Education budgets

by Carl Dyke

A friend asked a question on Facebook about suggestions on teaching history writing – not articles or books for students on how to write (there’s a whole industry in those, and several industry standards), but suggestions for professors on offering feedback and teaching techniques. I feel like I’ve gotten far enough out in left field on these questions that I hesitated to do more than recommend Sam Wineburg via this old post, but what I think is that most conscientious content-oriented professors are probably doing about as well as they can do as long as they keep focusing on content. And that’s because, roughly speaking, teaching content crowds out anything else you might want students to be learning. If you want writing to get better, writing has to move to the center of what your class does.

There are a lot of ways to get to this thought – mine was conditioned by getting sick of reading through stacks of awful papers that never seemed to get any better. But one way to come at it is to think of our classes as being on a kind of budget, where the resources under management are time and attention and effort, both ours and the students’. And there’s only so much of those any of us have. I don’t think this metaphor forces us into neoliberal transactionalism, either. The myth of the infinite budget is a problem all over the political spectrum. There’s only so much we can do, so it’s good to think through the budget and invest it wisely.

In History education, you could certainly put all of your budget into content. The objective would be to cram as much information into the class via lecture and reading as possible. This is a kind of familiar old school of History education we still see sometimes today, and gets you into the world of study skills and note taking and reading comprehension and test taking. And you’re not going to have time or attention or effort to teach those if you’re all in on content. But if you can standardize the curriculum around this mode of instruction, you can offload the skilling onto a remedial paracurriculum and academic support services. Even better, if you can afford to be selective, you can just admit and work only with students who’ve already been skilled up in content acquisition and retention through their families and k-12 training.

Obviously you can try to do the same with the writing skills, but the problem there is that those require much more cognitive elaboration than information storage and retrieval. They’re beyond the capacity of most k-12 programs to teach, so they don’t. Kids are going to show up without any effective scaffolding in a complex skillset. And there’s actually very little chance the remedial paracurriculum and academic support services can accomplish from scratch all the heavy lifting of college level writing instruction, especially early in a student career where it’s had no time to take and settle and develop. Because this is now a very familiar and widespread problem there are lots of ways around it, all of them cringy and resulting in college graduates everyone agrees are kind of useless.

The only effective alternative is to move some of your time, attention, and effort budget into writing. If you want them to write well in your class(es), you’re going to have to teach them how. Preferably this is happening all over the curriculum and being supported by the paracurriculum and academic services, but good luck with that. I saw a very determined senior colleague break herself over many, many years on this obvious fact about writing across the curriculum. If you want a bite of other people’s classroom budgets, you’re not going to get very far without an apocalypse.

Like I said, writing is hard, and teaching it is going to come at the expense of content. So let’s circle back and see if we can get content to cost us less. I think we can, for two reasons. First, the content is now all readily available on the internet to anyone with a device and a data plan. And second, none of the content is in itself uniquely essential to being an educated person. I’m personally convinced this means I don’t have to budget for any content at all in my classes. Let’s see if I can make that case.

First, all of the content is available on the internet. Of course it’s not “all” available, but for any given historical topic vastly more is available than we could hope to ‘cover’ in any given class. Because this is true, there’s obviously no need for students to learn anything about history that they have to remember. Their prosthetic memory is in their pockets, and it makes their potential carry-on knowledge base much larger than it could ever have been with meat memory alone. What they need is clearly search, recognition, and processing strategies, to activate the availability of that virtually infinite content. We do have to teach them research skills, and those are also cognitively elaborate. But this saves us from teaching them particular contents, in favor of giving them responsible access to all of the contents.

So now they have something to write about, which is tremendously important in writing instruction, and they’re practicing historical researchers. Just like that, we’ve replaced a perennial content problem (what to cover, how to decide) with a perpetual content solution (whatever you need for any given purpose), and spent only the budget it takes to teach and practice internet research skills. It follows that the single dopiest thing any history teacher can say these days is, put your phones away. It’s the modern equivalent of smashing the tablets and burning the books. That’s where the freaking content is, all of it, right at our fingertips. And later, when we’re not around to carefully curate and control our students’ access to content, the internet will still be there in their pockets or maybe in a chip in their heads, waiting for them to make something of it or watch another kitty video or tumble down a conspiracy rabbit hole. Wouldn’t it be better if they knew how to get at, recognize, and process the good stuff? How many lectures and course-pack readings on the Napoleonic wars would we trade for knowing how to learn about the Napoleonic wars for themselves?

I picked the Napoleonic wars there because they’re in-field for me, so I could in principle think I was supposed to teach them, and in a European and modern history kind of way they’re fairly important. I think it’s fair to say that any well educated American man four or five generations ago would have been expected to have some Napoleonic wars in his game. He’d get the joke about land wars in Asia in “Princess Bride,” and have opinions about the weight of great men in the scales of History. He would not, however, have considered the Haitian revolution as a counternarrative of modern democratic nationalism, nor would he have read Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the rights of women. He would certainly never have pondered whether the White Lotus movement was an important precursor to the Taiping rebellion, or how the slow erosion of Chinese sovereignty by foreign interference throughout the 19th century might have fed into a series of escalating disruptions culminating in the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately the Chinese Revolution. But he would probably have heard of the Opium wars, which were about free trade, and seen a couple of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan movies. In other words, he would have been deeply, catastrophically historically ignorant. The kind of ignorant that enthusiastically supports intervention on the wrong side of a war of national liberation in Southeast Asia because he doesn’t have the faintest clue what Communism is or how it might have appealed to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong more than free trade. And no useful idea of how to find out.

How do we pick out what the essential historical knowledge is, in that paragraph? My categories are pretty chunky, but it’s still much too much. Especially for an undergraduate education, where we may hope for several courses but only get one or two, there’s no way for coverage to pick out the essential from the very important from the maybe what you urgently need right now from the oops, no time for the Cold War. We don’t make that better by just deciding our thing is the essential thing, although at least then we have a focus. But to know enough history is inevitably to know you don’t know enough history. Throwing content into that abyss in whatever quantity is forlorn.

So much the worse for content, I say. So with our budget freed from ruinously expensive ‘coverage’, how do we teach history writing? Workshops, basically. We learn any set of skills by practice and feedback on practice. So then we have to think about what the skills of historical writing actually are, and design the workshop practice around scaffolding them from basic research to primary sources and scholarship, through drafting to finished work. In my case, I’d like the students to get all the way to knowing their stuff, so these research and writing projects develop through a whole instructional term in a developmental and cumulative sequence of papers. If they buy in and do it right, they’re much better at it by the end and the final papers are fun to read.

But still, writing is hard, so what’s much better and not bad by the end is still mostly a bit short of really good. If good writing is what we want from and for our students, it’s just not a matter of little tips and tricks of pedagogical technique. It’s a matter of full investment in what it takes to achieve that outcome. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to cost us anything that matters much.

Leave a Reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: