Cancel the Teaching Evaluations Too!

In a recent piece for CNN about universities adopting a pass/fail policy for students during the COVID-19 crisis, David Perry added a few thoughts about faculty as well:

Faculty also need to be judged on a pass/fail basis. Online teaching is uniquely hard and cannot be mastered as a skill in a couple of hours or days. Student evaluations — which for pre-tenure or pre-promotion faculty are vitally important to their career advancement — will be useless in this new arrangement, as will any evaluations of research productivity.

Perry’s comments are spot on and worth serious consideration. While much of the conversation in higher ed at this time has rightly focused on students–because of the major disruption caused by the coronavirus, the emotional and psychological turmoil brought on by the crisis, and the sudden transition to a new learning environment–faculty are facing all of this too. Universities should grant faculty the same grace they are extending to students and administrators should not evaluate their teaching in the same way they would in other semesters.

There are several options for how we might proceed with respect to student evaluations of teaching (SETs for short; some people also call them student ratings of instruction, or SRIs, but I’m not splitting semantic hairs in this post) at this time, and I’ve divided those options into four categories below:

Category 1: Change nothing about the current process of collecting SETs and using them for decisions that affect a person’s career.

Analysis: To my mind this is an unjustifiable approach at this time. As I noted above, faculty are working in an unprecedented situation where they are being asked to do so much with tools, parameters, and environments that are–in many cases–unfamiliar. They’re doing amazing work, but it is unfair to evaluate them as if they were teaching in traditional circumstances.

Category 2a: Collect SETs but do not use them for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure.

Category 2b: Collect SETs but allow faculty to choose whether or not to include the results when they are up for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure.

Analysis: Both of these options look reasonable on the surface, but they share a common flaw. If the results are out there, then it is possible that people other than the faculty member will see the results. This may lead to implicit bias down the road when faculty are being evaluated for reappointment, promotion, and/or tenure. Similarly, I think the choice option is the least desirable. Imagine a situation where two faculty are going up for tenure at the same time. One has chosen to include results from the COVID-19 affected semester and one has not. How will both of these faculty be evaluated at that time? Also, will faculty feel undue pressure to make a choice they are uncomfortable with? These options simply open up too many potential scenarios that undermine their utility.

Category 3: Design a new SET that focuses more on learning than on teaching behaviors.

Analysis: Great idea; it’s never going to happen given the compressed timeframe.

Category 4: Do not collect SETs during COVID-affected semesters.

Analysis: This, to me, is the most equitable model. This is the option with the least possibility for misuse (because there will not be anything to misuse) and it is the only one that truly levels the playing field.

I know what you’re thinking: but, Josh, don’t we want student feedback on their experience this semester? Yes, we do, but we want different kinds of feedback. Just like with any semester, those faculty who want individualized, formative feedback from their students should be encouraged to create a short survey in Survey Monkey, Qualtrics, etc. to ask their students these questions, or they could work with their friendly neighborhood teaching center to develop such a survey. This is right in our (meaning those who work in teaching centers) wheelhouse!

Secondly, we also want student feedback on the transition process–glitches in the technology, workload across the board, etc.–independent of what is happening with individual courses. We need to develop mechanisms to get this feedback sent directly to IT and the Provost’s Office in ways that are anonymized and that have no impact on a person’s career.

In short, this is a tumultuous semester for everyone. Faculty should not have their careers negatively affected by this disruptive transition, just as students should not have to worry about the effect of all of this on their grades. SETs have an impact on faculty of every stripe–adjuncts, full-time NTT faculty, and tenure-stream faculty. We need to look carefully at how we can address their use in the weeks and months ahead.


Using Educational Research to Inform Our Daily Practice: Caveats and Opportunities

“Educational research is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.”

I’ve been saying that phrase quite a lot these days, both in my daily work at the University of Mississippi and in the workshops I have been facilitating at other campuses.

Although I’m not often given to pithy maxims, this one seems to resonate with folks. Here is what I mean:

  1. Educational research (e.g., research on the effectiveness of teaching strategies) can only ever provide us with a limited perspective on one aspect of a key question. No paper is *ever* going to have all the answers to our teaching questions or even a single, complete answer to our inquiries about teaching practices simply because there are too many variables when it comes to the classroom. It would be unreasonable to expect any single paper or even a cluster of papers to provide this for us.
  2. No study is perfect. Even good papers can have methodological oversights. Even great papers will be limited in scope (see #1).
  3. No matter how much we would like to have neatly packaged answers about pedagogical conundrums, the truth of the matter is that such solutions simply don’t exist. Even the debate about lecturing vs. using active learning in the classroom is far more nuanced than we often admit.
  4. Do numbers 1, 2, and 3 mean that we should discount the value of educational research for informing our teaching practices? Absolutely not!

If you are a faculty member or graduate student for whom educational research is the primary means of scholarly communication, promotion, tenure, and professional advancement, then by all means dissect methods, stats, p-values, and much more. This work is very valuable, and I don’t want to discount it. I enjoy talking to my fellow medievalists about which manuscript of The Canterbury Tales is more representative of Chaucer’s vision for the project. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that all of this is inside baseball. When I think about what I want colleagues and students outside of Medieval Studies to know about The Canterbury Tales, there are far more relevant questions I want them to consider.

If, on the other hand, we are thinking about an instructor of a college-level course in her or his discipline who is seeking out more effective ways of teaching, I would say that our concerns are a bit different. What does this colleague need to see in a study to give her or him confidence not that an effect is statistically significant but instead enough confidence to give the strategy a try in the classroom, to get feedback from students, to refine and try again? Must the bar for educational research be so high that it prohibits experimentation in our courses? I don’t think it needs to be, but conversations in the higher ed press and on social media sometimes set it at a place where it can make the work sometimes feel unapproachable or perhaps even unusable for those who are doing the work of teaching day in and day out. I think that’s a missed opportunity on many levels and it can lead to an over-reliance on intuition and assumption rather than evidence when choosing pedagogical strategies.

This is not to say that each and every study rises to the level of confidence I just described. What I’m proposing here is that we might advocate for one use of educational research as providing us with evidence for testing something out in our classrooms, and to make this determination we will still need to interrogate the studies, just with a slightly different eye.

These issues came into sharp focus two weeks ago when a study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences arguing that a) students learned less in a class session taught entirely through lecture than they did in a session taught through active, engaged pedagogies, and b) they felt like they learned more in the lecture session. Immediately the lines in the rhetorical sand were drawn. Eric Mazur, Harvard professor and developer of the pedagogical strategy called Peer Instruction, said “This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures.” Others joined this chorus. Of course that’s not true. No single study could *unambiguously debunk* anything.

On the other side of the conversation, some researchers looked very closely at the methodology and the statistical analysis in the paper. Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh wrote a very thoughtful blog post about some of the issues she found at this level of analysis. I learned a lot from her and from others parsing the study with this degree of detail, but at the same time I can’t help but think that we see more of the trees than the forest when we do this. What is there for individual teachers to take away from a study when we move in this direction? If every paper received this level of scrutiny, the conversation would either proceed slowly or not at all. To be clear, serious mistakes should rule a study out of our consideration, but–beyond that–how do we decide whether something is worth trying?

What do we make of all this? If we think of educational research as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one, then we’ll think about whether or not we are convinced that a given strategy might be something we could try out in our courses. Then we’ll look at our own results, compare them to other research that comes out, and continue the conversation from there. For the study I’ve just been describing, I’m intrigued enough to test out a similar approach and to suggest that others consider trying it too. We need to take what we find valuable and give it a go. Regardless of whether something is shown in a study to work well or not as well, it may work (or not work as the case may be) in our own courses, and that is something worth exploring.

The same, by the way, is true of larger research programs, like the kind that led to models such as Carol Dweck’s mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s grit. These frameworks were all the rage in educational circles for years, but recent meta-analyses have called into question the efficacy of growth mindsets and the predictive power of grit. Both threads of research are important. Do we throw grit and mindsets out wholesale because of this new work? No! But we approach them with caution, take the pieces of them that may be valuable for our students, and we evaluate them for ourselves.

As someone who has benefited greatly from the many outstanding research studies on teaching and learning in higher education, I hope that this post will be taken in the spirit of debate. We need more discussions of teaching in higher ed, not fewer, and I hope educational research can play a major role in these conversations.

**I’m grateful to Sarah Rose Cavanaugh, whose Twitter thread on the PNAS study spurred me on to write this post.


A Response to Richard Utz: On Inclusivity in Medieval Studies and the International Congress on Medieval Studies

[Note: This post appeared as a Twitter thread and as a comment on earlier today.]

I have a lot of respect for Richard Utz, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University has meant a lot to me personally and professionally for the last 18 years, but I think the article in today’s Inside Higher Ed misses the point about inclusivity at the conference and in the field more generally.

First, it positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”

Here’s the problem I see with this logic: I took his cue and counted the terms myself. I actually counted 12 instances of the term “disability,” but most of these occur in ONLY 2 SESSIONS both sponsored by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. There are 2 other papers beyond these sessions that mention the term “disability,” and then the rest of the occurrences appear whenever the SSDMA is mentioned. That’s 4 out of 600 sessions that touch on disability in any way. As someone who has worked in the area of Medieval Disability Studies for over a decade, I am grateful for the support of the ICMS over the years, but I would hardly count the number of appearances of the term as evidence that the area has been broadly included. The same is true for other terms cited in the article. The mere appearance of the terms is not indication that these fields are “included” in a truly meaningful way. Ask me how many times I presented on a disability-related panel with 10 or fewer in the audience.

Honestly, though, the bigger issue with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

If you want evidence of that, you need only read this powerful blog post by @Nahir_Otano: …

Or listen to the loud calls coming from many angles by medievalists of color, LGBT scholars, early career scholars, and more. Or listen to the whisper networks that have always existed. But we must listen. The project of inclusivity in Medieval Studies is a big one, and it will take a collective effort of all of us to make it possible. We cannot reduce the efforts to pat solutions like counting sessions, because the issues are structural and will take a lot of work. The work is essential, though, and we must attend to it carefully.

The Best Education Books I’ve Read (Since 2013)

‘Tis the season for best-of lists, I hear.  I don’t want to feel left out of the list-making, so I’ve decided to create one of my own.  As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I have been writing a book for the last few years, and I have read a lot (and I mean A LOT) of material in the process of doing research for the project.  I thought, then, that I might make a list of the best education books I have read in that period of time.  Hence, this is not a list of my Absolute Top Picks of All Time, although some of the books I discuss below would make that list as well.  Instead, it is a recent best-of list.  Let me know what your own favorites are in the comments!

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Susan Debra Blum, “I love learning; I hate school”: An Anthropology of College.  I learned a lot from this book.  Blum brings her skills as an anthropologist to bear on our institutions of higher education and forces us to ask essential questions about the work we do.

Susan Engel, The Hungry Mind.  This is an amazing book!  I recommend it so often that I think people are getting tired of me.  Engel provides an in-depth study of curiosity:  why it matters, how essential it is for child development, how it gets lost in our educational systems, and what we can do about it.

Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl, The Scientist in the Crib.
I was late to the party on this book (it was published in 1999), but it forever changed my view on learning.  Just read it; you’ll see.  I have to thank my friend and colleague Robin Paige for recommending the book to me.

Anya Kamenetz, The Test. Kamenetz’s criticisms of the standardized test movement in America are powerful. She clearly shows the damage they have done and offers important suggestions for a way forward.

Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure.  This is not strictly a book about education–it covers parenting, as well–but Lahey is a middle school teacher, and so much of the book connects to our work in the classroom.  It’s a vital read for lots of reasons, but my favorite quote from the book says a lot about its importance:  “We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success. That’s certainly not what we meant to do, and we did it for all the best and well-intentioned reasons, but it’s what we have wrought” (xi).

James Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  As someone who works in a Center for Teaching Excellence, this book has been a gift.  Lang’s easy-to-implement suggestions pair efficiency with effectiveness and are supported by recent findings in cognitive science.

Claire Howell Major, Michael S. Harris, and Todd Zakrajsek, Teaching for Learning. I love this one!  It’s such a useful handbook of pedagogical topics and research-based strategies. Any question you might have about teaching is addressed to some degree in this book.

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, Mind, Brain, and Education Science. Although I have some methodological quibbles with the self-described discipline of MBE Science, this book is a wonderful example of how to productively synthesize findings from science research and apply it responsibly to our work as educators.

Honorable Mention:  I am currently reading Sarah Rose Cavanagh‘s The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion.  Because I haven’t finished it yet, I did not include it in the main list, but I fully expect it to make the next list I write (whenever that may be).

Why We Need to Stop Using the Phrase “Bulimic Learning”

A short post today, and one with a simple thesis:  It is time to remove the phrase “bulimic learning” from the lexicon of higher education.  The term, which as far as I can tell dates back to the early ’90s, is often used to discuss the common strategy of students cramming for an exam and then spilling as much knowledge as possible during test time.  The popularity of the phrase is evidenced by the fact that it is the subject of a recent book on teaching and learning, a peer-reviewed article from 2010, in educational workshops, and even on websites affiliated with university Centers for Teaching and Learning.  You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that there are many more examples in rather prominent places, which is exceedingly unfortunate.

The frequency with which “bulimic learning” is used is alarming, particularly in a field that strives for inclusivity and empathy.  Referring to any learning strategy in such an offhanded way, of course, minimizes the struggles and the suffering of those who are living with eating disorders.  In this country alone, “20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.”  The fact that more women than men are diagnosed with eating disorders means that there is a gendered component to the phrase “bulimic learning, ” as well, which only adds to our list of reasons to find a different way to talk about the educational phenomenon of cramming for tests.  For example, we could simply say “cramming for tests.”  If we really need a metaphor here, what about the image of a toaster?  Bread goes in, and bread goes out.  The bread is of no actual value to the appliance.  For those who simply must have a biological analogy for studying (though I’m not sure why!), even “regurgitation” would not include as many traumatic connotations.  I still think it’s kind of gross, to be honest, but at least the word is not as stigmatizing as “bulimic.”

In short, let’s show respect and compassion to our students and our colleagues, some of whom may either have an eating disorder, had one in the past, or know someone who has/had one of these diseases.  Let’s find other ways to talk about student learning.


Guest Post: “A Plea for Research, Part 1” by Kisha Tracy

Today’s entry is the third in a series of guest-posts from the roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” that I organized for the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Kisha Tracy and I teamed up on a presentation called “A Plea for Research” as a way to encourage our fellow medievalists (and humanists more generally) to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  What follows is Kisha’s part of the presentation.

Kisha’s Bio:  Kisha Tracy is an Assistant Professor of English Studies, specializing in early British and world literatures, and Co-coordinator of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Fitchburg State University. She received her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2010. She is currently working on two book projects: Why Do I Have to Take This Course? Theory and Practice of Student Investment in Learning and Sins of the Past: Remembering, Forgetting, and Confessing in Middle English Literature. The former considers how we can encourage our students to be more invested in their courses, and the latter explores how the traditional medieval relationship between memory and confession provides a valuable framework for understanding the employment of recollection in various Middle English literary texts.

A Plea for Research, Part 1

Several years ago, a group of colleagues and I secured a grant to study the effect of embedded librarians in first-year composition courses. We were surprised at the definitiveness of the data we collected and decided it was worth publishing. At this time, I was relatively new to the concept of the scholarship of teaching and learning, but this was an excellent opportunity and introduction to this type of research. We wrote it up and were quite pleased with the outcome. Then came the most difficult question and the most enlightening for me: in what order did our names go? We simply stared at each other in confusion. Being mostly humanities scholars, we weren’t used to multi-authored scholarship. We wrote alone or, at the most, with only one other colleague. We had no idea in what order to write our names.  We did eventually figure it out!

For me, this was a moment that brought home the idea that we in the humanities do not work in collaboration nearly as often as we should.  It is time for some transparency with our humanities colleagues. One way is in collaborating on disciplinary research, but collaborating on the scholarship of teaching and learning provides additional opportunities. It makes clear to ourselves and our colleagues what we do in our classrooms, how we teach our subjects. That kind of communication can only improve teaching on a broad scale. Transparent collaboration of this nature also creates clear and consistent messages about the value of studying the humanities and the direct impact that we have upon what students are learning.

Guest Post: “‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’ Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major” by Leigh Ann Craig

Today’s entry is the second in a series of guest-posts from the roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” that I organized for the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Here we have the insightful remarks from Leigh Ann Craig.

Leigh Ann’s Bio:  Leigh Ann Craig is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.  She is the author of Wandering Women and Holy Matrons:  Women as Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages (Brill, 2009), the associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage (Brill, 2009), and is currently in progress on a manuscript entitled Deprived of Sense and Intellect: Demons, Humors, and Diagnoses of Loss of Mind in Medieval Europe, 12140-1500.  She has also been deeply involved in curriculum revision at VCU and is the recent winner of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Teaching Award.

“‘So Are You Going to Open a History Store?’  Explicit Professionalization and the Undergraduate Humanities Major”

We have all heard the same derisive questions from “realists” about the value of the undergraduate degree programs our disciplines offer.[1] My favorite iteration came from a grad school colleague, whose roommate’s father asked him, upon learning he was a History major, whether he planned to one day open a history store.[2] Meanwhile, we have all seen, and many of us have written for, the stream of apologia and outcomes research that seeks to correct these misapprehensions by revealing the flexibility and broad applicability of undergraduate training in the humanities, and the employability and career success of our graduates.[3] We nonetheless meet the same questions in an endless loop. This is both wearying and worrying, especially amid the climate of budgetary scarcity and gently declining enrollments that seem presently to be typical of state institutions like my own.[4] Narrative, as we all know, has a way of becoming reality when it is repeated often enough.

I would like to propose today that our responses to that cultural meme need to be curricular, as well as rhetorical and academic: that we must show rather than tell, and we, the subject-area experts, must do that showing ourselves. Two curricular trends already exist which may be instructive, both of which are usually, in higher-ed circles, tagged as ‘professionalization’ efforts. The first of these is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum which is more and more coming to be appended to graduate programs in the humanities. These programs teach, in a systematic way that was unavailable to me two decades ago, the nuts-and-bolts skills of academic career and project management, and discuss our specialized professional writing formats such as grant applications and job market materials.[5] The second is the ‘professionalization’ curriculum enmeshed within degrees in fine arts, including BFA and MFA programs, whose graduates require a broad set of career and business management skills in order successfully to pursue studio art, professional theatre, and the like.[6] But at the same time, each of these professionalization curricula are apt to consider in a transparent fashion how the skills of a highly specialized area of study might translate to work outside of the pure disciplinary focus of the academy or the art studio.[7] This kind of coursework is now beginning to appear, as an elective offered through careers centers, for use by undergraduate humanities majors, in places like University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas.[8]

My own department is currently debating the possibility of piloting an undergraduate course on Professionalization for the History Major. The goals of the course would be threefold: first, to make explicit connections between the goals and objectives of the History major and the interests and professional goals of the student;[9] second, to facilitate active careers exploration (inclusive of a broad range of speakers from the community); and third, to offer students the skills they need to build the interface between their training and career paths of interest. This would include coursework designed to teach specialized writing skills (such as skills-based resumes, cover letters and personal statements explaining the applicability of their specific education and experience, public history writing, writing for online forums and social media), but also service-learning requirements which would foster interpersonal skills in public speaking, networking, and interviewing, via work in support roles for on-campus events.

(As an aside, I note that it would be hard to simply add this to other standing courses in our current curriculum. While some of these goals might be served in our semester-long internship capstones, but a majority – the critical self-marketing skills, especially – are not. Nor do our internships, grounded in one institution, directly support a broad process of career exploration. Indeed, students might be far better prepared to choose and to apply for internships if professionalization were introduced first. We also lack space for this in our writing-intensive gateway course; I have taught it for a decade and cannot see how this could be embedded within it, given time constraints and its more purely disciplinary goals.)

I have come to ponder whether it might be wise for us to consider not just offering, but requiring such a course for all History majors at VCU, for reasons that are philosophical and pedagogical rather than merely economically pragmatic. I am the parent of a high school junior, and based on her experience I can say with some confidence that by the time they reach us, our students have jumped through many a hoop, badly designed by those far from the classroom. They have rightfully come to understand the process of education, and especially of assessments of learning, to be devoid of applied purpose more often than not. By contrast, I have found that transparency about goals, and about the utility of specific classroom methods I use, is a reliable way to elicit cooperative, and even wry-but-cheerful, engagement from students, even in exercises with the worst reputation for mindless drudgery (see: How to Write A Footnote.) If we can use transparency to our advantage on the level of an individual assignment, it seems to me that a similarly nuts-and-bolts discussion of the professional value of the entire curriculum might help engage students in the process in all of their coursework to a helpful degree. While I cannot guess whether this might lead to improvement in retention and graduation rates, my instincts suggest that it would at very least improve engagement in ways less susceptible to statistical analysis, yet substantively important in the classroom.

And this, I think, is also the reason why humanities faculty should consider offering such courses in our home departments in cooperation with other kinds of specialists, rather than farming the issue out entirely to campus careers centers. We are our own smartest and best advocates, when it comes to explanations of the value of the curriculum we design and implement. The other edge of that sword, of course, is that we are trained medievalists rather than trained professionalization coaches. I myself have not spent a single year outside of academic spaces since I turned four, and I did not apply my two undergraduate humanities degrees outside of structures that were dedicated to pure disciplinary focus. But it seems to me that at that point we must reach for the vaunted autodidacticism and adaptability of the humanities-trained, reach out to our networks to gain the outside expertise we may need, and put it to work. As we consider this possibility at VCU, I would be very interested in the experience of any of my colleagues here with the development or implementation of this type of curriculum, and of discussion of its value.


[1] For a more prominent example, see the comments of Sir James Dyson in 2012. A broader overview may be found in this article from Paul Jay and Gerald Graff’s 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[2] With thanks to Dr. Marc Horger, Department of History, The Ohio State University.

[3] See for example Katherine Brooks, “Why Major in History?,” Psychology Today, August 2012,; or Jeffrey Dorfman’s analysis on the excellent return on investment in humanities degrees in Forbes from Nov. 2014,

[4] On the nationwide numbers and decline in enrollments, see

[5] See curricular info from UCSD at; see infro from Loyola Chicago here:

[6] See the recent discussion by Eliza Lamb, “Best Practices for Career Preparation in Four Undergraduate Art Programs” (Ed.D. thesis, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 2015).

[7] Lamb, ch. 4, passim; Brooks, “Why Major in History?.”

[8] Brooks’ course at UT Austin has been running in brick-and-mortar space for a decade and is now available online: The University of Arkansas course through their Department of English, taught by Dr. Lissette Lopez Szwydky, includes a collaborative blog available at

[9] For further discussion of this portion of things, see the AHA Tuning Project:


Guest Post: “Teaching to the Choir” by Cameron Hunt McNabb

I organized a roundtable on “Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education” at last week’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, and there was a lot of interest from the audience in having access to the papers read by the panelists.  In that spirit, I will be posting many of those remarks on this blog in the form of guest posts.  Today’s post is by Cameron Hunt McNabb.

Cameron’s Bio:  Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English at Southeastern University. Her work focuses on medieval and early modern drama, and she has publications in or forthcoming in Pedagogy, Neophilologus, Studies in Philology, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and Early Theatre. She is currently the Director of Southeastern University’s Best Ideas teaching and learning series.


Teaching to the Choir

I’d like to begin by affirming our many current efforts on researching and writing on teaching in the Humanities. I think we have done and are continuing to do a great job marketing ourselves and what we teach to those outside the disciplines. We’ve been selling skills like analytical thinking, problem solving, written and verbal communication, empathy, etc. These sales pitches are incredibly important and need to continue.

But they are for administrators and parents and the general public. They are not for us in the Humanities, who are uncomfortable with the economic language I just used to describe our work (marketing, selling, pitching, etc.) not least because we likely don’t feel like we “bought” anything in the first place. We might be drawn to it, called to it, fascinated or intrigued by it, but whatever it is, it wasn’t a calculated purchase and it didn’t involve phrases like “analytical thinking” or “verbal communication.” I didn’t become an English major, and later an English professor, because of any of those things. I did it because I loved to read. I loved to write. I loved what texts could do. I found them beautiful. And they changed me profoundly.

Many of my English majors feel the same way, as I’m sure most if not all of us in the Humanities do too. We, then, are not the buyers but the choir. And the question then becomes not “How do we sell our teaching to others?” but rather “How do we teach ourselves and our like-minded students? How do we teach to the choir?”

What follows is a preliminary list of a few ways that we might begin or continue to do this kind of teaching.

  1. Teach the texts that converted you

For me, it was Paradise Lost. I was in 10th grade and had this notion that if I was going to be a writer, I should read all of the “classics.” I had heard of the poem but didn’t even know enough to actually call it a poem. I purchased it and the Cliff’s Notes (I felt like it still “counted” even if I had a little help!) and dove in. After months of lonely lunches with Milton in Mr. Boette’s classroom, my life was radically changed. “This,” I thought, “is what I want to do.”

Inspired–or perhaps deluded–by my own powerful experience with the poem, I regularly taught portions of Paradise Lost not only in my early modern courses but also in my gen ed, Intro to Lit class (or, as I like to think of it, Intro to Joining the Choir!). And each year before we’d begin, I’d tell my students, “This will be hard and you may not like it at first. But hang in there. It changed my life and it has the possibility of changing yours.” In turn, students strongly resonated with the poem. Many read it in full on their own. I even had one student sign up for my recently revamped Southern Intro to Lit course and say that she was disappointed at the syllabus because she had heard that we covered Paradise Lost.

2. Confess what didn’t convert you

The flip side to sharing conversion is sharing confession. At the time of my first foray into Milton, I was in a sophomore English class reading Chopin and half a dozen other texts that I don’t even remember. Clearly, these did not resonate with me. I think confessing such experiences is extremely important because Milton won’t convert everyone. Neither will Chopin. So our conversion narratives must always be balanced by a recognition of texts that did not speak to us.

I found such a balance in the co-teaching I did with a Victorianist colleague and friend of mine. He was fairly skeptical of anything that wasn’t a novel, while I didn’t have the stomach for penny-a-word prose. We co-ran a reading group and co-led a study abroad trip, and between these two experiences, we had ample opportunities to explain, defend, and simply dialogue about what drew us to our own fields and what repelled us from others. Our students engaging with us reaped the most benefit: we were able to assure them that they didn’t have to like everything that they read (even if it was a “classic”) and cultivate in them a sense of readerly and literary identity.

3. Don’t be scared to teach relevance

In the past, I have admittedly been wary of a teaching approach that centers on a text’s modern relevance, particularly the medieval and early modern ones I tend to teach. It felt a little like selling out the texts’ intrinsic value for their utilitarian worth and a little like showing Narcissus how to stare in the pool. “Here is how this text is relevant to you” instead of “Here is how this text is maybe kinda trying to say something.”

But slowly I’ve come to realize that one of the things that drew me to literature–one of the things that made Paradise Lost able to radically change my life–was its relevance. Plainly, Milton (and later, the medieval and early modern texts I’ve devoted my life to) asked the same questions I was asking, struggled with the same thoughts I was thinking, and experienced many of the things that I was experiencing. Relevance, I think, opens us up to those moments of conversion. Last year, I had a student from my Milton seminar tell me he read the lament from Lycidas at his twenty-one year old friend’s funeral. More recently and more humorously, my Shakespeare students performed the Shylock-Antonio-Bassanio bond scene in Merchant of Venice as an underhanded Super PAC deal between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders.
As we continue to research and write on teaching in the Humanities, we need to continue considering how to navigate the demands of both the business-model university as well as the devoted choir of students. We must render unto the administration what is the administration’s, but we must also feed the sheep.

Active Learning Is Not Our Enemy: A Response to Molly Worthen

If the social media response I have observed is any indication, then it is fair to say that Professor Molly Worthen’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times (“Lecture Me. Really.”) has been a bit polarizing among college instructors.  In brief, Worthen valorizes the lecture as the engine for student learning in humanities courses (particularly those at the introductory level) at the expense of what she terms “[t]oday’s vogue for active learning.”  Some readers have loved it and see in it a reflection of their own practices, while others–to put it mildly–feel less amenable to it and see in it a regretful look backward at the pedagogical days of yore.  As both a fellow humanist and someone who is ensconced in the scholarship of teaching and learning on a daily basis, I too had a visceral reaction to the piece, but I want to try and remain as objective as possible.  Rather than highlight my initial response, I want to call attention to the fallacies in Worthen’s argument and to the damage such “either/or” pieces can do to the discourse regarding higher education, particularly when they are published in extremely visible outlets like the NYT.

To begin with, I want to be absolutely clear: I don’t have any problem with lecturing as one tool among many that we can use to help our students learn.  It can be a very valuable strategy in certain instances.  After all, storytelling is the world’s oldest form of teaching, so there are times when a well-delivered lecture can be as powerful as anything else we do in the classroom.  The key is we have to keep them short, and we also need to use other teaching methods as well, because the research simply does not support the notion that courses dominated by lecture will be effective for student learning.  Derek Bruff, Director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, has recently written a phenomenal piece about the research on lecturing, so I won’t retread the same ground, but I do want to note from the outset that lectures should not be dismissed out of hand.

Worthen, on the other hand, clearly does not feel the same way about active learning. She not only dismisses discussion, group work, and other forms of pedagogy, but does so with derision.  As a result, she ignores decades worth of research and relies almost exclusively on anecdote.  It’s hard to build a case that way.  In what follows, I want to get to the bottom of all of the assumptions that underpin Worthen’s piece by closely reading passages from the essay itself, which I’ve placed in bold font.

“A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with ‘active learning’ methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that ‘it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.’ ”

Calling the Freeman, et. al., report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “a 2014 study” is akin to looking at a highly influential book (choose your favorite!) and calling it a pretty decent piece of work that changed a few minds.  This PNAS article was a bombshell meta-analysis of 225 different studies that didn’t merely suggest lecturing was less effective than a combination of active learning strategies; indeed, for many it definitively proved that this was so.  Yes, as a part of the wealth of data on grades and test scores, it began to reframe teaching as an ethical issue, going as far as to say, “If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial.”  Those are very strong words by well-respected scientists, and they cannot be brushed off by mere hypotheses.  As a humanist, I can easily see that these findings are generalizable to my own discipline.

The biggest resistance I often see when I talk to people about the PNAS findings and  similar studies is the class-size argument.  Many, especially in the humanities, will argue that once the class gets too large, it is difficult to do anything other than lecture.  But discussion is possible regardless of how many students we have. When we get up to a certain number (say, 40 and beyond), though, it has to morph into small group discussion. This approach can be very effective, but there need to be clear guidelines, good questions, and the groups need to share their findings.

“In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts.”

I don’t resent experts.  I know lots of experts.  On my good days, I even like to think I bring a bit of expertise into my own classroom.  Here is the crux of Worthen’s argument, though.  She seems to think that it is enough to be an expert in a discipline, that students should somehow feel grateful to sit in our classrooms and bask in the glory of our knowledge.  Somehow–perhaps through note-taking (see below), perhaps by chance, perhaps by osmosis, perhaps by magic–students will absorb this knowledge and immediately understand how to make complex arguments and to think like scholars in the discipline.  The trouble is that learning doesn’t work this way.  The human brain does not work this way.  In order to build knowledge, students need to be active participants in creating it.  For the humanities, this can mean discussions, debates, in-class writing, course projects, etc. There is a whole field of inquiry called constructivism that has been demonstrating this for decades.  But you don’t have to believe me.  Just ask your students what their most meaningful educational experience has been.  I’ll bet a lecture is not at the top of the list.

None of this is to downplay the importance of expertise, which is an essential part of being a college educator.  However, by being so adamant in suggesting that lecturing and active learning are polar opposites, pitting one against the other, Worthen feeds right into the ill-founded criticisms of higher education that have been dominating the press.  A refusal to change in the face of a proliferation of research or, at the very least, to add other strategies to the mix only serves to bolster our critics.

“They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.”

Who on earth is trying to assimilate all of these disciplines?  That’s almost literally impossible, and it strikes me as an argument more rooted in the crisis narrative surrounding the humanities than anything else.  Plus, what’s wrong with the sciences?!? They have found a way to demonstrate that students are achieving the learning goals that faculty are establishing.  Perhaps instead of being antagonistic, we could be more open to seeing how we could adapt similar strategies to our goals in the humanities.

“And it (i.e. the lecture) teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the ‘critical thinking’ that educational theorists prize.”

This assumes that we could ever be certain that all students were paying close attention, a point to which I’ll return below.  If we cannot be certain of this, Worthen’s argument begins to fall in on itself.

“Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. A lecture is not the declamation of an encyclopedia article.”

There is no getting around it:  this statement is snarky, condescending, elitist, and derives from a privileged position within the academy.  Clearly, those of us who advocate strongly for more diversity among the pedagogical methods by which we teach the humanities just “do not understand what a lecture is.”  Trust me:  as a student, I have sat in plenty of lecture courses, and I’ve been to countless professional conferences, where–in the humanities–the lecture reigns supreme.  Yes, I know what a lecture is, but I choose to put my faith in the following rather than disproven notions of teaching or the echo chamber that can result from circling the wagons within our disciplines:  1) the research, and 2) the demonstrable gains in student learning seen by my colleagues who have implemented active learning methods in their courses.  Part of me also thinks Worthen is telling us that if we don’t have a similar educational background to her, then we just don’t know what a good lecture really is, so of course we would choose another mode of teaching.  Well, I won’t dignify that kind of ad hominem rhetoric with a response, except to say that I’m proud of my graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut (Go Huskies!), where–among other things–I was trained to be an effective teacher and to read research on teaching and learning.

“Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this.”

I actually agree with Worthen that all of this is hard work.  But is a lecture really our most effective tool for helping students with argumentation, synthesis, and organization?  Are we to presume students are able to do all of these things on their own simply by listening (not even reading, but listening) to a model argument?  Even if we assume that the argument being presented in the lecture is of the caliber that it will revolutionize the field, it is a stretch to believe that students can take what they are hearing and apply the methods to their own work simply by taking notes if they haven’t been given any opportunity to practice through other means.  If it is happening for some students, how do we prove it?  Worthen is dismissing active learning in favor of lecturing on the basis of a hunch about what might be happening in her students’ minds.  Mark Sample makes a similar point in a comment on the Derek Bruff post I discussed above, and it is a vital one to consider.  There are no data to back the notion that this kind of learning is actually taking place, largely because such a claim would be difficult to ever verify.

“Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. “

I confess that the word “suggests” here really bothers me.  The research doesn’t just suggest that lecturing is less effective for these populations of students. The research is, in fact, pretty clear.  Here is a great example of a study on the ways in which lecturing is detrimental to underrepresented students and women.   Also, here is Adam Newman‘s brilliant Storify on the limitations of using lectures to teach students with disabilities.  On this latter point, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that universal design for learning has been around for a very long time, and its framework fully supports everything Adam says in his Twitter essay.

There also seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here about the way learning works.  If a student is struggling with something–say a concept or a pedagogical strategy like lecturing–simply doing that thing over and over and over again will not necessarily help him or her to learn it better.  Plainly put:  different students need different strategies in order to learn most effectively.  If we approach education with a one-size-fits-all model, we are sure to fail our students.

“Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.”

Again, I agree with the premise here.  I assume Professor Worthen is training her students how to take notes productively and to build attention while giving them opportunities to practice, because–otherwise–how can we be sure the strategies they are using are effective?

“Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes.”

If I had to write a script and rehearse lines before walking into the classroom, I would be an unhappy fellow.  What is so beautiful about the teaching of literature, history, philosophy, and all of the other fields under the umbrella of the humanities is the serendipity of discovery, when (through discussion or other activities) students and instructor together find a new way of seeing something.  Following the path Professor Worthen has laid out for us–practicing like actors awaiting their cue–shuts off the possibility for what makes education so meaningful to begin with.  This approach, of course, also focuses on the nature of our “performance” at the front of the classroom, rather than student learning.

“I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think the point of teaching is to get our heart rates up and to improve our resting pulse. Rather than an aerobic workout, shouldn’t we be focused on getting people to learn things?

I think it’s important to note that Worthen mentions asking questions here.  I want to know more about the kinds of questions she’s asking.  I’d like to think they are deeply analytical questions that require students to engage with the material and that spark debate.  Due to the rose-colored glasses I wear, I choose to believe that they are.

“Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time.”

First, Worthen seems to be assuming that all humanists feel the same way about new modes of teaching–that we all pull out the garlic and scream in terror at the suggestion that we might consider changing.  This is hardly the case.  But again, why take such pains to further expand the gulf that has been created between the humanities and the STEM fields?  Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, we could all learn from each other.

“Such a student learns ‘when to speak and when to be silent,’ Newman wrote. ‘He is able to converse, he is able to listen.’ “

We have heard much from Worthen about the silence and the listening, but I would like to hear more about the speaking and the conversing. What role do these play in her classes?  They are, after all, elements of active learning.


I’d like to close with an anecdote of my own. Yesterday, I had the good fortune to observe Dennis Huston, a professor of English and one of Rice’s legendary teachers, for the book I am currently writing.  Dennis has won every teaching award our university offers, along with many national awards too, including the highly regarded CASE/Carnegie U.S Professor of the Year Award.  I was observing a Shakespeare course (and, yes, I have his permission to write about what I saw).  Certainly there was a fair amount of what Worthen would probably consider to be lecturing, though it came closer to an expert glossing of and commentary on the text, but he also was masterful about incorporating discussion.  When a student would respond to a question, he focused intently, kindly, on each person who was speaking, often walking right up to where they were sitting in the room. He would listen and then push further.  I must have heard him ask “Why?” dozens of times as he helped each student move beyond the surface to a more nuanced interpretation.  For Dennis, each student, each speaker, is the most important in the room while they contribute, and then they are all a team working to put together their own understanding of the text. To be sure, that interpretation may have existed before, many may have written about the same aspects of the play, but for these students, in this place, at that time, it was brand new—a thing that lived for each of them. For such a thing to happen in the humanities, we must first admit that we are not the most important people in the room (notice that I’m not dispensing with our expertise as faculty), and then we must acknowledge that learning trumps the delivery of our knowledge every single time.