Becky Nicolaides’ recent piece in Perspectives on being a scholar who is “locked out” of research access is a must-read.  Rather than simply contrasting those with university affiliations and those without, she draws on a 2017 AHA study to explore a variety of experiences that will resonate with many of us who have spent time at institutions where access has been insufficient or inconsistent.

One line caught my eye:

Some lamented that their students could not access key primary sources, limiting their ability to produce research papers.

This is something I struggled with at the small private university where I taught as a VAP for three years. While the institution had some good database access, it largely wasn’t in the field that I taught. As much as I loved having students work with early American newspapers and pamphlets, it became significantly harder to do when I couldn’t have students use Readex or APS. 1)Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!

When we talk about universal design in teaching, we mean that our institutions, courses, and assignments should be accessible and usable to the greatest number of people right out of the box, to so speak. In practice, many of us still create courses and assignments without regard to this and then change things in order to make them usable for students with disabilities. Moving from a state R1 to a small private university with far fewer institutional resources made me go through a similar process in order for my courses and assignments to be “usable.” Some assignments had to be reworked while others just had to be discarded.

Now you may disagree with my analogy here, or think that it’s comparing apples and oranges. I think many (but nowhere near all) faculty members would admit that it’s bad to ignore the principles of universal design in your courses and assignments. But different schools have different resources, right? That’s to be expected and therefore it’s perfectly fine to make those adjustments depending on where you’re teaching.

I suppose it is fine, to an extent, but I think we should consider what it means for how we think about and talk about pedagogy.

To put it bluntly, I think it’s all too easy to equate well-resourced pedagogy with rigorous pedagogy. This matters because it frustrates many instructors whose institutions lack resources or who are barred from using those resources as a result of their employment status. But it also matters because it can lead us to unthinkingly expect and draw on our students’ personal resources.2)For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.

A few years ago, when I had students in my women’s history class create digital commonplace books, I would have loved for them to build websites using the university’s infrastructure and resources. Other universities have prioritized making sure each student can have a domain of their own. That’s really cool. But I couldn’t even get space as a faculty member, let alone space for my students, so we built them all as free WordPress blogs and made do with the features we had.  When I hit an institutional resource barrier, I knew I couldn’t shift it, so I changed course.

But I still had students struggle with the project because they lacked consistent internet at home. I know what the response is here: “But they have access through the school! There are computer labs!” There are computer labs. But they still required students be on campus to use them, and more than that, there weren’t enough of them to allow students to work on the projects when they had available time. Many students who lacked consistent internet at home also worked 30+ hours a week; simply telling them they could loiter in the library all night waiting for an open computer was not only not going to work, it was insulting.

My institution was quick to confirm that it didn’t provide the resources for my students to create their own website, but even had I asked, I doubt it would have admitted that it didn’t provide sufficient computer resources for the needs of the student body. As such, while I knew that some of my students might have trouble completing the project using their home internet, I thought institutional and personal resources in combination would be sufficient. It was only when some students told me that they were having trouble, and in the process revealed financial insecurity they had every right to keep private from me, that I realized how under-resourced the project still was.

Some might argue that the “solution” here was to not attempt something that required internet access. Setting aside how ludicrous that would sound to many, it’s really unfair that I should have to consider such a thing for my students. I wasn’t just making it digital because that was cool. I had sound pedagogical reasons for this project being digital and public, and I think my students deserved to have the opportunity to work on this kind of project and gain these digital skills, even though the project was far less flashy than what many of my colleagues can do with their students.

I could have done it without the digital component. Maybe I should have. It wouldn’t have allowed students to practice quite the same set of skills, but it still would have been a good project that made use of rigorous historical thinking.  But would it have read as interesting, cool, and impressive pedagogy to search committee members who think they prioritize that sort of thing? I’m not sure. We might say that we assess rigor based on the historical thinking that’s done, not the format in which its done, but I think we all know that’s not completely true. And for better or worse, how those “above” me assess my pedagogy matters, even if I their measures are poor.

But it goes beyond technology. This is the time of year that I see lots of colleagues on Twitter posting photos of the cool pile of books they’ve assigned for their fall classes. They’re always full of new and interesting books, challenging stuff that will give students a lot to think about.

I could never in a million years get away with assigning a pile of books like that.

I don’t say this because many of my students work full time jobs and reading academic monographs takes time they don’t have, though that might often be the case. I say this because there is no possible way most of my students could afford to buy those books, even heavily used. I say this because by putting those books on the syllabus, I’m inviting those students to do one of three things: buy none of the books and do none of the reading, buy a few books and do some of the reading, or buy all of them and sacrifice God knows what else in their life to do so. None of these choices would lead to good outcomes for the student or the class in general.3)If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.

I don’t think I sacrifice rigor by considering my students’ personal resources when designing a class any more than I do by considering my institution’s resources. In many ways, I’ve found it forces me to think hard about what exactly I want my students to learn and consider how much stuff is really necessary for them to learn it productively. I also know that many faculty members, deans, and even parents would look at my syllabus and look at one containing 8 nifty monographs and conclude that my class was inherently less rigorous.4)I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.

Just as rigor shouldn’t be based on how technologically-advanced an assignment is, it shouldn’t be based on how much it makes students read. By tacitly equating well-resourced courses and assignments – or courses and assignments that presume and expect institutional and personal resources can be brought to bear – with academic rigor, we can sometimes shift pedagogical conversations away from the thorny and still-unclear business of how to teach historical thinking.

I think it’s perfectly fine to think about how to do an existing assignment in a more clever way or want to introduce your students to the most current and innovative scholarship on a topic. I think I try to do both of those things in my own courses. But I think we need to make sure we aren’t simply throwing more resources at the problem, so to speak, or worse, asking our students to do so.5)If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.

I guess I want to end with some questions, though I don’t claim to be the first person to ask them.  What ideas and methods are at the core of how we teach historical thinking? How do we talk about teaching and learning in a system shot through with institutional and social inequities? How do we equitably compare and assess methods and assignments in light of these inequities? What would our pedagogy look like if we placed a higher priority on making sure that it was always accessible to those who lack access to further financial resources? If it’s not there, and if we can’t get it to that place, is it any good?

 

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. Yes, I know there are other online newspaper collections, and I used them at times, but I think it’s okay to say that Chronicling America isn’t a replacement for Readex. Oh, for those long discarded Shaw Shoemaker microfilm reels!
2. For the purposes of this discussion, when I say “resources” I’m talking about financial resources. Issues of cultural capital are important and they’re often related to these other resource issues, but I’m bracketing them off here in a way that I hope isn’t too problematic. I also know that simply attending an institution of higher education means that most of our students have some financial resources, but I think we all know that being able to take out student loans or get scholarships doesn’t mean that students have ready money to buy their books every fall.
3. If your suggestion is that 25 students can ILL all of those books and get them all to arrive at precisely the right time to read them, I’d love to know how I can come live in your fantasy land because it sounds pretty sweet.
4. I know that many of my colleagues who assign these 8 nifty monographs are precisely NOT the kind of people who’d think my class was less rigorous.
5. If you want to have an argument about how students shouldn’t be in school if they can’t afford to spend some (more) money on their education, you can escort yourself right out.