An Annotated Interview with a Historian, August 2006
Many people who are interested in Decoding have asked if they might see an interview. Below is a transcript from one of the interviews with a historian teaching a seminar on the history of the American home. It was conducted by the Leah Shopkow and George Rehry as part of the Indiana University History Learning Project. Like many interviews, it is not simple or linear. The interviewee had to do considerable work to gain a deeper perspective on what made tasks that seem simple and direct to a professional into obstacles to learning for students. We greatly appreciate her willingness to remain with the process even when it was demanding and to allow us to share this transcript. We also want to acknowledge the extent to which she was able to turn the kinds of intense analysis that she uses in her historical research to bear on the problems faced by her students. There was no single moment in this exchange in which all the problems of her students were suddenly illuminated, but along the way some very important issues were explored in depth, and our interviewee gained some crucial insights into some of the mental operations that students need to master to succeed in such courses. A list of some of these are provided at the end of the interview
The transcript has been slightly edited to remove repetition and details that were not relevant to understanding the learning tasks required in the course. I have added comments about the process in italics, and some of the required mental operations are marked in bold and yellow. The comments of the interviewers are included, and they give a sense of how the process can be moved along when interviewees encountered blocks and encouraged to continue.
Finally, it is important to stress that every interview is unique, and it is always crucial to respond to the specific learning situation and the personality of the interviewees, rather than to mechanically follow a fixed process. Thus, the goal of including this example is to provide a sense of how an interview might develop rather than a model for all such investigations.
At the conclusion of the interview is an analysis of what has been learned and a list of some of the mental operations made explicit by the process.
Defining the Bottleneck
Leah: …We are going to start with the issue of the bottleneck.
Leah: . . . . The point at which you give your students an assignment and they have things that prevent them from doing the assignment the way you would like them to do.
Leah: So, why don’t you should start by explaining what bottlenecks your students are experiencing?
Historian: Okay. I’m going to try to do this succinctly but it might take me a while which may have something to do with why my students have trouble with it. I’m taking a bottleneck from a course I called “History of the American Home.” And I am particularly interested in talking about this particular problem because I am transforming it from a seminar course to a lecture course. . . . What the course tries to do is to show students that concepts of home change over time, that concepts of home vary among peoples of different classes, races, ethnicities so on and so forth. And finally that dominant notions of home which not coincidently tend to be white middle class notions of home have very powerful implications for the lives of other people — for people whose homes don’t fit that model.
And so where I tended to come to a real bottleneck is when we hit the 19th Century which is when you begin to see the notion of home that in some ways is still pretty dominant today. The idea that the home is a place of sentiment. It is an antidote to the marketplace. It is a place that is removed from the workplace. It is a very gendered notion. Home is women’s sphere, and the public world of politics and work is men’s sphere. And that is the ideal. There are all kinds of things going on behind that ideal and I want my students to understand that I want them to understand that that ideal is a constructed one — constructed by particular people — that it embodies tensions and that it performs I guess what I would call a certain kind of cultural work or I don’t use that term with my students. I say larger cultural functions.
And so what I try to do . . . is to assign a 19th Century short story by a guy named T. S. Arthur who was a prolific author of sentimental fiction. And I think it is a wonderful story, and I can’t imagine using anything else because it is short and, as I see it to the point. And to me it is so transparent and so easy to pick apart, and to my students it is not. It is a story called “Blessings in Disguise.” . . . [She describes the story at length.] . . . but what Arthur does is he spares his characters any true poverty. They don’t have to do that so they can chose to stay in this 2 story middle-class home with two servants. So contradiction number one . . . is that all you need is love — you know as Lennon and McCartney would have said it. But it is not really all you need. If all you need is love why don’t they move to the tenement. . . . And that is one of the things that students don’t get.
The other thing they don’t get is this is also a wonderful story of the way in which this dominant white middle-class sentimental notion of home erases the notion of work from the home. Because we know . . . that even women who had a couple of servants still had to work very, very hard given what 19th Century housework entailed, and of course the servants had to work harder, and if you are trying to say that the home is removed from the marketplace that means ignoring the fact that you have waged labor in the form of domestic servants in the middle class home. And this story is so wonderful because you never see the servants and you never see any work going on. There is this wonderful ending scene when Mr. Barkley comes home at the end of the day. And Mrs. Barkley is in the wonderfully tastefully decorated parlor. And I love how everything is tastefully decorated even though they have no money, and dinner is ready, and the fire is burning, and everything is clean and shining and radiating in middle-class morality, and this happens as if by magic. There is absolutely no discussion of how all this gets done and she is befitting her middle-class status as immaculate and clean, and in reality had she been working all day things might have been a little bit different. And students also can’t see this that the home was really a workplace even though people argued that it wasn’t.
So I want students to understand the kind of contradictions in that ideal and what some of the purposes of those contradictions of that ideal might be. I think the reason they have problems understanding it is that these are relatively sophisticated ideas for IU undergraduates, although my brighter students do get them. But I think more important is that this 19th Century notion of the home is very close to their own. . . . Some students have a very difficult time recognizing their own class position. And this was very, very clear to me the second time I taught this course. It was suppose to be a course in Afro-American history. We were doing a hire. And we didn’t make the hire. So I taught it as an overload. And since I am not qualified to teach Afro-American history I went to change the title. So I had a class with maybe 20. And with 5 or 6 Afro-American students which is an unprecedented proportion for me. But what was interesting was that the Afro-American students could recognize that this was a white middle-class ideal and that they could step outside of that. The white middle-class students simply couldn’t. So I suppose my problem is getting students to both move outside themselves and also to recognize themselves. And that is something I have difficulty doing or getting across. So I will stop there. I hope that makes some sense. . . . [The interviewee here has spent a good deal of time fleshing out a particular place in her course where a specific bottleneck to learning occurs. In the interactions that follow, this proves to have been very useful, since it helped keep the focus on what students have difficulty with and kept the discussion rooted in the actual problems that arise.]
Beginning to Explore the Mental Operations Required to Overcome the Bottleneck
Leah: How well do your students discuss class in other contexts? Not where they are being called upon to recognize it as implicit. But, when you are discussing it explicitly, do they seem to understand how it works or what it is. [Here Leah is trying to decide where to focus the inquiry – whether the problem is caused by the particular media (popular 19th century fiction) or the concept of social class itself.]
Historian: They don’t initially. I have a whole class exercise which is a previous bottleneck that I developed as part of my previous participation and FLP [Freshman Learning Project] which works fairly well. Where I use a series of images to get students to think about social hierarchy and social experiences and what I have them do I have images of home, of workplace sort of material experience. So the working class people are picking garbage picking through garbage off of a barge in the east river. And the middle-class people are sitting around a nicely appointed dining table. And that helps them to understand the various ways in which class works. And I do that with this course as well. And they seem to get that. . [Note that the interviewee is beginning to move from the bottleneck and the necessary mental operations to a description of what she has done in previous courses. Had this digression continued, it would probably have been necessary for the interviewers to draw her back to the issue of defining mental operations. But the historian, herself, moved back spontaneously to the issue at hand, and this discussion of previous strategies may have helped her clarify the bottleneck that she was discussing in this interview.]
I think their problem is seeing how a particular piece of literature might work to uphold the values of a certain class at the expense of another, but make the experiences of that class natural and normal which is what this story does. So you are absolutely right, though class is something that my students have a very difficult time understanding. And I think that is in part because they do not want to admit that class is an issue in the U. S. And they are all middle class. A survey showed this in something like 90% people surveyed. And this has been done several times, and people like Bill Gates to people who are homeless will say they are middle class.
George: The part of the bottleneck that I am interested in asking you a question about is the several times you used the word appreciate. You want them to appreciate the contradictions. What does it mean when you use that term? What are you actually saying? [Note that the interviewer here is pressing the interviewee to explore the processes hidden within a word. By problematizing “appreciate” he is pressing her to break up the a vague, generic task into its constituent parts in preparation for eventually modeling each for students.]
Historian: Well I suppose I mean simply I want them to understand that a text may not have a single meaning. I suppose to use the parlance of deconstruction that a text has a subtext and that almost any subject, any document, any source one looks at it — it is unlikely that you are going to be able to extract only one meaning. And I think with somebody like Arthur this was his formula. I mean he wrote any number of stories like this. He was not unique. I think he himself and writers like him were struggling with these concepts. And that is to me what is exciting about close reading of sources like this is where you can see the very people who are the proponents, the propagandists, for these ideas are themselves confused. So I suppose “appreciate” would mean critical thinking may be or a very close careful reading of a source. [Here we have the first of the crucial mental operations that students must master to make historical sense of this story – i.e. to understand that a text can have a subtext as well as a text.]
Leah: What would they have to do to read closely? And maybe it would be helpful to think about what it is you think they are not doing which gets in the way of them doing that kind of close reading that you want them to do. [The interviewee has still not succeeded in fully defining the mental operations required to “appreciate” stories such as this. Therefore, the interviewer is taking a different tack to help her make these clear.]
Historian: Well I guess I will begin with what I try to do. I give them very specific prompts. I ask them to consider all the things that didn’t happen . . . And so then I started asking them very explicitly to think about why Arthur did not allow his protagonists to experience poverty. And that stumped them. So I guess this is going to be one of those “I don’t know” moments but I’m going to try and stumble through it. Close careful reading would mean taking some time on it. I mean it is very short and I try to tell my students that just because an assignment is short doesn’t mean that you should read it ultra quickly. But telling students that doesn’t always translate into them spending a lot of time with it. So I suppose that might mean that you would read it more than once. That would be a very good starting place. You would have to read it and take seriously your instructor’s prompts which of course I guess are not necessarily reading closely but at least it is take advantage of the assistance offered which doesn’t always happen. And I sympathize. Students don’t always want to sit with a piece of paper by their side. And you know here is a list of questions to think about. They want to read something and some things in these stories are very appealing. I mean to me (and I suspect to you were you to read them), you would find them simplistic, overly sentimental, quite amusing. I mean the students always find the fact that in Arthur and other people’s fiction the meaning of certain terms have shifted. So that people ejaculate along these stories which simply means you know exclaim. But you know it is an easy read. It is not Kafka. So I think the fact that it is an easy read kind of seduces them into thinking that there is not much going on there. [A series of important steps for students reading this text have poured out in rapid succession – thinking about what is absent from the reading, recognizing that reading requires more than grasping the plot, and posing questions about what is happening in the story. It will be necessary return to some of these later in the interview and to break them down into their component parts.]
So that is not really answering the question is it. So maybe it means I don’t know what close reading means myself. It is something that I am able to do but I don’t know how I do it. And I don’t know how to tell my students to do it. [The interviewee had actually begun the process of breaking down the process of reading this story. But she had a good sense of what Decoding was about and recognized that there was much that remained unexplored here. In other situations it might have been necessary for the interviewer to press for deeper analysis at this point.]
Leah: That is great when we arrive at the place where we are trying to get too. . . . If we don’t know where the problem is, we can’t begin to even think about a solution. Our job here is not to find the solution. It is to walk around the problem and poke our fingers at it. [Here Leah has done two important things. First, she has reassured the interviewee that she is doing very well and that her difficulty is a sign that the process is, in fact, working. Secondly, she has reminded the historian that the purpose of the interview is not to solve all of these problems, but to take a first step towards understanding what students need to be taught.]
George: But you do read closely when you read things?
George: So the question then I mean you said you don’t know how you do it
George: but you do it. So there must be things that go on you know things that you are looking for questions you ask yourself or some sort of background process when you come across something that you say to yourself, “I’m going to do a close reading of this but I’m not going to skim it or something.” So maybe you could describe that process of how you do it. [Here George is gently drawing the interviewee back to the task at hand. The alternation here between the two interviewers and the way that they take slightly different directions illustrates the value of having two people asking questions.]
Historian: Well, I actually closely read and skim it at the same time which I think is a skill that all of us have picked up by virtue of what we do. I know what cues to look for because I know the secondary scholarship. . . . What I did was post background information on ONCOURSE [an electronic teaching platform] and tried to give a little preview at the end of the previous class. What they should be thinking about. When I teach it as a lecture, the background information will be a lecture or at least many lectures and so part of that I suppose means close reading being able to synthesize from various sources . . . So that they are able to draw connections between the kinds of information and cues, I can give them because I have read all the secondary scholarship that teaches me how to interpret this particular source in this particular light. And they have not read that scholarship or if they did they probably would be very very confused. And so part of I suppose what that means I need to do a better job of helping them to understand the connections between the kinds of background concepts I am providing them with and the actual text that they are dealing with. And part of it too is in addition to secondary scholarship in my own research I read hundreds of stories like this. So I know the formula and it is I mean it is very rare that one would be a surprise by a story like this. So part of it I suppose part of what I call close reading is experience. And it is experience that my students won’t have. [There is actually a danger at moments such as this that interviewees will be distracted by the realization of what they have not done to help students in the past. A sense of guilt can derail the process, and it is often valuable at such moments for an interviewer to reassure the instructor that we are involved in new discoveries here, that we have all missed opportunities to maximizing learning in the past, and that our purpose here is to see that there are fewer such missed opportunities in the future. In this case, however, the interviewer was able to remain focused on the task at hand.]
George: And it is the experience of all the knowledge that you bring from all those other readings?
Historian: I would think that is part of it. Yes. That one sees patterns very quickly and again I want to stress that this is 19th Century popular culture. It is not high literature. It is the worse kind of pap. I mean it is highly amusing for that reason but it is not rocket science to read and understand it. . . . [she spends some time discussing the way that her students consume popular culture without seeing the formulaic patterns in it.]
Leah: Do you find that their ability to do these things changes over the course of the semester? [Leah draws the interviewee back to the issues at hand.]
Historian: Oh. Definitely. I definitely see growth in all of my students. I do find this particular bottleneck frustrating however because it is kind of foundational. That because the course is chronological I begin with the colonial era and I end with the present. That they really need to see the middle class home as one class’s or one set of people’s notions about what an appropriate moral home is and not the model. I mean they can personally think it is the model but they need at least to step back and understand that there might be other models of home because, if they don’t understand this when they come to Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives [a book with text and photographs presenting the slums of New York that appeared in 1890], then they are unable to see Riis’ biases, which are so incredibly obvious to a historian. Instead they just say “Oh, these poor people. Look at these awful conditions in which they live. Oh, they must enjoy filth. And look these people are working in the home.” And well yeah these tenement and slums were terrible things. “But gee look at these pictures. Look at these people have pictures on the walls. Gee they look like they are wearing their best clothes. They are posing for the camera you know they are doing their best here.” And so simply condemning their residences that is something else other than “home,” which is basically what Riis does and seeing them as immoral or lazy may not represent their experience. So you know this kind of bottleneck does have consequences particularly for some of the weaker students who then are continually unable to at least entertain the idea that there might be something beyond the dominant ideal and that there might be reasons that some peoples may resist this dominate ideal. And that for example phenomenon like homelessness might have something to do with dominant notions of what a proper home is. So therefore you eliminate all these single residences occupancy units and people are left out on the street.
So this notion of the sentimental middle class home that begins in the 19th Century has tremendous social consequences. And if students don’t see it as the creation of a particular social group then they have trouble. …. It is not just that they are unable to move beyond their own class. They sort of identify and become the T. S. Arthur and they assume that viewpoint. Okay so rather than seeing this story or other things like them as a viewpoint of a particular person in a particular point in time, they take it as some sort of truth . . . And it is the truth that resonances them and they then apply that truth and that judgment to other issues and people they encounter later on in the course.
Leah: What would they have to do not to automatically assume the viewpoint of whatever it is they reading? I assume it is mostly reading.
Leah: I want to come back to when they look at a picture it is different but let us stay with reading for the moment. [Here Leah has once again kept the focus on what students have to do to complete the task at hand.]
Historian: Well I guess I don’t know. . . . I have a whole little handout for how you analyze historical documents. Ask questions such as who produced it? Why? . . . And I think that what is interesting is that students can basically do that quite well, that they can follow those guidelines. Who produced this particular source? Why? For what audience? What argument was this person who produced a source making? That I think students can do that quite well with many, many sources. But sometimes when something literary hits home to them or really resonates with them, they lose that ability. So I’m not sure what it is they would have to do in this particular case. And they are very emotionally committed to these dominant notions of home and I think they don’t want to challenge them. [Here the interview touches on issues of emotional bottlenecks that might be pursued in more depth in another interview.]
George: Well. I’m going to move back just a little bit.
George: Because we were having that conversation about the process that you would go through yourself and you know you had identified that through that conversation you had identified that you had a need for them to be able to synthesize and pull from different documents but you also mentioned that of course that your experiences are much richer.
George: So that you have [something] you call on when you do the process that obviously they won’t
George: What other things either do you do or do you think that they would do or need to do? . . . Is there anything else other than you using those other documents or other historical sources and making those comparisons? Is there anything else that you think as a process they would have to go through? [George is here returning to the initial question – what do students have to do to read this story historically – and asking if there are other aspects of the process that still need to be explored.]
Historian: Well I … Yeah I suppose what I ask them to think about — and again I may err by using terminology that they may not understand — but I ask them to look for contradictions and tensions within the story. And I do this for almost every sort of document. And it maybe that they don’t always understand what those terms mean. I
remember David Pace giving a presentation years and years ago about the perils of asking students to compare two of whatever. Because when we say compare we mean both how things are alike and how they are not alike. But students often think that compare means just how things are similar. So similarly it may be that, when I say “be alert for tensions and contradictions within this story,” they don’t know what that means. And it may also mean in this particular kind of source, which is a short story or a novel where it may require a kind of understanding of plot, [students believe that they need to know] what are the key events that happen? Which I think is indicative of the larger problem that we all encounter as teachers which is how do you teach your students to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t? So but how I do that or how students would do that – boy I’m just not sure.
Leah: One of the things you said about this story is which is interesting One of the things you want them to get out of the story is not just to notice what is there — They are being ruined They are having to move to the suburbs. But also what is not there — the invisibility of the work. How do you recognize what is not in a source? [Here Leah is returning to a theme that was touched on briefly earlier in the interview so that the process of recognizing what is missing in a text can be broken down into its constituent parts.]
Historian: Well again that is where you have to look at when you read scholarship. That is the short cut, right? But you look at other sources. And students do read the story in conjunction with some very accessible and interesting secondary literature on housework that reconstructs exactly what you would have to do to keep a house clean and to cook various meals in the 19th Century, and what the technology would be. And they also read it in conjunction with some very accessible scholarship on 19th Century middle class materialism as well as some wonderful images by the architect Andrew Jackson Downing of suburban cottages. Which are just wonderful because what he does is he has a cottage for a workingman. Cottage for a family with an income of $500. a year. Cottage for a family with an income for $200,000. a year. And so they can get that.
But they have a hard time then seeing what is absent in the story. So maybe I should just give up on the story. And just have them read the other sources. But the story I think is important because it is a wonderful example of how certain things like class differences and work are erased and how that myth perpetuates itself. And certainly, when I ask them what they think of as work today, they think it means something that you earn money doing. And it is also hard because a lot of them didn’t have to do a lot of chores when they were kids. And they were not a stage in their lives when they do a lot of housework or a lot of cooking. And most of them don’t have children. So maybe I just need to invite them back in 10 years and maybe they will understand what Mrs. Barkley [one of the characters in the short story by Arthur discussed earlier] really would have gone through.
Leah: Do you have any students who can do this?
Historian: Oh. Yes. Yes.
Leah: What is it that they do? What do you think makes it able to do these things that the other students aren’t able to do? [Once again Leah is bringing the focus back to what students have to do.]
Historian: Well. I think they are better critical thinkers. They are definitely people who can step back and take themselves out of the story or of anything else. And say okay that this is a creation of particular people. And they can read a chapter from a book on cooking in the 19th Century and say you know “Wow! It would have taken you hours to do this and you would have been probably pretty hot, pretty dirty and pretty exhausted. And gee, you know you don’t see that happening in Arthur’s stories.” Maybe synthesizes is the wrong word. Maybe it is comparing sources or using different sources to understand each of them. And certainly a lot of it is using secondary scholarship to illuminate primary scholarship. So they are able to forge connections that is what it is. Now how they do that and again I really apologize because I keep coming to the same place. How do you do that? I don’t know. And that is I suppose the problem that we are all dealing with is that in probably in all aspects of our teaching is that we just know how to do things that are second nature to us and they are not to our students and because they are so automatic to us it is just really hard to reconstruct what it is we do or really even how we learned.
George: But there was something very interesting that you just said. . . . You have been talking about the same things from different perspectives.
George: But something you said just this time that was a little bit different was you said that the students had to step back. [Here George is feeding back to the interviewee something that she has said that he wants her to consider in greater detail.]
George: And I’m assuming that you do that too.
Historian: Oh, absolutely.
George: So what does it mean to step back? If you were just to describe that to me.
Historian: Okay. Well, it means that I understand that people I am reading about in the past are not just like me. . . . As I have said, the 19th Century middle-class notion home is not so different from at least our dominant conservative ideals today, although there are very important differences. But it is to understand that certain people in the past preceded from fundamentally different assumptions than we might today. It means with any source, historical or not, thinking about — again I am coming back to these same phrases — who produced it Now that doesn’t mean specifically who, like Leah Shopkow, created it. But it means that say somebody who was probably white or middle class or you know depending on what you are looking at but you know what position in society that person probably [would] have from what you can tell from the source. Why do I think or students think that this particular source was created? What was its purpose? I always tell students that any document whether it is a visual image, a film, a song, a story, a novel, a text whatever has an argument. It may not be explicit but there or a purpose. There is a certain interpretation that this particular source is trying to convey. So all of that means that that is part of stepping back is analyzing whatever sources you encounter and being able to recognize that they are not some sort of truth. That they reflect the thinking of particular people for particular purposes It doesn’t mean that they are always conscious of these purposes. It doesn’t mean that they always got it right or were able to do so without contradicting themselves or to show that they themselves might have been confused. Just as I’m showing that I’m very confused at the moment. But it does mean being able to . . . step back or get outside or get behind whatever it is, rather than simply thinking that it represents fact or truth.
Leah: You have talked about them getting outside themselves but it seems to me implicit in something you said, that you want that they adopt Riis’ distance and that you want them not to accept that distance but instead look at people and say, “Oh! They put up curtains.
Leah: The implication is that they need to be able to do both of those things.
Leah: And to know when to do one and when to do the other and how to make them work together.
Historian: Yeah. Yeah. And with Riis part of what I want them to do is to contrast his text to his actual photographs. But you are absolutely right. I am. Now that I think about it, I am asking them to do both. . . . I always tell them that dominant notions of home are not bad. I am not trying to demonize them but I am trying to help students understand that these dominant ideals have consequences certainly for women and certainly for people whose lives don’t resemble the dominant ideal. But you are absolutely right. I mean I think history requires you to do two things at once. One of them is to step back to think critically but the other is to develop a kind of empathy for your subjects and to understand what it is that they were experiencing. And yeah that is a very, very tricky proposition. [It is worth noting that this realization (from my own point of view as a professional historian) is worth the entire interview process on its own. Our source is revealing something that is essential to much historical practice and absolutely automatic to those in my discipline. But, once it is spelled out, it immediately becomes clear why students might find it confusing. DP]
I think this [the difficulty many students have with this text] has to do with the class backgrounds of the majority of my students. They really sympathize with the Barkleys. They really feel sorry for these people who have to move out of their mansion. But they have a really hard time sympathizing with Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the lower eastside. And you don’t always want students to sympathize. There are people in history who are absolutely despicable. I suppose empathy is not the same as sympathy but I do try to tell students “In the parlance of the 1970s when I came of age you want to understand where people are coming from, [but that] doesn’t mean you have to like them.” But you are absolutely right that students need to do two things at once. And somehow I do that. And I know which to do when but I’m not sure I know how to teach students which to do when or how to figure out which to do when.
Leah: Do they do better with images than tests? . . . [At this point the interviewee provides a long discussion of how students respond to images in her courses, but there is little new about the basic mental operations required in the course.]
Leah: Do they do better with some texts than others? I mean
Historian: Uh-huh. Yeah.
Leah: it may be that stories are the slipperiest thing because they have such a powerful reality effect and it is easy to sort of get drawn into them, and not be critical. [Here Leah is testing a hypothesis – that many of the difficulties students have with this text arise from its nature as a fictional presentation with literary power.]
. . . I’m not sure I can make a clear distinction between sort of stories and other kinds of texts. Maybe the story is a particularly powerful formula, but I think it is a difference between text that they see as speaking to them personally and . . . text that they see as being about people who are not like them. So for example Bayard Rustin’s “Manifesto on the Watts’ Riot” where he very, very movingly talks about people. Why people would loot? And he has this wonderful description of a family that had no table. And so they steal a table from the furniture store. You know someone has already broken a window. And some chairs and they get home and there is one they need one more chair. And they go back and they are arrested. And he is writing to counter this notion of mindless violence in rage. And again this last time I taught it, there was a really interesting racial divide because the African-American students could understand what was going on. But the white students just thought that Rustin was just apologizing for these people. . . . I am asking them to do the same thing sort of identify and step back. So obviously he is a civil rights activist. He wants to use this particular incident for a particular purpose. But it was very interesting that it just kind of played into their racial fears . . . So part of it I guess is maybe I am just making this course too sophisticated. For my students maybe it is just I am pitching it too high — working toward getting my students to see that there is always more than one thing going on.
And I think a lot of our students have been trained to think that there is one answer or one thing that is going on. So you know I’m not sure it is just the story problem. I think it is a sort of perspective problem, identification problem and to use that word “appreciation” again. A failure to appreciate contradictions and you know my failure obviously to enable all of my students to appreciate these contradictions. I don’t want to say that none of my students get this. That is not true at all. And I would say the top third of any class gets it and then there is a kind of glimmering middle and then maybe there is a lower third that is just kind of clueless. And you know sometimes the cluelessness may have to do with perhaps not having done the work and in an intensive writing seminar I can monitor that fairly carefully. Although it is with a very short paper. I think each week I think they wrote like a 600 word paper. You know they can figure out they can you know read the first page of something and throw a line in. And so some of it may be due to not doing the work It is always hard to tell whether any of these problems ring a counter have to do with the simple fact of they you know they didn’t do the reading. Or they read it and they really tried and they didn’t get it. And sometimes I find it is difficult to distinguish between those two.
Leah: Well, there are a number of things here that have come up. The role that emotion plays in what students are able to do and what they are not able to do is one that has come up. And often . . . very strong identification of students with what they see . . . encourages them to feel that they should adopt what they are seeing. Or encourages them to reject what they are seeing. I mean it goes both ways. . . .
The issue of understanding contraction leads me to a question about what your students’ understanding of history is. Because as we have talked to other people … [the students’] ability to see perspectives seemed to be very much linked to their sense of what it is that they ought to be doing in a history class and what they understand history to be. [Here near the end of the interview, Leah is moving back and asking whether some of the specific difficulties students have in reading are connected to a broader misunderstanding of how history is conducted – of its epistemology.]
Historian: . . . I suppose maybe that even students in a course called the “History of the American Home” think of history as a series of facts and that there is kind of one truth. –that there is a kind of, I don’t know, omniscient perspective. And that may be part of what is going on. Although I have to admit in many of the courses I teach it irritates me to no end when students say on evaluations “Well this wasn’t really history or they will say to me Oh! I really liked this class because it is really not history,” that is actually kind of liberating for them because it means they can psychologically dispense with those notions. And I think a lot of them are able to do that. But I think it may be a deeper issue that I suspect is a problem not just for us but for people who teach in a variety of disciplines that their [the students’] previous experience was very much that there was an answer, a definitive answer And that is not always the case. On the other hand I don’t want to say I don’t have any definitive answers. I want them to understand it is not just anything goes. Before you can get to the place where you start arguing about interpretations, you have to get the basics. Then if they don’t like my interpretation of something or if they think my interpretation of “Blessings in Disguise” is wrong, then we can talk about it. But they have to get to that point first so. So that is also an interesting issue. . . .
George: One other thing that came up about a question earlier . . . [involved] one of these words that I heard for the first time within all of the sort of circling around. Which was that they might fear. This was in reference to Watts but there might be some fear and I’m wondering have you given any thought to that in terms of that to the obstacle. Is there a part there where they might be afraid to embrace these notions that there is more than one answer or that you know that race is an issue or class is an issue. Have you ever seen any indication of that? [George is once more raising the issue of possible emotional bottlenecks that might create a second difficulty for students on top of the cognitive obstacles that have provided the basis for most of the interview.]
Historian: Well, I think it goes without saying that very large numbers of our students come from very conservative backgrounds and come from families with particular points of view that may be hostile to the idea of entertaining that class exists or that race is a problem. I think too that one of the interesting things I have discovered is that, when students start talking about their own families, their experiences reflect the larger national statistics. About half of them come from families where their families are divorced. But they embrace this kind of combination of 19th Century sentimentalism plus “Leave it to Beaver” with great verve. So somehow they have absorbed long ago some notion of what they think is right. So it may be that they there is a kind of admitting that there are other kinds of families or thinking about other kinds of homes to use a bad pun is a bit too close to home. [It] may perhaps be uncovering or poking at an emotional sore or something that they are already upset about. So I mean from their own cultures they have these ideals of perfection. So I think that may be part of it.
And I think a large part of it, though. is that they – not all of them I keep using these terms like “they” and “students” and over generalizing. I guess I am just talking about a kind of lowest common denominator common experience. I don’t want to talk as if they are all alike — But I think that many in their previous education had classes in a variety of disciplines where there was a right answer and a wrong answer. And that you know you with your number 2 pencil you filled in the dot and the teacher fed it through the scantron machine. So there is a tremendous fear about grading which is justified. . . . I think for many students there is still the sense that if I don’t get the right answer I won’t get an A. So . . . I am talking about contradictions and subtexts. I think that students see subtexts that I don’t or that they create these notions of how I’m going to evaluate them. Even when I tell them something completely different. And I do my best I am very explicit about sticking to my standards and I make it very clear that if they think I have violated my standards they need to come and see me. And if I have, I then change their grade. So I think that is another fear — the fear of being wrong. [Here at the end of the interview another emotional bottleneck has appeared—a fear of being wrong that keeps students from fully engaging in the work of the course. There was no time to pursue this theme at this point, but it is clearly worth exploring in future interviews.]
This interview revealed a number of important steps that students must master before they can successfully encounter texts, such as the one described by this historian. It is clear that there are also some emotional issues that may be contributing to students’ difficulties. These could easily be the subject of a follow-up interview to explore ways in which students’ resistance to approach this material in a more productive manner could be minimized. Nonetheless, the very serious effort that this historian put into the interview yielded some important insights into mental operations that could be modeled for students. Some of these are listed below.
Students must be able to:
• Understand that a text can have multiple meanings
• Ask questions about what did not happen in a text, as well as what was actually on the page.
• Recognize that carefully reading requires an investment of time beyond just passing one’s eyes over the words
*Read more than once
*Compare the text to a series of prompts or questions
• Look for clues that relate the text to the secondary scholarship on the topic
• Consider other possible models of the phenomena being presented (in this case the family)
• Recognize the biases that a figure from the past brings to his or her description of phenomena
• Look for contradictions and tensions within the text
• Distinguish between what is and is not important in a text
• Step back and take themselves out of the story
• Recognize that the text is the creation of particular people
• Compare different sources to understand each of them better
• Recognize that people in the 19th century are different than us, that they have very different assumptions
• Reconstruct the identity of the person who produced the text
• Ask questions about the text – why was it produced, what was its purpose, what is it arguing