Classroom Confessions of a Vagabond Adjunct History Professor

The month of May concluded my first full year of teaching college history courses in Maryland. I had previously taught a full school year of US history courses in Florida before the economy there tanked right after the mortgage crisis. In addition to the 2008 election of an anti-education governor in Rick Scott, I promptly moved out of Florida once the state government began defunding higher education.

Yet If the range of courses and diversity of students I was exposed to teaching students in different states indicates anything, it is that more and more post-high school students are attending college without the basic literary and comprehension skills to not only survive liberal arts courses but also keep pace with what has to be one of the nastiest job markets in recent memory. I propose to account for some of my recent experiences in the classroom which have led me to such a dire conclusion.

Textbook History

Most of the students who have enrolled in my history courses have expressed their prior success in history courses. I do not have an explanation as to why they have chosen to volunteer this information upfront: outside of their attempts to influence my grading. Nonetheless, the fact that students feel that they can plead their case before final grades are even calculated has exposed some unsavory aspects of college education: namely that grades can be argued for or against by students as opposed to being a mark that they have earned on the basis of work quality and competence. Obviously the notion of grades as a subjective criterion of student assessment contradicts the idea among state and federal education pietists that standardized tests can objectively measure student academic performance; additionally, the so called “objectivity” of these tests are aspects that students seem to take seriously. So why do students believe that college professors, those who are generally called upon to devise such tests, would be any less objective in their professional assessments of students in the classroom?

The teaching of history at the high school level has not changed much since I was in high school over twenty years ago. Judging from the writing deficiencies that I see among my students, I can surmise that there are generally little or no writing assignments in secondary school history courses and that students are merely responsible for isolated “facts” that fit into the narrative traditional historians—those who write texts books chosen by school boards—maintain about history.

So when students have enrolled in my classes, they tend to show surprise at the amount of outside reading that they must complete in addition to the plethora of writing assignments. They have been groomed by their secondary history teachers to believe textbook history provides a settled story of history and that student success in subsequent history courses entails their mastery of facts in that story. Concepts such as “historiography” or “historical scholarship” are foreign to them. An example of such in a US history paper I received from a student this spring will suffice as an example.

A student wrote a paper on Reconstruction and in the course of providing background details, he wrote that during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator” who, “ennobled” by the “spirit of “liberty”, freed African Americans from bondage. This textbook version of the Civil War’s political background could not be any more inaccurate. The student was not pleased when I frowned upon this narrative. I told him that first of all, Lincoln the presidential candidate ran for office with the goal of allowing slavery to persist in the Southern states: he only wanted to prohibit its spread to the Western territories. Lincoln was no abolitionist and he delivered the Emancipation Proclamation as a matter of war planning: to free African American men would have enabled the Union to draft them and add to the Union army’s numbers. ((James MacPherson, “Who Freed the Slaves?Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 139, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), p. 1-10. ))

But the student’s (textbook) narrative—that Abraham Lincoln freed African Americans—was also problematic because it completely obscured from view stories about African Americans who were freeing themselves from bondage or with the help of white abolitionists who were a part of the Underground Railroad. This exposes the error of grand historical narratives or historical narratives in which only political heads of state or military leaders presumably chart the course of history: that causality only flows in one direction, from top down, and that citizens or “ordinary” people of a society are automatons incapable of historical agency.

So how do historians justify such a grand metaphysical scheme, especially in light of current events such as the Arab Spring wherein the people challenge their leaders and ultimately decide their own fates? That historical agency is not solely the province of political and military leaders is a truth that I try to impart to my students by emphasizing the culture of people, what historical peoples did for a living, and how they passed the time. Textbook history often overemphasizes political and military events at the expense of culture: what people are doing.

Writing Exercises

Because of the lack of writing students do in a secondary school history course, they will often claim that my history courses seem more like English courses. I emphasize good writing in my courses and manage what are called “critique sessions”. On the last class day of the week, the class reviews student papers that were turned in during the previous week. (The names are blotted out to guarantee anonymity.)

During the critique sessions we judge the papers on their merits and I provide in advance a rubric of issues to look for. Content accounts for half of the score; grammar, mechanics, and citation formatting accounts for the other half of the score.
Invariably, a majority of students will judge a paper to be “good” or “excellent” despite the fact the paper is riddled with grammatical and citation problems. My experience this past spring in one class saw one student obtain consistently high scores despite several recurring issues:

A) The student provided no in text citations, footnotes/endnotes, and bibliography. This alone, according to the criteria of the rubric, would have earned the paper a zero because the student failed to acknowledge and document his sources (i.e., plagiarism).
B) A Google search I performed in class indicated the student had lifted passages, word for word, from internet sources without acknowledgement (i.e., plagiarism).
C) The student, as my Google search discovered, consulted Wikipedia sources. The rubric expressly forbade the use of Wikipedia sources, namely because they are unscholarly, easily editable, and non-authoritative.
D) Grammar. The student consistently had a cornucopia of typos, inconsistent verb tenses (i.e., he failed to consistently use the past tense), voice issues (i.e., use of “I”, “you”, and ”we” when students should write history papers consistently in the third person), contractions, and confusions between the uses of “there”, “they’re”, and “their.”

Students in the critique sessions objected to me pointing out these issues and claimed that such errors were insignificant because they did not obscure the content of the paper. On one occasion when these criticisms of my approach arose, I asked students to clear their desks and write a paragraph summary of the paper that they had just read. My guess was that if content was clear despite the grammar and mechanics of the paper, the students should have been able to remember key points of the paper. The results were startling: only one out of nine students could remember what the paper was about. The issue here is that if the students contended that they understood the meaning and content of a paper, despite it being poorly written, then they should have been able to recall at least one or two significant details about the paper.

This last point goes beyond the writing issue: recollection and comprehension issues were at play and those problems deserved the attention of a learning specialist. But why the insistence from my students that good writing is not necessary for a good paper?

I cannot fathom why students would think this but for a moment, consider the time in which we live. The internet, for all of its ubiquity and ease of communication with anyone anywhere, nearly demands that we dispose of the formal conventions of language. This is best served by discarding proper sentence structure for acronyms, emoticons, and digital images. It is inevitable that a life spent daily on Twitter or Facebook (or sending text messages) will employ the linguistic shorthand of those websites. Yet websites like these should not bear the bulk of the blame: laziness on the part of the students also part of the problem.

It may be objected that because people can understand the vernacular of social media or textspeak, then an understanding of the formal rules of language are not necessary for meaningful communication. This is a point that I will grant but the use of such vernacular is welcome only in a limited number of contexts. As an academic, I am bound to discourage the use of that vernacular for academic writing projects; as a historian, I can never hope to submit an academic paper for publication if I do not show a grasp of the formal rules of language. So for budding historians among my classes, I hold them to that standard. However, from a standpoint of business writing (e.g., grant proposals, formal correspondence, etc.) because not all of my students will take up the history profession, there is a practical reason for discouraging the use of such vernacular. The use of that vernacular even in business contexts can reflect poorly on the person who uses it and may give the impression that he or she does not have a basic command of the language to communicate intelligently. Not everyone uses Facebook or Twitter so we should not assume that everyone can understand the literary conventions commonly used on those websites. In itself the use of such vernacular is not wrong yet it is inappropriate in certain contexts: namely formal ones.

This is perhaps the greatest issue that I must confront in my history courses: students do not view proper writing as a valuable skill. Not even my advice about the consequences of a poorly written resume seem to sway the student convinced that he or she need not write well in order to be successful in life. Despite my experiences teaching college history courses across several states, it seems that college students are burdened with these and other deficiencies and such should be a call to action for all educators concerned about the economic futures of younger generations.

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.