Dr. Zaccarini discusses how she applied suggestions from the Writing in the Disciplines workshops in her First Year Seminar course.

Cristina Zaccarini, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, discussed Writing in the Disciplines with Instructional Designer Belle Gironda.

Dr. Zaccarini’s research interests include the global history of spiritualism and spirituality in the 19th century, U.S.-China relations, Chinese medicine in China and the United States, women and gender. She teaches courses in American History, American Civilization, Modern China, Gender in Modern China, Women in the United States, Spiritualism in the Civil War and a First year Seminar on Spirituality Through The Lens Of Historical Narratives.

Dr. Zaccarini participated in the two day intensive WID workshops this summer and spoke with me late this fall about how she was applying suggestions from the workshops in her First Year Seminar course: Spirituality Through The Lens Of Historical Narratives.

When asked what were the biggest takeaways from the workshops that she used in rethinking her seminar, Dr. Zaccarini cited both practical technical advice she has made use of, and also a broader incitement to make some changes in her writing assignments to align them more closely her personal philosophy of teaching.

One of the things that the WID workshops sought to emphasize is the importance of carefully considering the specific goals for any given assignment. What kind of learning, practice and/or demonstration does this assignment intend to facilitate? This starting point  can help to better hone the assignment’s focus, so that students are more likely to achieve the assignment’s objectives in tangible ways.

Dr. Zaccarini said:

I learned from the workshops that all assignments cannot ask students to do everything. This may seem like an obvious thing, but I recognized at the workshop, that  I had been overly zealous. My exams now strictly emphasize facts and basic but highly important concepts. My papers, instead, require self-reflection, organization, synthesis and thinking outside the box.

The workshops also placed a big emphasis on on using writing assignments and activities to promote critical thinking in classes across the disciplines. Professor Zaccarini shared how one particular gateway to critical thinking, mentioned in the workshop, encouraged her to make some changes to the fundamentals of her writing assignments in her class. She explains:

In his essay, Why Study history?” former American Historical Association’s president William H. McNeill  says “For we can only know ourselves by knowing how we resemble and how we differ from others. Acquaintance with the human past is the only way to such self-knowledge.” This resonates powerfully with me.  Not all disciplines have this kind of emphasis–which is part of the reason why a Humanities education is so  important– perhaps, especially for those who are studying to prepare for professions not normally associated with the Humanities, like medicine.  This idea, that our understanding of history is key to understanding ourselves, is fundamental to my approach to teaching, and the most inspiring component of the WID workshops, for me, was the charge that we were given to motivate students to ask a beautiful question.

Those familiar with Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2004) will recall his emphasis on problem-based learning and how, “…effective teachers confront students with] intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality.”

Dr. Zaccarini’s “beautiful questions” assignments take a history-oriented approach, challenging students to come up with their own beautiful questions for their research papers.Dr. Zaccarini confirmed that her conception of a “beautiful question” is also informed by the work of journalist Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, who described a beautiful question as, “An ambitious or actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something.” Where her students’ beautiful questions may differ from Berger’s, she notes, is in the ways that their questions are rooted in the very core of what is important to them.

Dr. Zaccarini explained how she sets the stage, from the start of the class, to prepare students for the kind of thinking she will ask them to do:

I ask students, at the beginning of the semester, to tell me what it is they value most: Do they value peace, progress, love? Do they value the evolution of the individual or the good of the group? In China and Japan, the group’s evolution has historically been more important than an individual’s progress (while in the U.S., more individualistic values rooted in Enlightenment thinking, have predominated.) Do they identify more with individual or group progress? Do their questions resonate with a particular type of thinking? I also ask students what they think would make the world a better place. Are the things that we will learn about, and the U.S.’s role in those things, conducive to the world becoming a better place?

I pondered for a long time, what would make a question beautiful, and that answer was that this question would help students gain self-knowledge. A question that is not beautiful to me is: “What led to the American Revolution?” I discouraged these kinds of questions that would come out of an A.P. preparation guide. A beautiful question must be the result of the churning of ideas in one’s head, an inner knowing that the question resonates with what truly matters to the student, and the natural curiosity that would come out of this.

A beautiful question resonates with the values identified by students as critical. A student who identified himself as valuing freedom structured his paper around the question: “How did the freedom of whites grow at the very same time that the nation shifted to a slavery based on race which increasingly restricted the freedom of African-Americans”?

Students are not used to thinking this way, and initially find it difficult to get into the mindset that they themselves actually matter, in the greater scheme of things, and in the greater project of understanding history. I now allow use of the first person, and students can say, in their papers: “I have always been curious about…or this topic has always resonated very much with me and I would like to explore it.”

I work with them to create a question that can be answered with the required sources. I resolved to break this process down into four separate assignments that require ongoing interaction between myself and students. We use Google docs to share:  a) the initial paper idea, b) the outline, c) paper draft, and d) final paper. While this may seem like a daunting endeavor when it comes to grading, with each stage of the paper’s evolution, the task gets easier. This mechanism also provides for a detailed record that enables me to grade more easily, based on how much the student has improved.

This semester has been incredibly gratifying to me as I have watched students discover aspects of themselves and increase their self-understanding, while learning about history through these beautiful questions. Their sense of their own significance, in the process of learning about history, also insures that they will retain more, because it connects to things that matters to them. I teach about spirituality in history, and students now automatically are better able to make connections with the events and historical actors by relating them to an aspect of their own lives. We, as a class, often grow to understand what motivates humans to behave as they do, and to examine how cultures play a part in this process.

This article is from the Fall 2016 edition of the FCPE Newsletter.

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