Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      April 1999 Volume XXII Number 1

Inventing the University

by Eric Pfeffinger

As co-director of the Freshman Learning Project, a faculty development program for teaching innovations, David Pace, an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington, gets the opportunity each spring to meet with other professors to discuss and address challenges facing the university and its teachers. This process--not only working with thinkers from other disciplines but taking classes in the sciences and other fields--has spawned a discovery. "It's completely different!" he exclaims. "The way a sociologist approaches things, the way a scientist writes--it's completely different from what a historian does."

David Pace, associate professor of history, Indiana University Bloomington, prepares collaborative learning exercises for teams to do in class with his associate instructors, Van Tarpley and Kate Edgerton, doctoral students in history. --credit

It's not a new revelation; the varying demands disciplines make on their participants have influenced Pace's teaching and writing for some time now. That's why Pace's publications include a monograph, written in 1995 with Sharon Pugh, associate professor of education at IUB, called Studying For History.

Such a book--aimed at undergraduates and including chapters like "Time Management" and "Basic Components of a History Paper"--might at first blush seem less intellectually prestigious than, say, Pace's articles about nuclear culture in postwar France in journals like French Historical Studies, or his pieces about teaching in publications like American Historical Association Perspectives and The History Teacher. But it represents a concern--examining the distinct characteristics of working in history as compared with other disciplines--fundamental to Pace's approach to the challenge of teaching.

"It's something I've become increasingly aware of," he says. "To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all teaching is local. Much of teaching theory tends to be generic and to miss the fact that disciplines are doing radically different things. So what I've been trying to do with my own teaching is to be very explicit about what operations are expected of students in a history class." He smiles at his own understated fervor. "I've become obsessed with it because it's not at all obvious. It's like someone said: Every time a student writes a paper, he or she must first invent the university. But if I make clear what's expected of my students, and then model those operations for them, I feel more comfortable holding them to high expectations."

That modeling has to occur within specific disciplinary contexts, Pace continues, because the skills a student needs will vary significantly from department to department. "Reading's a really good example," he says. "We get mad at them for not doing the reading, but maybe they tried to do the reading but weren't sure quite how. For instance, history is a narrative discipline. We give examples, we weave a larger vision of the world into the specific stories we tell. By contrast, an anatomy textbook is filled with detailed information they have to know. If a student brings that model to a history book, they'll go to the exam and completely fail."

"Academic disciplines do represent different cultures, maybe religions, I don't know," he observes. "But there's no question that the influence of being a historian goes way beyond content. It's a way of thinking that I'm embodying in front of them. I'm their informant. We should try to get students to see themselves as anthropologists, figuring out all these different cultures." He pauses, then adds: "That requires the same kind of abstract thought required in research."

In his History of the Future class, Pace uses resources such as this '30s magazine article that captures an ideal future in which centralized planning was to create the perfect city: clean, efficient, and devoid of all signs of nature. Students see here a vision of the triumph of rationality over both emotion and nature to realize a common human destiny. That vision stands in stark contrast to the images of urban catastrophe that dominate the conception of the future in popular culture today. By coming to understand the values and assumptions behind such an image of the future, they can better understand the world of the 1930s, at the same time that they expand their notion of what might be possible in their own futures. From Julian Krupa, Amazing Stories (back cover), August 1939, Joseph J. Corn & Brian Horrigan, Yesterday's Tomorrows, p. viii. --credit

For Pace, research and teaching are closely related in a variety of ways. He has published many articles about teaching and says he has "several more in my mind" and envisions writing a book on the subject one day. But he doesn't subscribe to the view that the two are--or can be--the same. "I think the whole relationship between teaching and research is potentially being recast. But they're different kinds of activities and one knows whether one's doing one or the other. I know the difference between spending an hour in the archives and spending an hour formulating a new outline for my students. I mean, sure, when I'm teaching somebody how to read a book, I need to know how historians read books. So one can imagine a world where these activities aren't polar opposites, though that world won't come about through an effort to submerge teaching and research into the same thing."

Although participating in the national discussion on pedagogy is now an integral part of Pace's teaching, that wasn't always the case. "There was a time when teaching was thought to be a natural gift you either had or you didn't have. Like most people of my generation"--Pace earned his Ph.D. from Yale in 1973--"I had nothing remotely resembling training for teaching. So I've had twenty years of discovering what it is I'm doing; I feel like I'm finally discovering how to teach. I'm shifting from teaching to focusing on learning, which sounds like a tiny difference, but it has enormous implications for everything we do."

Among those implications are Pace's shifting of the focus in the classroom from himself to student activities, reflected in his organization of students into permanent teams and increased use of group work. These strategies are evident in a session of his fall 1998 undergraduate course with the title From the Apocalypse to Star Trek: A History of the Future. After a collaborative exercise, synthesizing lists of elements that facilitate or inhibit group discussion, Pace launches into a lecture about the development of the idea of progress following the Enlightenment.

Following that--"I crammed a lot into your brains quickly here," he allows--each team is asked to meet, discuss, and then select a representative to take a seat in front of the Ballantine Hall lecture room to discuss the issues involved. It's a strategy Pace calls "creating redundancy in the classroom," eliminating passivity and putting across concepts through student problem solving. While the groups at first engage in lively if hushed individual debates about who has to be the unlucky one to go down front, the ensuing discussion about positivism and the Christian tradition is lucid and vigorous.

Pace's changes in classroom strategy have influenced changes in subject matter as well- from content-driven courses to the teaching of a way of thinking--which reflect Pace's belief that research and teaching can and should dovetail. "Something happened for the first time last spring," he recalls. "There were ninety to a hundred students in a course, working on a complicated research project of their own, and I was trying to show them how you use information, how you move from primary sources to your own commentary. And I realized that I was doing just that in my own writing at the time. I went to my research, found a primary source not very different from what they were using, put it up on the overhead. They talked about it, then I showed them what I wrote. That had never happened before."

Pace smiles. "The gap can begin to disappear," he says with satisfaction. The process of discovering how to teach continues.

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