Increasing Commercialization of Knowledge

I teach AP Research. An incredible class that forces high school students to do a lot of interesting work, particularly write a “lit review”. This may be the single most difficult thing I have ever tried to teach students. Seriously. It hits every challenge – writing, reading, nuanced arguments, time, research, and more. One of the biggest barriers we run up against is simple: access to existing scholarship. I am so lucky that my employer pays for a JSTOR subscription. Absent that, I’m not totally sure what we would do to find anything usable.

Recently I joined the American Historical Association. I feel like an impostor (no PhD), but I really wanted access to recent issues of the American Historical Review and The History Teacher and JSTOR has about a four year lag on recent AHR scholarship. Amazingly, the very first issue I received of Perspectives on History (the “newsmagazine of the American Historical Association”) included “Locked Out: Research Access a Challenge for the Discipline”. The article details a range of historians and their struggles to gain access to basic information necessary to  do their work; particularly high school teachers, public historians, historians at lesser known institutions, and those who are just trying to work independently. Key passage:

“The problem has grown as the nature of information has changed, from a democratic public resource during the hey-day of the public library movement of the early 20th century to the increasing commercialization of knowledge by the new millennium. As Bernard Reilly of the Center for Research Libraries put it, “Now most of the world’s knowledge is hosted not by libraries, but by corporations like Elsevier, JSTOR, ProQuest, the New York Times, and Bloomberg. That created an enormous shift in the way knowledge is accessed that puts universities in a fairly strong position to serve well their faculty and employees, but not serve well the rest of the citizenry.” The result is a scholarly landscape defined by new forms of inequality, opening up access in some ways but closing it off in others. For those excluded, these changes are creating ” a real moment of crisis,” as Reilly put it.”

The expense of all of it makes me miss Aaron Swartz even more.

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Revisiting the Box

I spent the last week with our 11th Grade AP Seminar students discussing their ideas, thoughts, concerns, and questions about AP Research. The entire time was a privilege and incredible opportunity. I posed the following question to them: I’ve taught 6th grade, 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade, and 12th grade at our network. I’m pretty convinced I understand what our 6th through 9th grade classes should look like. I have a vision for 10th grade. However, I’m not convinced I’ve seen what our 12th grade classes can become. I posed this challenge to the 11th graders: We get A LOT of visitors who come to see our schools. When a visitor walks in, I want the principal to say, without hesitating, go see AP Research in Room 304. That’s what we do.

With this sentiment in mind, I revisited this post from Doug Lemov. I looped with this class; 8th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade. They graduated last week and I’ve been sappy ever since. Two students in the video were in my AP Research class this year – modern perceptions of pornography and impact of femicide on immigration rates from Mexico were their topics. I’m very proud of my work in this video. But given where these students are going to college I”m not convinced I increased the rigor at the appropriate level. I could have done more.

With respect to the video, four years later, here’s where the students featured are going:

  • Syracuse University College of Engineering
  • College of the Saint Rose
  • Swathmore College
  • Franklin & Marshall
  • Columbia University
  • SUNY Old Westbury
  • CUNY John Jay College
  • University of Central Florida
  • Johns Hopkins
  • SUNY Polytechnic
  • Ursinus College
  • University of Michigan

There are 2-3 students who transferred out – one went to a specialized high school, one moved away, and I’m not sure about the third. One student in this class, not present in the video, ended up at a private school through Prep 4 Prep. As I drafted this I saw via the Internets that she is going to Yale.



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Propose Different Interpretations

The AP World History exam is next week. I love this test. It’s so hard and assesses really interesting aspects of a student’s ability to think historically. Over the past year I’ve watched our tenth graders and their two incredible APWH teachers grow a ton as historians. While much of our efforts are spent on the larger tasks, particularly the DBQ, the secondary source/historical argumentation short answer question may be the most vexing; it’s not a huge portion of the points on the exam, but absent a strong strategy to attack it, students are going to get almost no points. For those of you not familiar with the question style, it’s ultimately a pair of passages by two historians with conflicting views on a topic OR a single passage by a historian expressing a nuanced historical argument. Here is one of the few publicly available examples from the College Board:


On our most recent quarterly exam around 20% of students got one out of three points and fewer than 5% answered part c correctly. Some of the most common trends: vague descriptions of Cold War events, unclear sentences (“One piece of evidence that supports this is . . . “), or quoting “evidence” from the passage to explain the author’s argument. C was often total gibberish.

Of all the changes to the AP history exam, this strikes me as one of the most interesting, important, and ultimately frustrating. Interesting, as the question explores the nature of what historians ultimately do in their writing. Important, as it captures an incredibly important (and difficult) skill. Frustrating, in that in many ways this is first a reading comprehension question, then a historical knowledge question. As the Chief Reader report for the 2017 exam noted, these questions force students to comprehend a passage and then apply their knowledge in a historically meaningful way across several time periods. Additionally, the College Board has continued to update the language of the questions moving away from “identify and explain” to “provide one piece of evidence”.

The first problem our staff faced was deciding on a plan of attack for students to tackle these questions. Our Pre-AP World History teacher worked on a number of approaches and settled on one that our APWH classes eventually adopted. We arrived at it by having each teacher prepare an exemplar in preparation for a data meeting, compared our exemplars, and then re-traced our steps to come up with a system. An example of a teacher exemplar of the marked up passage captures the first few steps:


First, read and annotate the questions to identify the ultimate tasks.

Second, read and annotate the source line to the document/documents focusing on contextualization and point of view (when was it written, what was going on at the time, who wrote it, what is it, etc . . . ). Note the annotation at the top “Recent, secondary source”.

Third, read and annotate the passages for author’s claim. Here you can see margin notes that capture claims and sub-claims throughout both passages (e.g., “CW was unavoidable”).

Fourth, brainstorm your evidence. “westward expansion, annexation of the Philippines”.

Finally, write your responses:


We often tell students that in class (and at home) we have the luxury of time and therefore we need to “see your thinking” in the annotations. Given the time adjustments to the APWH exam, I think these steps are reasonable. However, as our Dean of Curriculum pointed out recently when reading another example released by the College Board, this is a close reading exercise. If you mis-read one key sentence in the time crunch there is simply no way you can answer the question accurately.

As for the quality of the teacher exemplar written responses, I don’t know. I do not feel that the Chief Reader report commentary really applies the this specific type of question. I’m not sure I really understand what question c is asking – I think it’s asking about the authors’ respective points of view, as addressed by the exemplar responses analysis that one author focuses on “larger and longer global process”.

I know there are a lot of amazing AP World History teachers out there who spend a lot of time thinking about these questions – what do you think of the steps? The quality of the responses? Comment away.

PS – today is my last day of paternity leave. I’ve had a few drafts of this post floating around for awhile, but figured if I didn’t write it tonight, it was never getting written. Blame the typos on the five week old asleep down the hall.

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That Was Precious

Charles Mann posted a link to this excellent blog post addressing the ‘public’ response to the “largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas” as reported by National Geographic. Carl Feagans appropriately acknowledges the horrific nature of this event, but then, as a disciplined archeologist, applies a disciplined approach to his historical thinking and wonders why would the Chimú people would resort to such horrific means of appeasing their gods. First, the context:

In the same period, between 1400-1450 CE, there is evidence that shows that an El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which actually peaked at around 1425 CE. In addition, the presence of the mud layer over the normal sand of the region is indicative of wide-scale flooding, a result of the torrential downpours that an ENSO event brings.

Then the analysis:

From their point of view, the gods were punishing them, angry at them, or—at the very least—lacking appeasement.

So they sacrificed to the gods.

But they probably didn’t go straight to 140 children and 200 young goats. [ ]

. . .

The Chimú people very likely tried to appease the gods with small sacrifices. Then moved up to human adults. When that didn’t work, they may have arrived at the conclusion that they must give up something to the gods that was precious.

So, when you read the story National Geographic posted a few days ago, don’t read it thinking that the Chimú people viewed children as any less precious or valuable than we do. As a society, they were in dire straits. It may have been the case that children were already dying of disease, hunger, or even violent attack from the Inca, who finally subdued the Chimú in 1475 CE.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Feagans’s post confirmed my suspicions that I am not missing much by not being on Facebook. The outrage of the masses judging the past doesn’t sound all of that interesting to me.

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An Office Had to Be Found

In the midst of an extended bout of “reader’s block”, I grabbed an old copy of Fahrenheit 451 off the shelf in an attempt to generate some “miles on the page” this week. I read it in high school and know its place on high school reading lists, but I know almost nothing about Ray Bradbury. I found the afterword and “Coda” more fascinating than the book. He wrote the first draft in the basement of a library, paying for typewriter time, surrounded by dusty old books:

In all the years from 1941 to [the writing of Fahrenheit 451], I had done most of my typing in the family garages, either in Venice, California (where we lived because we were poor, not because it was the “in” place to be) or behind the tract house where my wife, Marguerite, and I raised our family. I was driven out of my garage by my loving children, who insisted on coming around to the rear window and singing and tapping on the panes. Father had to choose between finishing a story or playing with the girls. I chose to play, of course, which endangered the family income. An office had to be found. We couldn’t afford one.

Finally, I located just the place, the typing room in the basement of the library at the University of California at Los Angeles. There, in neat rows, were a score or more of old Remington or Underwood typewriters which rented out at a dime a half hour. You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly, and you typed wildly, to finish before the half hour ran out. Thus I was twice driven; by children to leave home, and by a typewriter timing device to be a maniac at the keys. Time was indeed money. I finished the first draft in roughly nine days. At 25,000 words, it was half the novel it eventually would become.

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The Least They Can Do

I really, really wish I was spending my February break reading about history and teaching. Instead my Twitter feed and the front page of the NY Times are filled with stories about the ridiculous “idea” of arming teachers. Ironically, about two weeks ago I moved a lot of the political writers I follow to a “list” so I could check it when I want and not be bombarded with Trump news every time I opened Tweetdeck or Tweetbot. Now, both the historians and educators I follow are commenting on Trump’s lack of understanding of education, schools, and gun control.

A lot of people smarter than me have addressed gun violence and school shootings. I am thankful for the coverage from some of the non-political writers I follow – particularly John Gruber and the indafatigable Jason Kottke. I highly recommend reading them daily – they reward you with plenty of non-political writing and some of the most insightful commentary on the issues you should be paying attention to (but maybe not every day).

Now for me on this.

A few years ago I did a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar. It was the most rewarding history professional development I’ve ever done. After a week-long class with an incredibly talented and respected professor (“Professor”), our last session involved him opening up the table to “anything we wanted to ask”. (I’m leaving Professor’s name out, because I’m paraphrasing years later and to my knowledge he has not written on this topic.)

One teacher asked a general question about his assessment of public education in America. Professor took a moment, gathered his thoughts, and explained (much clearer than I will here) that in his view all successful nation-states/empires/kingdoms had two qualities: a strong military and a strong bureaucracy. In the United States, we have done the strong military very well, but never had a very strong bureaucracy. Instead, our bureaucracy was established pretty late and has always been subjected to that uniquely American strategy of “outsourcing”.

According to Professor, the one strong, well-run bureaucracy we do have are the schools & teachers – they’re organized, they’re mobile, they’re large, and they can get stuff done. (Ignore the reformers waving their examples of lazy teachers & failing schools for a moment.) As a result, whenever the U.S. wants to address a domestic issue they have to rely on one of the two really strong institutions: the military or the schools. As a result, we continue to push responsibility for more and more issues onto teachers and schools beyond, you know, teaching. Meals. Social services. Counseling. Basic public health.

Once you see this you cannot unsee it. And it’s impossible not to see it in the NRA and Trump “proposal” to arm teachers.

The tone of this McSweeny’s piece from Kimberley Harrington is off this week (imagine that, McSweeny’s getting the tone wrong!), but the penultimate paragraph captures the situation well:

Just to wrap up, our country has chosen to shift all of the weight regarding your safety away from our lawmakers and gun manufacturers and instead put it squarely on the shoulders of your principal and teachers. These people who kneel down on the first day of school so they’re just as tall as you. These people who shake your hand and say, “Good morning!” and help you rehearse for the spring concert and take you on field trips to see different rock formations — they are now in charge of keeping you from getting murdered. Which really is the least they can do for all that money they make.

That is all. I’m going to go grab a big, heavy history book and try to avoid the headlines.


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Scholarly in Their Approach

Michael Fordham offered up an interesting list of books for people beginning training as history teachers. Even though his audience is generally British school teachers, I always find his thoughts on teaching history helpful. I’ve added several of his suggestions to my nightstand (and I’m not just starting out). His criteria:

(a) are written by leading scholars, (b) have chronological, geographical and thematic breadth, (c) are written in a style that is easily accessible to the general reader but are nevertheless (d) scholarly in their approach with clear references to the historiography and source material.

His list is a little “euro-centric”, but in light of his audience/career it makes sense.

Here are my four additions, particularly for anyone teaching a world history course:

The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History – J.R. McNeill & William McNeill
Empire of Cotton: A Global History – Sven Beckert
Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures – Matt K. Matsuda
Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food – Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Add your suggestions/questions in the comments.




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