Content note: what follows is a sincere reflection of my feeling dispirited at my current situation and how I am grappling with ways to move forward. This has been building now for months and I have been hesitant to write about it openly. Everything adds up to a sense of despair that bleeds into this post, but I also recognize that many of my issues are coming from a place of privilege.

More than a week in the making, this post has proven–and continues to prove–almost impossible to write, which, in turn means that most of what I had originally intended to write has been jettisoned, perhaps to be picked up from the cutting floor sometime down the road. However, the starting point remains precisely where it would have a week ago, so perhaps I ought to begin there.

A bit more than a week ago I cleared the last remaining academic hurdle for my doctorate, defending my dissertation first thing Monday morning. This means that I am no longer ABD (all but dissertation) and now just ABB (all but bureaucracy). The dissertation defense should be–and was–something to be celebrated and I am more than a little relieved to have finished this process. Another post would and will go into reflections on the dissertation process because I believe that such introspection is not only good for me, but might be valuable to others going through the same process. And yet, without the immediate demands of the dissertation, the specter of the future has cast a pall over my sense of achievement.

I entered and progressed through graduate school clear-eyed to the brutal employment statistics in higher education. I can see in my mind the trend lines for full-time employment, the rise of contingent faculty, and costs of higher education and in some ways this shaped my experience in graduate school; for instance, I came to University of Missouri precisely because my department offered funding for the MA. I also maintained that I was willing to work outside higher ed, should I not get a job teaching. At the same time, I thought “why not me?,” and so set about doing the sorts of things one does in graduate school in order to be competitive on the academic job market. I am not here to boast of my accomplishments and I made mistakes along the way, but I also think, inasmuch as I was able, I put together a competitive resume with a body of work that continues to grow.

Then I started applying for jobs. Suffice to say that it has not gone well.

I am under a month from graduation, once again facing an uncertain future and feeling stuck in neutral. On the one hand, I am still applying for teaching positions at colleges because this is still something I want to do with my life; on the other, though, it is a lot easier to be cavalier about resiliency on the job market when you’re not worried about how you’re going to eat next month.

I could lash out, casting blame for my current predicament. I could throw in the towel, abandon the dream of teaching at the college level. I could dig deep for resolve to keep on with the types of activities that would be attractive to a future academic employer.

I am closest to the last option, with a hearty dose of current responsibilities thrown in. At a time when I see other recent PhDs getting at least something of a respite from the grueling schedule that got them through, I gave myself just the rest of the day after my defense. The next day, I went to interview to teach one course next semester. The day after that I had a guest lecture, and the two after that were my usual teaching days. Between these obligations, I have been marking student papers (I received 80-ish) so I can get them back in a timely fashion, started revising my dissertation for submission, and continued applying for jobs. I have barely had a chance to read fiction, which has been main concession to relaxation in the past few years.

This is terrible self-care on my part. I should rest. I need to rest if I am going to do the quality of work that might lead to future success. I know this, and yet I can’t help but feel that I can’t afford to take the time off.

My dissertation defense is in the past, but uncertainty is simultaneously putting a damper on my mood and contributing to the feeling that I am being pulled in multiple directions, which itself is making it difficult to move in any one of them.

The Muse of Lecture

Programming Note: I have been particularly busy of late so my reading has bogged down and substantive post-worthy thoughts are coming in fits and starts, so while there are some things in the works, things are going to remain irregular for the foreseeable future.

I have been thinking a lot about lectures recently because I have been tasked with a bunch of guest lectures, some scheduled, some emergency. Everyone has their own lecture styles, sometimes more than one depending on the type of class. Some are impressionistic, with good information, but refer students to sources where specific information is to be had. Some read from overloaded slides or march the audience through topic after topic, while others have detailed historiographical essays that they spin out as master storytellers.

Everyone needs to find their lecturing style and, ideally, have their muse. My lecturing style is still immature and improving, but I thought I should make mention of the person I consider my muse of the lecture.

Picture this. You arrive to class somewhat early and get out your notebook to make sure that you can write down the lists of names and terms being written up on the blackboard. Sometimes the professor is there writing down the terms, other times it is a TA, but, without fail, there is the list. Some terms, he says, are purely to help with spelling. Other than an occasional map, this will be the only aid and the extensive bank of terms doubles as the study guide for the exams. It is important that you arrive early and start writing because the lecture begins as soon as the class starts and you can’t risk missing anything that is said. When the period is over, your hand is cramped and it is entirely possible that you will need extra sheets of paper for your notebook before the semester is over, but you will have everything you need.

The scene should be familiar to most Brandeis history majors, at least if they took a course from Professor William Kapelle. Everyone has their Kapelle stories, and he certainly had plenty for you. I remember, for instance, a mini-diatribe about the international seafood market and one about the fine print of credit card offers. But then class began, sometimes with an apology if we had to have a lecture about agricultural changes in the Middle Ages, sometimes with no prologue. At one point while I was at Brandeis he began to write his lectures in exam bluebooks, declaring that it was the perfect length for a 50 minute class. In either case, he had a topic of the day and spun it out for a captivated audience of furiously-writing students. There were snarky asides, stories, and jokes, but the lectures were informative and detailed. I still have my lecture notes from his classes.

I owe a debt to Professor Kapelle, including for his willingness to write reference letters that got me into graduate school, but, the more I prepare to teach classes, the more I realize that it is his model that I start from in terms of how I want to lecture.

The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.

† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.

Debating Hobbes

One of my favorite pedagogical tools in discussion section is the debate, if for no other reason than turning the class into some form of competition gets the students riled up. Students are to take the information they got in the lecture and what they picked up in the readings and form an argument in defense of an assigned topic. Their judges are their peers; in preparation for the debate I usually ask for three volunteers for the judges and then divide up the rest of the class. After I give the topic to the two debate teams and while the teams are coming up with their arguments, I tell the judges that they should come up with lists of arguments they might expect to hear from each side. After the presentations, I take the judges into the hall to get their ruling and inform them that they should explain the rationale behind their decisions.

The first debate I had the students do a few semesters ago was between big business and labor unions during the Gilded Age (History 1200 US History Since the 1865). Their readings for the week had consisted of a series of newspaper articles about the Pullman Strikes, some from pro-labor and some from pro-business sources. I instructed the students to try to ground their arguments in the articles at hand, but also to draw out arguments from the lecture. It might not have been politically correct, but a student (almost inevitably) from the side of big business to inform the laborers that they are replaceable because there are immigrants who will do the job cheaper gets one of the points across rather well.

Since that week I haven’t had as much success finding the right combination of lecture material, divisive issue, and sources that lend themselves to debating. This past week, while trying to explain the key point of, among other documents, Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes, I came across one.

I tinkered with this structure between each class, but the basic idea was this:

1. Instead of a panel of judges, there was one judge.
2. The groups had to debate three issues and had a chance to rebut in each debate. First: are all humans equal and are there benefits to inequality? Second: Hobbes says that life is nasty brutish and short, is he right? Third: you must pick one form of absolutism: patriarchy or matriarchy.
3. The judge makes a ruling after each debate and the side that lost gets to choose the side they defend next. Unlike other debates, the judge is under no obligation to explain his or her decision (I did ask that he or she came up with their list of arguments as part of class participation).
4. At the conclusion of the last debate, I turned the tables on the judge and asked the students if they thought that they had been judged fairly. When they usually said no, at least not on the issue of Patriarchy v. Matriarchy, I had the judge repeat to the students what I had said in the initial briefing, that the judge was not obliged to be fair.

I structured this entire process around the students debating these issues in the modern world deliberately, particularly the one about life being nasty, brutish, and short. With political philosophers it made more sense to explain the inherent ideas in a world that the students understood without needing to be lectured to fill in inevitable gaps in their knowledge. Yes, they should know some information, but with someone like Hobbes, I prefer to give the kernel of the idea and then have them come up with modern comparanda. Moreover, after I pointed out the meta-structure to the exercise I worked them through some of their own logic from both sides of the debate. The idea that life is pretty good for a lot of people, there are civil rights, more gender equality than ever before and drew out that, while it is possible to take issue with Hobbes’ claims on a number of levels, many of these issues of equality that are taken for granted are (or were) realized only through the involvement of a strong central government. I.e. Hobbes’ Leviathan (let alone Plato’s philosopher-king) does serve a role of protecting people.

Did they all come away from understanding Hobbes and patriarchy? No, probably not. But this was as close to one hundred percent participation as I have ever gotten in a class discussion and I expect that more students will remember this piece of Hobbesian thought than otherwise would have. That is good enough for me.

Multiple Choice

Here is a multiple choice question for you:

What is it that multiple choice questions (in humanities and social sciences) actually test?
A) Rote memorization of facts and trivia.
B) Deductive reasoning.
c) Comprehension of key themes from the lecture.
D) Ability to reason and draw connections between events.
E) How closely you read the textbook for facts and trivia.

I would accept A or E, with B being debatable. The problem is that I firmly believe that those are not really the purpose of the humanities, at least not at a college level.1 Although I have had multiple students come to me panicked about short answer, identification, and essay questions, claiming that they would be comforted by multiple choice tests, the comfort has more to do with familiarity and surety of having a “correct” answer than actual performance on the exams. Moreover, the perception that the lectures are utterly incomprehensible because there is a distinct lack of facts and key information plagues those same students. In much the same way that a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the struggles of students to formulate their own paper topics, students seem at a loss as to how to navigate the spaces between assigned reading, powerpoint presentations, and lecture. To my mind, power point presentations present the biggest problems, since the discussion section and TAs should be able to find the balance between the lecture and the readings, but in the lecture hall the students are presented with two distinct sources of information and with professors who vary as widely as not to use presentations to largely testing the students on the material on the presentations while reading the slides out during lecture.2

The sage wisdom once given to me by my father is that the key to getting a good grade is to discover what the instructor wants and then give it to them. Too often this is the key to getting a good grade, and in navigating the technological obstacle course of higher education, this truism certainly applies.

But I digress.

I do understand the appeal of multiple choice tests from the point of view of the instructors. So long as you don’t have to continually update (or have some means of automatically updating) the answers, the exams are easy to grade and are rather clear-cut in terms of right and wrong so complaints about grading are relatively limited. Of course, the students who come to complain about grades are generally asking the wrong questions–and so are the professors using multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions have a limited range of types of information that can be addressed, but a very broad base of information to pick from. The answers are very precise, easy to mistake, and, most importantly, of little actual value. The professor is emphasizing memorization trivia and eclectica, not skills, logic, or actual learning. Better is to test the learning, logic, and writing, while allowing the trivia to supplement the answers. One of those things prepares people for pub trivia; the other prepares people to take in information and then to be able to produce actual thought, which should serve them well beyond the classroom while (if the students applies themselves) also preparing people for pub trivia. One provides an easy criterion on which to evaluate student performance on relatively trivial things; the other provides a more nebulous means of evaluating student performance on much more significant things and should provide a more meaningful way to gauge student learning and improvement.

In this sense, multiple choice exams, particularly multiple choice-only exams, are practically criminal in higher education.

Like I said, I have had students come to me begging to have multiple-choice exams, the type of which they are familiar with from standardized tests in high school. There is a clear-cut “right” answer and, if nothing else, there is a sense that they can just guess. But, at least in this instance, I don’t care what the students want. Nonetheless, this insistence on direct and absolute answers is an outgrowth of the societal insistence that the important part of the education are the facts learned (note: No Child Left Behind and the expansion of standardized tests).3 Learning the facts is the surest way to make the grade, which, in turn, is the surest way to achieving the degree, which, in turn, is the surest way to getting a job that will make more money, which, as my students usually assure me, is the measuring stick by which society determines your worth.

This calculation is simple, rational, sterile. School is to enable the career, not to learn anything. Classes are merely the obstacles in the way. Most instructors should disagree with the statement, either because they care about educating students, or they are defensive about their field of study being worthwhile, or both, but the too frequent use of multiple choice exams (when even giving prompts in advance and giving writing prompts for class papers seems to be too much direction) undercuts the actual value of the education while reinforcing the misconceptions of what is actually important.

Anyone who gives multiple choice exams on a wide scale is failing the students. The educational industry for high schools as it currently exists is setting the students up for failure, and professors incapable or uninterested in correcting these issues in college are complicit. Fighting against the corporatization of colleges, for-profit colleges, and the societal movement to value the degree over the education is hard enough without professors buying in to the misconceptions and letting the students down. Multiple choice tests are just one example of this phenomenon, one which is threatening to radically alter the shape of college and undercut the ideal of an educated society.

1 I think it is a travesty at lower levels of schooling, too, though high school cirricula and evaluation methods are a lot harder to change than those at college. Here multiple choice should also apply to similar evaluation methods.
2 Powerpoint and the use of the technology in the classroom might be the feature of another post, but I have noticed that students tend to focus on what is on the powerpoint at the expense of what the lecturer is saying, or worse, only writing down the spare outline presented on the powerpoint and setting down their pen. And the really repugnant part as far as I am concerned is that this behavior is condoned or even required by some professors (and of those, not all make the presentations available after the lecture). I can recall one humanities professor using powerpoint in college (yes, this is a “back in my day” moment from a young man, deal with it), and his usual process was to open powerpoint, but rather than actually using the presentation feature, he would scroll down the creation screen. And his slides were maps. Students who did not know initially learned quickly that they had to write down what he was saying. Now it is required for professors to have at least a passing ability to use technology such as powerpoint in classes, but the technology seems to be an inhibitor to learning, particularly if it is done done with a great deal of care (badly done or overly intensive presentations become the focal point of the class rather than a tool).
3 Curiously, this has recently been matched by the idea of providing students with “job-training” at the expense of the traditional disciplines. These two developments are oxymoronic.

“scholarship,” “Historical Scholarship,” and “Historiography”

In a discussion about the progression of historical scholarship throughout history on In Our Time (BBC radio program hosted by Melvyn Bragg), John Burrow, Emeritus Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, made an offhand remark that there was a difference between being a historian and being a scholar. This was encased within a discussion about objectivity versus bias, argumentation and persuasion versus fact.

The implication here is that most historians are trying to persuade the reader of something, often that their subject is truly worthy of study. This is true of the modern historian as well as it is of the historical historian, whether talking about where the world has come from or what is currently happening, often framed in reference to where the world is going. Of course there are the myriad of quotes, from Kennedy, to Santayana, to Hoover, to Jefferson that claim that the best predictor of the future is the past and that the study of history (and by extension historians) are vital to the continued “improvement of the human race. ” (My quotations). This claim would be true whether studying the brilliance and folly of great men, or the winds of cultural change.

The scholar is instead interested in truth. Why did things happen, and, in many cases, what actually happened. This seems to me more important than the argumentation and worth of various events. Indoctrination of values is not what the study of history should be about. At the purest sense, the study of history should be about what happened and why people should care about a given historian is the connections they are able to draw between periods and their ability to persuade people that their information is correct; in this regard the study of history should be about knitting the history of the world and the human race throughout time closer together.

I must be careful; my enthusiasm for scholarship must not be mistaken for disagreement with those who find insight and lessons from the study of history. Quite the contrary, I just don’t think that in scholarly historical research there need be overarching lessons explicitly stated. This is why history, in an ideal world, is discussion based; the lessons are those that each person discovers for themselves or are come to in discussion. It is not the job of the historian to proclaim morals, values and “lessons;” it is the job of the historian to provide stories that are true and well written. There will be enough interest for all, or nearly all, facets of history to be covered. It is the job of the history teacher to provide students a forum and the expertise to mine the lessons for themselves.

Aside from these lessons from history, which people may be steered towards, but ultimately derive from the individual, the purpose of studying history is to prepare students for life. It opens the eyes to a wide world, a rich world, which should in turn open students to new ideas; and above all, the ability to read, write, discuss and argue. These are skills which every person should be endowed with and will serve people in all walks of life. Sure, this information and these skills are available elsewhere, but not in the same condensed location.