Dumb Questions?

Dumb Questions?

     Readers of the February 2017 edition of The History Teacher must have been surprised to see an article by Leah Shopkow with the title “How Many Sources Do I Need?”1 This question is legendary among teachers in the humanities and social sciences.  As soon as a research paper is assigned, there is always at least one student who will ask about the number of required sources.  This is grating to faculty ears because it violates all the professional norms that experts in these fields have been trained to respect. One does not start with a certain number of citations that are sufficient to mollify one’s teacher, but rather with a search for appropriate evidence that will allow us to present a convincing argument.  The question is so off-putting that it is part of the folklore of academia, where it has come to represent both students’ ignorance and their lack of real commitment. As such, it often serves as a justification for abandoning efforts to really teach students, freeing already over-worked faculty from the responsibility of investing time and energy in trying to help novice learners understand what they actually need to do.

     Leah, however, responds to this perennial student question in a radically different manner. She actually takes it seriously.  She asks what sparks this question, why is it so at odds with the attitudes and practices of professionals in the field, and what does it tell us about how we might need change our methods of teaching. She then describes the steps that she, herself, undertook to help her students use sources in the manner expected in college history courses.

     In the process, Leah switches the burden of explanation from the student to the teacher.  She alters the question from “Why don’t the students already understand how many sources to use” to “Why can’t instructors easily answer this question?”  Making excellent use of the Decoding paradigm, she explores the manner in which professional historians actually make decisions about sources, and she makes visible processes that have become so automatic for experts in the field that crucial steps are invisible to them and, thus, are not taught.  She then proceeds to consider how to restructure courses so that students are led into the forms of thinking that are natural to historians but alien to many beginning history students.

     Leah has long been one of the most insightful practitioners of Decoding the Disciplines, and her article is an example of the paradigm at its best. It is well worth reading, not only by other historians, but by anyone interested in sharing their expertise with novice learners, and it is not surprising that the American Historical Association selected it for the 2018 William and Edwyna Gilbert Award for the Best Article on Teaching History.

     Leah very effectively presents both her analysis of the problem and the steps that she took in her own course to remedy it, and there is no need to further summarize her argument here.  But I would like to ponder a bit longer the radical step that she made at the very beginning of this quest to find more effective ways to reach students.

     Leah is very much following the lead of Randy Bass, who, early in the development of the scholarship of teaching and learning, insisted that the learning problems that arise in our courses should be treated, not as signs of failure, but rather as an invitation to intellectual inquiry. “Changing the status of the problem in teaching from terminal remediation to ongoing investigation,” he argued, “is precisely what the movement for a scholarship of teaching is all about.”2 Leah operates very much in that tradition, by treating students’ queries about sources as the occasion for a serious intellectual exploration, rather than yet another sign that certain students are simply not worth listening to.

     In the last twenty years I have rarely written an article, presented a paper, or run a workshop without referring to Randy’s dictum.  But, before I had read Leah’s article, I had never paused to consider fully just what is really entailed in this shift in the status of the pedagogical problem. I have long recognized that it involved an intellectual reframing of student difficulties.  But transforming a bottleneck to learning from a practical dead end into the beginning of a quest for knowledge has moral, political, and social dimensions as well.  The choice to view student learning problems as a topic for investigation implies – at least to some of us —  that we may have an ethical responsibility to help the student find a solution. And, since in most cases these difficulties are not spread evenly across the student population, such an investigation can also raise disturbing questions about the role of our courses in the larger dynamics of inequality. 

     In addition, the very act of problematizing learning problems may represent a violation of the tacit social etiquette of academic culture.  As Leah’s article makes quite clear, exploring the nature of student difficulties and restructuring courses to lessen their impact is an intellectually demanding and time consuming task. In a world in which everyone feels overworked, reminding other academics of the need for such efforts can be perceived as a violation of an implicit social contract. The folk culture that has accumulated around “How many sources do I need” serves to shield college teachers from the moral obligation to do time-consuming work that is often not recognized or rewarded by their institutions.  As Leah’s article demonstrates, the scholarship of teaching and learning offers new possibilities for gaining recognition for such labor. She emerged from the process of exploring this learning difficulty with a refereed publication and an award from the most prestigious association in her discipline.  But many academics, who are unaware of, or uninterested in, such possibilities, may prefer to continue to treat such questions as signs of students’ unworthiness, rather than to entertain the possibility that they, themselves, have a responsibility to do the hard work necessary to develop a meaningful response to such queries.  From their perspective, the assertion that we may have an obligation to take such student questions seriously may be viewed, at best, as a form of bad manners, at worse, as a personal attack.

     Implicit in Leah’s choice and in many – perhaps most – SoTL projects, is a second social transgression: a challenge to the hierarchy that defines students’ ignorance as a mark of inferiority. As I have argued in an earlier post, academics are often trained in educational systems in which a lack of knowledge is a source of shame. Viewing students’ ignorance as a kind of moral failing often follows naturally from teachers’ experience of professional training, and it serves to assure instructors of their own worth within an often viciously judgmental faculty culture.  The retelling of the how-stupid-it-is-that-students-ask-how-many-sources-they-need trope is an act of contempt, which projects shame onto students and serves to shield faculty from their own feelings of unworthiness within the hypercritical world of academia.

     Leah’s move weakens this notion of student inferiority.  Now, instead of two very different orders of humans – one lacking useful knowledge and the other ennobled by it – both students and instructors are reconstituted as learners, moving along parallel paths to discover more effective routes to increase understanding.  It is hard to imagine real teaching without such willingness to surrender the notion that our knowledge marks us off as a different order of human being, and, yet, this affirmation of student worth is often a violation of social norms that are far from dead in contemporary academia.

     Thus, Randy Bass’s call to make learning problems the beginning of an intellectual quest and Leah’s response to that charge are more than simple decisions to undertake a new line of research.  They are also challenges to a set of deeply held values, cultural forms, folklore, patterns of personal interaction, institutional structures, and notions of politeness that justify the avoidance of the moral and political implications of student difficulties and assert the essential superiority of the knower over the learner.  If we are to effect real change in academia, we will have to confront this cultural resistance, not simply offer models of better teaching.


  1. Leah Shopkow, “How Many Sources Do I Need,” The History Teacher 50, no. 2 (February 2017)
  2. Randy Bass, “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?” Inventio: Creative Thinking about Teaching and Learning 1,1 (1999) Available at http://www.doiit.gmu.edu/Archives/feb98/randybass.htm

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