Father Guido Was Right

Even if students don't remember a lot of what we teach them, instructors can refine their teaching by considering what they hold on to, writes Rob Weir.

February 28, 2014
Father Guido Sarducci

I’m having a great semester, but I’m thinking about midcourse adjustments. Experience tells me there will be lulls at some point. I don’t take it personally — each group has different needs, questions, and interests; something that soared last fall might crash in the spring. One of the healthiest things professors can do is shake up the routine at mid-semester to add new dimensions to the class, address things that aren’t going well, and reinforce those that are.

The question is always what to do. There’s a world of difference between mere and effective change. I like to recall Father Guido Sarducci before I tinker. If you don’t recognize the name, Father Guido was the "Saturday Night Live" persona of comedian Don Novello — a chain-smoking, wisecracking, ribald priest the real Catholic Church would defrock in a New York minute. One classic routine was the five-minute university, a faux moneymaking scheme in which Father Guido taught in five minutes all that an average college student remembers five years after graduating. All of economics, for instance, is reduced to the phrase “supply and demand.” 

Father Guido might be onto something. After 35 years of teaching (high school, community college, state colleges, elite private colleges, research university), I find myself blessed with former students who are now Facebook friends. I decided to enlist their help in what I will not pretend is a scientific study. I posed this question to them: What did I teach you? I asked for specifics, not compliments, and revealed that I wanted the information for an article.

The first thing many professors do at midcourse is adjust the content. It might be among the last things you need to fret about. Most us are mercifully exempt from the politicized standardized testing that bedevils public primary and secondary teachers. More significantly, though, students hardly mentioned content when recalling what they had learned, and when they did it was too random to discern any pattern.

But they did give me plenty to consider: 

1. Assigned readings: The readings students recalled best were non-academic works: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, fiction from the Harlem Renaissance…. The few research-based books cited were those with strong emotional impact and elegant narratives, such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, James O’Toole’s Passing for White, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Lesson: If you want to raise student enthusiasm, throw them something lively and provocative, not something you think is the most “important.” 

2. About those "important" works: I’m not suggesting that you dumb down the reading. It’s our job to introduce students to academic journals, key works in the discipline, and useful theoretical treatises. Don’t expect students to remember the content. Instead, they will remember whether or not you taught them how to read and think about difficult texts. Mine recalled learning how to study, decode, and summarize academic writing.

Lesson: Consider spending less time with the nuances of dense texts and more on showing students how to unravel them. Divide the text among class members, assign vocabulary searches, give out-of-class writing assignments – do anything except telling students to read them for their own good. “You taught me how to read primary source documents,” said several students who never said which ones!

3. Demystifying theory: It’s said that students don’t like theory. Not so; what they don’t like is reading raw theory that flies over their heads. The same rules apply here as with important works. My students mentioned surprising things: Walter Benjamin’s demystification of art, James Clifford’s structures of desire, varieties of feminism, movement culture theory, just war concepts, conceptualizing political ideology…

Lesson: And they don’t remember a single word they read. What they recall is discussing it and…   

4. Applying it. As a historian I’m very enamored with the “usable” past. (Not, I hasten to add, a replicable past.) Students remembered best when the conceptual became tangible, especially when they found traces in their world, and most vividly when linked to (for lack of a better term) non-traditional classroom subjects such as music, film, graphic novels, and paintings.

Lesson: Challenge students to apply dense concepts.  Alternatively, give them an unusual assignment. Once when teaching John Winthrop, I impulsively assigned each student a president, and told him/ her to find references to the “City on a Hill” metaphor. That was remembered! So too was a history essay based on a painting in the campus art museum. I actually do this a lot in my classes. The two that got the most comments were assignments based on Alfred Kappes’ “Tattered and Torn” (1886), which students linked to the challenges of post-Reconstruction African-Americans, and the other was a rock poster of Abe Lincoln with a psychedelic hat and guitar, which we used in a Civil War class to make a Website of changing views of President Lincoln. That one was on loan, but here it is.

5. Stop assuming: When I feel like I’m not connecting with a class, I stop making assumptions. When I use a term, I interject “that is to say…” and define it. When I reference something we’d already studied, I call on students to recap it before moving on; when I broach “common knowledge,” I made sure it is. Night gives way to day.

Lesson: Define, review, discuss.

6. Don’t pity me: I didn’t expect this, but students told me repeatedly they were grateful I had high expectations and held them to those standards. Many told me they were happy they weren’t “coddled,” and that I made them do things such as adhere to deadlines and redo substandard work. They called these things “fair” because I emphasized responsibility, taught them how to do tasks I assigned, and enumerated the criteria by which I would evaluate them.

Lesson: Time for that mid-semester speech on duties and responsibilities.

7. Force me to think: I often do midcourse exercises in which I have students take a position on a topic at hand. Once they’re on record, I make them take the opposing viewpoint. I get lots of grumbles over this, but it’s the single most-remembered tool in my teaching kit. Students who’ve not been in my class in 30 years credit me with helping them understand point-of-view.

Lesson: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?” Clichéd, but true.

8. Let me make mistakes: Numerous students recalled favorite classes in which we brainstormed and I “forced” (their word) them to participate. They spoke of feeling “safe” in these classes because it was O.K. to be wrong. This was especially true of my better students, some of whom lived in mortal fear of making a public mistake. They told me that they found their own voice when they had to make an on-the-spot assessment rather parroting experts they were studying. Intelligent-but-silent ones spoke of being empowered by vocalizing their thoughts. (Many went from being merely present to becoming class leaders.)

Lesson: A free-for-all brainstorm is a great exercise at midcourse, but be very careful. Encourage, don’t badger. Be effusive with praise and find something positive to say even if you have to fake it. Speaking of which, I often feign personal ignorance so I can tease out answers and model that the world doesn’t end if you don’t know something.

9. Enthusiasm: In intro classes filled with non-majors, ratchet your enthusiasm levels. Numerous non-history students told me they ended up thinking about it after graduation because I made it “fun,” by which they generally meant that the pace was high-energy, that I asked students for their thoughts, that I helped them make broader connections, and that I tried to show why the past mattered. My favorite comment was this one: “Generally, when I read some quippy bet-you-didn’t-know-this about U.S. history thing, I am not shocked and I conclude, ‘Well, Dr. Weir was my history prof.’ ”

Lesson: Sell it!

10. Do something – anything – different: This one ought to be self-evident, but isn’t. The worst thing you can do in a lagging class is plow ahead and fixate on how quickly it will all be over. (See # 9 above.) Just try something different. It’s O.K. if it isn’t rocket science; students won’t remember that!

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Rob Weir

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