History professors and technology: Why can’t we be friends?

A few days ago, blogger and podcaster extraordinaire John Fea  artfully summarized an AHA Perspectives piece about why the number of history majors has dropped nationwide:

1. The 2008 recession led high school students to think about majoring in a field that would give them more economic security and a more direct career path.
2. Colleges and universities throwing money into STEM fields at the expense of the humanities.
3. History departments are still doing a poor job of articulating what students can do with a history major.
4. More men major in history than women and fewer men are attending college.
5. History departments are too rigorous or at least present themselves that way. This may scare students off.
6. History departments rely too heavily on introductory courses to recruit students in an age when an ever-increasing number of students are taking their history requirement in community colleges or fulfilling the requirement through AP exams and dual enrollment.
7. Changes in general education requirements at many colleges now allow students to fulfill such requirements without taking a history course.
8. Jobs in traditional history-related fields such as K-12 teaching and the law are declining.

I wanted to offer another reason that is impossible to test, but I think it’s worth throwing out there anyways. Students find most of our classes – especially large lecture classes – extremely boring and (at least to some extent) obsolete. That’s not the same as saying that we are all boring necessarily. I used to love listening to good history lectures when I was an undergraduate, but this is a new era.

Yes, I am talking about cell phones.  People can’t sit through a Hollywood movie these days without reaching for their phones.  How are you gonna succeed where Captain America and Iron Man regularly fail?  This is why I went all squishy on tech bans a while back.  How can I throw someone out of my class for doing the same thing i do in mandatory college assessment strategy meetings?

But of course when it comes to technology more than just cell phones affect our student’s attention spans. Literally any single fact that I can include in a lecture can be Googled, and in most cases even the Wikipedia entry that appears first in the results will be good enough as a test or quiz answer for an undergraduate survey course. Go try it now. I know I have. I started this practice as soon as I started getting specific factual information on tests that I know didn’t appear in my lectures or the assigned reading.

“But we have to teach students to evaluate sources on the Internet!” Yes, I know. We also have to teach them other skills like how to read critically and, God forbid, how to write coherent essays. Unfortunately, large factually oriented survey classes that are designed to cover large swaths of historical information are absolutely the worst place in college to start doing any of those things. Moreover, the size of the courses only drop when students move on to upper-level classes, but you’ll lose most students before they get there because (as noted above) history departments are losing majors. It’s a vicious circle.

My classes – particularly my survey classes – have been evolving in response to these changes for years now. First, I started adding lecture breaks, like YouTube videos. Then I started revolting against coverage, offering more days devoted to anything but me lecturing. Now, planning my first online course, I’m doing away with lecturing altogether.* I’m certainly not saying that all history courses should be online, but I am saying that we can’t keep doing what our own history professors did for us because it’s not gonna work any longer. Heck, to me the drop in majors strongly suggests that it’s not working now. We are all a lot more like our old history professors (we turned out to be history professors too, you know) than we are like this generation of students.

Luckily, well-chosen technology can actually help us blow up our classes and put them back together again in new and exciting ways rather than boring and dumb ones.  I’m not talking PowerPoint and I’m not talking MOOCs either. What I’m talking about are a variety of programs that can help us teach our students marketable, history-related skills that will help them succeed in life even if they don’t want to become history professors. [And frankly, advising anyone to go to graduate school in history in this job market is tantamount to an economic death sentence, but that’s the subject for another blog post.]

While the projects linked to from here are not from my survey classes, they’re a pretty good indicator of what students can do with Scalar – just one program that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years now. Actually, it has mostly been my students playing with Scalar rather than me and as they’ve teaching me all about it, I’ve been able to guide them better through these kinds of research projects. Now I’m tempted to invoke that stupid cliche about being a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage,” what’s most important here is that I’ve kind of appointed myself as the executive in charge of their research and exploration process. Nobody can fire me and replace me with a grad student or an algorithm because I design the course, I guide its direction (with lots of input from students) and we all learn more about both the tools and the history involved whenever it’s over.

Very longtime readers know that I used to be anti-technology when it came to history instruction, but me and technology are friends now. And as long as I remain the one calling the shots, things are gonna stay that way.

* Yes, I know I owe this blog a second post on how to build an intellectually respectable online course. I swear I’ll get to it. I have a plan, I just need to write more of the course before I continue sharing.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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