Unfortunately, for those of you hoping to read something more gruesome than what follows, the “sacrificial lamb” I write about in this post is neither a literal lamb, nor is it some new type of technology. So, in that sense, I suppose this post is uncharacteristically low-tech as it primarily muses about a particular pedagogical approach. In fact, I’m surprised that ProfHacker hasn’t had a post about this issue, although maybe they did but my RSS feed became too overwhelmingly long and I just ignored it. In any case, let’s get to the backstory on the “sacrificial lamb” to which I refer in the title.
In preparation for some of my doctoral classes this fall, I’ve been meeting with a fellow grad student to get a head start on our reading and ease our workload (at least a little but) for the upcoming semester. The course we’re taking this fall is about Transatlantic History pre-1800, and this past week marked the second of our meetings during which we discussed Sean O’Callaghan’s To Hell or Barbados, a book about the forced deportation of Irish people to the Caribbean in the mid-17th century.
Each of us independently had found a number of problems in the book ranging from the methodological, to the terminological, to its use of evidence. While I could go on and on about the way in which O’Callaghan jingoistically lauded any and all Irish contributions while managing to uncritically lump all “homosexuals and paedophiles” together in the same category, I’ll save those blistering critiques for some Tuesday evening class in a few months. Alternatively, I could snarkily marvel at how an author could avoid using a footnote throughout an entire book, or how that same author could build his argument on a roughly 60 year-old historiograohy while ignoring much more recent, and more sophisticated, texts that would have cleared up some of the glaring problems of the text. But I digress…
As my colleague and I discussed this book we were both confused by, and interested to learn, why the professor chose this particular text to include in a relatively circumscribed reading list of seven books. Was it because the text really touches on a subject (“Irish Slavery”) that no other authors address? Could it be because this text introduces an important theme for the course with which later texts will also grapple? If the latter proves to be the case, I guess I’ll discover that out as soon as I start reading the next book.
In all likelihood, this question particularly interested us because in addition to being doctoral students, we’re also full-time teachers — I’m at the secondary level and my colleague in at a community college. So, these questions held particular interest both in relation to the course we’ll be taking, and in relation to our own reflections on our profession and the pedagogical techniques we use with our students.
However, we both have an inclination that the professor has yet another motive at work — using this text as an ideal example of what not to do when constructing an historical argument. This approach is what I allude to in the title as the “sacrificial lamb” assignment whereby a course reading is purposely chosen to help students hone their hyper-critical sensibilities and simultaneously help them understand how all scholarship is not created equal and why. Ideally as a result of this type of lesson, students will then learn what pitfalls exist in historical research and writing and then avoid those as they go on to write their own seminar papers, theses, and dissertations.
I experienced this same approached used once in my first semester as a Master’s student in the Historical Theory and Methods course that’s required of all first semester grad students. In that case, my professor assigned Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and in the course of class period managed to get the class to shift from being relatively positive and persuaded by Diamond’s argument to being incredibly skeptical of his approach and the tacit assumptions Diamond used throughout.
In this case, the professor did a good job of appearing to be neutral as he tried to get a sense of how the class felt about this “History/Science” book that was (and perhaps still is) one of the best-selling texts by an academic author in a long time. However, as he pushed the students to defend their stances about why they liked the text and what aspects of its argument they found persuasive, he shared his skepticism of various parts of the book and its troublesome implications. By the end of the class period, hardly anyone who had initially found the book persuasive still thought it was as wonderful as they had a few short hours before.
So, while I wait to discover whether or not O’Callaghan’s book is going to serve as a “sacrificial lamb,” I’ve been thinking about ways in which this technique could be applied in the secondary school context. While I find this approach really appealing because it has the potential to help students hone their critical lenses and learn how to convey those critiques in an appropriate and moderated manner, I can also see a case against this approach. Some might argue that teaching with negative examples is far less valuable for the students as they won’t be exposed to models worthy of emulation. Certainly I appreciate the importance of providing students with strong models for emulation; however, I would argue that this technique is first and foremost about teaching critical reading, argument dissection, and criticism-articulation skills, and not about giving them a model to which they could aspire.
I think part of what appeals to me about this approach is that it exists independent of any specific content and fundamentally it is about helping students learn those skills of what Howard Rheingold calls “Crap Detection,” a topic that was the subject of his recent address at the ISTE Conference. Moreover, assigning texts that are likely to spark disagreement amongst the students is a perfect set-up for an impromptu (or organized) in-class debate. Bringing in these competitive elements also tends to increase student investment and interest in both the content and the skill of dissecting and critiquing an argument.
If anyone has used this approach in their own classrooms, I’d love to hear about it. Now that I reflect a bit on this approach, I can think of one example that I’ve used with my ninth graders in our American Government class, but I think this post has dragged on long enough, so I’ll save that follow-up for a separate entry.
NB: The primary problem the professor had with Diamond’s argument was that it essentially implies that Europeans and their descendants share no individual accountability for the demographic devastation wrought on the New World in the wake of Columbus’ arrival. In other words, the Europeans’ climate and geographic location adjacent to Asia had predisposed them to develop “Guns, Germs, and Steel” — resources and attributes which meant they couldn’t help wiping out the native populations. Translated into simple excuse form, this idea essentially reads: “Don’t blame me, the climate made me do it.” Therefore, the professor argued that the book’s best-seller status is likely attributable to the fact that it serves as a “scientifically-based” apologetic for a long, brutal, and destructive history of interactions between Europeans, their descendants, and native populations.
It’s possible that the professor also found Diamond’s argument to be an ersatz version of Alfred Crosby’s arguments in The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism, which, now having read the former text, I can definitely see.