Teaching Students to Think, Problem Solve, and Make Connections

In this section, Prof. McCants explains the role of humanities classes in students' development as thinkers.

Students often enter a humanities class thinking that the class will be about the content—so, a Shakespeare class will be about Shakespeare, and a history class will be about the facts of what happened. When was Charlemagne crowned emperor, and how do we know?

I think humanities classes actually help students fashion ideas, think critically, problem solve, make connections, understand different perspectives, and communicate. Of course the content is important, but it's a medium for students' intellectual development more than anything else.

Framing the Humanities as Problem Solving

I encourage my students to think about writing as essentially the same as doing a problem set.

— Prof. McCants

Every lecture in this course is centered on a problem. I think most people at MIT, and really most people I've ever met, really like having problems to solve. In class, we start with a problem, figure out a way to make some sense of it, and identify the tools and evidence we need. We're engaged as a class in trying to solve whatever the problem is for the day.

I encourage my students to think about writing as essentially the same as doing a problem set. You have to have a question; evidence for answering that question; a hypothesis based on the evidence; and a conclusion, which for a problem set is called the answer, and for a paper is called the conclusion. The evidence and the kinds of questions that are asked differ, but the intellectual exercises are actually not that different.

I want students to understand that humanities is problem solving, and also that math and science are a form of rhetoric and persuasion. When you're answering one of your problem sets in an engineering course, you're trying to persuade somebody that, for example, one bridge would stand and another wouldn't. I think the more the students can see the methodology of problem solving as consistent, the less intimidating it feels to do history.

Some of the problems are very different, so I also try to help the students see that problems involving human motivation can be a lot messier and more intractable than science or engineering problems.

In this class, any time students examine something, I try to ask them not just, 'What is this?' but 'What is this an example of?'

— Prof. McCants

Building Connections: What Is This an Example of?

In this class, any time students examine something, I try to ask them not just, "What is this?" but "What is this an example of?" That opens up the possibility to compare it to something from 2000 years ago, or something happening in the students' dorms, or something happening in one of their other classes. It's no longer a unitary fact or observation but rather something that is connected and helps students think about the broader world. That's thinking by analogy.

A few years down the road, some students may no longer know any more medieval history than they did before they took this course. But if they know how to think analogically, they've developed a lifelong skill.

Applying Students' Knowledge of Economics

Most students enter this course with some background in economics. However, economics is often taught in such an abstract way that even if students hear a concept that they know perfectly well, they might not recognize it because they've never seen it in an applied situation before. I've had students say to me after class, "Oh! That's what that is!" They know the formula, but they've never thought about it as an economic phenomenon before. So, this course can help students understand some of their theoretical knowledge in a real-world setting.

Helping Students Reflect on Their Own Lives

I also aim for this class to help students reflect on their own lives, in ways that are directly grounded in the course content as well as ways that are tangential.

In this class, I hope that students have a genuine historical experience and develop an understanding of a world different from their own. So many of our students—and so many of the adults I know—just assume that the way they see the world is completely natural, biological, even genetic. If they can have an experience where they have to imagine a world where people don't share their presumptions, then they can begin to realize that their presumptions are a construction of a world that they grew up in, and the perspectives that they have are by virtue of their own experiences. I want students to appreciate a different place in time in a way that they can actually articulate what's different about this different place in time. Imagining and understanding a world that's different from your own is so important.

I like my students to leave the class knowing more about the way the world was in the past. I don't really care if they know a lot of names, dates, and places, but it would be nice if they sort of had a sense, for instance, that women didn't just start working in 1973, which a lot of them believe. I'd like them to learn a little geography and have some sense of where some places are in the world and how connected they might be or might not be.

Because this particular course is an economic history course, I also have an agenda to get the students thinking about what economies should do in a prescriptive—maybe even moral and ethical—sense, and what economies actually do and how they work. If that gets them thinking about the modern world in practical ways, then I'm thrilled.

Throughout the semester, I try to help students forge connections among history, current events, and their lives. I often do this by bringing very current news and writing into the classroom and devoting class time to discussions that help us all build those connections.

Sometimes we pursue tangents unrelated to the course content. One tangent we always pursue is how hard writing is. Much of what paralyzes the students about writing is that most of them have always been told, "Oh, you're a math/science person. You don't write." The students universally presume that since I'm a historian, I find writing easy. Sometimes I'll tell them about all the things I did over the weekend to avoid writing a paper. Whenever I can, I try to break down presumptions about "This I can do, that I can't do. I'm good at this, I'm not good at that." The vast majority of them could communicate well if they just put a little more effort into it.