Why we need to worry more about the cultural appropriation of the classics

Amid the general horror and distress of last fall’s Charlottesville Nazi rallies, I found one extra source of revulsion. In the background of one video clip of “alt-right” marchers, I heard the unmistakeable sound of bagpipes. I later read a tweet about one of protesters: “Jimmy Marr is known for hanging racist banners from highway overpasses in Oregon. He is here to play bagpipes. Threw up a Nazi salute.” Now, as you might guess from my name, I am partial to bagpipes. I am (or was) perfectly willing to admit my somewhat romanticized attachment to a part of my ancestry. The idea that Nazis could co-opt the sound of the highland clans seemed both ludicrous and unfair. But of course these kind of culture wars have happened before; literature and culture have often been co-opted by racist and ethnocentric narratives. This semester I am teaching the granddaddy of such material, a course in Greek & Roman literature. Never before have I felt so acutely the need to draw attention to and break the link between this material and any Euro-centric supremacists who may want to claim it as property. But it’s not an easy job.

Thanks to my mentor and predecessor, Charles Crupi, I have always begun this class with an exercise reminding students of the dangerous legacy of the term “classical,” which often implies a value judgement and its ethnocentric corollary: “our culture is better” (along with the duplicity of claiming ancient Mediterranean cultures as unambiguously “European”). This semester I am thinking hard about how to disentangle these toxic ideas from all the valuable, exciting, and engaging parts this material. The trouble is that one reason we still read this material is that it has been so frequently appropriated. It has in fact proved tremendously influential for Western literature and culture. And some ancient ideas certainly deserve to be valued rather than just studied. Take, for example, the famous phrase “Know thyself,” reputedly inscribed at Delphi. Yes, it may privilege autonomy, and it is certainly epistemologically naive, but it still seems like a good idea. Wouldn’t we all benefit from knowing ourselves better (our faults as well as our talents)?

Usually, however, things are much more messy. Recently my students had a conversation about the “golden hair” of the goddess Demeter. We mentioned the naturalistic argument that a grain goddess should be golden and also that a goddess of life and nurture should be “light,” especially since her daughter ends up as the consort of the god of death, imagined as dark and underworldly. But one student suggested that there’s an implicit racial argument. Others chimed in, saying that in an ancient world full of olive-skinned, dark haired people, Demeter’s golden hair was more supernatural than racial. And I could point out that although the ancient Greeks were capable of a high degree of xenophobia, they don’t seem to have engaged in a lot of skin-color-based racism. So the Hymn to Demeter was certainly not part of a racial narrative when it was created. But simply dismissing these concerns may not be the best idea, especially given our current climate. After all, we know that in Western history the value judgments innocently attached to lightness and darkness in early mythology do eventually play a part in the (much) later history of racism. It’s important, especially given our current climate, to take notice of the ways that the ideas and attitudes of ancient literature have been continually and often unconsciously re-appropriated, sometimes for good and sometimes not.

The Coming Vocabulary Crisis and What to Do About It (Repost)

This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the GLCA’s Teaching and Learning Site: http://glcateachlearn.org

Last year, a colleague of mine attended a workshop for children from Detroit. The organizers were talking about managing expectations, and one of them said, “So you make plans, and you don’t know if they’ll always turn out, but you hope.” One little girl immediately raised her hand. When she was called on she asked, “What is ‘hope’?” Her question is a heart-breaking illustration of what it is like to grow up without privilege and without opportunity. It also speaks to something profound. We feel instinctively that to lack a word might also be to lack the thing it signifies. Words are the foundation for inward thinking and external expression. We encounter this phenomenon in our students every day, although it rarely moves us as deeply. Our students’ vocabularies inform both who they are and who they can be. Unfortunately, their knowledge of words is currently in danger. It is an issue that cuts across all of the college-age demographics, and we need to think about how to respond in our teaching.

There is good reason to be concerned. Several studies in recent years have suggested that our students are reading less, hearing less conversation, and bringing a smaller vocabulary to college.[1] It’s possible that our incoming students may also be on the brink of a steeper vocabulary decline. There are two reasons to think so. First, vocabulary size has always strongly correlated with economic privilege.[2] As we recruit increasing numbers of students from less privileged backgrounds, our student bodies will surely need more vocabulary help. Second, cognitive studies have suggested that language learning works better for most people when it includes auditory cues. As we admit students who grew up with smartphones and tablets (our current generation of students didn’t encounter them until around age 9), it has been posited that they “will end up with a lower average number of words than previous generations.”[3] This change would show up first in our more economically privileged students. They may be just as communicative (though not in person), but they will be more comfortable with gifs, memes, and emojis than with sentences. Some of you may have already seen signs of such a change, but on the whole the most challenging thing about assessing vocabulary is that our students can be losing ground without our noticing. You may see indications, as when it becomes suddenly clear that half of a class doesn’t know a word that you consider common. But more often vocabulary deficits are like fungi, which grow largely below ground, out of sight.

Teaching students who know fewer words is challenging, but we are perhaps too used to thinking of the issue as merely an obstacle to the delivery of content or a barrier to reading comprehension. In fact, a reduced vocabulary can lead to larger problems. It can sap students’ overall confidence, make them less able to have a conversation (let alone a discussion), less able to get a joke, and less likely to make friends or persist in a relationship. On a larger scale, a society with an impoverished language is less likely to have civil conversations. And since language underlies much of our ability to think and imagine, a people who cannot say as much are less likely to think of or imagine the solutions to complex problems. As professors of the liberal arts, we have a particular obligation to face problems that go beyond our classroom.

As we face this challenge, it is tempting to think that our job is simply to supply the lack by making vocabulary a part of our content. But the problem goes beyond the fact that students have lost ground that they may or may not be able to recover. Rather, their attitude towards language and towards learning words is itself changing. When they encounter words at a young age as part of a primarily visual medium not centered on words themselves, they are less likely approach them as things to be adopted and reused. They can begin to think of new words not as something to be used by them but as items thrown at them, items they are (often falsely) sure they can look up as needed. Even if they are asked to, say, memorize a definition, the word itself remains a kind of alien artifact. The ubiquity of the Internet does not help. Recent research suggests that the availability of search options inflates people’s intellectual confidence in ways that persist even if the Internet is not available.[4] If this evidence holds true, we may find students less likely to look up words on their own and less likely to think of an unknown word as something they need to learn. When they do look up words, they won’t be as sensitive to multiple meanings.

I suspect that most of us already have an array of techniques we use for promoting vocabulary learning, but we generally direct these techniques at the field-specific terminology that our students have always needed to learn. Some time ago, Beck and McKeown argued that adults have distinct levels or “tiers” of vocabulary.[5] Tier 1 words are the simple, unambiguous words learned in childhood, mostly unconsciously. Tier 2 words are more complex, context-specific words that we learn consciously (and with assistance) as we grow up. Tier 3 words are rare domain-specific words, like the terminology in our academic fields. Our vocabulary teaching has been largely dedicated to Tier 3; we presume that students are learning new Tier 2 words on their own. Of course, our present techniques for teaching our Tier 3 words may also have to be updated in light of our students‚Äô varied linguistic experiences. We will probably need to spend time rewarding students for adopting and using this vocabulary rather than just asking them to learn definitions.

Tier 2 vocabulary, however, is something all of us will need to be far more self-conscious about. We need build in our students the habit of approaching words as opportunities. There are some practical steps that faculty members of any discipline could adopt.

  1. We will need to resist the natural pressure to simplify our language to make ourselves understood; instead, we need to use a deliberately rich vocabulary. It is especially useful if we employ words drawn from the reading (and we can take time in advance to think about these). When we do so, we give students the auditory cues that can cement vocabulary learning. We also embed the vocabulary in a more accessible context, informed by things like body language and gesture. Finally, by using a rich vocabulary ourselves, we act as a model. We demonstrate how a complex vocabulary can facilitate everyday communication.
  2. We need to be more thoughtful about the way we use words in front of students, deliberately introducing more synonyms, explanations, repetition, and circumlocution. The best model here is Shakespeare, who was a master at speaking to an audience with a smaller vocabulary. His dialogue, particularly in plays like Romeo and Juliet or Love’s Labors Lost is peppered with explanatory phrases and synonyms to help a more verbally impoverished audience keep up.[6] The advantage of this method is that students who are reluctant to announce their ignorance get a graceful way to learn what we mean (and learn words at the same time).
  3. We will need to ask students more often to recast textual information in their own words, not only through the more traditional means of formal paraphrasing and summary but also verbally and on the spot. This process of “recoding” has been shown to be crucial to creating vocabulary memory.[7] In a discussion it may mean slowing things down and resisting the impulse to move constantly forward.
  4. We need to encourage students to play with new words. Word games are some of the easiest playful activities to include in the classroom. In the past, we may have used them to reinforce course content, teaching concepts and Tier 3 words. We should consider adding Tier 2 words to these games, particularly Tier 2 words that are distinctive of the reading material for the course. We don’t need to be game-creators to do this. Many commercial word games can be easily adapted to our content. A good example is the 2016 Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres): Codenames.
  5. We need to think carefully about how to assess and reward Tier 2 vocabulary gains. Since the Tier 2 words encountered over a semester can run into many thousands in a single class, traditional methods won’t help. We should consider instead adding explicit categories for precise and appropriate word choice to our evaluation of written and oral work. We can also reward thoughtful attention to words by calling attention to and praising the way students phrase in-class comments rather than responding only to their intended meaning.

No matter what field we are in, we need to model for students an excitement in words and language and allow them to experience the power that comes from fitting a new word to a new situation. If we are inclined to be pessimistic or to lament the decay of learning, we should take heart. Research tells us that language is hard-wired in the human brain.[8] We have biology on our side.


  1. Tom Nicholson and Sue Dymock, Teaching Reading Vocabulary (NZCER Press, 2017). ‚”To Read or Not To Read A Question of National Consequence‚” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).  ↩
  2. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (P.H. Brookes, 1995).  ↩
  3. Marco Catani Qtd. in Fiona Macrae, ‚ÄúiPad Generation ‚ÄòWill Learn Fewer Words‚Äô as Oral Tradition of Passing on Knowledge Is Dying out,‚Äù Mail Online, July 23, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article–2374391/iPad-generation-learn-fewer-words-oral-tradition-passing-knowledge-dying-out.html. Catani’s full study (with collaborators) is “Word Learning Is Mediated by the Left Arcuate Fasciculus” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 32 (August 6, 2013): 13168–73, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1301696110. The full impact of smartphones and tablets on the upcoming generation is still not entirely clear. After all, books are a visual rather than auditory medium, and we know that reading improves vocabulary. Much may depend on how children are generally interacting with mobile devices.  ↩
  4. Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, and Frank C. Keil, “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144, no. 3 (2015): 674.  ↩
  5. Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (Tandem Library, 2002).  ↩
  6. I am indebted to Kristen Abbott Bennett for the suggestion. Robert Watson has argued that many passages in Shakespeare operate almost like dictionaries. See his “Coining Words on the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage,” Philological Quarterly 88 (2009): 49–75; and “Shakespeare’s Coining of Words,” in Interlinguicity, Internationality and Shakespeare, ed. Michael Saenger and James Loehlin (Montreal: McGill-Queen‚Äôs UP, 2014), 86–106.  ↩
  7. Marilee Sprenger, How To Teach So Students Remember (Alexandria, Va: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum, 2005).  ↩
  8. Many researchers have contributed to this claim. One recent source is Iris Berent et al., “Language Universals Engage Broca’s Area,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 4 (April 17, 2014): e95155, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0095155.  ↩

 

The Real Lesson of Frederick Lutz

— This is a repost of today’s Teaching Reflection for Albion’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Every day on my way in to my office, I walk over a bronze plaque in the pavement dedicated to Albion College professor Frederick Lutz. The plaque tells us Lutz was “Professor in this College 1885-1920.” LutzThe preposition has always nagged at me. These days we speak of ourselves as working at Albion College, not in it. Lately, however, I’ve begun thinking that there may be a lesson in that tiny word about our role as teachers and students and about Albion’s role in the wider community.

There is a valuable historical lesson in the change from “in” to “at.” The word “in” was once the more common choice. If Google’s Ngram is correct, the use of the phrase “professor in the college” peaked just before the Great Depression and then declined precipitously. By 1945, “at the college” had become the most common form. The reasons seem fairly clear. The Depression upended many traditional views of work and social class. It completed the process of alienation from one’s labor that had begun on the factory floors of the industrial revolution and extended it to higher education. After the 1930s, being a college teacher slowly became just a job. Professors became employees who worked “at” a college or university just as a machinist might work “at” Ford. Students underwent a similar transition, from studying “in” to studying “at” a college.

Something was lost in the transition, though, and not just genteel Victorian elitism. When we teach and learn “at” a college, we cease to be members of a community and become employees and consumers. We start calling Albion “the institution” and use corporate phrases like “the value proposition.” This process pulls students and faculty apart. The classrooms of the past may have been paternalistic, but they were also places in which faculty and students thought of themselves as being “in” it together, and for life.

The preposition “in” has another potential meaning when applied to the College that might be worth recovering. We use “in” to describe units within a larger whole. I usually say that I am in the English department at Albion College, and we even say someone is “in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Michigan.” To think of ourselves as being in Albion College is to think of the College as part of a wider community. This community might be academia, but it is also part of the City of Albion (and its surrounding area). If we and our students can begin to think of ourselves as “in” the College, we may help ourselves to think of the College as an integral part of Albion as a whole.

What would it look like to resurrect the good parts of this in-dwelling attitude toward teaching and learning? We would make Albion not merely a place at which students and faculty work and study but a community in which we belong.

–Ian F. MacInnes

Revisions to notes from the Enola Gay reveal history at work

notesfromtheEnolaGay

As someone who teaches writing, I pay a lot of attention to the process of revision and editing.  And historical documents are a great place to see how meaningful even small revisions can be.  Sometimes the changes to a historical document are as interesting as the document itself. Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, wrote a short note during his return flight from dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945. He had been asked to make notes by William Laurence, a New York Times editor who was unable to be on the flight. According to Lewis, “a great deal of the notes were written in almost complete darkness. Halfway through I ran out of ink.” The edits to the document in pencil “were made by Mr. William Laurence” in Tinian.(1) The handwriting is strikingly similar to Lewis’, however, and the edits may actually be his own. The final edited words are well known to history, but as so often the evidence of editing in the orginal document reveals how we actively revise events, in this case the enormity of the atomic bomb.

Lewis initially wrote “Just how many did we kill?,” a basic human response to the tragedy. How many people have you killed today? But the revised version inserts the word “Japs,” a way of telling the reader that the people who died were not simply human but enemies, collectively assembled under a contemptuously exclamatory nickname. “Japs” are not a synonym for the Japanese as people, as a quick look at this Google frequency chart will show.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 08.48.21

The revisions surrounding the famous phrase “my God what have we done” are even more interesting. It looks as though the previous sentence is almost literally true. “I honestly have the feeling (illegible scratched out) of groping for words to explain this,” he writes, followed by a tentative period and a long white space, then, simply, “My God what have we done.” Later the two sentences were joined, and “I might say” was added above the line. The effect here is to attenuate and alleviate the horror and directness of that short sentence. It is what he *might* say, not necessarily what he *does* say.
The final paragraph anticipates the edits that would be made elsewhere. Lewis himself uses “Japs” and his final leap of sympathy is a heartrendingly gruesome understatement. They “certainly don’t care to have us drop anymore[sic] bombs.” This would be a comforting thought for Lewis and for others who had already made devastating bombing attacks on civilians like the firebombing of Tokyo. It’s not clear what would have initially followed bombs in the scratched out bit, but it becomes “of *atomic energy like this*.”

Now, Lewis was writing these words in response to a specific request, and Laurence was making his revisions (if they were indeed his) with publication in mind. They both needed both to stay true to the horror Lewis honestly felt but to find a silver lining that would make these actions acceptable: now the “Japs may give up.” It’s amazing how closely the writing and revising process in this document matches the collective wisdom so many of us grew up with and lived with for so long, the idea that yes, the atomic bomb was terrible, but it ended the war and thus prevented even worse events. This document helps show that this idea was not discovered; It was created.

(1) 1. “WORLD WAR II, HIROSHIMA BOMBING.” LEWIS, Robert A., Captain, U.S. Army Air Corps, Co-Pilot of the B-29 Bomber the Enola Gay. Autograph Logbook Signed, Entitled ‘Bombing of Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945,’ . | Christie’s,” accessed August 4, 2015, http://www.christies.com/Lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=3886895.
Note: I have included a low-resolution image of the document for the purposes of commentary.

The State of the State in Poetry

As we leave April behind, I find myself reflecting on the Charles Crupi Memorial poetry competition, which I have judged now for many years. It is perhaps the only state-wide poetry competition open to Michigan high school students, and it produces a LOT of poetry. This year we had more than 1200 contestants. My job is to read all the poems and narrow them down to 100 or so for our final judges. As you might imagine, the experience of reading all these poems is daunting, even exhausting, but I always find it strangely uplifting. It’s not just the occasional brilliant poem that makes it worthwhile. It’s the sum total of all that young poetic expression. Of course, not everything we get is actually a poem. Occasionally someone will even submit a photograph, and we get a few prose passages from essays and quite a bit of “if it rhymes it must be poetry.” And every year we get at least one poem called “I’m only writing this poem for extra credit,” a title that could lead to a deliciously ironic award winning poem, were it not always so true. But overall our high school students are deeply sincere, and for me sincerity has the power to elevate even the humblest poem. Lines such as “Please dear Lord have pity / Don’t take my kitty”(1) may not be part of a winning entry, but you can’t deny their touching authenticity.

It’s impossible to read 1200 poems without realizing that they fall into definite genres. Some are traditional to lyric poetry like the “I’m sorry you’re dead” poems or the “Do you love me?” poems (2). These can be either wonderful or awful, but either way they show that these young writers know something of the work that poetry can do in the world. Even teen angst is oddly touching. These are the endless poems about the corruption of the world or the “when-you-said-you-loved-me-you-were-lying” poems. Their cynicism is happily false. Those who are truly jaded by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” no longer see them as a subject for poetry. Our contestants, on the other hand, like Hamlet, still have the grace to be appalled by the world. The other aspect of the competition that gives me faith in the future is the love of language that runs through the entries like gold, emerging here and there in brilliant seams and nuggets. Most of all this reminds me of the gifted high school teachers who stand behind many of these young poets. Michigan owes these teachers a debt of gratitude. They are the ones who are teaching our children the power of poetry to imagine the world anew.

(1) Loosely remembered from an entry some years ago.
(2) I attribute these phrases to Harvard scholar Helen Vendler, from a public lecture long ago.

Audio books bring back the full experience of literature

As a fan of audio books, I am always bothered by those who act as if listening to a book being read aloud is somehow a secondary experience. For some, reading appears to be synonymous with silent reading; they believe those who have listened to a book read aloud either haven't really read it or are even somehow "cheating."

But literature began entirely as something to be listened to. The great epics of the ancients, Homer, the Scandinavian sagas, were all oral poetry in their first formulation. Even works which have come primarily to be experienced in print were first written to be read aloud, as is the case for Chaucer and much medieval literature. Even today, although there are poems which are written solely to be experienced on the page, most poetry is implicitly designed to be heard.

Listening to a literary text also offers opportunities for understanding that are less present in silent reading. When listening to a book, I find that I emerge with a much more intuitive sense of the author's prose style. Hearing syntax aloud can almost be infectious. Once after listening to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, I found myself writing ponderously balanced sentences for the simplest of tasks. Understanding prose style is helpful for works in which the style is an important part of the author's craft, but it also helps us understand character because good authors make their characters speak in distinctive ways, ways it is much easier to hear than to see. Some of these effects are achievable through silent reading, but the problem is that they rely on our own ability to voice the language and to hear our voices. Both of these tasks are far more difficult then we commonly imagine. Anyone who has ever been puzzled or embarrassed by hearing a recording of his or her own voice will know how little we actually listen to ourselves. We are also specifically taught not to sound out sentences when reading; we even regard the practice as a mark of an immature reader.

Of course listening does have its drawbacks, and it is certainly not possible to analyze a work fully without having access to the printed version, a fact that is as true of drama as it is ofother literature. Silent reading has its own advantages and facilitates different kinds of understanding. But to privilege reading over listening doesn't make sense. Why then is the attitude so prevalent? Partly, this is product of our educational system because reading is so important and also so difficult for many school age children. We encourage children to read for themselves as soon as they can, and the result is that listening sometimes becomes indelibly infantilized. Today, some adults are unable to listen to extended passages of prose without irritation and impatience. As audio books become more widely available, however, we have an opportunity to change some of these attitudes and reintegrate the oral experience of literature into the habits of mature readers. It may be too late for many adults, especially those who were read aloud to only as very young children. For the younger generation, however, we have an opportunity to make reading aloud a family activity extending into well into young adulthood.

Thinking about fallacies and bias

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this and McRaney’s sequel (You Are Now Less Dumb) because I’m teaching our advanced expository writing class this fall, and I am looking for entertaining and accessible ways of expanding my section on logical fallacies and on bias in argument. I found more than I was looking for because these two books are a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes and intriguing psychological studies all presented in a light way that can easily hook students into more serious discussion. There’s plenty of overlap between the various categories, and a fair amount of repetition, but that’s a natural part of any taxonomy of thought. Because of the repetition, I would not recommend reading these books cover-to-cover. They’re best appreciated in small snippets. In aggregate they can be fairly depressing, too. If you’re serious about psychology you may also be irritated by McRaney’s oversimplification and overgeneralization. Anyone who has paid even casual attention to psychology over the years will recognize that the studies McRaney mentions have been challenged and nuanced in many ways. Still, I think he’s done a great service by collecting all these delusions into one place and making them fun to read about. Fallacies and biases pervade public discourse, and our first and best defense against them is knowing they exist and having some idea about why.

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Table-top games and learning

card from phylo

Card from Phylo

Yesterday, Albion’s trendiest librarian, Megan O’Neill Kudzia, let me know that a series of table-top games I had suggested ordering had arrived as part of her Games For Learning project.  I am writing this post to lay out some ways I think such games might be useful for us as teachers.  The term “tabletop game” was coined to distinguish what used to be ordinary games from video or computer games. Table-top games can be board games, card games, or games played with just scratch paper and maybe some dice.  Using and even designing such games for a college class is a lot easier than using or designing computer and video games. And the games themselves can be useful in lots of ways.

  1. The game itself teaches our students.  This is the first thing that comes to mind when people think of games in the classroom, but it’s actually very rare to find a game that matches the learning outcomes of a particular class at the level of complexity appropriate for college. Among the games that arrived at the library yesterday, only Dominant Species might come close.
  2. Thinking about or modifying the game teaches our students.  There are many games that while they may themselves teach only fairly simple things are nonetheless based on complex and teachable concepts.  Asking students to think or write about how a game tries and/or fails to model reality can be a useful assignment. Asking them to modify a game to fit a slightly different setting can also force them to confront more complex concepts. For example, adapting a simple card game like Phylo to our local environment might help students think about biodiversity and the regional nature of ecosystems.
  3. The game mechanic can be re-used to teach specific concepts. Even if a game has absolutely nothing to do with one’s subject matter, it’s possible that what is often called the “game mechanic” (the set of rules and the elements of play) could serve as the basis for a game that you could design to teach your students. For example, I once robbed the game mechanic from 221B Baker St., a old Sherlock Holmes mystery game, to create a game set in sixteenth-century London and designed to teach some cultural history.
  4. The game can be a tool for service learning.  If a game teaches concepts but at a very rudimentary level, it could still be useful as a tool for our students if they are bringing their subject matter into local elementary schools.

Challenge-based learning: reflections on the chariot project

I’m going to use this post to reflect on the surprises I faced while trying a new kind of teaching for me: challenge-based learning. This fall I used generous FDC funds from the Ferguson family to create a challenge-based learning project in my first-year seminar, Equus: The Horse in Western Culture. Students in the class collaborated on the research, design, construction, and (experimental) driving of a Bronze Age chariot. The many interdisciplinary and collaborative tasks required were intended to present a variety of opportunities to meet the normal learning outcomes for the class while also promoting engagement and retention.

By lots of measures, the project was a success. The class actually did complete and test a real chariot; the challenges they faced at every stage were instructive; their academic assignments were completely integrated with the project. Two specific measures suggest that the challenge project achieved its additional goal of promoting student engagement and academic persistence: attendance was higher by far in this class than in any other first-year seminar I’ve taught (97% vs. an average of 89%), and retention was also higher than average (100% so far). I was also pleasantly surprised by the excitement the project generated outside the class, in parents and community members.

On the other hand, the project was also my trial-by-fire introduction to the pedagogy of challenge-based and project-based learning. I learned a lot more about what needs to happen with these kinds of projects and how I can improve them in the future.

I knew the project would take a lot of time, both from the students and from me and my helpers, but I had not realized the full consequences of this time for the pedagogy of the class. As I foresaw, I had to do a lot of background work, trying out things, buying materials, and making sure that the whole project was on track. First-year seminars do typically demand more time than other classes, and we can all compensate by simply devoting more time out of our day, but there comes a point at which time spent on one task inevitably takes away from others. My normal response to any time crunch is to delay feedback on assignments, but in this case that meant that some of the assignments I had wanted to give got delayed or altered, and I was not able to scaffold each task so as to build toward increasing mastery. Also, because the whole class was invested in the project, I worried constantly about whether things were going to finish on time and to work out. Everything we were doing was completely new to all of us, so there was little to be relied on. When it came to anything beyond the lab sessions here at Albion, coordinating the schedules of the distant experts (our saddler and our driver) with multiple students was also difficult. These details tended to distract me from coordinating the pedagogy properly, but they are also a necessary part of any challenge that is as new to the instructor as to the students. As a result I think it’s important to build an extremely flexible system of assignments around a project.

Another thing that should not have surprised me but did were the serious limits to students’ ability to participate in the building itself. I had scheduled a separate “lab” time on Monday evenings, which made it possible to command the regular attention of students, but planning the labs was a distinct challenge. My expert helpers had begun with the safety rule that students should not use power tools; in fact we were challenged at every level of the project to find meaningful work that would engage all of the students throughout all of the labs. Inevitably, a handful of students would find themselves with not so much to do by the second half of the lab. A few students managed to occupy themselves simply by observing what was happening and doing what needed to be done by their team, but most needed more explicit instructions and encouragement. The further we got into the project the more I realized that half of all planning was not about what steps we needed to take next but how to make sure that all students had jobs at every stage. I made some attempts to include such project planning into the pedagogy of the class, but I quickly realized that teaching what design actually means and how to implement a project is itself a large content area and one I hadn’t made space for in the class. I also have some doubts about how much can be achieved along these lines by first-year students who are still getting to know each other and figuring out how to work at the college level. I’ve realized that I need to give much more pedagogical attention to the design and planning process, and I need to be much more explicit with students about what they are not achieving and how those gaps are being filled in by me and by the experts helping them. Even given the drawbacks with this type of learning, however, there are also significant benefits to students’ development as learners. Ideally students can begin to learn how to approach challenging projects (even those with goals that seem unachievable) and gain confidence in their own ability, something they don’t get when their experiences are all pre-planned. It was gratifying to watch my students’ incredulity and doubt turn into excitement as we accomplished what seemed impossible to them.

Finally, the project drew my attention to something I continually struggle with in teaching: the need to remind students of what they are learning both during and after the learning process. A project, especially one that involves inherently non-academic things like cutting, sanding, and sewing makes this need more acute. Fortunately, I had students who were comfortable enough to ask “Wait, what are we learning here?” giving me the chance to explain what seemed to me blindingly obvious, like the fact that the technical difficulties we encountered demonstrated that large scale chariot production would have required an enormous investment of human resources and technical knowledge and that the appearance of a particular technology, in this case derived from the domestication of the horse, can thus be both symptom and cause of larger social and civil developments. I also found myself explaining the way that the project helped develop their abilities in written and oral communication and collaboration. By the end of term I was able to do things such as having them discover that their chariot wheels exactly matched the gauge of the railroad running behind Olin: an opportunity for a discussion on the way that technological decisions can have long lasting consequences. In this case elements like the domestication of the horse, the need for at least two passengers in a vehicle (driver and warrior), and the design limits of wood and rawhide helped determine a “natural” size that persists in a technology that no longer has such limits or needs. Like experiential learning, project-based learning calls attention to the connection between the learning goals and the work students are doing. I learned not to neglect this connection. Ultimately we should be able to use it to let students reflect on their own learning process.

As is usual in teaching, a lot of the things I discovered in the course of this experiment seem to be obvious now. Yet the wonderful aspect of this experience was that all of the difficulties and challenges were not things I should have avoided or eliminated but potentially exciting and productive learning opportunities in their own right. The “challenge” in challenge-based learning turns out to be as much to the teacher as it is to the students.

Acknowledgments: I am extremely grateful to my expert helpers who contributed their and energy to the project. It would not have succeeded without them: Jeff Carrier, Jim Whitehouse, Doug White, and Renna Van Dooren. In addition, this work was supported by a grant from the Ferguson family and the HewlettMellon Fund for Faculty Development at Albion College, Albion. MI.