October 2000

"Overcoming Presentism and Other Lessons Learned from Block Teaching"

By Alexandra Korros, History Department

Once upon a time, when I was a graduate student applying for a grant supporting my dissertation, the foundation asked me to explain how my historical research was interdisciplinary. Since I always assumed that educated people knew that history was the most interdisciplinary of disciplines, I was surprised at the question. Finally, to get my money, I wrote that my work (political history) was political science of the past. My simplistic answer was satisfactory and I received the funding.

Yet, the question they asked is fundamental to studying history. Too many people assume that historians compile and teach lots of facts which need to be memorized for use in Trivial Pursuit games or Who Wants to be a Millionaire Because we live in a world of increasing specialization, it is easy to believe that studying history has very little to do with any other discipline. Yet, historians do more than simply communicate facts to our students; we attempt to make them think critically and ask questions about process and causation. No longer am I as naive as I was some thirty odd years ago. I have learned that students are as prone to compartmentalizing as foundations.

Once, while attempting to teach about the problems of 5th century BCE Athenian democracy, a student asked me if the Plato we were discussing in class was the same guy he was learning about in his philosophy class. While I have joked about this particular episode on many occasions, it also forced me to realize that far too many of our students were unaware how their studies related to one another. Moreover, I grew concerned that if students tended to compartmentalize the subjects in the core curriculum, we were less likely to succeed in teaching them to think critically outside the box so that they could learn to understand and solve problems as process questions, rather than single manifestations of a particular fact or event.

Instead of just bemoaning this unfortunate phenomenon, I have been part of an effort to try to solve this problem through example. Although there are many ways of tackling this issue, one approach we have taken in the University Scholars/HAB Programs is through block teaching. During the past six years, Paul Colella and I have been teaching Western Civilization and Philosophy together to honors students. For both of us, block teaching has become one of the most gratifying aspects of our many years in the classroom.

Our collaboration is based on a common belief that by giving students the opportunity to study the development of ideas within their historical context, we can enrich their historical and philosophical understanding. Moreover, when two faculty share the classroom, we are able to show students that we, their teachers, also learn from one another, often generating new ways of approaching material on the spot. We both teach with the aim of demonstrating how philosophical ideas can arise out of the context of the times in which their formulators lived. Further, we both use art and literature to emphasize that historians and philosophers utilize other disciplines in order to expand knowledge of their own.

Fortunately, History 133 (Western Civ I) and Philosophy 100 (Ethics as an
Introduction to Philosophy) are easy to pair assuming that the philosophy instructor is willing to select philosophers who chronologically fit into the period covered (1550 BCE to 1550). Our task was made even easier because the common text for Philosophy 100 is Plato's Republic, or another of his dialogs, while my first stop in Western Civilization has always been the world of the ancient Greeks. Occasionally, we have also taught a second sequence, matching Western Civ II with Theory of Knowledge (Philosophy 290), covering the period from the late 16th century to the present.

Here is how it works. We schedule our classes back to back and list the sections as BL, mandating that students registering for one must take the other. In addition, we commit ourselves to being in the classroom for both periods. Thus, in the course of the past six years, I have taken Philosophy 100 five times and Philosophy 290 twice. Paul could say the same thing about my classes! What an education we have had and we hope that our students have enjoyed a similar experience. I freely admit to having studied very little philosophy as an undergraduate and graduate student, so that while I could reel off most important philosophers dates, my knowledge of their ideas was
based on summaries contained in textbooks. Thus, this experience has not only enriched my teaching in block, but it has changed what I say and do in the classrooms where I go it alone.

One of our primary goals is to try to make students think more analytically by
participating in class discussion. All of us know how hard it can be to foster that kind of interaction. Yet, because we spend so much time together in block, it is often easier to get those discussions going since students can bring their history to philosophy and vice versa. It is also exciting because if a discussion is really going well, we don?t have to end the first class at exactly twenty after the hour, we can keep going.

In addition, Paul and I will often alter how we present our material based on what has happened in that day's class. If one of us presents a point that complements another's idea, each of us has altered either the emphasis of what we will say or do in the second period. Moreover, since we are both there, we often decide who should go first based on the way the material is playing out, rather than because my section is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and Paul's for 10:30 a.m. Often each of us abdicates a bit of our time to the other so that there is a more natural flow to the class. Thus, the break between classes doesn?t always occur exactly at 11:20 a.m.

As I write, it is early in the fall semester, but let me offer an example of how the
readings in block create a special synergy. The students first reading assignments for philosophy are Sophocles. The ban Plays and The Republic. For me, students read Homer's Iliad, in addition to their textbook, documents book, and social history reader. Thus, when Paul discusses Plato's very strong opinions on the place of poetry in Greek society, the students will have already read two important examples of Greek poetic literature. Later I ask them to discuss an article about gender roles in Greek society, emphasizing the segregation of male and female lives. Because of their exposure to Greek literature and philosophy, the students will be able to understand why Greek views of homosexuality were so different from those of our own time.

As an historian, I am often dismayed by students presentism, i.e., their tendency to assume that the values of the past were identical to our own, and to judge the past by what they assume have always been universal truths. For example, students are puzzled that the Greek gods evidence so few of the traits that they associate with religious belief morality, ethical principles, charity. Yet, rather than my simply saying, that among the Greeks such ideas were the province of philosophy, they are actually reading The Republic learning to understand what justice meant to Socrates and
Plato. As they move on to read Hellenistic, Roman and then medieval philosophy, rather than being told that Judaism and then Christianity combined religion and ethics, they have to grapple with the works that embody that process themselves. As we move from the medieval into the Renaissance, they too proceed from Aquinas to Pico de Mirandola and Machiavelli, once again coming to grips personally with how the concerns of the secular world re-emerged as primary goals of philosophers in the 15th century. In this manner, the assigned and additional readings accentuate how their
philosophy course enhances their knowledge of history, also giving students the
opportunity to examine how the ethical issues they encounter in philosophy actually play out within a historical setting.

As a consequence of block teaching, I have gotten to know my students much more quickly than in courses in which I meet for 3 hours per week. Although I do not always teach the students in subsequent classes, there are many whom I see and hear from on a regular basis because we became close after one semester in block. They often tell me that they look for connections in all their other classes as well and that, although they did not always feel that way while they were taking the class, they appreciate block even more in retrospect.

What have I learned from block teaching First of all, it has intensified my respect in our core curriculum. I have come to believe that our core is crucial in making a Xavier education distinctive. Beyond that, my first-hand experience with the common courses in the philosophy core allows me to explore new questions with my students in a manner quite different than if I simply hoped that they remembered what they learned in their philosophy classes. Moreover, I am convinced that by knowing what our colleagues are doing in their core courses outside of our own departments, we can build on what our students learn just as we build our advanced classes on our own departmental prerequisites. The best way to convince our students that ideas and processes don?t exist in a vacuum is for them to experience those inter-relationships in
their own learning. Further, we can enrich our classrooms by utilizing that knowledge in our own teaching, thus causing our students to bring both the facts and the methods they have learned in other classes to our own.

I recall some old adage that those who teach learn as much in the process as those who are their students. In my case, I have had that experience several times over, I have learned more from teaching block than I could have imagined, and every year brings new ideas, new interactions with students and a real excitement to teaching my component of the core curriculum. The challenge for those of us who teach the introductory core courses is finding ways to keep them fresh. Block teaching has allowed me to find new ideas to emphasize every semester, it has given me new ideas about how to teach and challenged me to bring what we can do in the block to my students in my other classes. Thus my search for finding ways to teach students to think in an interdisciplinary manner has probably affected my teaching even more than their
learning. Sometimes old adages are more accurate than we might think!


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