My title should, of course, sound familiar. I'm adapting a slogan from the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign: "It's the economy, stupid." Attributed to advisor James Carville, the line was intended to remind campaign staffers that this was the issue they needed to emphasize as they sought to unseat George Bush. The implication was that they shouldn't be distracted by issues that didn't resonate as deeply with voters. To win votes they needed to keep the economy in mind at all times.
While it may sound like the campaign focused on the economy to the exclusion of all else, in reality there were other important issues in play. (I know, it's shocking to suggest that politicians can talk out of both sides of their mouths.) Health care was almost equally important and was in fact linked with the economy, as the escalating costs of the former were made obvious by the downturn in the latter. Of course, during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the robust economy of the '90s would be the foundation for its political success. It also took a stab at health care reform, albeit without much success. The administration had run on the economy; the messaging about the other issues might have been obscured.
This tale has some insight for us. In higher education, there is a real need for us to focus on pedagogy, or how we teach. Too often, we tend to neglect effective teaching (the "bread and butter" for most of us) and focus on such things as research. Thus, "It's the pedagogy, stupid" is a necessary reminder of something we need to keep in mind. That said, we have to be careful about overcompensating. While we need to keep in mind the how, we cannot do so at the expense of the what—our subject content. Furthermore, we should not see these as exclusive. The economy and health care were linked, and so too are subject content and effective pedagogy.
I was inspired to think about this by a conference panel at this year's Economic and Business History Society conference in Manchester, England. (I should do a blog sometime on the joys of afternoon tea on a drizzly English day…) The panel's focus was the increasing scholarly interaction between the fields of economics and humanities. While this took place at a conference typically focused on "content" research, not pedagogy, the panel addressed pedagogical aspects of this trend (e.g. how economic history could be taught).
Since not all of the audience members were professors, we had intended this to only be a part of the discussion. Yet as the discussion progressed, the pedagogical aspects increasingly drove the discussion. There were two aspects in particular that dealt with the linkage between pedagogy and content. One, there was a lot discussion of how to tailor an economic history course to student interests. In essence, the idea was that student learning would be enhanced if the subject content was packaged in such a way as to interest them. As it turned out, the discussion revealed that a number of the attendees teach an economic history course, but in many different ways. Some have seminars focused on a particular aspect of economic history (e.g. entrepreneurship), while others have survey courses with a more general focus. In sum, there are many different ways to present the subject content so as to enhance student interest and learning. Two, those present also wanted to better understand to whom they should "pitch" a class. In sum, while the subject content should be tailored in such a way as to make it pedagogically effective, it is also important to be aware of which students would most benefit from such a course, and thus would be more disposed to learn. Should it be tailored to business majors and emphasize obviously "practical" topics, or have a broader Humanities perspective? Amidst the questions and answers, there were a number of testimonials that such courses were being done, and done well, with students enrolling in large numbers and providing positive feedback.
Reflecting on this, the line "it's the pedagogy, stupid" came to mind. Too often, the discourse in pedagogy circles seems to exclude subject content as an important facet of effective pedagogy. We talk a lot about methods, tricks, and so forth—the "how" of teaching—and the neglect the "what" of teaching—content. At times, subject content is treated as something that gets in the way of effective pedagogy. Yet as we think about why our students take courses, we realize that they are there to learn about a particular subject—in effect, the subject content. Now, I'm not suggesting that the "how" is somehow less important, but I am suggesting that we have tended to treat the content as an unrelated or even antithetical consideration. In reality, it should be seen as a key consideration in effective teaching. To put it simply, in teaching a course, we ought to consider what subject content they might find informative, interesting, and relevant! At the EBHS panel (and outside of it as well), one of the key points that came out of the discussion was that we ought to consider how we might more effectively shape economic history courses. For example, instead of a general course that might not appeal to students, we should consider focusing on such things as a "history of entrepreneurship." Not only does this sound more appealing than a more generic course title, the course itself would focus on a subject rich with potential appeal. Imagine what case studies of Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates would mean to a business major with an entrepreneurial vision. To put it simply, the subject content can engage them in learning.
Of course, we need avoid the idea that this is exclusively about content. Content can help us engage students, and it should be at the forefront of our thinking. At the same time, as we think of the what, the how remains a key consideration as well. At the EBHS conference, as we discussed how we might define the course content, we were also discussing how to define the course methodology. For example, a course built on case studies of individual entrepreneurs is "tailor-made" for highly participatory student-led classes. In fact, with the discourse focused on tailoring courses to student interest in terms of content, it was impossible not think about this in terms of methodology as well. In sum, when we think of engaging our students, the what and the how are intertwined.
Such an idea might seem preposterous. It probably doesn't help my case that I started this with the idea that politicians might have some useful insight! All kidding aside, if we can avoid setting content and methodology against each other, and instead see them as informing each other, we could reap some benefits as we look for ways to better educate our students.