The Ghost of Content

Several years ago I bought into the idea that less is more when it comes to the content of my courses. Indeed, the research is fairly convincing that you can remove a lot of content without damaging student performance. Why, after all, should we drill students with content when they promptly forget it after passing the exam? Besides, teaching that way tends to create bulimic learners: students who binge on content and then vomit it up all over the test. The result seldom has any nutritive or educational value.

Sometimes, when I used to teach this way, I would find erasures of cryptic acronyms on the margins of final exams. These were the mnemonic gimmicks students had used to recall key terms or names. In other words, their content retention was so weak that they were afraid of forgetting the material before they even finished the exam. So I knew for a long time that what I was doing wasn't working, but I couldn't envision any other way of teaching.

Gradually--and this took a few years--I began to move to a different model. This wasn't an easy transition. Indeed, giving up the idea that students must master content is perhaps the most difficult thing a professor ever has to do. I certainly would never have done it if I hadn't been so dissatisfied with the kind of non-nutritive learning I was witnessing in my classroom. So for three or four years I began slowly reorganizing all of my courses. Instead of frog marching the students through every cultural tic and tremor from the pyramids to postmodernism, I boiled my courses down to a half-dozen or so big ideas. As a result, the content was de-emphasized, or perhaps it's better to say it was subordinated to teaching the big ideas.

Here's how this worked in my first-year Humanities sections. Instead of making my students memorize a list of Renaissance thinkers, artists, and important works, I had them identifying the theme of "humanism" in several works of literature and art, or I might have them read bits of Montaigne, Bacon and Descartes to identify how all three were using systematic doubt as a methodology during the scientific revolution of the 17th century. My goal wasn't teaching the material. It was teaching them a way of thinking about the material.

By the end of the course, then, students had read and wrestled with dozens of writers, painters and thinkers, whose names they probably forgot. I didn't care, though, because all that wrestling was in the service of understanding five or six big ideas. They might not have been able to reel off the major poets and painters of the Renaissance, but my hope was that they could recognize Renaissance humanism when they saw it. Just as importantly, I wanted them to see how a big idea like humanism remains in the operating system of culture today.

And yet I have always been haunted by the specter of content at any given moment. Am I doing the right thing? Is my approach filling their heads with little more than a free-floating pastiche of unconnected ideas? I mean why shouldn't these ideas be more firmly anchored in a fact-laden historical timeline? Is it okay to let them escape my class without a grasping the importance of the Treaty of Westphalia or knowing the difference between Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns? There are days, even now, when I lose confidence and wonder if I am doing them a disservice.

But then one of my students amazes me, which just happened as I was grading a stack of papers. I had assigned the class to write on Act V of King Lear, and a woman in my Humanities section stitched together a brilliant response that touched on Luther, Machiavelli and the major characters in Lear. And every bit of it was wonderfully organized under the big idea of a growing sense of autonomy in Renaissance and post-Reformation society. Instead of spitting content back at me, she was doing something with that content. She was building, constructing, and finding points of connection. In short, she was thinking. So suddenly I am no longer the dithering and fretful prof unsure of his approach. Maybe--just maybe--this is working.

And once more the ghost of content retires into the wings whispering, "Adieu, adieu, Hamlet, remember me."

Don't worry. He'll be back.

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