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Stanford historian describes teaching in the age of Google Glass

Speaking at the Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching lecture series, history Professor James Campbell underscores the value of historical knowledge in a tech-centric world and draws attention to the academic possibilities that interdisciplinary study is creating at Stanford.

Corrie Goldman James Campbell

Stanford history Professor James Campbell describes the role of history and the humanities in a tech-centric world.

Stanford historian James Campbell specializes in interconnections. His research centers on African and African American history and the dense web of interconnections between them.

In the 30 years since Campbell began his doctoral studies at Stanford, and in the six years since he returned here as the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History, he has observed the transformation of interconnectedness on campus and in the wider Silicon Valley.

Internet-based startups are everywhere, smart phones put social networks in our pockets, and now Google Glass eyewear makes all manner of information almost instantaneously accessible.

In showing college students the value of studying history in this future-forward culture, Campbell said history and other humanistic disciplines can offer students a kind of Google Glass, enabling them to see and understand their worlds in powerful and often unexpected ways.

Speaking in the Center for Teaching and Learning's lecture series Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching last week, Campbell, a 2011-12 Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, discussed the continuing significance of disciplinary-based knowledge, and of humanities disciplines in particular, in a time when students are increasingly preoccupied with application rather than knowledge for its own sake. A video of the talk is available online.

"I tell my students that we study history for the same reasons we travel," he said.  "When you travel in time, as when you travel in space, you encounter people whose universe of possibilities substantially overlaps with your own but is not identical to it. In the process, you come to see your own world with fresh eyes, with your own Google Glass, if you will."

A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007 for his book Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005, Campbell said a historical perspective can make "what seemed natural or universal" seem "historically contingent and particular."

"In understanding how people in the past have made their own worlds, you gain some sense of your historicity," he said. "You begin to see your own capacity to act creatively in the world, to change it."

Promoting synthesis

As co-chairman of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University (SUES), a two-year curriculum review that was released in 2012, Campbell suggested that faculty and students alike sometimes assume a great gulf between humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, with the former understood as less practical and the latter as providing marketable skills. 

"We too often phrase the distinction between the humanities and STEM as the distinction between knowledge and practice, between thinking and doing," said Campbell, but he said he believes that distinction is overdrawn.

One of the conceits of scholars in traditional humanities, he noted, was the idea that their fields represented the authentic university, as if colleagues in the STEM fields were "glorified shop teachers."

In fact, he said, fields like computer science provide students with profound ways of thinking about the world, just as history, philosophy and classics provide students with essential skills and capacities for acting in the world.

Campbell pointed to new Stanford programs, such as the CS+X joint majors in computer science and humanities fields like music, English and history, as opportunities to promote novel kinds of understanding and synthesis.

The idea of the CS+X programs, he said, was not just to offer students another interdisciplinary option but to also give them robust training in two disciplines.

"We'll see what they make of it," he said. "They're going to do stuff we haven't even imagined yet."

A different generation

Campbell applied his historical expertise to the current educational landscape, including the continuing decline of humanities enrollments and majors at Stanford and other U.S. universities.

To simply condemn students as excessively practical reflected "a failure of historical thinking," said Campbell, who received the Organization of American Historians' Frederick Jackson Turner Prize in 1996 for his book Songs of Zion: The A.M.E. Church in the United States and South Africa.

In selecting majors, students are responding to a variety of real concerns and pressures, including the escalating cost of college and the prospect of entering "the worst labor market since the Great Depression." He also noted the increasing diversity of students at Stanford, many of who are first-generation college students.  "These are students who did not inherit the blithe assumption that if you get a Stanford degree, everything will be fine," he said.

Teachers of Campbell's own baby-boom generation have a particular responsibility to respond to students' concerns, he said, because it was their generation that created the historical conditions with which today's students grapple.

"I don't want to romanticize my generation, but we constantly indulged in angst-filled discussions about whether we would 'sell out' after graduation or pursue altruistic goals," Campbell said. "Students today have grown up in a very different world, a world that tells them that the pursuit of private interest is itself a public good, that the 'market' is, or should be, the primary arbiter of value."

To criticize students for not having a broader vision, he said, seemed "a little hypocritical. Their generation didn't create the world they grew up in," he said. "We did."

Rather than being judgmental, Campbell said, teachers in fields like history and other humanities should endeavor to share their enthusiasm for their subjects and to explain why their particular disciplines offer a "beautiful and compelling way of seeing and engaging the world."

Barbara Wilcox is a student in Stanford's Master of Liberal Arts program and writes about the humanities at Stanford.