Responsibility through Critical Writing and Reading: John Cumbler in the
By Todd Harper
In his syllabus for American History 211, John Cumbler writes, "It is assumed that you have come to the University to participate in your own education. I will tutor you in your reading, provide a background for some of the major issues concerning historians about a particular historical problem, and work with you to direct you towards particular readings and questions, but you are the student of history." A few lines later, he adds, "The learning process at the university level involves not just the retention of facts, but learning how to think historically."
These few lines highlight Cumbler's commitment to teaching students "how to read, how to write, and how to think critically and analytically" about issues and themes within American history. To encourage his students to think "historically" and to become "student(s) of history," Cumbler incorporates a variety of short papers, research papers, and essay exams in short, a variety of writing techniques. Cumbler's emphasis on using writing to help students in their critical thinking as well as his commitment to teaching makes him our featured instructor of this issue.
Stating his most implicit and explicit goals for the undergraduate classroom, Cumbler notes that he above all wants students to be "responsible for their education." This entails bringing students from a point where they are reliant on course textbooks and the instructor for answers to a point where they are willing to form a historical question and begin researching it on their own, knowing that none of the sources will ever give a final, definite answer to their problems. In short, Cumbler wants students to realize that history is not a "grand narrative" with a formal set body of knowledge but rather a series of smaller and more local narratives in which several diverse and different perspectives help to constitute what we call "history."
Throughout the semester, his students are involved in discovering what type of documents they need, how to use these documents to help reconstruct their arguments, how to locate and critique the arguments within the documents, and finally how to formulate an argument of their own. Thus, Cumbler not only teaches the content of historical arguments but how historical arguments are made.
Cumbler's students write on an informal and formal level. Cumbler notes that he began using writing in the classroom when he noticed his students coming to class having read the material but not having thought it through. He discovered that it took at least half the class for students to begin to realize the general argument of the reading. To circumvent this problem, he began assigning students short essays to be prepared before class on the readings. The result was that students came to class more prepared and more engaged with the material.
What makes Cumbler's work such a striking
example of good WR is his commitment to teaching his discipline through
critical reading and writing. Moreover, he successfully juggles his devotion
to teaching with his love for producing scholarship. The later is no small
feat when considering the increased teaching loads that all instructors
are currently facing as well as the diverse student population that instructors
encounter at the University of Louisville. Yet, Cumbler would not have
it any other way, noting that he is more than willing to spend time with
even the most difficult students as long as they are willing to invest
in their own education. For Cumbler, it is a "much bigger accomplishment
to pass a student who has literacy problems than one who 'don't.' " In
so many ways, Cumbler's attitude and approach to teaching should make him
a role model for us all.
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