literature (which they hate because they think it's all about reading), philosophy (which is over their heads), and religious studies (which they couldn't care less about).  So history it is. 

I have a pretty bad reputation for being a hard ass on my campus.  I guess technically, the students aren't wrong if you take into consideration that they've never been made to do much of anything before reaching college.  I make them read the book.  Blasphemy, you say!  Read the book?  You bitch!  Yes, they must read the book, and I include questions on the test related to the book.  In fact, you won't pass a test in my class if you don't read the book since on average 35% of the test is related to the textbook.  However, since so many of them can't understand the book since they've rarely been required to read for knowledge and have only been forced to read for testing, this is a huge undertaking for those students.  (Yes, I know the question on your mind is:  What the hell are they doing in college?  I know.)

I also require students to attend class and take notes.  I tell them the first day of class that just because they paid tuition doesn't mean they can just blow off the class.  $ doesn't = passing.  I like to explain it this way.  Think of tuition like a cover charge to a bar.  Do you expect to succeed once you're in the bar just because you paid to get in?  No.  Tuition is just like that.  Then when you get in the bar, you buy drinks.  Books are like drinks.  But do you get the man or woman of your dreams to go home with you just by paying to get in and buying drinks?  No.  You must do some work to get them.  Classes are just like that hot guy or girl.  They take some work to get what you want. 

But my job is made almost impossible by the way history is taught in high schools in this country.  I can be funny, smart, know my subject inside and out, but when I'm dealing with students who have never had to take their own notes because teachers always printed them out for them and don't understand that you must think to understand a subject because they've been spoon-fed all their lives, my job becomes a chore. 

Here's an example:  One of my students recently got a question on a quiz (open book, mind you) wrong because he didn't seem to understand that when the book stated that the Russian Civil War was occurring and Wilson sent troops to help the White army in that war, we had troops participating in the war.  The book never said those exact words, but it's expected that students would understand the troops were fighting in the Russian Civil War. But because of what I think was loosey-goosey teaching by his high school teachers that encouraged the total bullshit mantra of question everything, he wants me to give him the points for that question because the book never truly said the troops were fighting.  Of course, this question is also influenced by the way our government and media present what troops are doing to the rest of us so many Americans actually believe you can have troops somewhere a war is occurring and they wouldn't be fighting.  The combination of this media/government propaganda about war and this student's subpar high school history instruction has lead to him thinking he knows a great deal where in reality he knows little. 

He claims it's the book's fault.  It's not clear. 

Okay, so this isn't a little rant anymore.  My bad.  But the finest American historian we have today, David McCullough, is in the Wall Street Journal today talking about the failing of teaching history in this country.  Take a look for an insightful discussion about history and the way it's presented to the generation which will someday lead this country. 

I'll leave you with the wonderful harmonies of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and sweet baby James Taylor (he's the low voice) in Wonderful World. This was when music was something more than what you looked like (no picking on poor Art! LOL).  You can look like that when you have a voice like an angel.


Theresa @ Fade Into Fantasy said...

Being a new college student myself, I have to say that I wish my high school teachers had taught us more about reading for knowledge and note taking. Granted, I was out of school for 15 years before signing up for college courses, but not knowing how to take good notes made the first few classes much harder than they should have been.

Gabrielle said...

Exactly, Theresa! Thanks for commenting. :)

Julius Cicero said...

I had very few teachers dedicated to doing their jobs. But I possessed the ambition and the desire to learn and become as intelligent as I could by seeking knowledge on my own, since the status quo was, at PC nicest, lacking. Anything worth having is worth working hard for. Unfortunately, the only way to cure stupid is reality. Sorry all, it's just that simple. You have my sympathies with the kind of students you've got to deal with.

LupLun said...

My mother feels your pain. She teaches history in high school, and has a rep for being a hardass with the students, because she actually makes them do work. They have to learn to outline their essays and actually read the books to pass her classes. And if she catches on to them slacking off, out come the pop quizzes to get them back in line. They aren't used to actually having to work for their grades. School isn't supposed to be hard. On occasion, Helicopter Parents have actually called the principal to complain because their kid who pulled a solid 98 in public school got a 90 on the last test, and so obviously her methods are defective. >_<

However, when those students get into college they are prepared for the higher level of academia, precisely because my mother put them through boot camp. So, stick with it. You may have to flunk a few along the way, but those who actually take the hard knocks will be the better for it.

And BTW, I have the feeling the real story with Mr. The-Book-Didn't-Say is that he screwed up and thought he could get out of it by playing dumb. Some of my mother's students try that, too. Doesn't work. Not with LupLun's momma. ^_^

Lupines and Lunatics

Kate said...

I love history, but not EVERY period of it. WWII (and the holocaust), The Great Depression and the Pioneer days are tend to be what I love. But I was an excellent student when I was in college. You would have loved me. :)

Gabrielle said...

Thanks for stopping by guys! LupLun, the Helicopter Parents have begun trying to land in my part of the world too, but they run into a very different situation. There is no principal to call. I hope your mother's stood behind her. Many don't. I wish I got more of your mama's former students. Maybe someday....

Kate and Julius, I think you would have done fantastically in my class! :)

Julius Cicero said...

I absolutely love history! It's the majority of the research I do for my WIPs.

Na said...

When I was in university, I was lucky that many of my classes were taught my professor who were truly passionate about their field. It really shows and students do take notice and appreciate that. I know I did. I took many courses outside of my major even though I had more than enough credits because I truly enjoyed the work. I find them most inspiring. You sound very dedicated to your work (I love history myself) and sound like a great professor.

Gabrielle said...

Thanks Na! I do love my subject. And I hope I'm a good prof. I try to be. :)

Nicki J Markus said...

I hated history at school - mainly because we did the same topics again and again. I think I did WW1 three times!!
Once I finished school though, I discovered how great history can be when you can choose your own periods and events. Now I love reading books on history.
I do despair a bit when I see what gets taught now. Even the English language doesn't seem to be taught the way it was when I was at school...and I'm only in my twenties still, so it wasn't that long ago!

Nadja Notariani said...

As you well know, I adore history, and I make sure my kids are learning 'real' history. (Not the shoe box scene making group project nonsense that is alive and well in public schools)
The sad truth is that my high school aged son was the only one in his class to know what the Battle of Hastings was. He was the sole student who could place Normandy on a map, and one of a select few who had any knowledge of the European map. (This is a travesty as my second grader can fill out a blank map of Europe. It's called geography.....don't get me started.....)
Do I sound like a ranter now? lol Perhaps, but I get very upset at the lack of knowledge young people have concerning history. The old saying is true.
"If you do not learn the mistakes of the past, you are destined repeat them."
David McCollough is indeed a great historian. His books are so much more interesting than the high school text books floating around our school systems. Maybe if students were introduced to the fascinating story of history by writers like McCollough (and required to read the book!)...because it is quite possibly the most interesting story to be read....they would be passionate about it. ~ Nadja

Bree said...

I had a wonderful high school history teacher. He was hard, but soooo smart. I almost changed my major to history because of him. Er...I also thought he was really hot. lol! More because of his intelligence than his looks, though. I agree that kids aren't made to think much anymore. It's all about standardized testing.

Gabrielle said...

Nothing like an intelligent man who also looks good. Love that!