Crazy Smart or Crazy Stupid?

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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78 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Love the idea. It will also hopefully encourage them to check and verify sources. “Well, this website told me that Homer Simpson was the first President, which doesn’t *seem* correct. I’ll check another. One that doesn’t have ‘XXX’ in the web address.”

    I’ve always thought “How do you find the answer to your question” is just as, if not more, important than “What is the answer to the question?”

    A phrase we use with young learners is, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      Thinking more about this, I like the idea even more. How often does someone say to you, “Here is a question. Here is where the answer is. Find it.” Compare that to how often some says to you, “Here is a question. Go find the answer.” Whether they pursue a career in history or damn near anything else, the ability to seek out and find answers to questions is a life skill that hopefully students have by the time they enter your classroom but very likely will by the time they leave with an approach like this.Report

      • david in reply to Kazzy says:

        They do know how to seek out answers: they pay three hundred dollars an hour for you to tell them the answer. Welcome to undergraduate pedagogy – it is high school with more networking, it is not predominantly about creating future historians, political scientists, or philosophers. Leave that for those who apply for graduate courses.

        If you want to see just how badly “here is where the answer is – find it” can go, consider how often the blogosphere butchers the latest politically-charged polisci study bouncing around the news. That is how unguided students will write.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        And then when they enter the “real world” and don’t have the opportunity to pay someone $300/hour to give them answers… then what?

        And, sure, there first few responses may be shit. And they’ll get C’s and D’s (or worse) and eventually figure it out.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

        Eh, I appreciate your cynicism, David, but I don’t respect totally defeatist attitudes. If the students are winning that war, it’s the professors’ fault. Losers always have an excuse.Report

      • david in reply to Kazzy says:

        In a typical module, you simply do not have enough time to walk students through basic skills like “how to write a thoughtful academic essay, rather than one recycled from bullet points a la AP courses” or for that matter “how to approach a college course, as opposed to a high school one, lesson one being doing the reading and jotting down some thoughts before the seminar actually starts”

        you get, what, twenty contact hours? How many of them are you going to waste on non-curriculum content?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

        I get about 56 contact hours (14 weeks, 4 hour class).

        And even if I had less, maybe spending less time on content and more on learning how to learn would be the best thing I could do for students.

        That is, I think that question is worth thinking very seriously about, not being so dismissive about. We know that students forget most of the factual information of a class shortly after it’s over, so maybe we’re doing things all wrong anyway.

        And I don’t have to teach students to write a thoughtful essay. I just have to advance their essay writing to some extent, and in other classes other instructors should advance it some more.

        In general, we can view these issues as irresolvable problems or we can view them as challenges. Or in other words, some people sit around pissing and moaning, and others roll up their sleeves and try to solve problems.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        “We know that students forget most of the factual information of a class shortly after it’s over, so maybe we’re doing things all wrong anyway.”

        Students literally have the world at their fingertips now a days. Very rarely will they need to know information off the top of the head. What the will need to know how to do is access, analyze, and employ knowledge. The proposed approach by @james-hanley is far more effective at developing those skills than the traditional approach.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Concerning learning facts vs. learning “critical thinking,” etc.: Alex Knapp had a very good post here a long time ago about that subject (or close to it), but I can’t find it right now.

        I will say that there is something to be gained by having a certain basic set of facts at one’s disposal that can’t be gained by simply knowing that something can be wikipedia’d. The trick is finding the intersection between critical thinking and base knowledge.

        I probably come down on the side of saying that a certain framework of knowledge must be learnt in any given course, even if 90% allegedly will be forgotten. That doesn’t mean I oppose learning how to analyze the facts, or learning how to learn other facts. But when I was a student, I do feel I learned more about how to analyze, etc., when I had acquired a certain reservoir of facts or narrative. And when I’ve taught, I think (although I honestly can’t be sure…assessment of success is hard to do) I made more headway when I adopted a straight lecture format, in which I incorporated discussion and analysis, than I did when I adopted a discussion oriented format.

        I wouldn’t impose a hard and fast rule. What worked for me as a student may not work for others. What worked (or seemed to work) for me as an instructor might not work for other instructors.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Here’s the post by Alex I was thinking of:

        (Again, I don’t think his or my preference is the last word. But I lean more toward his way of doing things than others do. In truth, I think students ideally need to encounter all kinds of approaches, sometimes even from the same instructor.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Identifying which knowledge is “core” is really hard. Context matters. There indeed is some set of facts and knowledge that is necessary for one reason or another. If someone has to whip out there phone/computer/tablet/whatever every time they are asked a question, that will slow their efficiency. So it’s a balance. And the learning style and ultimate goal of the individual student matters greatly.

        That said, rote memorization should be emphasized less than critical thinking skills for most students (especially in the university setting).Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        “That said, rote memorization should be emphasized less than critical thinking skills for most students (especially in the university setting).”

        I agree but….it’s hard to find the right balance. Students in my experience (and I have much, much less experience than James) sometimes don’t even have a good idea of what an “example” means, or what “evidence” means. (Another, very plausible, alternative is that I didn’t convey what I was expecting well enough. So back to David’s critique above.) I think that’s mostly an issue about critical thinking (or about my challenges in conveying my expectations) than it is about memorization, but I do think having a reservoir of facts really can help and one strategy for that is to be compelled to learn those facts.

        I do realize I’m probably looking at what worked for me and generalizing it outward. But it did work for me (at least I think so….the roads not taken and all that), and that’s what I’m best at when teaching. That might mean I’m a teacher of lesser ability (and I mean that….I admire teachers who can foster discussion without my lecturing strategies), but it’s what I can do best. I do think my approach works best for introductory or survey classes than more advanced classes.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

        It’s hard to think critically about facts you don’t really understand, and if you don’t even have them memorized, you almost certainly don’t really understand them. That’s the rub, and why it’s hard to find the balance.*

        I think both of you are nibbling around the edges of that, even if your emphases trend in somewhat different directions.

        *That’s part of why I make it a point to emphasize concepts when they come up a second, third, etc., time in the class, and also each time they come up again in future classes students have with me. After a certain point they’ve bumped into the concept so often they can’t easily forget it–if they can’t always pull it out of their head when caught off-guard, they can certainly pick it out of a lineup of possible definitions.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        I also think it depends on how we define “facts”. Often time, when people are talking about facts, they are talking about trivia… answers to Jeopardy questions.

        It is important to know when World War I happened if you are going to talk intelligently about anything related to the war. If you think it happened in the 1850s or the 1950s, your analysis will necessarily suffer. However, I think it far more important to understand how and why the assassination of the Archduke led to the war’s initiation than it is to know that he was assassinated on July 28, 1914. I would consider knowing the how and why to be facts, as they are specific pieces of knowledge related to the event itself and their understanding supports a broader conceptual understanding of geopolitics, war, international diplomacy, and the like.

        Unfortunately, I’ve often see the beginning of WWI taught with an emphasis on knowing the date and the specifics of the assassination, when the reality is that the war likely would have occurred independent of the assassination for reasons revealed by understanding the how and why. Downplay the trivia of the what and the when.

        While math and history aren’t perfect analogues, I will offer an example from the former because I understand it better.

        I don’t think it necessary for students to memorize the entirety of the times tables. There are far more efficient uses of both brain cells and time. However, students should understand what multiplication is and enough multiplication facts to do everyday mental math. They should know when encountering a problem whether or not they will need to employ mathematics and how to work with the numbers to arrive at a solution. But there is no reason they shouldn’t take out a calculator when attempting to multiply 857 by 242.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

        I have this mental block where I can’t remember if women gained the right to vote through the 19th Amendment ratified in 1920 or the 20th amendment ratified in 1919. So I joke about that with my students to emphasize that I don’t worry about that kind of precision. But they damn well need to know that it took a long time to get there.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        But, yes, I agree that we are all more or less closer to agreement than disagreement on this topic.

        I’m a big believer in Bloom’s Taxonomy, both in terms of what are the higher levels of learning but also the importance of building up from a strong base. I really like this break down of the revised pyramid:

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Great example, James.

        But I bet you’ve seen tests administered to students that checked for exactly the sort of knowledge you lack but do not check for the knowledge you value.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


        True story:

        In college, as a history major, I was taking the historiography (historical methods) class. One of the methods we covered was Marx’s dialectical materialism, and on the exam, I was prepared to discuss it quite thoroughly (if only at an undergrad level). The only question about Marx, I shit you not, was “What was the name of Marx’s roommate at the University of Bonn?”

        I had no idea, and I decided not to study history.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        I always get flustered about the progressive-era amendments and which was which and in what year. My biggest challenge is confusing the direct election of senators with the federal income tax amendment.


        I agree. It’s much more important to know about why the assassination sparked a war than it is, say, to know that Princip was confused about where the motorcade was supposed to go, but the motorcade went there anyway because it got lost. And then we get into the facts that help us understand why the war was so easy to spark,.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

        The only question about Marx, I shit you not, was “What was the name of Marx’s roommate at the University of Bonn?”

        That does strike me as one of the…..less pressing questions of history.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        “And then we get into the facts that help us understand why the war was so easy to spark,.”

        I think people tend not to look at those as facts. There seems to be an idea that a fact should be a tidbit of knowledge. Something that can fit on a bumper sticker or under a Snapple cap. Which is probably why I have some reflexive animosity towards “facts”. Really, it is a subset of facts and their advocacy that I bristle at.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

        A junior high school history teacher told us the story of the assassination in great detail. I honestly thought he was embellishing it to be entertaining, and didn’t discover until years later that it was all true (e.g. the first assassin trying to drown himself in a river 6 inches deep.)Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:


        Tommy Lee Jones.

        (Seriously, I can’t find the answer to that, even armed with the entire internet.)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


        It was in the historiography textbook we were using. IIRC, he was mentioned once in passing.

        My biggest challenge is confusing the direct election of senators with the federal income tax amendment.

        That’s easy. One was the destruction of the American Republic; the other was blatantly unconstitutional. Any Tea Partier could tell you that.Report

  2. david says:

    You’ll get quite far just printing out the readings week-by-week and giving it to them. Not great outcomes, but better than no reading at all. Don’t be surprised if students don’t read it and just bring the notes to class next week, with an expectant look on their face and a highlighter in their hand, though. At least they’ll be doing the reading once, during class time.

    If you assign open-ended questions, be prepared to receive extremely shallow answers (that reinforce the shallow perspective that the student is approaching the question from!), and savage module feedback to the effect that you are refusing to tell students what you want to see and then punishing them for not seeing it.

    If this is a typical liberal arts course, you are probably competing against other modules for the student’s time and attention, modules that have well-defined examinable material and that assign problem sets. They haven’t engaged with your topic enough to be interested in your module material – controversies are exciting, but not the footwork needed to get to grips with controversies. So, yes, spoonfeeding is the way forward.

    One way that I’ve sometimes fancied would’ve worked is to provide both some sample questions related to this week’s subtopic and my own hack at good answers, as written under exam conditions, with the note that actual exam questions may be somewhat different. Then assign open questions and some suggested sources. That might lend structure to how students respond – maybe. I never got to try it myself.Report

  3. Not exactly the same thing, but for one class I taught, I made the textbook optional. Big mistake on my part. Not that it couldn’t have worked well, just that it wasn’t the right move for me. I do think if a textbook is to be used, there should be some way (ideally, at least) for the class to engage with it beyond using it merely as a mini-factbook they’re required to buy. Still, textbooks can be so bland as to make the endeavor difficult.

    I do like the idea of asking students a question and requiring them to look up the answer. However, @david above is on to something. When I taught, I repeatedly had difficulty finding a way to ask questions that got back the type of answers I was looking for. I’m not particularly blaming the students for that, but it was a hard thing for me to do.

    In high school, on the other hand, my calculus teacher assigned us the questions and we had to read the textbook to learn how to answer them. Class sessions were spent going over the answers. For me at least, that was an excellent way to learn. It made me take responsibility for my own learning instead of relying on class time. I’m not sure if that was true for other students, and I don’t know how well that translates to, say, history or political science.

    I do like the idea of making an online “textbook” or set of modules for students that they wouldn’t have to pay for. And I’ve been toying with the idea, in case I have to go back onto the adjunct market. But I’m not sure how easy/hard it would be.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      I’m not sure how easy/hard it would be.

      Hard. Unless you find writing really easy. But what I find takes the most time is thinking about how to organize and present the material. The facts are easy, but you have to do more than just write a long list of facts.

      Ideally it would be a group project, but I haven’t yet found a group of American Government profs who quite share my vision. Lots who say “great,” but not lots who get it well enough to want to put in the effort. But in part that’s because I want it to look a particular way that’s very non-standard, and that I’m not sure I’ve even worked out yet.

      I also have thoughts about spear-heading similar efforts for other courses, where I think it could be easier because I’m less obsessed with controlling the structure. I think an on-line social science research methods text would be easy–just get a bunch of people to each write about a particular topic. E.g., get an expert on survey research to write about surveys, one to write about sampling, one to write about laboratory research, etc., etc. And State and Local Government would be ideal–get a bunch of people to write brief essays about how particular policies play out in different states (and if I’ve said American Government textbooks are bad, they’re nothing compared to how terrible most State and Local texts are). But really doing this kind of thing well requires good administrative support, which I don’t have.Report

  4. Michael Cain says:

    This sounds somewhat like the topology class I took in graduate school that was taught using the “Moore Method.” There was no text. For each unit, the prof handed out a small pile of photocopied pages. The first couple of pages covered basic definitions and axioms. The remainder were a collection of theorems, prefaced with the instructions, “Prove the true theorems, disprove the false ones.” Figuring out which were which was part of the work. Class time was spent with students doing proofs and counter-examples at the board, plus critique and discussion of those proofs by the prof and other students.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Here’s the fundamental difference between that and Prof Hanley’s proposal.

      In your case, when the students think they’ve answered the question, then they’ve answered the question. Maybe they’re wrong–But I can’t really conceive of a situation where a student is given axioms and told to prove/disprove something with them, and then submits an answer that lacks sufficient depth.

      With an American government class, that’s a real concern. Giving a question you expect merits a multi-paragraph response only to get back a single short sentence–one that probably reflects the amount of research and reading the student did on the topic.

      As a classroom teacher, i believe the best way to gauge understanding isn’t a single question, but a series of questions based on previous responses. (okay, but how did you get that answer? have you considered this complication? why is this other answer incorrect?) More importantly, asking those questions in class and having students trip up when asked to justify their answers is going to inspire students to have more robust understanding of the topic.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Alan Scott says:

        To follow up on this, there’s little real process in American Government knowledge as there is in courses in Math or Chemistry. For the most part there are basic facts, then there are conceptual discussions, often highly normative, with little middle ground.

        I am going to experiment this term with giving students demographic data from the 2012 election, and have them analyze it to figure out what the Republicans need to do–in terms of shifting the demographics–to win in 2016. There’s no single right answer, but at least it’s both empirical and process-oriented.Report

      • david in reply to Alan Scott says:


        It can be really difficult to write normative essays appropriately.

        I don’t know what level you are teaching. For students that start with the relevant skills already obtained in high school, they can churn out an engaged essay on command. If they’re not doing so, then you might not be motivating them enough, in the cynical “is this going to be assessed” sense. College courses are so devalued that a student who is genuinely interested in American government knows that their time is far better spent schmoozing their way into a internship at the right office than slaving over a non-assessed essay.

        For students that don’t, well – it is seriously difficult to obtain these skills when juggling other college priorities. One problem is not having a fine-tuned sense of the depth of an answer being sought by a question (high school assignments tend to specify a minimum length for a reason. This is less appropriate at undergraduate, where points can be made succinctly if you know what concepts to cite, but that means that there is no opportunity to pick up the sense in a hurry). Another is confusion over how to construct an appropriate argument – insufficient instinct to cite, too much enthusiasm for zingers, not even a façade of non-partisanship – the student winds up writing an argument that is appropriate for a blog but not for a term paper.

        To take your proposed assignment as an example – say your student runs the sums and believes that the GOP must reinforce their appeal with Hispanic working-class voters to win in ’16. Does s/he know that s/he is not being asked to editorialize on electoral issues (unless s/he first goes to exceptional lengths to justify an argument for novel electoral behaviour in a particular issue)? Has s/he learnt that there already exists a vast field of research on voter mobilization, historical effectiveness of assorted methods, etc., and – most importantly – that the point of ‘the game’ is for her to juggle these pre-existing arguments and arbitrate them toward a conclusion?

        And then there are ESLs, who present another layer of challenges, but that may or may not be a problem for you.Report

  5. Saul Degraw says:

    I think this is a great idea.

    Maybe you can also have students do some assignments where they have to look up things old-school style in the library? When I was in law school, we had research assignments where we were supposed to use books and indexes only and not Lexis and Westlaw.Report

    • I support that, but will add the following. It can really help to get in touch with the librarians to figure out how they can best help the students. Some instructors send at my university send their students on “scavenger hunts” in the library I work at, and because we haven’t spoken with the instructors on what they’re looking for, we can’t always help them in the way the instructors probably intended.Report

    • Maybe you can also have students do some assignments where they have to look up things old-school style in the library?

      This is symptomatic of one of the great issues of the digital age — should we teach students skills that we know will be of steadily decreasing value in the future? For example, the essay portion of the SAT writing test is (according to the College Board web site) to be done in longhand with a No. 2 lead pencil. The GRE essays, OTOH, are to be done using a one-of-a-kind word processor developed by the ETS. Which one reflects how students will actually work? Ten years ago I started a sh*t-storm in a graduate public policy class after the mid-term — two hours of longhand essays in a bluebook — were handed back by asking how a non-traditional student with arthritic hands would have been handled, and if they could have a word-processor why couldn’t I? The last time I taught first-semester calculus I found myself torn. We need students to develop some intuitive feel for functions and the critical concepts that derivatives and integrals of a function are another function, but in real life they’re never going to take a derivative of any complexity — it will be done numerically or symbolically by a piece of software.

      The one advantage that paper resources have is that they come with a hard-to-forge pedigree: so-and-so said such-and-such in 1998. Everything else favors bits.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I largely agree with your point but I think there is a difference between teaching students how to use an index vs. the old and fine arts of cursive and penmanship.

        Plus technology fails and people freak out. Most people now take the Bar Exam on their laptops using a program called Examsoft. This year there was a huge issue with students being able to upload their exams on time and people freaked out.

      • James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Was it really a glitch, or was the ABA exerting its cartel power?!Report

      • Perhaps it’s a matter of the academic field…

        When I was a real tech guy, I remember the point 20+ years ago when the IEEE committed to putting all of its enormous technical journal library into digital form. Some of it just images of the pages, some of it real e-documents, but everything in a single big carrousel of CDRs, all of the paper gone, and a database for keyword searching. One of the big reasons for having an IEEE membership these days is that you get access to that entire library of journals online.

        A few years ago the University of Denver — where I have borrowing privileges as an alumni — reworked its library, moved most of the stacks off-campus, so access to most paper material means submitting an electronic form and waiting a few days. The days of spending an afternoon with a physical index, pulling books or bound periodicals and skimming in a study carrel before deciding which items you want to check out are gone.

        More and more stuff is “electronic media” only. The contracts university libraries have to sign restrict access to students and faculty. The DU library will let me use computers inside the library to access the stuff on the grounds that the publishers can’t tell that I’m not student or faculty in that situation, but it’s a growing hassle. Interlibrary loan used to be really useful — for more and more stuff, the university libraries are no longer accessible because “electronic media.”Report

      • Michael,

        I’ve noticed that problem too, albeit to a lesser extent, at the library where I work. When I think about the problem, I divide it up into two prongs. The first prong concerns information that would not be obtainable otherwise than through the subscription-only databases. The second prong is the large number of items or other services that would normally be available to walk-in patrons and are now not available. (We’re a public university, so unlike DU, we have to accommodate all comers.)

        Services like ProQuest (for newspapers) would not necessarily otherwise be available. They’re prong #1. So I don’t have much of a problem with requiring subscriptions.

        The huge number of ejournals, when it’s journals that we have an electronic subscription for but no longer a paper subscription, present a graver problem. They’re prong #2. The paper copies aren’t available or are “in storage.” In theory (I think….I don’t work circulation) a member of the general public can access things in storage, but I don’t know how easy it is for them to do so. Something important is lost. (Also–and I admit I’m far from knowledgeable about this–it seems that electronic subscriptions eat a huge chunk of our budget. How to balance that against storage costs is beyond me. But it doesn’t seem as economical as it did before I started working there.)Report

      • At least for the journals, if I’m physically present in the DU library, using a DU computer, I can plug a thumb drive into a USB port and download hundreds of PDFs of “restricted” articles, then walk out with them. At least, that was true the last time I was there. Assuming the same is true at a public university, it’s a hole that’s hard to plug. Not that big a hole overall, I suppose. I’ve never tried saving a copy of an EPUB file to see about walking out with a copy of a book.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to Michael Cain says:

        @5:35 pm

        Alumnus, not alumni.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I just took it for a variation on the royal we.Report

      • Look, if you’re going to point out my errors in the use of plurals in blog comments, you’re going to be really busy :^)Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to Michael Cain says:

        The two things I learned in Honors English sophomore year of high school:

        1) The difference between alumni, alumnus, alumnae, and alumna.

        2) The difference between optician, optometrist, and ophthalmologist.Report

      • MIchael,

        That is a way to get around them, but at my library, there are no computers that don’t require a student/faculty i.d. to sign on. The only exceptions are catalog-only computers, and to my knowledge, they don’t permit access to the databases, only to the online catalogs.

        Non-university affiliates can apply for a guest password or for a wi-fi password, but they’re limited to 5 per semester. I suppose that’s not a huge burden, and they could use the thumb-drive thing, although I don’t think they’re officially allowed to. But in my opinion, it’s pretty restrictive.Report

      • At least from the perspective of my personal needs — recent academic journals that no one gets on paper any more — the arrangement I think you’re describing pretty well does in the notion of “public access” services. The three state four-year universities closest to me have a public-patron user category that gets me library check-out privileges, at a cost ranging from free to $75 per year. All three of them provide unlimited on-site access to paper and electronic media items.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

        “should we teach students skills that we know will be of steadily decreasing value in the future?”

        Decreasing, but for some fields far from zero, and unlikely to be zero any time soon. My hobby is early baseball history. By “early” I mean from the 18th century (yes: 18th: that is not a mistake) through about 1885 or so. Most of my research is from old newspapers. I would love to have more archive work, but there isn’t a whole lot for this period. The newspaper work takes two forms. Some papers are available through digital archive, usually searchable with OCR of wildly varying quality. Most are not. If they are only available in bound format, I have to schlep to wherever they are. Many are on microfilm, and I can sometimes get this through ILL. In either case, I don’t actually read it in the library. It gets scanned or photographed and read later.

        I would be severely constrained if I restricted my research to papers that have been digitized. Within that constraint, I would be further constrained if I limited my citations that survive the vagaries of OCR and search engines. I have to browse the issues. Oh, and electronic digitized versions all to a greater or lesser degree suck at browsing.

        So it would be pretty much impossible to do this research in the belief that if it isn’t on the internet it doesn’t exist. I wonder if twenty or thirty years from now my younger equivalents will be befuddled at the idea of looking at microfilm and simply not do it.

        That being said, I do the preliminary task of finding where the materials are nearly entirely on the internet. I have barely touched a card catalog in the past ten or fifteen years except as an exercise in nostalgia when I happen across one. The only other exception is some local historical societies still use them. These generally have someone available to help, should the young’uns find themselves unable to cope.

        The broader point is that there is an awful lot of material out there that is not digitized, and is unlikely to be digitized soon. How much this matters depends on what field we are talking about, but in some fields the student who is never forced to look up from his computer screen is done a severe disservice.Report

      • @richard-hershberger

        I agree, especially when it comes to studying history. At the archives where I work, we have only a tiny fraction of our materials digitized. Even if we had the money and labor to do it, there could be other complications, such as copyright and privacy issues (at least for the more recent stuff) and the question of digital formats that become obsolete and unviewable in 10 years time or that are difficult to manage and keep up to date.

        My preferred approach would be to microfilm everything (again, if we had the time, labor, and money). We’d have at least three copies of each, an “archival” copy in cold storage, and a “use” copy for patrons, and a digitizing copy from which the collection can be digitized to the favored format du jour. (I’m not sure how far along the technology is to permit fast digitization of microfilmed copies…..and I don’t know the quality of such digitized copies or whether they’re OCR’able or not.)

        Well, enough of my soapbox. Good luck with your research!Report

  6. Chris says:

    I think it’s a good idea with a small class. Teach them about evaluating sources, for example, and structure class as a sort of seminar in which you lead the discussion and they raise questions or criticisms based on the sources they’ve found, with the knowledge that sources, yours and theirs’, will need to be defended (based on what they’ve learned about evaluating them) when there are conflicts between them. So they learn not only about the subject matter, but about research as well.

    Of course, I’d spend a day teaching them about Google Scholar and perhaps n-grams (look up “habeas corpus,” then look at 1864, and you see what people were saying about it then).Report

  7. Damon says:

    Why don’t you make class discussion 70% of the grade? Give them topics to research and write a short essay on it, and present it to the class. Have the class ask questions and the presenter defend his writing.

    You could have a “standard” answer to your questions already and tell the students that they must take a position for or against this answer and defend it.

    What they need is critical thinking skills.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Damon says:

      Because I always think that’s a good idea, then I always realize that 1) I have some really smart students who won’t talk unless you waterboard them, and 2) I never have much sense of how to grade them on participation except at the extremes.

      But maybe I should have them build a portfolio of their answers to questions and in-class notes that I make part of their course grade.Report

  8. Pinky says:

    You’d have to steer it a bit:

    Question set for class 1:
    1) What is A? (Provide answer and url answer was located.)
    2) What is B? (Provide two answers from among the following five sites. Explain the likely reason for the differences between the two answers.)
    3) What is C? (Provide answer and url answer was located. URL must be .gov or .edu.)
    4) What is D? (Give the wikipedia definition and the definition from one other site. Are these definitions compatible? Explain.)
    5) Give a bad answer to one of the above questions along with the url where the answer was found. What are the assumptions behind this answer that led to the error? How would you respond to them, beyond giving the “correct” answer from another site?Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    Oncest upon a time, the idea behind a university education was not High School 2.0 but to teach the individual how to teach him or herself.

    Teach the kids how to smell bullshit. Teach the kids that history is, many times, stranger than bullshit. Give them a list of names that they can probably trust. The Durants. Gibbons. Spheeris.

    Then let them go. Many will fail to be anything more than middle management. One in a million? They’ll go on to change the world.Report

  10. ScarletNumbers says:

    I may or may not have mentioned that I’m finding it a real grind

    I don’t think you mentioned it per se, but considering that you posted the first chapter for us to critique and you haven’t mentioned it since, I figured it wasn’t going well.

    The single most notable problem in my American Government class is the number of students who seem to think that to pass they don’t need to read (so far as I can tell) or take notes, but just show up and stare into space, half-listening to me give them a set of boring facts. In a nutshell, they’re not taking any responsibility for learning, but expecting me to spoon-feed them something.

    To pass with a C-, sure, why not?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      Chapters are going up–I have to have something for the students to read. I’m just not at all satisfied with them. And making the deadlines I set for myself is grueling. I wrote for about ten hours today. I like writing, but not at that kind of pace.Report

  11. gingergene says:

    On a related (but slightly different) note, I once took an engineering class where the professor used the textbook he wrote. Despite the fact that he was a good instructor, I struggled with the class, in part because of his textbook decision. Because he was using his own textbook, it meant the 3 main resources a student typically has- (1) in class instruction (2) textbook (3) office hours – were all exactly the same: the same material, covered in exactly the same way.

    I had never realized before that class how helpful it was to have a textbook that showed the same material from another expert’s (or “expert’s”) perspective. And I realized that some subjects that I had struggled with in high school, like physics, had been much easier for me in university partly because I had a lecturer, recitation instructor, lab instructor and textbook- 4 different ways of approaching the same material. If I had *any* capacity for understanding phsyics, at least one of them was sure to click for me (and not always the same one for different topics).Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to gingergene says:

      When I was in college it was a truism to avoid if at all possible a professor using his own textbook, for exactly the reason you give. I took it a bit further and found that these guys often (not always) were also a bit too full of themselves.

      I had a related insight when I was struggling with differential equations. The assigned textbook was complete gibberish to me. It dawned on me that there was nothing in this class that hadn’t been known for centuries, so there was no reason to rely on a recent textbook. I found a textbook from about 1950 that covered the same material in perhaps a quarter of the space, eliminated much useless extraneous clutter, and presented the pertinent material much more clearly, to me at least. Someone wanting to write a differential equations textbook has a problem justifying yet another one. The solution is to somehow do something different. Doing it better is not necessary, and would be difficult to pull off. But mere different will suffice.Report

      • The worst one I ran into was in graduate school and the prof’s textbook was in draft form. So the grad students were serving as unpaid proofreaders, and too often the homework was of the form, “Make up a problem of the following sort and then solve it.” It was a class that was heavy on algorithms, the prof’s pseudo-code sucked, and I didn’t even get a mention for fixing it when the book was eventually published.Report

  12. Kazzy says:

    I was thinking about this post as I considered my school’s (and many schools’) newfound obsession with 3D printing. “3D printing is the future! 21st century learning skills! Etc!”

    It troubles me. Focusing on 3D printing — as opposed to the underlying skills which one might need in order to effectively utilize a 3D printer — seems shortsighted. 3D printing might never be the panacea many anticipate it to be. Or, twenty years hence, it might be outdated technology.

    And while it is similarly difficult to anticipate the skills that the world will demand in twenty years, I think we can predict this better than we can anticipate the specific technology or tools the world will be making use of.

    But 3D printing is new, fancy, cool, tangible, and easier to teach than that other stuff. So, here we are…Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

      Can you expand on this? I’ve also wondered why 3D printing seems to be treated as a “white collar” sort of thing, but multi-axis 3D milling isn’t. The fundamental skill for both are the same — complex 3D computer modeling. I suppose it’s that some sort of 3D printing can be done on the desktop, while complex milling machines are large and loud.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

      3D printing sounds like signaling in this case. “Look, we have 3D printing, we’re cutting edge!”Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think part of it is signaling (though many schools are blunt about it and call it marketing) and part of it is a failure to really think about these things on the level required.

        Like, I think my Head of School went to a workshop on the possibilities of 3D printing and heard it connected with 21st century learning and came back genuinely thinking, “We need to get our kids 3D printing. It is such a powerful learning experience.” And I have no doubt that it is. But I don’t know why we obsess over that and not the various other experiences that develop the same skill set (such as what @michael-cain points out above). I recognize humans tend towards novelty and shiny things, but could it be that simple?

        My favorite part of the STE(A)M revolution is that it is actually a return to some long-forgotten teaching methods/learning experiences BUT EVERYONE WANTS TO PRETEND IT IS BRAND NEW!!!

        “This year in science, we are going to have the students identify solutions to real world problems and build working models of them.”
        “Like the egg drop challenge?”
        “What? No! That is so last century!”
        “So what are you going to do?”
        “They’re going to have to figure out how to drop an egg from a height without it breaking. But they can use a 3D printer!”
        [head on desk; faint sound of crying]Report

      • They’re going to have to figure out how to drop an egg from a height without it breaking. But they can use a 3D printer!

        Now if it were “They can only use a 3D printer!” it becomes a more interesting problem.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:


        I assume you put the egg in the printer.Report

      • I assume you put the egg in the printer.

        3D printers have to be nicely rigid in order to be accurate, which is not good for egg drops. I was thinking in terms of nifty deformable plastic structures that would absorb the energy. Foam rubber and corrugated cardboard are easy compared to designing that kind of framework, especially if you have to assemble the entire thing out of parts you can print in a working space that’s a cube six-inches on a side. Seriously, it’s an interesting engineering problem.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:


        It is. I’m just not sure it tackles the underlying skills any better than my challenging my four-year-olds to build a block structure that is at least waist-high on me and which can support our giant elephant toy.

        But that’s just playing. 3D printing is the future!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

      How hard can it be to train someone to say “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”?Report

  13. Burt Likko says:

    There are some people with some pretty wild-ass theories out there on the internet. I’d be wary of students stumbling across something like that.

    There is also this thing called “Wikipedia” and as you and I and everyone else knows, colleges students are well aware of its existence. For some of my students — graduate students — Wikipedia is the first, last, and only source for information consulted other than the assigned textbook.

    If you do go textbookless, then you’re going to have to figure out what to do about Wikipedia.Report

  14. Michael Cain says:

    Say, what’s happened recently in that post-zombie-apocalypse constitutional convention class?Report

  15. Vikram Bath says:

    I have some malformed thoughts!

    1. To be honest, I don’t have that much of a problem with the textbook industry. I remember feeling as a student that textbooks were crazily expensive, but when you actually consider what goes into writing a book and how much you can get out of one that you actually read, almost all books are priced much less than they are worth to a dedicated reader.

    2. I’ve never completely empathized with the motivation for writing an American-government textbook unless it’s just to provide a free alternative text. I would guess that is a packed market with lots of well-supported options. One of the subjects my wife teaches doesn’t really have a formal textbook available, so I could see a motivation in that case.

    3. “I’ve thought about just putting up a set of links to various sources”
    It seems like you’ve already gotten positive feedback on this, but I’d like to add my own. That’s actually just a version of what a lot of teachers do when they produce course packs. They just grab a bunch of things they want read and have them printed and bound together. If they are online, you can just skip the printing and binding step.Report

    • ” I’ve never completely empathized with the motivation for writing an American-government textbook unless it’s just to provide a free alternative text.”

      For the record, if I ever to write my own textbook, it would be to provide a free alternative.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      I’ve never completely empathized with the motivation for writing an American-government textbook unless it’s just to provide a free alternative text.

      That’s the only reason I’m doing it. I have too many students who literally can’t afford to buy their textbooks, or who decide it’s not worth the expense. The first group I have great sympathy for and want to make college more affordable for them. The second group I waver back and forth on whether they’re rational or morons–probably some of each.

      I don’t have that much of a problem with the textbook industry.
      I disagree. It’s a perverse market in that the chooser is distinct from the user–there’s a severe principal-agent problem in that we faculty don’t need to make a cost-benefit calculation in choosing a text, and and hey have to pay for our preferences that don’t necessarily take account of their preferences at all. There’s no way it can be a well-functioning market in such conditions.

      And for American Government, there doesn’t need to be that much that goes into it. Much of the cost is for copyright fees and color ink on images that have no informational value (like a president waving at a crowd, or someone voting). And the two-year edition cycle pretends to base itself on the need for an election update after every set of national elections, as though understanding American Government is contingent on knowing why Team Red/Team Blue won the last elections.

      And that’s not to speak of the uniformly bad writing (I know of exactly one that I would consider readable) and the dense text that seems precisely designed to make it impossible to trudge through, and all in all create roadblocks in the learning process.

      I can’t speak for textbooks in other fields–although the perverse market problem obviously exists there as well–but in American Government they are overpriced, low-value dreck.

      And in more and more disciplines I seem–from purely casual observation–to see more and more faculty moving toward more student-friendly resources and/or on-line resources. Given the capacities of technology, this all begins to look like a trend to me.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to James Hanley says:

        Why don’t you just assign an older edition? In my experience, used copies of the previous edition of most textbooks are pretty cheap online (around $20), and any edition two or more iterations behind the current one can be had basically for the cost of shipping.

        Actually, I don’t understand why this isn’t a widespread practice. What do professors get out of requiring their students to buy current-edition textbooks?Report

      • Brandon,
        That’s what my wife does for the class that textbooks are available for. She’s been using the same edition for a while, and now used versions are less than a dollar (plus shipping).

        That said, the bookstore hates her. They keep misinterpreting her order to be for the new edition, and she generally has to e-mail them to say she wants the edition she originally specified.Report

      • I can’t speak for textbooks in other fields–although the perverse market problem obviously exists there as well–but in American Government they are overpriced, low-value dreck.

        I would guess that each of the issues you mention would be more pronounced in my area, simply because there is less competition.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        Sometimes I can’t. The bookstore has to work too hard to find them, or they get too much hassle from publishers, or who knows what exactly.

        Used booksellers won’t buy editions that are too old, because there’s little market for them, and so they gradually become less and less available.Report

      • Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        I had a hell of a time in college until I started searching multiple text books at the beginning of each semester. I would eventually find one that covered the concepts and details that didn’t read like total garbage, or was a snorefest in bound cover.

        The bar is low and every reasonable, sane person writing a text book is doing the world a big favor.Report