I was taking an afternoon nap when my brain finally kicked into gear. I say finally because I have felt rather dull lately – probably too many cookies and candies and the long term impact of Christmas lingering and raising my blood sugars. Which is probably why I wrote this off topic first paragraph!
Today, one of my more contentious students asked me why he needs to have a thesis driven essay. ‘Why’ he asked, couldn’t he just write an essay telling me what happened. His chosen topic is the Social Gospel in Canada. This university has no History department and no Humanities faculty other than in training for art, writing, journalism and so on: but no History, no Philosophy, no English literature, etc. Most of my students are in training for business, work in Day Cares, elementary school teaching, media studies or hoping to be police officers in a program called Justice Studies. They are focussed on a pragmatic career path. We historians are part of an amorphous group labelled ‘Electives’.
Here is my answer, slightly edited:
What impact did the social gospel have? Was the impact lasting? If so why? If not, why not? What cultural forces caused it to come into being? Why were only certain churches proponents of the social gospel? Why did social gospellers in Canada go into politics and form a political party? These are all possible questions you could ask ( theses) and use evidence to answer. It isn’t enough to just give a list of events and describe the social gospel – ask questions about it.
This exchange (one of several with this student via email) sharpened my thinking about how to get ideas across to students online. What do I say to make assignments clearer? What, especially do I say to make the usefulness of the study of history apparent? Students in High School in Ontario, Canada rarely study history anymore. When I was a High School student back in the 1960s, History was a required course in Grades 9, 11 and 12. We also studied history in elementary grades 7 and 8. We had Grade 13 in those days, which was a university prep year, equivalent to the now abandoned Sixth Form in English Grammar schools.
In a face to face classroom, questions such as these arise naturally in the course of talking to students, teaching, that is, and in breaks and immediately after class. Online, they occur mostly through email. The course design used by my university has an ‘Ask the Instructor’ forum but most students avoid this in favour of sending an email question directly to me.
This reinforces the necessity of answering emails promptly, in the same day certainly and even more often if possible.
One problem that can arise, grows out of the lack of body language when communicating with a student. Last semester in my student evaluations one student claimed I was extremely rude to her. I don’t recall being rude to anyone (though I have thought rude things, but keep those to myself). This reinforces the need to be clear and friendly in your language used with students, no matter what. This is a technique that should be used in social media, but is quite rare there, where bad manners and open insults are the order of the day.
Teaching online is not social media; it is not a place to provoke battles. It is a place to work against the culture war raging today in the English-speaking world.
The study of History online is a good place to start this amelioration of anger.
Finally, I hope that training these pragmatic students to ask the question, why, and to look for balanced evidence in answer to this question, is a pragmatic reason to study History.