I structure my courses around what I don’t know. Since we know so little about the past, archaeology is well suited to that approach, but I imagine other disciplines are, too. I start a course by asking one of the great unanswered questions of the discipline: is cultural innovation like random mutation? Is there archaeological evidence that there were people in the Americas before 15 000 years ago? Were Paleolithic societies egalitarian? Can we read identity in the archaeological record?
Once I’ve told students very clearly what I don’t know, I invite them to help me find an answer. I spend the semester explaining why I don’t know what I don’t know. I explain why I think the question is worth answering. I help them become aware of some of the obstacles, theoretical, methodological, and historical, that have prevented us from getting a clear answer to our question. I ask them for thoughts on how some of these obstacles might be overcome. They sometimes come up with the most remarkable ideas. Over the years, some of those thoughts, expressed in a large intro course, have become the long-term research programs of people who are now faculty members and post-docs.
Of course, in the process of telling them all the things I don’t know, and of explaining why all those obstacles stand in the way, I have to tell students some of what I do know. I have to walk them through the efforts of other people over the past centuries who have tried to overcome these obstacles, what progress they made, what ground they cleared, what dead-ends they hit, what new unanswered questions they left for us to investigate.
The course is not about what I know. It isn’t about facts, names, dates, or lithic industries, although these will turn out to be important tools during the semester. They will be means to an end. What little I know is secondary. The known merely serves the pursuit of the unknown.
Teaching is a dialogue
By the end of the semester, we’ve had a conversation. We’ve explored an area of knowledge together. We’ve learned how to evaluate the available information and how to use it in pursuit of an answer of which we are all equally ignorant.
Yes, I have knowledge, expertise, and experience the students don’t yet have. I can act as a guide. But we are equals in one crucial respect: None of us has the answer to the central question around which the course is structured. Sometimes, a big part of my job is to convince students that I don’t, in fact, have the answer. When I do convince them, it transforms the class into a community of knowledge seekers to which I belong, as the students do. Parts of that community often survive the course, for many years, I have found.
The approach works equally well in a large intro course with 300 students or in a small graduate seminar with five. The methods for delivering the course vary, but the dynamics of the class and the outcome are the same. In a large class, the first assignment might be a 250 word paragraph on why we don’t have an answer to the central question. Students find this surprisingly challenging. Another assignment might be a page on who has tried to answer it and how much progress they made.
We all ask the same questions
The questions I choose for any given semester do not vary with the level of the course. Whether we are first year undergrads, advanced grad students, or senior faculty, we ask the same questions. What varies is the baggage with which we approach these questions. Undergrads thinking about a question for the first time and senior faculty who’ve been working on it for 25 years approach it very differently. There is hidden value in this.
Students learn to ask their own questions, and that they are allowed to voice them. They learn to pursue them actively, and that the work of those who came before can help if it is approached critically. Instead of being ‘a reading’, it becomes a tool. Most importantly, if I do my job right, they continue asking questions and pursuing answers after the course is over.