Daily Archives: June 11, 2008

inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom?

While I was reading Ann Dalke’s very interesting review of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan (courtesy of the Valve), I came upon some fascinating discussions of inquiry-based education on Serendip, the Bryn Mawr science/education blog. 

And while looking over this post, I was struck by the teaching philosophy developed by two Biology instructors, Grobstein and Franklin, for their elementary lab courses:

[The underpinnings of science] suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.

The perspective on teaching laid out here seems fundamental to me for teaching in any discipline, but I admit that I don’t know many teachers, in- or outside the sciences, who really practice this kind of pedagogy, outside of those teaching at elite liberal arts schools.  No one else has the time or the inclination, except for those doing what they can in non-elite institutions, delivering it to students in bits and pieces.  And certainly, if we want to understand why Professor X from the Atlantic article (see my post from a few weeks ago) is such a catastrophically bad teacher, it’s his ignorance or denial of such principles that causes many of his difficulties in the classroom.

Nonetheless, I really like Grobstein’s and Franklin’s recommendations for research assignments based on this model:

  • Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions. 
  • Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings.
  • Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them.
  • Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn’t have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations.  
  • Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them.
  • Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.
  • Repeat

  This is all very suggestive for me, but I was also curious about how a teacher of 18th century literature might follow this advice.  So how might we start with the kind of materials that students “are already interested in.”  Unless we happen to be teaching a class on viral videos or Iron Man, this seems ruled out from the start.  We can always play the game of referencing popular culture to talk about what we already know, which gets us part of the way there, but this kind of strategy also feels like a distraction from the purpose of the course, doesn’t it?  In our precious few weeks of reading, how much time do we want to devote to the presentist distortions of the past?  (Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen etc. etc.)

I suppose that the difficulty here is that we are not members of departments named “literary research skills,” but that our knowledge and our professional identities as scholars really are tied up with a specific content, one, alas, that really does “quickly go out of date,” along with the skills that we used to acquire that knowledge.  Graduate education, faculty hires, curricula, all these things are organized explicitly upon the basis of a foundational content, not the acquisition of specific research skills, no matter how necessary those skills are to the acquisition of knowledge of say, 18th-century pamphleteering.  Though we once awarded PhDs for philology, no one is going to get a  PhD in electronic keyword searches.  So teaching in this manner demands that one re-learn one’s own disciplinary knowledge and professional identity, to determine the most effective ways to teach students how to acquire such understanding.  And I’d predict that the curricular structures in our departments are going to change, if only to reflect students’ needs for more explicit instruction in the skills necessary for literary analysis.

At the same time, I’m also wondering how far this predisciplinary notion of “observation” really gets us when we think about teaching literary history, which depends on all sorts of specialist understandings of terms like genre, periodization, stylistic analysis, etc.?  Another “note” by one of the writers talks briefly about the need to distinguish between “observations” and “stories/interpretations” (e.g., “‘I saw A,B,C and think therefore D’ vs ‘I saw D'”), but I felt like there’s an entire set of steps missing from an account like this one. 

Nonetheless, I believe that any successful undergraduate student of literature should be able to move from the ability to make bare observations about a work to developing an interpretation or story about the work and recognizing it as such.    And a large part of this success comes from the student’s ability to understand the importance of the “valuable social character/interplay” that occurs when one reads with an awareness of earlier readers and their accumulated responses.  It is this unseen yet undeniable historical pressure upon our understanding that we try to communicate to the beginning student, but how do we accomplish this without killing off their engagement in the material?  The key step seems to be persuading students of the value of the “unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations,” so that they may be able to evaluate the information they encounter in their research, while constructing understandings of this information for their own purposes.