A Fine Dessert, Part 2: Or, How I Wrote an Addendum to Tara Strauch’s Post Only to Realize Blog Titles Are Hard

Tara Strauch wrote a thought-provoking post about using children’s books in her U.S. history survey course. It’s a great idea, for the reasons she lists. And it speaks to an update I’m planning on making to my survey course for the fall.

I’ve been reading some pointed criticisms of the traditional lecture format recently. Like so many pedagogical approaches in higher education, I’m ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I think it is alarming that students’ attention spans are so short, and I am inclined to be persuaded by the argument that exposure to social media only exacerbates this phenomenon. One of the reasons I like the traditional lecture is that it makes students sit there for longer than a few minutes and focus (or, if they don’t, they face the consequences when their assignments and exams come due). Erin Bartram has a recent post where she notes an experience we’ve all had in the classroom: struggling, unsuccessfully, to implement a pedagogically promising innovation into our classroom. She mentions that many of her students either don’t realize they need to take notes until well into the semester, or struggle to take notes effectively, which put limits on the kind of activities she could do in the classroom. To be frank, it’s a conversation we have with dispiriting frequency in higher education: how often we have to scale back what we do in the classroom, because we find that a skill set we thought it reasonable to expect students to possess, many students don’t have.

On the other hand, a lot of lectures are boring, and there are better ways to teach: better both in the sense that they hold students’ attentions (and, perhaps, help students develop skills they may not have when they enter our classrooms) and in the sense that they help us demonstrate the nuance and relevance of our subject matter to our students’ lives. While I don’t hold students blameless for not taking notes—it is objectively not unreasonable for a college instructor to expect students to know how to take notes, and to take them—I also have learned a lot from my colleagues about changes we can make in the classroom, like Tara’s and Erin’s excellent ideas, that maintains the rigor of the class while also conveying the material far better than the traditional lecture often does.

That’s why I’m reframing my lecture days to incorporate the insights of Patricia Don’s excellent blog post, breaking down my lecture days into a brief introductory exercise where we examine a contemporary source (a newspaper article, a news story, I’ve even included a stand-up comedy routine) that addresses what they’ve read, and the day’s topic of the lecture. We’ll discuss it briefly, and do a summary exercise, followed by a more analytical exercise requiring students to apply what they’ve read to evaluate the perspectives being put forth in the source. From there, I’ll transition to a traditional lecture of no more than 25 minutes, and conclude with group work about a primary source from the era we’re discussing.

One of the sources I plan to use is a document I’ve used in the past—one that’s in keeping with Tara’s excellent idea.

When discussing antebellum slavery, I have students examine a children’s book written in the antebellum period—1849, to be exact—by a Quaker woman who wrote under the pen name “Cousin Ann.” The children’s book is a fascinating source, and I’ve found in the past that it has proven effective at getting students to discuss slavery, race, and gender in meaningful ways. In one class, a student who was studying early childhood development weighed in on the difference between the Cousin Ann children’s book and the children’s books published today. It also opens up possibilities for examining the problematic nature of much abolitionist literature (using animals to make a point about slavery, which replicates the racist notion that black people are subhuman, even as it tries to upend that comparison), as well as the role for women in the most divisive, public, political discussion of the time, despite the expectation that women remain out of politics.

I have a .pdf of it, and I’m happy to share it with anyone who thinks it might be useful in their classroom. If we didn’t learn it in grad school, we know it now: the purpose of college isn’t to entertain the student, but we do have to think about ways to engage students and hold their attention in the classroom. Finding innovative approaches that engage students, if done effectively, can actually help students to learn the material more thoroughly. That’s a difficult challenge, and any lesson plan, any activity, and any source that does so is worth its weight in gold.

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