This semester, I am teaching a course titled “Social Science Approaches to the American Past.” It’s in one of the interdisciplinary programs on campus, with the stated goal of teaching students how social scientists think. This has been an interesting challenge for me as a teacher and a historian (particularly a historian who leans more to the humanities side of things than the social sciences). How DO we think? And what is it that we really want our students to know?
My students are great. They come to class, they do the readings, they answer my questions, and they generally maintain a good attitude as we make our way through the term. It’s a very different syllabus than what I teach in my history courses. I organize the class by method and discipline, so we spend a few weeks on economics, a few weeks on psychology, and so on. We talk a lot about gender and race, and as we do so, we cover three centuries and do not proceed chronologically through them. We read some challenging articles, and they come along for the ride.
One thing I’ve noticed is that some of these students really like numbers. I don’t mean that they are themselves in more math-heavy majors (though some are), but that they seem much more willing to trust an argument if it is based on numbers. If there is a chart, it seems more true to them. So one of the things I have us do is talk about the differences between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and I start this off with a group project.
A few weeks ago, I divided the class into groups of five and assigned each group a subset of runaway slave advertisements to study. Each group’s data set differed: there was some regional diversity (one group had ads from colonial Pennsylvania) and chronological diversity. Also, some had a large number of ads to look though while others had very few. I left the directions purposefully vague. They were to go through their ads as a group and figure out a way to present information about them to the rest of the class. How they did so was up to them. I suggested some resources that might help, and let them loose on the documents.
Presentation day was very interesting. As I’d expected, almost every group came up with charts and tables of some sort… but some of those tables didn’t provide them with much helpful information. If they had thirteen ads to look at, what did charting the reward prices tell them? They didn’t know. But a number of the students also selected a few ads to look at closely. They chose them because they seemed typical, or because they really stood out, and then they analyzed these ads for the rest of the class, raising questions and drawing conclusions. After the presentations, we talked about what they did, why they had chosen to approach the research in that way, and what approaches they thought helped them tell a story about these sources, about slavery, and about the past. The big takeaway point for the day was that different kinds of methods are appropriate in different places: that sometimes quantitative methods can be incredibly revealing and valuable, but not always. And that whichever method you choose, that choice is going to shape the kinds of stories that you can tell and the things that you notice.
It sounds trite, but one of the major goals here is to train students to read and think critically. None of these students are going to go on to become historians. Few of them are going to take any courses in the history department, even. Training them to “think historically” is still important. But I also really want them to think about how arguments are formed. I want them to think about what sorts of questions scholars are asking, and how it is that they go about seeking the answers. How else might they have designed their research, and would different methods have brought about different answers? I’m hoping that projects like this will help my students to get a sense of the kinds of questions that they can and should ask when presented with the results of research both historical and otherwise.
How about you all? How do you approach teaching methods to non-majors?