When I was teaching, there was a point during the summer – usually around the third week in July – when my thoughts would gradually drift from research and writing to focus, once again, on the classroom. The time had come to reread (or read!) the books and articles I had tentatively assigned for my fall classes, to think more seriously about how to design the courses I had hurriedly plotted out the previous spring, and to reflect once more on what I hoped the students would gain from the semester. The “content-transfer” portion of the syllabus was probably the easiest to manage; the more years of teaching I had under my belt, the better sense I had both of what content would be appropriate for each course, and what chunks of that content I wanted students to hold on to long after the semester ended. In other words, I had become comfortable with the process of backward planning.
But I found it harder to settle on the specific skills and dispositions I hoped students would acquire; not because I didn’t have these in mind, but because my list for each swelled year after year. The skills I hoped they would gain in writing ability and proficiency at historical analysis were soon augmented by a host of others: speaking and presentation skills, the ability to argue on the basis of evidence, information literacy, statistical competence, self-reflection, the ability to read images as well as texts on multiple levels. The dispositional outcomes I desired for my classes rapidly accumulated as well, and I struggled to make them measurable, not just aspirational, goals: empathy, resilience, risk-taking, perseverance, perspective taking, ethical and moral reasoning.
In the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned with how to foster the skills of, and a positive orientation toward, democratic engagement. This should not be a surprise, in light of the country’s extreme polarization and the intensification of repellent messages emanating from a White House determined to gain political advantage by fracturing the country on the basis of race and a “radical renegotiation of belonging.” But I am also concerned because of my apprehension that many students, incensed by these appeals to the darkest elements of the U.S. soul and lacking a clear sense of how to respond productively and forcefully to the goading challenges – after all, who among us knows how to respond? — may take their anger out on easy, if inappropriate or insignificant, targets. Continue reading