We’re getting close to the end of the semester, which means I’m getting e-mails and questions from students who are worried about their grades. It always happens around this point in the academic year.
A lot of the students who contact me want to know “what they can do” to get a decent grade. It reminds me of the rich young ruler’s question to Jesus in Matthew 19: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” It’s asking for tips. It’s asking for a list of pointers that, if followed properly, will inevitably and mechanically result in the desired outcome.
I usually repeat what I say to the whole class at the beginning of the semester, which consists of the obvious things that apply to any college class. Be diligent in your attendance, take copious notes, read the material carefully, get your assignments in on time, and study, study, study.
What was it the rich young ruler said to Jesus? “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” That’s similar to what some of my students tell me. And at that point, I usually fell pretty powerless, beause there isn’t really anything else I can tell them.
That’s the hard part when it comes to teaching—and taking—a history class. There just aren’t any gimmicks that a student can adopt to ensure a good grade. And in that respect, history classes are different.
A couple of afternoons a week I tutor high school Spanish. I don’t mind doing it in the least; in fact, it’s almost like a mini-vacation from teaching history. I like history much, much more than I like Spanish, but I find working with students in Spanish to be a lot easier, and in many cases more rewarding. I think part of the reason is that it’s an easier subject through which to guide someone. There are certain rules and standard practices to a language, and once a student masters them, he’s got his game on. You can see what areas need improvement, and you can tell him what to do to improve them.
Not so with history. If you want to do well in a history class, there aren’t any standard grammatical or mathematical rules that will apply in any given situation. There’s just a lot of complex, subtle, detailed information. Sure, there are particular ways of thinking historically, and there are certain standards that any aspiring historian has to meet. But when it comes to the kind of gimmicks that you can wrap your head around once and then plug in when you need them, they’re just not there.
You study until you’re staurated in it, and that’s all there is. It comes easier to some people than to others, but that’s just because some people are good at assimilating this kind of verbal information, or because they enjoy doing so.
Jesus told the rich young ruler that if he wanted eternal life, he should sell all his possessions and take up the life of a disciple. A lot of commentators think the point is that Jesus didn’t want rote adherence to a set of guidelines. He wanted total, all-consuming commitment. It was a hard lesson for the rich guy to learn; he “went away sorrowful,” as the King James puts it. When I tell my students that a high grade requires nothing but persistent, brutal effort, they’re not too crazy about it, either.