The Missing Course

David Gooblar’s The Missing Course offers a simple, but radical thesis: that improving college teaching requires shifting the mindset about what the product is the professor offers. It is easy to think that your product is your expertise in your content area, honed through years of study. Institutional structures in PhD programs and promotion standards reinforce this belief from one end, while, on the other, there is a temptation to think that the transaction the students are paying for is to have knowledge transmitted to them by a world renowned expert (you).

However, speaking as someone who took classes from some exceptional lecturers and loves the feeling of one of his own lectures landing with an audience: even the most inspiring lecturer will not connect with every student. Gooblar’s proposal follows in the vein of recent scholarship on teaching and learning that encourages teachers to eschew lectures in favor of shades of active learning, but with a critical addition: that the product is not the content, but the student.

This proposal seems obvious, but it also requires foundational changes in class design and assessment and simply bypassed the handwringing about why students aren’t capable of picking up the subtle themes and brilliant observations about life and everything. As Gooblar opens with in chapter one, is that you can’t make someone learn, so the challenge is finding ways to encourage learning beyond the punitive threat of a poor grade. The lecture works well, if still imperfectly, for students who are already interested in learning, but it works best as a gateway drug––a taste that prompts students to go out and get more. That is, the lecture works well for students who approach it as part of an active learning process. But too many others approach the lecture as something to passively receive, learn by rote, and regurgitate as best they are able on the test.

Each of The Missing Courses’ eight chapters approach a different aspect of this teaching, from the basic course design to assignments, to classroom activities, with practical, actionable suggestions to try. There are too many points to summarize here, but I found myself happy to find practices I use in my own classes like low-stakes weekly quizzes and extensive opportunities to revise assignments among his suggestions and still found myself jotting down new ideas.

As a history professor who believes in the importance of teaching writing across the curriculum, I was particularly excited to have suggestions from a professor of writing and rhetoric about how to encourage best practices in citations. For instance, he provides the most lucid explanation I have seen of why students struggle to cite secondary scholarship and will often only do so when citing direct quotes:

“To write a summary, the student must read the whole text (perhaps multiple times), think deeply about the most important aspects, and synthesize observations into a concise rendering of the text’s substance”

In other words: using secondary scholarship is hard and intimidating (what if you get it wrong!), where citing a quote is easy. I couldn’t tell you where I learned how to cite scholarship. I don’t remember being taught how at any point, it was just something I picked up by osmosis, so I very much appreciated seeing Gooblar’s suggestions on activities that can help teach these skills.

All of Gooblar’s suggestions come back to the student as the course material. Toward that end, he emphasizes the importance of respecting students as individuals even, or perhaps especially, when they are failing the course, and of facilitating the classroom as a community where not only are students and their ideas respected, but students may also help each other grow.

At this point you might be thinking, what about the content? If the students are taking a course on World History, shouldn’t they, you know, learn about World History? Of course the answer is yes, but, speaking from experience, thinking in terms of coverage is a trap. I tell my students in these classes that every class period (and usually every slide) could be a semester-long class course of its own, meaning that we only ever scratch the surface. Which is going to be more beneficial to the student in the long run: making sure that we spend ten minutes in a lecture talking about the Tibetan Empire of the second half of the first millennium CE, which is admittedly fascinating, or redirecting that time to primary source analysis, discussion, debate, practice summarizing and engaging with sources, or any of a myriad of other active learning techniques. Some of these are harder when teaching introductory courses where it seems like the students don’t have enough background to engage at the level you want and lectures are sometimes a necessary component of the class, but incorporating active learning into the course offers significant rewards.

Toward the end of the book, Gooblar turns his attention to how to teach in the modern, tumultuous world. I jotted a brief response thread on Twitter, but wanted to spotlight it again here. College professors are often accused of trying to indoctrinate their students into radical Marxism or the like. While American college professors do tend to be more liberal than conservative, the largest number actually self-classify as moderate. Further, the recent primary results have demonstrated that the Democratic party remains a big-tent coalition, while the Republican party, which has accelerated attacks on funding for higher education in recent years, has veered further right. The political doesn’t end at the classroom door and to pretend otherwise is naive.

As a history teacher I run into these problems with regularity and, to be honest believe that I can and should better handle them. Ancient Greek democracy was made possible by both exclusion (narrow participation that did not include women) and exploitation (Athens had many times the number of enslaved people as it did citizens). The spread of religions was at different points a blood-soaked process, Christianity included, and European colonization amounted to exploitation and indoctrination at best and either incidental or intentional genocide and ethnic cleansing at worst. And for all that I find history endlessly fascinating.

Gooblar suggests a similar approach to the one I’ve adopted, which is to “take seriously the equality of our students and the inequality of the world,” while placing an emphasis on process. There are some premises that I will not tolerate in my classroom, including endorsement of slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, but I also believe that there is room for students to argue for the virtue of, for instance, Athenian democracy and capitalism so long as their arguments are based on good use of available sources and I build time into the class period to have students practice these skills.

One of the virtues of a college classroom should giving students space to debate issues in a responsible and respectful manner: disagreements are okay, bullying is not.

The limiting factor in college teaching is not knowledge, but attention. Becoming a good teacher requires practice and cultivation, just like developing any other skill. Fortunately for anyone interested in improving their skill, we are currently living in a golden age of publications on teaching and learning. I haven’t finished everything on the list of resources I solicited a few years back, but The Missing Course is already my go-to recommendation for a place to start.

AP World History (Ancient)

The College Board received push back a couple of weeks ago when it announced changes to the AP World History curriculum, making the course begin in 1450. Critics online gnashed their teeth about a number of things, raising the legitimate concern that this would further marginalize the pre-modern world and that the chosen date, such that it meant anything, would default to a Euro-centric world view. The board responded this week by announcing that the new date is 1200, not 1450. Critics gnashed their teeth, albeit also in befuddlement at the seemingly arbitrary date.

(For what it is worth, the College Board’s stated explanation for the date, that it will allow “a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia,” does check out. Now Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, and the rise of the Aztecs all fall within the range. 1200 starts the course in media res, but that was inevitable when you put a start-date on a course.)

Reading the College Board’s announcement about the changes, I am of two minds. First, I am sympathetic when they say, based on the feedback from teachers that the current model is unsustainable because they are trying to do too much.

The current AP World History course and exam attempt to cover 10,000 years of human history—from the Paleolithic Era to the present. In contrast, colleges manage the unique breadth of world history by spreading the content across multiple courses.

The announcement is a little misleading when it says what college courses do and do not do—I did have a World History from the beginning of time to 1960 course in college—but, from the other side of the table, these broad strokes courses are incredibly hard to teach. Even “just” teaching a world history or Western Civilization before 1500 is covering a laughably enormous swathe of time, which is also the reason I have no pity for the US history professors who complain that there needs to be another mitotic division of their survey sequence, taking it from two to three courses. It has, however, been my position for a while that if I were made Grand Poobah of History Curriculum, I would invert the current paradigm and only teach the survey courses after students had been exposed to historical methods in specialized courses. The idea here is that by going from the specific to the general rather than the reverse, the students are better prepared to appreciate historiographical arguments and big themes.

The problem with this approach is that it is not scale-able as part of a standard test scheme meant to grant college credit. The situation the College Board finds itself in is quite the bind. It needs a single survey course to stand as a substitute for a college course because fragmenting the courses would neuter its ability to be a standard test and therefore undermine credibility. At the same time, the enormity of the course makes it difficult to teach the material in such a way that prepares the students to succeed at the work asked of them on the test. I don’t love this incentive structure with regard to student testing, but given the incentive structure in college courses I at least understand it. Moreover, in looking at old sample questions, the test itself isn’t bad in terms of the skills it is designed to measure. But it is also a lot. Obviously something needs to change.

This does not, however, mean that I agree with the changes the College Board made. My main issue is the decision to prioritize modernity, particularly because the AP European History, which starts in 1450, has already done the same thing. At this point I could start declaiming, ridiculing the absurdity of teaching a world history course that takes for granted the miracle that is agriculture, that conveniently forgets that Rome laid the groundwork for modern Europe, or that doesn’t bother trying to understand the founding and development of *any* of the world’s major religions. Yes, there are a couple of things that happened after 1200 (or 1400) that are important, but these are all built on precedents and developments that came before.

The college board has put out that it is open to creating a second AP World History (Ancient) course, which, despite the awkwardness of the name (congratulations, Richard I of England, you’re an ancient king!), is a fine ambition. But here is the thing: I am skeptical of how quickly yet another AP course can be developed and instituted, let alone how widely it would be picked up. Things have changed since I was in high school, but when I was coming up I didn’t even have access to one AP World History course, let alone two. I got my start with classes on all things ancient through my Latin teacher. Now I am fortunate enough to teach ancient history to college students and am consistently impressed with how many students from all sorts of disciplines come out to take my classes.

Maybe I am wrong and this interest will prompt dedicated high school teachers to make the second course come to fruition, but in the meantime I cannot help but think of this as a missed opportunity on the part of the College Board. There had to be a change to the AP World History course, but instead of even temporarily erasing antiquity, it should have kept the earlier portions, perhaps as an AP World History (Foundations), and developed (Modern) as the secondary offering.