Alex Trebek, Grading, History Trivial, Humanities, Humanities Program, Instructor, Jeopardy, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon public schools, Pitt, Professor, Students, Teaching, Teaching and Learning, Teaching Assistant, Teaching History, University of Pittsburgh
The first class I ever taught was as a guest lecturer my first semester of grad school at Pitt. Larry Glasco, my advisor, had me take charge of his History of Black Pittsburgh course one November Thursday in ’91. It was a task made easier by the showing of the documentary Wylie Avenue Days during the two-hour and twenty-minute class. With about a quarter of the class composed of adult learners, including several who’d grown up in the Hill District during the time frame covered in the documentary, it became a real conversation about experiences with racism and inter- and intra-racial relations in Pittsburgh in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It was a great introduction to teaching.
In the two decades since, I’ve often wish that all of my classes had the kind of intellectual balance that my first class possessed and I as instructor helped provide. Sadly, many times in my journey as a teacher, instructor and professor, I’ve had students who showed as much interest in discussing the hows and whys of history as Glenn Beck of FOX News Channel has in science and the truth.
These students, about one out of every six I’ve taught over the past two decades (about 300 in all) have taken up an amount of my teaching time. They’ve groused about the assignments I’ve given them to do, the exam questions I’ve created to assess their knowledge. They’ve gnashed their teeth about my grading, about how tough I supposedly can be in assigning grades. With papers, short-answer exams, multiple choice tests, even fill-in-the-blank quizzes. There’s been no pleasing this group of students.
Until now. It occurred to me about a year ago. I was watching yet another episode of Jeopardy, and it swung to a history category, one that I would’ve swept if I’d been on the show that day or anytime since the show came back on the air in ’85. That then reminded me of something one of my Humanities classmates from Mount Vernon High School said to me soon after finding out that I was ranked fourteenth in the Class of ’87. “All you can do with history is play Jeopardy,” he said with derision.
That memory then reminded me of how teachers like our seventh through tenth grade social studies teachers taught us. Whether Court, Demontravel (who I’ll talk about later this year), Flanagan or Zini, the idea was to be able to spit out as many date-connected facts, names and battles as quickly and accurately as possible. With no thought about human nature, empathy with the struggles of individuals and groups, or any attempt to explain the processes behind why something happened, like slavery, Jim Crow or Indian removal, for instance.
To satisfy my students who want a high school version of history, I need to come to class next semester and draw a gigantic box on the chalkboard. In that box, I’ll draw six columns by five rows of smaller boxes within this huge box. In the top box of each column, I’ll write in a topic area, say, “Colonial America,” “Expanding Voting Rights,” “‘Eq’-words,” “Myths & Legends,” “My Founding Fathers,” and “Rebel Yell” (this on the American Revolution and the Civil War) across all six. There wouldn’t be any money values, just number values, from 1 to 5 from the easiest to most difficult questions. Daily Doubles would help struggling students make up points, while Double Jeopardy sessions would help the best students solidify their A’s.
This is a great idea, isn’t it? My least interested students can then pretend that they’re learning history by being entertained and memorizing history trivia. My students who need to learn or sharpen their critical thinking skills will find themselves sorely neglected. And my most interested students would be ready to strangle me.
In the end, it’s not worth it to turn my part in this profession into Sony Entertainment, especially for a minority of the students I’ve taught over the years. Besides, I can’t afford to buy Watson to impress my students, or at least, have someone pretend that they have the artificial intelligence of IBM’s Watson by sounding like a teraflop supercomputer.