Teaching Today

Great Expectations

Jo Guldi learns a lesson from students who embrace the challenge of high academic standards.

 

September 10, 2019
 
 
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At midterm, half of the class was failing. I had encouraged everyone to come to my office hours, and so they did, flooding in to ask questions and complain. At least one of my student visitors presented outrage at the way he had been treated and said he wanted me to account for the grades.

The particular subject of his outrage was my standard of clear, well-supported, written argumentation. "We're supposed to be learning about history, not about writing," complained my student. I was taken aback. I briefly considered wrangling with his assumption that historical understanding and clear writing could be divorced, based on the commonly held belief that one can understand a subject without being able to communicate about it clearly. But given my student's impatience, I took a more pragmatic attack. After all, I teach in a university where the vast majority of applicants declare an intended business major before they even arrive.

"I want my students to be able to compose an email to a CEO, a senator or a newspaper," I explained. "Clear writing is a capability that will serve you well, whatever your occupation or calling, and therefore maintaining a high standard of writing is a service that this class provides to all its graduates."

Watching his face as I spoke, I could tell that something was resonating. It was as if he were pondering, for the first time, a future in which the rigors of well-punctuated, clearly supported statements in chronological order could persuade CEO's and presidents of his reasoning about some crisis. His manner changed, and his body relaxed a little. I offered my attention on his paper, and we walked through his interests, sources and strategies together. After an hour of working together, I pointed him to the college's writing tutors and librarians as resources to help him build on our work.

I have never been a professor who lowers expectations for her students. Rather, I enforce high expectations about relatively old-fashioned standards, such as those involving written communication.

Because clear writing -- including justifying one's claims through detailed fact and citation of scholarly sources -- is an essential component of organizing one's ideas about the past, I grade the first short assignments of any class harshly. I subtract 10 to 20 percent of each grade for failure to conform to departmental standards of footnotes, citation and research, and another 10 to 20 percent for failure to conform to college standards of spelling, punctuation and grammar. My standards mean that -- not even considering their ideas about history -- many students in my class find 40 percent of their grade deducted.

Not everyone takes these deductions in stride, and I have made a point of compensating for student alienation by preaching regularly about how the grades in my class are structured to reward improvement. As soon as I see a hint of curiosity about a specific idea, or an encounter with a historical question, I lavish encouragement and appreciation upon them -- reminding them of how their new talents will help them draw into their grasps whatever ambitions they entertain for their future.

A few failing grades on early assignments teach a lesson, and by the end of the semester, usually there is overall improvement. Students who have produced lackluster work at the beginning often delivered excellent final papers of which we could both be proud, and many have thanked me for the exacting attention they received. But with the larger, general curriculum course that I taught last semester, the tactic backfired. My high standards were provoking mutiny.

Although I was prepared to put up a fight for tougher standards with my students, I wasn't ready for half the class to fail. I tried to rationalize what was happening: declining standards of writing that other professors had warned me about, for example, or a classroom filled with non-humanities majors there simply to satisfy university-wide requirements. Faced with harsh grades, I expected many of them to drop my class.

I asked colleagues for guidance: Should I assign less work in the future? Was there a collective standard to which I needed to align myself? I began to cross-examine my teaching strategy.

A Connection Between Past and Present

I was still worrying about what to do next year, when something happened that ran contrary to my expectations: the students stuck around. Even students who were clearly failing the course, with little hope of earning a passing grade, kept coming to lectures and arrived to take the final.

I received personal letters on many of the exams, where students took time from answering test questions to write directly to me about how important the class had been for their personal development as a writer, a thinker and a student. Many were clear about the value of a serious history course to their worldview as students of business or computer science, arguing that my history of capitalism gave them a rare chance to think critically about their world and the tools that educated people possess to solve the problems of poverty and prejudice around them.

The exams were filled with deeply personal testimony as well. One student spent a significant portion of the final penning a 20-page personal account, cataloging how she fell in love with my lectures in the first weeks of class but was set back by family struggles, an eviction, a mental illness diagnosis and a string of other personal issues that impeded progress on the coursework.

A few students quibbled over grades, but the majority of the feedback I received underlined something I had not expected: many of my students had experienced a conversion in the course of my class. Some wrote that they wished their parents had allowed them to declare a history major. Several said that the course had forced them to do more writing than any other college-level class, and they reported growth in their abilities to persuade. They appreciated the challenge and responded with gratitude and hunger.

It makes sense. The material from my lecture class covers five centuries in an attempt to arm students with the tools of critically interpreting pervasive arguments about the conditions of success and failure in the modern world. My students had been hearing about historical research into the roots of the present eviction crisis, moving through theories of state-led socialism and free-market solutions, contemplating the power of popular movements, and thinking about the role of modern technology. They had ingested critical viewpoints on the riches of the modern world; they learned how attitudes about race and western property law from the British Empire birthed the conditions for spiraling famines around the world. They had studied popular movements for voting rights, an eight-hour work day, limiting child labor and protecting the environment from a century before the saga of American civil rights.

The personal accounts my students left in their exams and emails at the end of the semester also tuned me into how much the goal of clear communication about a mutually understood past had affected them. I think I know why a student faced with her own eviction might find comfort in such lectures; they gave her what historians call a "longue-durée perspective" -- a crucial point of view on present-day debates, made familiar and renewed by comparing today's crises with those taken from over a long course of time. Given the challenge of reckoning with time on an enormous scale, students were able to come to their own conclusions about enormous issues of our day, including the role of state and market, the nature of democracy and the fate of the environment. They connected those enormous themes directly to their personal lives, and being able to make a connection between the present and the past allowed them to feel informed as to the possibility of building a better world.

Only after being pushed to write at a heightened standard of clarity and support did my students come to feel ownership of the skill of working with abstractions about the past and present. Because I pushed early for clarity, argumentation and a discussion of sources, each of them had gained an experience of persuasive writing about historical truth. Each of my students, however unused to writing, had been forced to wed the abstract with the particular. They had woven a single, pointed argument out of names, places and descriptions of individual events from history. Because those particular facts were the result of their own reading and research, the perspective they brought to the past was also their own. Through the experience of writing, most of them had also crafted their own perspective on the history of capitalism, technology and the environment.

My lectures and assignments only provide what the humanities, after all, are supposed to do: feed the desire to understand what it means to be human, learn the extent of what we can accomplish with our talents, provoke new insight into the world and how we can live in it. But I must credit my students with teaching me how important those lessons remain.

Bio

Jo Guldi is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University.

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