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Understanding Perspectives in a Native American History Course—Robert Schwaller (2019)

Overview

This portfolio describes the process of planning a history class to meet the requirements of KU Core Goal 4.2. It also tracks the development of two instruments that measure the learning objectives of 4.2, which emphasizes students recognizing cultural knowledge and decision making that is different from the dominant American culture.

Background

History 326: Native American Civilizations and their European Counterparts examines encounters between indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europeans from 1492 to about 1850. While the course had existed before, I revived it in 2018 after about 10 years of being dormant, building it around KU Core Goals 1.1 (critical thinking), 3h (disciplinary knowledge), and 4.2, which is the focus of this portfolio. The content of the course inherently lends itself to the type of cultural understanding and analysis entailed in 4.2, as it covers the interactions between Native peoples of the Americas and European colonizers, comparatively and across time and space.

Disciplinarily, those of us who study non-Western histories implicitly understand the importance of engaging with and trying to understand—on their own terms—other-cultural worldviews, especially the ways in which culture influences knowledge production, social life, and understandings of nature and place. Often in teaching, we might take for granted the work that we have done to be able to understand those cultural groups as separate and distinct from our own culture. The challenge of fulfilling Core Goal 4.2 is finding ways to make such work more explicit in teaching so that students are better equipped to identify their own cultural beliefs and values, enabling them to better understand and recognize other cultural beliefs and values as being distinct from their own. From a historical point of view, this also requires teaching students to recognize the ways that these differences have shaped both the past and the present. Part of the aim of this iteration of HIST 326 was to create an instrument that would help measure the efficacy of a course in achieving 4.2, which states: “Upon reaching this goal, students will be able to examine a variety of perspectives in the global community, distinguish their own cultural patterns, and respond flexibly to multiple worldviews.”

Implementation

In many ways, conflicts rooted in different belief systems are implicit in the content of the class. Students are exposed to cultural encounters between indigenous peoples and Europeans through scholarly articles. In order to facilitate comprehension of these readings, students are broken up into team reading groups. The team reading assignments naturally elicit discussion relevant to 4.2 because most readings focus on exploring other cultural frameworks and cultural encounters between differing groups. The learning objective of 4.2 is also addressed through a highly scaffolded final assignment in the form of a research proposal, for which students select a current event relevant to the course, such as the conflict over the Keystone XL pipeline, and examine the historical issues involved.

Student Work

The greatest challenge of the course is tracking how the other-cultural content and instruction has influenced students' reflexive engagement with their own culture in relation to other cultures. To do this, I created two assessments: 1. a survey administered at the beginning and end of the course and 2. a reflexive essay.

Based on the survey questions that had statistically significant results, the students did appear to acquire content knowledge that yielded positive outcomes of the learning goals in that they appeared to recognize cultural difference and mobilize that cognitive understanding in a way that was directed to understanding actual problems rooted in cultural conflict involving other-cultural groups (in this case Native American communities). Many of the survey questions demonstrated no significant change; in some cases students' responses appeared to indicate a negative reaction to having their cultural sensitivity quantified.

The reflexive essay, which was scored by rubric, revealed that the vast majority met or exceeded the expectations related to 4.2. Only 2% underperformed on the knowledge question, and on the self-reflectiveness component, about 20% underperformed, which indicates the class is performing as expected.

Reflections

The performance of the class indicates that the vast majority of the students accomplished the outcomes in terms of the content and reflexivity. During in-class discussions, students frequently emphasized the difference between the content of the course and what they had learned at other levels of education. These discussions conveyed the students' qualitative acquisition of other-cultural knowledge and growing reflexive engagement with the cultural difference between their cultural framework and those studied in the course. While both assessments used were helpful, both suffered from the way in which students could predict what they aimed to assess. Some students responded negatively to the attempt to measure cultural awareness and sensitivity. While harder to detect, other students may have scored themselves in ways that exaggerated their self-awareness and other-cultural sensitivity.

The biggest obstacle was the occasional student who did not want to be changed. Even as they completed the course assignments, often qualitatively demonstrating acquisition of 4.2 learning outcomes, they seemed categorically opposed to responding to the test instruments in a way that suggested that the class had succeeded in its learning outcomes. I suspect that this response may be tied to the increasing politicization of the nation as a whole and ways in which some students perceive higher education to be complicit in the culture wars of U.S. politics. In the future, it may be helpful to make 4.2 a more explicit portion of the curriculum in order to clarify that the goal of outcome 4.2 is not about changing students’ beliefs but increasing their awareness of other beliefs and ways of knowing so that they can more effectively and successfully operate in the world with those from different backgrounds.


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BACKGROUND

History 326: Native American Civilizations and their European Counterparts examines the encounters between indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europeans from 1492 to about 1850. The 60 students in the class represent a wide range of backgrounds. There are many history majors and some secondary education majors, as well as students in Indigenous Studies and Latin American Studies, as the class is cross-listed in Latin American Studies. Most students are sophomores to seniors and enter the course without much background in the indigenous history of the Americas. Even for those who were familiar with indigenous cultures of North America, there was a significant amount of course material that was new due to the focus on Central and South America.

Within the Department of History, this course bridges a gap between our Western and non-Western courses because it geographically spans the entire hemisphere, crossing the boundary between courses focusing on Anglo North America and Latin America, meaning it has the ability to draw from a wide constituency. It is one of four classes that focus on indigenous histories of the Americas but the only one that does so hemispherically, which makes it unique.

Course goals

While HIST 326 had existed in the books previously, prior to this iteration it had not been taught in about ten years. This provided the opportunity to design the course around Core Goals 1.1, 3h, and 4.2, meaning the objectives for the course were structured around the goals for which it was approved.

Starting with Goal 3 and its focus on disciplinary knowledge, the course covers a significant amount of content, but it is often more focused on helping students understand how historians approach that content. As students learn about indigenous history, they are asked to consider how historians engage in historical research, what methodologies they use, and how they use evidence to structure arguments in writing.

To fulfill Core Goal 1.1 and its focus on critical thinking, this course focuses on building skills of historical analysis. This class requires students to engage in what would be, in larger research projects, the preliminary phase of research. They pick a contemporary event affecting native peoples anywhere in the world, and through a series of scaffolded assignments, they begin to do research into the history of that event. The final assignment of the semester requires students to write a research proposal that explains the significance of the current event, share some of the research that has been done to explore that issue, and then articulate how one would do further research into that topic.

As a course focused on non-Western peoples, HIST 326 provides an opportunity to enable students to articulate their own awareness of other-cultural understandings outside of the United States, the outcome of Core Goal 4.2. Much of this engagement is implicit in the readings and assignments they complete in the course. Interestingly, many students appeared drawn to further understand cultural conflicts arising between Western culture and indigenous cultures. For the final project, many research topics specifically tackled the cultural conflicts that underlie so many interactions between indigenous peoples and sovereign states, for example the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. In completing this assignment, students began to see the ways in which different cultural frameworks were shaping each side of the issue. While this final assignment serves to demonstrate students’ acquisition of disciplinary skills, qualitatively it also documents the degree to which they are able to identify and cognitively engage with other-cultural frameworks unique from their own.

The challenges of Core Goal 4.2

Disciplinarily, those of us who study non-Western histories implicitly understand the importance of engaging with and trying to understand—on their own terms—other-cultural worldviews, especially the ways in which culture influences knowledge production, social life, and understandings of nature and place. Often in teaching, we might take for granted the work that we have done to be able to understand those cultural groups as separate and distinct from our own culture. The challenge of fulfilling Core Goal 4.2 is finding ways to make such work more explicit in teaching so that students are better equipped to identify their own cultural beliefs and values. It is necessary for students to understand and recognize other cultural beliefs and values as being distinct from their own. From a historical point of view, this also requires teaching students to recognize the ways that these differences have shaped both the past and the present.

Part of the aim of this iteration of HIST 326 was to create an instrument that would help to measure the efficacy of a course in achieving 4.2. Figuring out how to assess the outcome of 4.2 is a challenge because it requires reflexivity on behalf of the student. Even though we as historians recognize subjectivity and its impact on our work, we rarely have students engage in reflexive writing. Most academic historical writing privileges objectivity over reflexive engagement with the material. What I have tried to do is find a few assessments that will help me gauge the reflexive work that students engage in throughout the semester and make documenting that reflexivity a more explicit element of the course and its outcomes.


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IMPLEMENTATION

Course design

The class is not 100% flipped, but it is hybrid. About 75% of class meetings are discussion-based and focus on readings students have done outside of class. A quarter of class sessions are dedicated to lectures. The course material and content is presented both chronologically and thematically. We move from 1492 through the 19th century, but as we move through time we look at prominent themes common to different periods.

During the discussion days, the class is broken up into two discussion periods. During the first 30 minutes of the class, students discuss reading in small groups, which are set up at the beginning of the semester. The discussion in class is facilitated by a series of low-stakes assignments that my colleague Nathan Wood developed with CTE support called “team-reading exercises.” There is a further explanation of the format in the syllabus.

Each member of the group has a role and shares with a discussion group on Blackboard the assignment to fulfill that role:

  • The discussion director highlights the main ideas, generating the big questions for the articles for the in-class discussion.
  • The connector brings in material from outside that other students might not know about, bringing in knowledge from academic and extra-curricular experiences.
  • The illuminator focuses on poignant passages. This person focuses on the text and tries to draw attention to parts of the text that are particularly helpful for understanding.
  • The word watcher looks for words, often with the idea that students might not know all the words that come up in academic writing but that many of those words are crucial for understanding the arguments being made in the readings.
  • The summarizer takes notes during that class time and posts a summary on Blackboard.

As students engage in team-reading discussion, the GTA and I circulate among the groups, observing discussion and facilitating each group’s conversation. The discussion director leads the small-group time, with each role contributing assigned questions/comments. In the second half of the class period, I lead a larger discussion focused on reinforcing major ideas found in the readings and helping students to think about issues that came up related to the work that they will be doing in the class.

This class structure lent itself well to accomplishing Goal 4.2. The challenge that emerged is that at times students needed further prodding to move toward an understanding of other-cultural frameworks. In the future, it might be useful to develop questions of my own that, in addition to the group-derived discussion questions, would help students consider the distinction between their own cultural beliefs and values and those of others. While those aspects were routinely brought to the surface throughout the normal course of discussion due to the nature of the content, the discussion format relied heavily upon students generating the questions themselves. Their reflexive engagement might be furthered if I gave them questions that more explicitly prompted them to consider the way in which differing, and often opposing, cultural frameworks influenced the outcome of particular historical encounters.

Assignments

In some ways, 4.2 goals are implicit in many of the readings. This class draws from the subfield of ethnohistory. As a discipline, ethnohistory explores and documents non-Western histories of the Americas (primarily indigenous, but increasingly African and Afro-indigenous) and the cultural encounters between Western and non-Western peoples in the Americas. Therefore, conflict over belief systems is implicit in the content of the class. Many of the team-reading exercises generally elicit such conversations because the readings emphasize the cultural frameworks underpinning these encounters.

The final overall assignment for the class, a research proposal, allows students to choose a contemporary issue relevant to indigenous peoples of the Americas and to research the historical issues involved. Implicitly, this assignment entails studying an encounter between an other-cultural group and a dominant—almost exclusively white—Western tradition. Students must necessarily deal with the crux of 4.2 in undertaking research into these topics. Because most students tend to associate with a Western cultural framework, this research highlights how indigenous frameworks differ from their framework and reveals that contemporary conflicts are often rooted in the power disjuncture between indigenous groups and Western ones. Between the explicitness of cultural encounters in the content as well as the implicit working out of how they relate to the material, students are necessarily drawn to the reflexive engagement required by the goal.

The final assignment is highly scaffolded throughout the semester with smaller assignments building toward the final project. Additionally, I work with research librarians to show students how to engage in basic research for sources on a particular topic. While these are skills that history majors are likely familiar with, this structure offers additional iterations for students already aware of them and introduces these skills to others at the same time. By the time students get to the final assignment (see rubric), they only need to refine and edit together the scaffolded assignments they have already done.

The smaller scaffolded assignments include:

Readings and the development of disciplinary literacy

Most readings are scholarly journal articles, which are made available through the library and Blackboard. There is one required text, a primary source reader that looks at the Spanish conquest of Guatemala through accounts by Spaniards, Aztecs, and Mayas. There is an optional textbook available as an e-book via the library that can provide an additional framework to situate the readings.

My choice of using journal articles is rooted in Core Goal 3, which is about imparting a disciplinary understanding. Journal articles are useful for conveying content but also for their ability to demonstrate the practice of history. While academic monographs are often easier for students to read, their length limits how many can be assigned in a semester. As a 300-level course, I try to limit reading to 30-50 pages per class session. As a result, a monograph would take between two and three weeks to complete. While journal articles can be difficult to curate because of the background knowledge that some require, students for the most part were able to understand the historical content of articles and gain an awareness of different historical approaches and methodologies used by the authors.

This class assumes no prior knowledge in the discipline or the subject matter. But the assignments focus on developing a number of skills that are important to historical thinking and the broadly applicable skills of research, analysis, and writing. For example, a number of the team reading roles and preliminary assignments in the class focus on having students dissect a journal article for its argument. For students who have taken history classes, this reinforces work they have done elsewhere. But because we start at the very beginning, with some very simple questions about the readings, even a student who has not taken a history class would be able to learn these basic skills from the exercises and readings. The scaffolded assignment exposes students to basic research skills and uses iterative writing to develop skills of critical thinking and written expression.


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STUDENT WORK

Assessing 4.2

In addition to informal observation in class discussion and the formal work done in the final research proposal and scaffolded assignments, I also developed two instruments to specifically assess learning related to Goal 4.2:

  1. A survey was completed by students at the beginning and end of the course that asked them to agree or disagree with statements related to their own cultural knowledge and engagement with other cultural experiences.
  2. A reflective essay was assigned during the final week of the class. It was ungraded, but completion counted for 5% of the final grade. Ideally it is an opportunity for students to reflect upon different ways that the class has informed their ability to consider non-US cultural viewpoints.

Survey results

For most statements, the change between and pre- and post-testing was not significant. In many cases it seemed students intuited the intent of the survey, and even though the survey was anonymous, they recognized that the goal was to assess their openness to other cultures. It seems that some students gave the answers they saw as politically correct or thought we wanted to hear.

For other students, it had the opposite effect, and they seemed to have a knee-jerk reaction against the goal. For example, the question that most directly probes their openness to cross-cultural understanding actually recorded a slight decrease (although not significant) over the semester: “I’m interested in understanding how different cultures approach problems.” In future iterations, I may consider dropping questions or rewording them to be less transparent to the Core Goal objective.

Based on the questions that had statistically significant results, the students did appear to acquire content knowledge that yielded positive outcomes for the learning goals. Students self-reported an increase in their ability to recognize cultural difference and mobilize that cognitive understanding in a way that was directed to engaging with actual problems in specific places.

Reflexive essay results

The reflexive essay was scored on a rubric that had two axes. One was “cultural reflexivity in the context of other cultures,” and the other was “comparative knowledge of cultural worldviews and frameworks.” I scored that on a three-tiered rubric, denoting performance of exceeds, expected, and underperformed.

The vast majority of students met or exceeded expectations for each axis. Only 2% underperformed on the knowledge question, which suggests the class is conveying factual knowledge about other cultural views. On the self-reflectiveness component, about 20% underperformed, which indicates the class is performing as expected. I suspect that some of those who underperformed did so because they were aware of what we were seeking to gauge and seemed resistant to acknowledging such a shift. Several written comments in the essays stated such views. It appeared that they were students who seemed to have chosen intentionally not to engage in that aspect of the assignment.

Assessing 4.2 in class discussion and assignments

I tried to choose readings that would illustrate to students the type of thinking central to 4.2. How do scholars approach studying the culture of non-Western peoples, especially peoples for whom we don’t have documents produced by their own hand in their own languages—a problem common to many indigenous groups of the Americas? Those readings were intended to develop disciplinary thinking by facilitating an understanding of how the discipline of history attempts to reach those experiences.

Because the readings were focused on other-cultural groups and at times based in other-cultural primary sources, the readings themselves revealed to students other ways of knowing and other ways of decision making. If students in the small-group discussion did not get to those elements of the readings, I used the large-group discussion to help draw out these issues or offer mini-lectures when students were not able to conceptualize the ideas.

From the discussions, it was evident that most students became increasingly aware that indigenous peoples made and make choices based in their own cultural frameworks and that those choices were distinct from how a Western framework would evaluate similar situations. Sometimes, for example, some indigenous groups made the choice to cooperate with colonizing groups in various ways at different times and places. From teleological hindsight we know that such choices still resulted in negative effects on those groups; yet, in those moments indigenous groups made a rational decision to cooperate based on their own ways of knowing the world and their culturally defined expectations. This was perhaps most surprising for students, when native peoples made decisions that did not fit with the narratives we have constructed in the West about these interactions. Through my assessment of the discussion, as the semester exposed them to more information and perspectives on the topic, they became more capable of demonstrating the skills associated with 4.2.

The assessment of this understanding was informal through small group discussion throughout the course and then formalized in the final project, which required students to demonstrate understanding of that other perspective. Overall student performance on this scaffolded project, which implicitly involved engagement with 4.2, was quite good.


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Professor Robert Schwaller

Robert Schwaller

Reflections

The performance of the class indicates that the vast majority of the students accomplished the goals in terms of the content and reflexive outcomes. The overall student outcomes based on grades suggest the students who did the reading and completed the assignments were effective in accomplishing the core goals of the course.

The smaller assignments that scaffolded their final project were effective in bringing together the disciplinary knowledge with engagement with the other-cultural perspectives in ways consistent with the outcomes of Core Goal 4.2. The way I structured the class to work for Goal 3 and 4.2 was effective. In some ways, the scaffolding may have been too helpful. Students’ scores tended to gravitate upward because of many small assignments. If students were engaged, they got an A or B.

Students were very surprised by how the narratives of indigenous people presented in this course differed from what they had learned in other levels of education. Most of them pointed out how disserved they felt by their high school education. Many felt that what they were learning in this class either contradicted what they had been taught or had never been talked about in those previous levels of education.

The challenge of assessing 4.2

As a tool, the 4.2 self-reflective essay is rather useful. The problem with both the assessments I use is that they telegraph what they are attempting to measure. I have yet to conceive of a way to gauge the reflexive aspect of Goal 4.2 without revealing to students that effort. Because the instruments telegraph the purpose, the possibility exists that students who don’t want to be seen as being prejudiced respond in ways that exaggerate their cultural competencies. The data show the class was successful in conveying knowledge and engaging students in other-cultural awareness versus their own understanding. With future iterations, we may be able to tailor the survey to focus more closely on the information that we are trying to elicit. The survey yielded some helpful answers, but the wording needs to be tweaked so that it can produce more consistent results. The essay is useful because it forces the reflexivity we want from students, both fulfilling and assessing 4.2.

The biggest obstacle was the occasional student who didn’t want to be changed. Often those students would complete the assignments successfully and did not reject or challenge course material, but they seemed categorically opposed to having the class impact them in a way that was not knowledge or skill acquisition. In some cases, I suspect that this response may have been more common among students who consider themselves to be conservative and perceived reflexivity as a liberal attempt to change their viewpoints, which I can understand.

In the future, being more overt about the goals of 4.2 may help mitigate such a response. By laying out the goal more explicitly, I could be clearer about emphasizing that the purpose of Goal 4.2 is to help students understand that we all live in a world of diverse peoples. An important skill that can help us all succeed in our personal and professional lives is understanding that the way we think is rooted in culture and that other cultures think and react differently because they are based in different frameworks and ways of knowing the world.

By laying it out a bit more explicitly, emphasizing that cultural competency is a skill for a globalizing world—not a politically correct liberal ideology—I hope that I can clarify that the work of this class is not about changing students’ beliefs but giving them skills they need to be successful out in the world. In other words, I should emphasize that my aim is not to change what students believe, but I’m trying to help students prepare to operate in a world where other people believe differently than they do and approach problems in very different ways than they might.

The importance of reflexivity in 4.2

The reflexivity inherent in the 4.2 learning outcome is something that many academic disciplines have always taken to be an implicit outcome of the educational experience, particularly in certain fields. Doing a better job of integrating that outcome into how we teach and developing multiple ways of assessing it will be useful across the board. Although I might not have made such changes unless spurred by the Core Goal 4.2 outcomes, I believe incorporating cultural reflexivity as an explicit goal of the learning experience is crucial to post-secondary teaching. We have always been aware that encouraging the growth of cultural reflexivity among our students is important to their preparation for post-collegiate life. I believe that adopting a more explicit approach to teaching that reflexivity, and incorporating assessments to document the success of those methods, will allow us to be more successful in achieving what we have always sought to do.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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