Undoing the Solitary Enterprise
History can be lonely. Research often means hours alone in the archive. Writing, which we do in short bursts or, if we’re lucky, in longer stretches on sabbatical, is the same. Even our teaching can be isolating. We may teach around tables or in lecture halls, but after discussion is over, we ask students to show their knowledge—in exams or on papers—on their own. Learning history this way reinforces the idea that it’s a solitary enterprise.
This semester, I tried to undo solitude’s centrality to history. Following in the footsteps of some of my colleagues, I introduced classroom collaboration to show students—and maybe even me—a different approach to historical thinking. While most students will never write a ten-page paper after graduation, many will work in groups to write something on a deadline. Might history be a model for that kind of work—and, if so, might practicing historians learn from it as well?
That’s what I set out to see in “American Addictions,” a hybrid-format lecture course for (mostly) upper-level psychology majors. My task was to teach students already passionate about the subject as a current issue that studying its past could help them address it in new ways. Each week we looked at a different topic, from alcohol to social media, and worked to connect its past to its present. I would lecture on Tuesdays about the topic's history, from 1800 to the present, and on Wednesdays students would discuss primary and secondary sources in section. The climax, every Thursday, was a collaborative session in which students drafted op-eds in groups, drawing on history to rethink current events. I chose a specific prompt, from e-cigs to smartphones, and the students worked together to contextualize emerging issues in past anxieties and the changing meaning of addiction.
Through collaboration, students came to their own conclusions about current events and how history can help us understand them. In our week on disordered accumulation (like hoarding), for example, groups critiqued the Marie Kondo craze using Thorstein Veblen's theory of "conspicuous consumption," arguing that "Less is More" only for some people, some of the time. In a later week, writing about cannabis, groups highlighted the racial politics of designating some substances "gateway drugs." Week in and week out, student surprised me with their ability to turn historical narratives about medicalization and the politics of self-control into arguments about how we study and police behavior today. Obviously there are other ways we accomplish this goal of self-directed learning in the classroom, but this experiment with weekly team op-eds was new to me and to my students.
It wasn't always perfect, of course, and it was never easy. With twenty groups writing in the Team-Based Learning room in the Biological Sciences Building, the course had a lot of moving parts. At first, groups struggled to complete drafts in the allotted time; by the end of the term, they were finishing op-eds with time to spare. Assessment was also a challenge. We decided to grade collaborations like sections: if students were prepared and energetic, they got credit. In this way, students came to see “collabs” as an extension of their sections the day before. Having each week culminate in a collaboration left students with the last word, synthesizing the history and science they had learned into political talking points.
I’ll tinker with the course, but as a way to get the past to speak to the present I think this model works. How do I know? For one, students were enthusiastic about collaborations as a way to “make history matter.” We've been seeing the same results in U-M HistoryLab courses in the department: students love seeing how history can make a difference. But the realization didn’t stop with them. Incorporating collaboration in the classroom has changed how I do my other work too. I’ve started co-authoring pieces with another historian for a psychology journal, where we use historical cases to contribute to debates within cognitive science. Both kinds of collaboration make history seem less lonely—for students and their professors alike.