The ill-formed question

Since sending in the brief blurb for THATCamp I’ve gone through the latest edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips book and spent some time pondering what’s necessary to make a seminar work. In some ways this is designing from the back end: for online graduate programs in the humanities or social sciences to work for a large segment of potential students, the classes have to accomplish a certain number of things, and that requires a certain (but undefined) intensity of exchange. I’m afraid I’ve got the Potter Stewart problem with definition here: I can’t tell you what constitutes sufficient intensity, but I know it when I’ve experienced it as either a teacher or student.

It’s certainly possible to construct that intensity in live chats, but since most online classes I’ve seen or taught are asynchronous, I have to think differently from “Oh, I’ll just transpose.” (Here, you can insert platitudinous warnings about uploading PPTs and thinking you’re done.) But while several colleagues have pointed me to some of their online discussions with deep threads (and at least at face value, it seems like intensity to me), that doesn’t help, in the same way that telling a colleague, “Oh, my seminars work great; what’s wrong with you?” isn’t sufficient.

So let me step back and reframe the issue: the existence of great conversation in a setting is not helpful to the central problem of running a seminar. In some ways, it’s a type of chauvenism (“you can have better conversations in this setting”), and that prevents useful conversations about what a seminar experience requires. Not a seminar class online or a face to face seminar but a seminar class in any setting.

Unfortunately, while I have searched, I have not been able to come across ethnographic or other qualitative research on this. There are plenty of how-to guides for running face-to-face discussion, but I am hungry for something beyond clinical-experience suggestions. There is some decent research on transactional distance, and cognitive apprenticeship is an interesting concept, but neither is that satisfying.

So back to basics and some extrapolation. In my most memorable literature classes, and in informal conversations around books, plays, movies, and poems, I’ve been entranced by how others think that writing works–maybe not in the same way that James Wood would parse it, but in some way.

“What does this mean? Was it good or bad? Why did that appear then? No, no, think about these moments, because she could have done something different. They swept in at the end, and that’s why it’s called deus ex machina.”

That’s the type of conversation I imagine for and remember from seminars: close readings, fast exchanges, excruciating pauses while I tried to piece ideas together, rethinking/reframing on the fly. Never mind that I’m an historian, and never mind the excruciating boredom in plenty of classes; the texture of intense conversation stuck in my brain is derived from conversations about novels, poems, plays, and movies.

And as fellow historians of ed David Tyack and Larry Cuban would point out, I have relied on this experience as a “grammar” that I would be predisposed to impose on online seminars. But as my original proposal for THATCamp pointed out, I don’t think the world (or learning) works in the same way everywhere.

What can be extrapolated from the best face-to-face seminars beyond the setting-specific events? I’ll propose that the best seminar classes are ill-formed questions, puzzles with weakly- but effectively-defined targets. Here, I am using “ill-formed” not in the sense of grammar but in the sense of a question that is not itself the best approach to a topic, and in this case, deliberately so. The best framing of an history class I ever took as either an undergraduate or graduate was Susan Stuard‘s course on early modern Europe. In essence, it was historiography, but framed as, “How do we explain the rise of modern just-pre-industrial Europe?” That was a great focus, but it was ill-formed in that it did not have a closed-form answer. The answers we read about and argued over were hypotheses that led to different questions. The course did not finish with our finding an (intellectual) pot of gold, but it was a great way to structure a class.

In many ways, problem-based learning uses the ill-formed question, “How do we solve this problem?” That question assumes a problem, a problem definition, and a potential solution, and of course the value is not in the solution itself but the development of analysis and the application of important concepts in the setting of problems. In this case, the course goal is not the motivating question, but the question is essential to meeting the goal.

Problem-based learning is great when it fits the goals of the course. Not all courses can be designed around problems, and if a seminar is online and asynchronous, I suspect that the loose “how does literature work?” question is not going to… well, work. But the ill-formed question can appear in more than the examples I have described or experienced.

4 Responses to “The ill-formed question”

  1. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    This raises some questions for me. Has our profession romanticized the seminar? Do we privilege the ability to think quickly on our feet? Are we sure that learning is maximized for all students when the conversation is intense? Does it benefit some more and others less? If it turns out that this model holds up, should we expect that problem solving will work most effectively on the fly? Or would students get more out of a semester-long collaborative research project? I have wondered what would happen, for instance, if I turned a class loose to crowdsource something like Valley of the Shadow with a zotero group library. This could be a really interesting asynchronous experiment for getting students to learn historical theory and practice. The catch might be figuring out how to help the students split the work fairly evenly.

  2. ShermanDorn Says:

    Sterling — great point! The think-on-your-feet dynamic may *not* be the epitome of higher education. So… what do you think about my proposition on the “ill-formed question” as a way to think more broadly?

  3. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    It sounds intriuging. I think students often enjoy problem solving. But your approach could easily become a form of canned research that prevents students from making creative contributions. Students invariably have the tendency to search for the correct answer. With help they can tackle complex questions, but they feel betrayed if they end the semester feeling that there was no one true answer and that the possible answers proposed by students are equally valuable. Perhaps the way to keep students interested and engaged is to help them learn how to ask and answer questions with primary sources. The trick is helping students to find answers without giving away what the most likely or persuasive answers would look like. This usually means introducing students to arguments and debates in the secondary literature, so that they will grasp what kinds of questions historians have asked. Orchestrating all of this, I will confess, is easier said than done.

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