Two Cultures in Beginnings and Endings

Not long after I posted my comments about textbook prices, I went to a panel discussion on teaching, where a social scientist made an interesting observation about the ways different disciplines interact with books.

In the humanities, the whole point of the class is to discuss the books. Nothing useful can be done until and unless the students have had the chance to do the reading. This is why humanities classes tend to let out early on the first day of the term, and have a full class on the last day of the term: the important reading has to be done before class.

In the sciences, on the other hand, the whole point of class is to give the students enough information to be able to read the textbook and do the problems. The essential step in the learning process is when the students try to apply what they’ve learned to solving problems. This is why science classes tend to have a full class on the first day of the term, and let out early on the last day of the term: the important reading is done after class.

I had never really thought about it that way, but once it was pointed out, I said “Oh, yeah…” I can think of a few exceptions to the pattern– mostly involving humanities faculty who had the class read short stories or articles in class on the first day– but I think there’s definitely something to it.

(This is also part of why I find the textbook pricing question so vexing. With the exception of a few very specialized curricula– Matter & Interactions, Six Ideas that Shaped Physics– the main thing that would change with a change of book is the numbers of the homework problems… That’s not the case in the humanities– changing the reading list for English 101 almost certainly gets you a very different class.)

Comments

  1. #1 agm
    February 6, 2009

    That’s how people have defaulted, but that’s not the optimal way to do it. It’s just that it’s awfully hard to get students to read ahead of time without making reading quizzes or some such a significant part of their grades. One of things in Mazur’s Peer Instruction discusses how making students responsible for reading before class, quizzing them first thing when the period starts on readings, frees up time in class to work using interactive techniques.

    Which I found was near impossible with my CC students last year. Fighting traffic to get to class after a full day of work shows how tight time is in their lives, so I never used reading quizzes.

  2. #2 CCPhysicist
    February 6, 2009

    The optimal approach in physics is to have students read the next chapter intro so they know what is coming. You need a few coat hooks to hang that new knowledge on. You then go back to it for details you missed. The problem is that physics textbooks (most, but not all) are so badly written that students will not read them except for help with problems.

    What made me most happy about the book I adopted a few years ago is that some students are now reading it before class.

  3. #3 kate
    February 6, 2009

    I’d say that depends on where you go to school. As an undergrad poli sci major at small liberal arts college in the midwest, and by the end of the first day of every term you were usually already a day behind in the reading. Ten week trimesters made profs very unwilling to not use a class day and there was always stuff covered on day one that you had to go back and read along with the reading for the next class. Grad school at a university on semesters was a luxary.

  4. #4 Richard Campbell
    February 6, 2009

    In law, which otherwise followed the humanities model, there was always a non-trivial amount of reading required to be completed before the first day of class.

  5. #5 cfcasper
    February 6, 2009

    That does seem to be generally true, although when I was an undergraduate chemistry major I remember being asked to do the appropriate reading before the lecture (not that I always, or maybe even usually, did), and now that I’m teaching humanities I’ve been asking my students to come in the first day of class having done some assigned reading, as was often required of me when I was still doing my coursework. I’d be interested in seeing others’ experiences with this, though.

  6. #6 Michael Williams
    February 6, 2009

    This observation came up in an interesting interview with Eric Mazur in the New York Times last year: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/science/17conv.html?_r=1

  7. #7 Kaleberg
    February 6, 2009

    I read that Mazur piece. It sure doesn’t represent my own experiences in the sciences and the humanities.

    When I took physics there were maybe a dozen things we had to memorize. Everything else you could just derive from something else. If you couldn’t derive it one way, you could just derive it another way. Sometimes you took the short route, and other times you took the long route. It didn’t matter as long as you got the right answer in the end.

    When I took literature, it took massive rote memorization. Have you ever considered just how much you need to memorize to discuss a single novel, or even a short story? You have to remember the names, physical descriptions, miscellaneous facts, and relations of the various characters. Then you have to memorize the plot and the various causalities that make it flow. That includes times, places, descriptions, actions and the language the author uses and any external or thematic references they might have made. You can’t derive any of this from anything else. The whole point of fiction is that the author can make up anything they want. Worse, when applying a particular style of literary analysis, there is only one way to apply it. You might be able to partially derive some of this, but an awful lot of it is arbitrary. That means more rote memorization.

    My experience also gibes with the point of this blog post. In the sciences, the students are taught a handful of facts, and then they can explore the ramifications and applications in class or by reading their textbook afterwards. In the humanities, the students are expected to read and memorize a mass of facts before they can even join a classroom discussion.

    I have nothing against rote memorization. Most of what I took away from elementary school was simple rote: song lyrics, spellings, multiplication tables, some poems, definitions, the names of the states. All the rest just sort of evaporated.

  8. #8 JC
    February 7, 2009

    CCPhysicist

    Which book did you adopt?

  9. #9 Scott Spiegelberg
    February 7, 2009

    Kate, I think we went to the same school. Larry U? In my own case, it is a combination of reading before class so the students can discuss, and providing information in class so the students can apply. In fact in my music theory class the students practice analysis and composing with problems in the textbook, but read monographs and study music to discuss.

  10. #10 BrianT
    February 7, 2009

    Yes CCPhysicist, inquiring minds want to know. Which book did you adopt?

  11. #11 JC
    February 7, 2009

    The strangest case I ever heard of for a technical textbook being taken seriously, was a Schaums Outline being assigned for a discrete math course. (One of my former colleagues actually did this). Apparently the students actually bothered to read it before class.

    I have no idea how and why this actually happened in this manner.

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 7, 2009

    LESSON PLAN: ENGLISH LITERATURE (ON SCIENCE AND SCIENCE FICTION)

    9 November 2008

    Lesson Plan Title:
    WAS H. G. WELLS RIGHT OR WRONG ABOUT LIFE ON MARS?

    Concept / Topic to Teach:

    Herbert George Wells is often considered the father of modern science fiction. The War of the Worlds (1898), by H. G. Wells, is an early science fiction novel which describes an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars. It is one of the earliest and best-known depictions of an alien invasion of Earth, and has influenced many others, as well as spawning several films, radio dramas, comic book adaptations, and a
    television series based on the story. The 1938 radio broadcast caused public outcry against the episode, as many listeners believed that an actual Martian invasion was in progress, a notable example of mass hysteria. This lesson is one of directed self-discovery, using readings from and about the classic text of the novel, supplemented by media adaptations, as compared and contrasted with (California
    Standards-based Science on the topics of the Solar System, Evolution, and the like). Wells was amazingly right about some things, and weirdly wrong on others.

    Standards Addressed:

    Grades 11-12 ENGLISH

    Reading:

    2.2
    Analyze the way in which clarity of meaning is affected by the patterns of organization, hierarchical structures, repetition of the main ideas, syntax, and word choice in the text.

    [What are the Main Ideas of "The War of the Worlds"? How is the novel structured, and why?]

    2.5
    Analyze an author’s implicit and explicit philosophical assumptions and beliefs about a subject. [How does "The War of the Worlds" reflect the Socialist philosophy of Wells and the standard British beliefs of his day about Colonialism? How did his PhD studies in Geology and Evolution shape the assumptions and beliefs of the novel?]

    3.1
    Analyze characteristics of subgenres (e.g., satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that are used in poetry, prose, plays, novels, short stories, essays, and other basic genres.

    [What characteristics of the Science Fiction genre are essential in understanding this novel?]

    3.2
    Analyze the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection
    represents a view or comment on life, using textual evidence to support the claim.
    [The student will select a key passage that is most resonant for her or him in the novel, and analyze it in this manner]

    3.3
    Analyze the ways in which irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
    [Give examples of each of these in the novel]

    3.6
    Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings (e.g., how the archetypes of banishment from an ideal world may be used to interpret Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth).
    [What literary archetypes are invoked in the novel?]

    3.7
    Analyze recognized works of world literature from a variety of authors:
    a. Contrast the major literary forms, techniques, and characteristics of the major literary periods (e.g., Homeric Greece, medieval, romantic, neoclassic, modern).
    b. Relate literary works and authors to the major themes and issues of their eras. [How did the controversies about the "canals" on Mars, and the controversies about Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection relate to the novel?]
    c. Evaluate the philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences of the historical period that shaped the characters, plots, and settings.[What other Victorian influences pervade or are
    critiqued in the novel?]

    General Goal(s):

    The student shall perform GATE-level guided discovery (per State standards on Grades 11-12 English Reading) through detailed textual and historical analysis of the classic “The War of the Worlds” (1898), by H. G. Wells, an early science fiction novel which describes an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars. The student shall take and pass a quiz on facts about the Solar System, Mars, atmospheres, bacteria, evolution, and space travel which compares and contrasts the novel with state science standards on these facts

    Specific Objectives:

    • Student will write a detailed description of what are the Main Ideas of “The War of the Worlds”? How is the novel structured, and why?
    • Student will write a detailed description on “How does ‘The War of the Worlds’ reflect the Socialist philosophy of Wells and the standard British beliefs of his day about Colonialism? How did his PhD studies in Geology and Evolution shape the assumptions and beliefs of the
    novel?]
    • Student will write a detailed description on “What characteristics of the Science Fiction genre are essential in understanding this novel?”
    • The student will select a key passage that is most resonant for her or him in the novel, and analyze it in terms of the way in which the theme or meaning of a selection represents a view or comment on life, using textual evidence to support the claim.
    • Give examples of each of these in the novel: irony, tone, mood, the author’s style, and the “sound” of language used to achieve specific rhetorical or aesthetic purposes or both.
    • Student will write a detailed description on what literary archetypes are invoked in the novel.
    • The student shall relate literary works and authors to the major themes and issues of their eras. Specifically, how did the controversies about the “canals” on Mars, and the controversies about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection relate to the novel?
    • The student shall evaluate the philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences of the historical period that shaped the characters, plots, and settings. What other Victorian influences pervade or are critiqued in the novel?
    • The student shall take and pass a quiz on facts about the Solar System, Mars, atmospheres, bacteria, evolution, and space travel which compares and contrasts the novel with state science standards on these facts.

    Required Materials:

    Handouts as shown here.

    Printed copy of the novel “The War of the Worlds” (1898), by H. G. Wells, for which may be substituted one of the complete on-line texts of the novel that are freely available, and cited herein.

    Videotape or DVD or online access to film/TV adaptations of the classic novel.

    Manga, graphic novel, game, and/or collectable playing cards spun off from the novel and/or its film/TV adaptations.

    Quiz.

    [truncated; 97K MSWord document available upon request]