Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Thought for Grading Day

I am incredibly discouraged by my students' final projects. Yes, I know that I am teaching for a Gen Ed class, but it is still a Harvard Gen Ed class.

One of the main themes of our course has been that Harvard's museum collections are, in many significant ways, artifacts of American imperialism. The Peabody Museum's anthropological collections are the most obvious example, but other collections have substantial imperialist implications. The Natural History Museum is full of things that Agassiz collected in South America during his quest to prove his theory of polygenesis. The Herbarium is full of the orchids that Oakes Ames loved so much, but collected in the understanding that tropical flora was a critical resource in the era of the Spanish-American War. There are a hundred examples, and we must have talked about at least a dozen in class.

Of these, we spent the most time discussing Harvard's collection of Native American artifacts. I thought that we had ground this topic into a fine powder by the sheer weight of our repetition and elaboration on the themes: the myth of the Disappearing Indian, the exhibition of human subjects at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, NAGPRA and the politics of collecting/displaying grave goods, the institutional burden we bear and possibilities for collaboration and reparation in the future, etc. etc. etc. Honestly, there were at least 8 lectures that were substantially concerned with Harvard's very complicated relationship with Native Americans from the days of the Indian College to the modern Peabody's extraordinary efforts to embrace NAGPRA.

And yet, I am still spending my weekend reading bullshit student papers about how a series of craniometric casts taken from the 73 Cheyenne and Arapaho prisoners (men, women, and children) held at Fort Marion in the 1870s presents a wonderful example of how benevolent white Americans civilized and Christianized the poor, suffering savages. After all, the army may have killed their families and forced them to live in stinking cells in the Florida heat, but, hey, they got shirts! And some of them made sketches during their indefinite incarceration! And not that many of them died! So it was a rousing success for all involved.

Honestly, I had to stop reading them. I am writing this post while half way through a paper. I got to the line, "This was their first time experiencing true human civilization," and I just had to put it down.

The thing is, it is very difficult to explain to these students why they are getting bad grades on these papers. They have a thesis: Imprisonment was good for the Cheyenne prisoners. They have evidence: Look! Harriet Beecher Stowe visited and said they were being treated really well! She was super psyched about converting them to Christianity! But they are completely uncritical of any of the primary sources. If the commander of Fort Marion says that his prisoners were living in the lap of luxury, then by golly it must be 100% true. The thought of considering that army officer's understanding of "luxury" within the savagery/civilization paradigm of the 19th century never seems to occur to them, which is super depressing because we just spent an entire effing semester talking about that very topic. But they think that writing a paper of the appropriate length and with a bunch of quotations should get a decent grade. Even if the (poorly-supported) arguments they make are directly antithetical to the course values and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they learned less than nothing all semester.

But I don't just want to rant. I have a serious question. Do we do a disservice to students by presenting them with primary sources in a Gen Ed class? Working with primary sources seems to be the holy grail of working with students — let them see the real stuff! let them decide for themselves! — but what about its potential to do more harm than good? I am really worried that these students are coming out of this course not only no better off than they were before, but actually worse because they feel that they have confirmed the validity of their prejudices. After all, the primary sources say that white, Christian Americans wanted to help the Cheyenne, so it must be true. These are Harvard undergrads in 2011 who are honest-to-goodness, unironically arguing that it's a damn good thing that white Americans put Cheyenne children in boarding schools where they could be civilized. And they think that they learned that in my course. It is a disgrace.

You can say, oh, well, you just have to teach them to be critical of the primary source, but I don't think there is much more I can do. How more explicit can we be than multiple lectures and sections dedicated to the critical examination of primary documents and objects? And, lest I let the point pass, — Harvard students. I can guarantee you that there are at least three Harvard grads going out into the world with their Harvard diplomas thinking that they learned that the systematic efforts to eradicate Native American cultures was a wonderful idea. And they think that I taught them that. At Harvard.

I saved some good papers for later, if I am still able to see straight. 


polisciprof said...

One of the great things about using primary sources in Gen Ed classes is that you teach students to evaluate the evidence for themselves. One of the tough things to accept about that same method is that students sometimes draw conclusions you do not want them to. You've taught them to think independently. "Wrong" conclusions go with the territory. Give them time, they may come around to your point of view. You've given them the tools to do so.
---and old prof.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I don't think I have given these students the tools to do anything. If they had looked at the primary sources and used them to reach an incorrect and independent conclusion, that would be fine. They haven't done that. They're just parroting the primary sources without any type of mediating thought whatsoever. If a 19th-century Army officer writes, "Indians are dirty," these students conclude that Indians are dirty. It's not independent thought —it's recitation.

Elizabeth said...

How my heart goes out to you! Today's generation of students simply have not been brought up to think critically at all. They do not judge or question - they merely swallow everything presented to them. Future governments will be able to do whatever they like with such a new generation!

I think the rot goes too deep. The damage is done in junior school and in the home. By the time the students get to you, it's already too late.

Neil Schlager said...

Although our site is used mainly in history classes rather than Gen Ed ones, it's proven popular because we offer in-depth commentary on primary sources written by historians. We'll soon let professors hide/reveal this analysis, so profs can ask students to analyze a document and then compare their analysis to the one done by our team of historians. Have you thought about asking the class to analyze a source collaboratively? Perhaps this would let you, and even other students, provide a reality check if the group is missing the point?

woodenmask said...

I'm sorry. I can feel your pain from here.

I've run into something similar with my younger (8th grade) students. After sharing news stories about NeoConfederates in the South celebrating the anniversary of various secessions, they easily accept these guys at their word and side with them and have no interest in digging deeper. I'm not sure how to break up their love affair with easy, surface-level answers.

Alicia said...

This might sound dumb, but when I was teaching English and American lit/culture in China, I had students physically act some things out. Harvard students might not like this much because it DOES sound a little dumb, but when I was trying to teach something as simple as the thought "the South's ideas about the Civil War were different than the North's ideas," I'd divide up the class and send them to war with each other. It would make it more than an exercise in rote memorization, which these students excelled at. Forcing them to imagine themselves in the position of the South or North (or dividing further, white Southerner, black Southerner, etc.) helped complicate their responses and when we discussed those responses as a class, they were able to see more than just their own side as well.

It might seem silly and a bit too rudimentary for Harvard students, but role-playing helped my college English majors "get it." I mean, don't turn your class into a Zimbardo experiment or anything, but perhaps something simple?

And anyway, my experience of honors students is that they become used to being able to BS their way through almost anything at an early enough age that they almost don't get taught -- it's assumed that because they sound like they know what they're talking about, they DO know what they're talking about -- and they too easily consider themselves above silly-seeming learning methods, when those methods are actually really helpful. (Like asking basic questions.) They, especially, can get by this way by doing exactly what you wish they would stop doing, which is parroting back dominant culture responses. This might be the first time the dominant cultural response doesn't cut it for them.