How can we use response software to generate discussion in large classes?

My latest for the Teaching United States History blog:

As I’ve written previously, I’ve structured my survey this semester around publicly available primary documents and “clicker” software. This software allows me to sync slides to students’ phones and computers as well as to ask questions in different formats and get immediate responses. This can be obviously be used to generate mini-quizzes: using multiple choice questions to perform reading and comprehension checks and give credit for participation and correct answers. If most of the class has missed the point of one of the readings, I can have them return to the document, re-examine it in groups, and try again. I use the software for these sorts of things all the time, but my main interest in it lies not in its quizzing function but as a way it to generate the possibility of discussion and conversation in a class with more than 100 students. Thus far, I’ve found two principal ways to get students talking and thinking historically using the clicker software.

The first is simply to ask a multiple-choice question that gets at underlying values. In the week on American imperialism, for example, I begin class by asking “In your opinion, when should the United States intervene in the affairs of other countries?” and then give several options: “When they represent a threat to U.S. security,” “When the leaders of those countries are oppressing their own citizens,” “When another country is in debt or politically unstable”, “Never,” and “Only when the country threatens the existence of the U.S.” I have students discuss their answers in small groups with the people around them, which adds a layer of interaction that scales to any class size. Students can then justify their reasoning to the whole class—but very few answer “debt,” so I can pivot to explain that that was the most common justification for intervention in the circum-Caribbean in the first decades of the twentieth century.

But the other way to use the software to generate conversation and debate is to ask a sequence of questions that build to a point. For example, in a discussion of feminism, I first asked students whether they identified as feminists (the results were pretty evenly split). I then asked whether they believed that women should have the right to vote, and whether relationships should be companionate and based on mutual affection. Almost everyone answered yes to both – which provides an opportunity to explain the degree to which the causes of early twentieth-century feminism have become almost universally accepted, even as many reject the label—and thus to explore the nature of feminist and anti-feminist beliefs of the Gilded and Progressive eras.

Another lesson where I was able to use the clicker software to get interesting discussions going had to do with the racial prerequisite cases, taken up by courts beginning in the 1870s to determine who was legally white and thus eligible for naturalization. Here, I first asked students to enter the number of races they thought there were on the planet: and the answers, ranging from 1 to 1,000, immediately begin to suggest the unscientific nature of the idea of race. Then, I had students click in with answers to six questions, giving, as the law did, only “yes” or “no” as possible answers. The questions all had the same format:

  • Is a person with one black and one white parent white?
  • Is a person with one black great-grandparent and seven white great-grandparents white?
  • Is a Chinese person white?
  • Is a Japanese person white?
  • Is a Mexican person white?
  • Is an Irish person white?

These questions obviously didn’t have correct answers – I just assigned a participation point for giving any answer. Each question got the students talking to their neighbors and debating the boundaries of whiteness—which helps underscore the point about its social construction. After question 2 (where most students answer “yes”), I point out that Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson, was 1/8 black but still subject to legal discrimination. After questions 3 and 4, I point out the legal scholars of the 1890s who insisted that the Japanese were white but that the Chinese were not—showing how ideas about the status of civilizations informed ideas about whiteness. In a classroom consisting almost entirely of Mexican Americans, question 5 caused a stir and students started talking about things like class status and language dominance. It is also an opportunity to talk about 1896’s In: re Rodriguez, the only durable case among the racial prerequisite cases that determined that a group was in fact legally white. Question 6 on the Irish (where students overwhelmingly answer “yes”), is an opportunity to discuss the process through which European immigrant groups came to be considered white, even though they did not begin as such. So even though the questions here didn’t have correct answers and simply offered students yes/no choices, the sequencing added up to an engaging and meaningful lesson in U.S. history and the social construction of racial identity.

And I think they got it: after learning about In: re Rodriguez, which declared Mexicans to be legally white for the purposes of naturalization, one student commented: “Someone should tell Donald Trump.”

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