Who Chose to Fail?

There are two articles in the most recent issue of the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History that clearly demonstrate that we academic historians have failed-consistently and spectacularly-in one of our most essential undertakings. For all the talk about making History accessible to a broader public, the value of historical literacy for an educated citizenry and the health of a democracy, we have failed, and seem determined to continue that failure, to provide an adequate grounding in History to one of our main constituencies: college students.

Before you accuse me of hyperbole, read the articles: David Pace’s “The History Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed” and Andrew K. Koch’s “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators.” There’s a reason these essays appear back-to-back. One gives us a diagnosis, the other shows us how far the disease has advanced.

David Pace makes a succinct but powerful case for integrating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning into our teaching, particularly into the survey course. In our current climate, he contends, there are compelling reasons we need to do so: “We have a moral obligation to think seriously about how we, as a discipline, can help strengthen democratic institutions.” And lackluster courses taught poorly is no way forward. Nodding toward the findings discussed by Koch, Pace suggests that our image of higher education as the “great equalizer” holds far less water than we tell ourselves. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because he’s dead-on accurate:

It is very appealing to imagine that the history classroom is a level playing field, where students’ willingness to work hard determines their level of success. But, as a recent special issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (December 19, 2016) argues, colleges can be instruments of inequality. Students arrive in our classes with very different levels of preparation, and these often correlate with levels of economic and social advantage. If the race and social background of our students can predict their grades, and if a D, F, or W in an introductory history course is frequently a prelude to academic disaster—as Andrew Koch argues in the article accompanying this one—our courses can be a one-way ticket to a life of marginality and one more step in the creation of a society in which inequality undermines the foundations of democracy.

Pace goes on to argue that “[i]neffective teaching and evaluation strategies can reinforce these divisions,” something that the research on teaching and learning in higher education backs up in a variety of contexts and for an array of disciplines. Furthermore, I would argue, much of the exposure college students get to History is from precisely that type of course, where “ineffective teaching and evaluation strategies” predominate.

And this has been a disaster.

I know there will be objections (#notallprofessors), and I allow that exceptions to this depressing trend exist. But lest we get to comfortable telling ourselves the story of how shitty history courses are Someone Else’s Fault™, let’s look at the data Andrew Koch has for us:

[This is not good.]
One quarter-ONE QUARTER-of every college student in the United States who takes the US survey gets a D or F, an Incomplete, or withdraws from the course. TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT. In what is, almost everywhere, a 100-level course. Digging further, we quickly see that the chart also indicates a fairly general correlation between level of student privilege and DFW/I rates. Sure, this is data that reflects the US History survey course. And yes, inequality among our students reflects larger structures of inequality from which our students come to us. But we historians scream from the rooftops about the necessity of historical literacy, about how our survey courses are integral parts of a college education, about how our society depends upon an understanding of history for our norms and institutions to survive-then we plop students into courses which maybe 2 in 5 will not learn a thing, or even finish. This is a failure. Full. Effing. Stop.

It is a failure for our profession because, in large part, it is one we have aided and abetted over the years. Today’s students are less-prepared than ever, the refrain goes, as it has gone since there have been students to be scorned as unprepared. Poor high schools have given us poor students in the college classroom, we cry as if school inequality was something new. The internet makes today’s students stupidmen who purport to be serious scholars have actually written. The students need tough love. They need to quit bitching about trigger warnings. These buttercups need to suck it up. It’s not my fault they can’t handle rigor, as if “rigor” wasn’t a more apt description for courses than learning.

Every generation of students has its complications, its struggles, its perceived shortcomings. But I find it problematic that one can pretty much track the increase in lamentations about supposedly awful students and the diversification of the college student population, and see the two in nearly direct variation. And this pernicious logic, I believe, is really what underlies much of the discussion of “rigor.” As Koch points out regarding his data:

One could argue that this DFWI rate results simply from upholding standards and rigor. But troubling trends emerge upon disaggregating the same data by demographic variables—trends that may very well reveal that the term “rigor” enables institutionalized inequity to persist.

“Rigor” is one of those concepts that carries a ton of implicit cultural baggage with it-“grit” is another. They sound good-who doesn’t think challenging students is a good thing?-but are much more problematic in practice. Making material challenging is one thing. Setting students up to fail is another. It would be a rigorous assignment for me to build a house using nothing but duct tape, a mallet, and a cord of scrap lumber. Yet don’t we ask our students to do something like that when we pack them into a lecture hall where they’re talked at (with varying, but mostly low, degrees of excitement) for three fifty-minute sessions and then ask them to demonstrate critical thinking and historical literacy on an exam? Don’t we ask our students to build a house with scotch tape and cardboard when we give them the equivalent of a correspondence course that’s semi-regularly punctuated with multiple-choice exams? Oh my god-93% of my students don’t know when Bacon’s Rebellion occurred! WEEP FOR THE LAND POPULATED BY HISTORICALLY-ILLITERATE PHILISTINES (but not their instructor because, dammit, we TRIED to teach these Instagram-addicted heathens).

And so it goes, until we reach a point where our US survey courses mirror, if not exacerbate, larger social inequalities. Where many of our discipline’s practitioners have apparently decided to punt just when one of our core audiences needs what we have to give them more than ever. Is it the students who are choosing to fail? Sure, some of them stop showing up after midterms. But let’s talk sample size; a handful of infuriating anecdotes does not explain the numbers Koch has aggregated. If you think that 40 percent of African American students receive a DFWI in the US survey because of some lazy narrative about unmotivated or entitled students, you need to go back to the part of grad school where we worked on interpreting evidence. I do not believe that it’s the students’ fault that mass-produced, multi-hundred-student sections of pure lecture aren’t working. I do not believe that apocryphal stories about lazy/stupid/internet-sedated/millennial students are an adequate response to the crisis Pace and Koch have outlined. I do believe that it is incumbent on us to fix the problem-because I do believe that we have chosen to fail our students. The choice may have been largely implicit, but it was a choice nonetheless.

How do we stop failing? How do we claim (or reclaim) the urgent relevance of history for the students both already in and soon to be entering higher education? How do we reverse the trends that have led to the US survey becoming a smoldering wreck rather than the keystone of a college education? It’s really not that complex, to be honest. Yet there is often a wide chasm between “simple” and easy,” and that’s the case here. Despite the difficulty, though, there are ways we can-and should-rededicate ourselves to the teaching of History in meaningful, scholarly, and effective ways.

As Pace points out, we know that active learning is better for student learning than straight lecture. Frankly, the “to lecture or not to lecture” debate is only a debate for people who’ve stopped listening. Most of us think we’re scintillating, interesting, witty lecturers. Most of us are also wrong. Selectively-used and thoughtfully-deployed, bits of lecture can connect other portions of a class session or provide introductions, context, and conclusions. But if we’re not incorporating active learning into our teaching, we aren’t doing it as well as we could. When it is our sole pedagogical technique, as it has become in so many of our survey classes-lecture does not help students develop the skills they need to think historically, or engage in the other higher-order tasks our discipline can so effectively inculcate as habits of mind. We know this. The literature demonstrates it. And there are numerous models to move away from lecture even in large “lecture-hall” classes that we can profitably use. A scholarly approach to teaching entails putting the findings of this research into practice in ways that are authentic to us as educators. That may mean changing our pedagogical practice, but as historians we know better than most that additional evidence often recasts seemingly-familiar conclusions in a radically different light. We need to ask ourselves: are we teaching to have our own ego and knowledge affirmed? Or are we teaching to help our students learn? Because we can do one-and only one-of those effectively.

Beyond specific classroom practices, we ought be asking ourselves in a mindful and honest way what the purpose of our courses is, particularly for the survey. What do we really want our students to learn: rote content knowledge, or the habits of mind that make our discipline so vital?  In this regard, course design is vital. Rather than writing up our syllabi to correspond to the textbook chapters, and then garnishing them with assignments, exams, and vague course objectives, we need to think about purpose before we make specific plans for implementation. And, as Elizabeth Barre so effectively reminds us in a recent essay, we should be thinking about how our courses not only impart specific knowledge, but how they fit into the larger intellectual terrain our students are navigating and help them discern the larger connections within their college studies and life experiences. Moreover, as we think about student learning, so too should we be thinking about our students in general: Who are they? Where are they (figuratively and literally)? And most essentially, how do we teach all of them effectively? Here, the strategies of Inclusive Pedagogy offer much to help us meet the needs of a growing and increasingly diverse (in all senses of the term) student population. Inclusive Pedagogy embraces all of the elements in our classroom practice: from course design to day-to-day teaching to assessments and reflection. Teaching inclusively is one of the rare instances where a rising tide does indeed lift all boats; I cannot recommend engaging with this type of practice any more highly.*

In his essay’s conclusion, Andrew Koch both emphasizes the troubling nature of the data he’s presented and issues a challenge I think we would do well to accept:

If inequity in the United States concerns you, and inequitable outcomes exist in the courses you and your colleagues teach, then it is important to remember that you have agency to address this. As historians, we know that we are agents of history acting in history to shape it. Therefore, I encourage you to shape history by reshaping the history courses you teach.

The tools are out there. The conversations are happening. Our colleges and universities increasingly have more resources and staffing to promote effective teaching and meaningful learning. Yes, the evidence suggests that we have failed in the past. But certainly historians would know that this does not guarantee failure in the future. We have agency; let’s use it.


*I curate a set of resources on Inclusive Pedagogy that you can find HERE; feel free to use and share as you wish. I’m always looking for more resources to add to the document, so please send any suggestions and feedback my way.

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4 thoughts on “Who Chose to Fail?”

  1. Thanks so much for this and the Google doc of resources. You inspired me to tally my community college English 101 courses. The results are disheartening, even accounting for differences in community college student population. A redesign of fall courses is on my agenda!

  2. I teach history at a 2-year school in Texas. I read these numbers the other day and since I have requested the data for the survey course. This post was fantastic. I would add that I think (speaking from my own experience) that some of the problem is institutional/division/department rules that actually impede any attempt to move away from the lecture format in history courses. Its hard to be creative when leadership ties assessment to the standard essay or a multiple choice test. For me, textbooks actually impede how I teach, but my institution requires that all history teachers use the same textbook. Many of my colleagues don’t feel it because they teach the survey in a traditional way, but for me its a nightmare. I doubt my experience is unique but I thought I would share it.

  3. Thank you so much for your frank and impassioned post on rethinking the history survey. I especially appreciate your links and can’t wait to mine them!

    So much of the problem with the survey–and with history teaching, in general–can be traced back to the merit system in higher ed, at least at R1s. I’ve had more than one tenure-track professor admit that they’ve been told not to waste time honing their teaching skills. As someone who entered the profession out of a commitment to serve students, I die a little inside each time I hear that. Until we move beyond platitudes about student-centeredness and hold faculty and administrators responsible for teaching, I don’t see much hope for changing the system.

  4. Georgia State University in Atlanta is doing some really cool things with their intro history survey, namely trying to put more of the content online and using Reacting to the Past games in the F2F sections of the course. Their blended approach is aimed at increasing the pass rates of different populations of students. I was at a conference when they talked about these same statistics as you have here, Kevin.

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