Tag Archives: History

Documents and the Undocumented

Steve Volk, September 11, 2017

LicenseWhen I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and  Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.

Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical.

When I went on to study history in college, and then made the decision to become a historian, my desire, part and parcel of the rebellious 1960s, was to inhabit an academic discipline that would reveal the history of those who hadn’t written their own in the form of monographs or journal articles. My first efforts, exploring the history of the Bolivian tin miners union, brought me to the archives and in contact with the octogenarian founders of the first Bolivian sindicatos. In my romanticized imagination, I would give voice to the voiceless, documents to the undocumented. Further study clarified that, while doing nothing of the kind, I was at least part of a larger historical process that searched the archive for traces of those who previous generations of historians had ignored.

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

As a teacher of history, my colleagues and I challenged students to “read between the lines,” or “listen to the silences” when studying a past that seemed quite determined to ignore the vast numbers of people who had inhabited the earth. Silence itself could, perhaps, reveal a hidden documentation when asked the right questions. If we couldn’t provide a voice to the voiceless, we could attempt to read the shadows and listen for the murmurs as a means of crafting a history of the “prehistoric.” This was not an act of magic, nor really of imagination: we just became attentive to spaces we had previously overlooked. If the pre-conquest history of the Nahua and Zapotec was largely written by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, we could still read the complexities of a colonial history inscribed in the maps Spanish administrators ordered their indigenous artisans to draw, or in the court records that charged them with a variety of misbehaviors and misdemeanors. The documentation that makes up a history comes in many forms, but only if we value the people who have lived it. To render a people “undocumented” is to endeavor to remove their history.

DACA and Documentation

I have been thinking a lot about documents, documentation, and history as the Trump Administration first threatened, and then, disgracefully, sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program on September 5. DACA was created by President Obama in June 2012 to provide modest but important protections for some young people who had been rendered invisible because they lacked documentation. When it was announced, DACA won the support of nearly 2/3rds of the U.S. population according to a Pew Research Center report. Once approved for the program, DACA recipients would (generally) be protected from deportation, could work legally, and obtain a driver’s license. To qualify, DACA applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, be younger than 16 when they arrived and not older than 31 when the program began. They were required to maintain a virtually spotless criminal record, and needed to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP - Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP – Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

One key to the program is that they had to apply, which meant giving the government information that could easily put them at risk: fingerprints, addresses, biometric information. They had to make themselves even more vulnerable to a government that had betrayed them so often in the past and now said, “trust us.” Of an estimated 1.3-1.7 million individuals eligible for DACA, close to 800,000 ultimately applied.

To be clear, DACA status didn’t provide them with a “path toward citizenship” or permanent residence in the United States; it gave them a temporary way to come out of the shadows and at least momentarily put aside some fears, for they still faced the possibility that their parents could be deported. And they had to reapply every two years.

It is not easy to research this undocumented group of young people, but according to study by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, DACA recipients were, on average, 6½ when they arrived in the U.S. In other words, for a great number of these individuals, the only life they have known is in the United States. While we don’t know how many DACA recipients are undergraduates, the University of California system, for example, has approximately 4,000 undocumented students, a substantial number of whom have DACA status. Harvard enrolls perhaps 65. In all, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from college each year.

Acts of Erasure

There are many ways to analyze Trump’s demented decision to terminate DACA: as yet another indication of his determination to re-impose the white, patriarchal, straight, Christian America of his Queens upbringing in the 1950s, the New York borough represented so subversively by Archie Bunker, as Jelani Cobb recently observed; as another piece of candy offered to his political base equally rattled by its own ethnic anxieties; or as a further measure of his determination to break anything that President Obama built. Whatever else this decision shows, it is more evidence that the man is devoid of empathy. He will not or cannot allow himself to imagine the life of an 18-year old brought from Honduras as a child, who, with much effort, became a young woman who danced with joy at her high school prom, proudly joined the military to serve “her country,” and now is encouraged to “self-deport” lest she find herself with a one-way ticket to a country whose language she no longer speaks, a town she doesn’t remember, and a family that no longer lives there. For Trump and his anti-immigrant backers (a faction which has been active since the nation was founded but which modifies its targets over time), she lacks documents and therefore neither her past nor her future is of concern. She does not exist in history. She has been rendered prehistoric.

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images - Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images – Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Frankly, I’m not interested in understanding why this man does what he does; my concern is for those who will suffer from his actions. There is no time in this short essay to explore the historically sour welcome given migrants, both “sanctioned and subjugated,” into this country. Nor can I explore the virtual lack of citizenship that has been the reality for African Americans living here. But some brief background is needed to understand, in particular, the existence of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

For more than a century, the United States has depended on the labor of those coming from south of the border. They came when their toil was needed, and returned home when conditions turned. A purposefully porous southern border encouraged both an inflow of low-cost labor to U.S. farms, mines, and other industries, and the opportunity of a return home to their natal communities.

But in the 1990s a trap door fell. As the U.S. beefed up its border enforcement in response to conservative political pressure, those workers who had previously moved back and forth across the border no longer could risk leaving the United States to return to what most still considered their homes. Further, as Washington began toughening its immigration laws in response to the same pressures, those who were already here found that they had no way to legalize their status (or that of their non-U.S. born children) if they stayed, and virtually no legal way to return to the States if they left. So while the decision to terminate DACA is particularly cruel for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have known no other life than what they have experienced in this country, U.S. immigration laws are no less punishing for the millions who have come here to pick our crops, tend our gardens, and care for our children, who, in short, have taken jobs that others don’t want.

Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is above all an act of erasure, an attempt to remove those without documents from “our” history. Iowa Representative Steve King was quite explicit about this. DACA recipients, he argued, should either self-deport or “live in the shadows,” where they can, presumably, provide cheap labor for Iowa’s meat packing firms. The question, though, is what can we do to protect the tens of thousands of DACA (and non-DACA) students who attend our classes and graduate from our universities?

DACA and Higher Education

Institutions of higher education and their associations have been uniform in their condemnation of Trump’s actions. Shortly after Trump’s election, more than 600 college and university presidents, including Oberlin’s president Krislov, signed a statement urging continued support for DACA. This week, Carmen Ambar, Oberlin’s newly installed president, circulated a letter to the campus linking the institution’s support for DACA to its historic mission of inclusion: “Today,” she wrote, “we are called to continue that legacy as we fight for the rights of young, undocumented individuals who have benefited from [DACA].” Going a step further, on September 8, the University of California filed suit in federal court against the Trump administration for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the university and its students by rescinding DACA on “nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to protect the privacy of student records, provide DACA students with legal aid and, in some cases, financial support, establish offices to provide targeted support and counseling, enroll students without regard for their immigration status, insure that campus security and police forces do not make inquiries regarding any student’s legal status, advocate in the name of their institutions for new laws to protect DACA recipients and all undocumented students, and lobby their legislators to pass legislation to reform an immigration system that has grown increasingly punitive and threatens to spill back into a racially exclusionary system.

But what do we, teachers of these threatened students, teachers of all students in our classroom, do? The issue, as Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities recently noted, is not a partisan one: “We do have values to serve, and these are not partisan values.” For obvious reasons, we are unlikely to know which students in our classes are DACA students or who lacks legal status. This is all the more reason to make known to all our students that we are part of an educational community that is formed by the values of equity and inclusion, that all our students are equal members of that community regardless of any aspect of their identity or status, that all are deserving of a quality education, and that we will work with them to insure they receive it. It is also important to indicate again, that if any student is in need of special consideration and feels unable to communicate that need directly to us, they should work with the Dean of Students’ office, which can bring the matter to our attention.

One of the consequences for our DACA and undocumented students who have been forced to live a life of intense vulnerability is that we do not know, we cannot know, their histories; we do not know, we cannot know, the effort they must put in just to keep up with our classes, let alone excel in them. Preparing for an exam or writing a 10-page paper is hard enough given the complexity of our young students’ lives. Concentrating on those tasks when you don’t know if your mother will be put on a plane and sent to El Salvador when she reports to her next meeting with ICE agents, planning what courses to take for a future which may crumble at any minute, requires more focus and effort than most of us can muster. And yet, we do not know, cannot know, about it because their vulnerabilities have rendered them silent.

And this is where we come in. We must be clear that in our classrooms and in our communities, our students will not be made voiceless; they will not be made invisible; they will not be stripped of their past and turned “prehistoric” because it matters to us, deeply. If our students can’t speak up, we need to become better listeners who can be aware of the silences. If our students can’t ask for our support, we need to offer it without their asking. DACA and the undocumented have a home in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that they know it.


Do We Feel Safe?

Steven Volk, December 13, 2015

Time Magazine, May 20, 2013

Much has been written, including in this space, about what I have called a “culture of safety” that seems to have taken root on college and university campuses. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in a much-cited ­ New York Times article, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” It has proven considerably easier for many in the media to ridicule students as “coddled” and “self-infantilizing” than to ponder why so many of their grievances are located in the discourse of “safety.”

I have suggested before that we shouldn’t be surprised at the rise of a “safety” narrative in a time of a recognized high-level of sexual violence on campus or at a moment when gun violence, terrorism, and police killing of blacks, among other acts of brutality, are endemic. A lot of triggers are, indeed, being pulled.

I’ve also become more aware, in conversations with students, about how social media, in its most addictive aspects, impacts their feelings of safety. Yik Yak may be the contemporary equivalent of graffiti on the bathroom wall in the 1990s (a practice that is still around, by the way), but now you don’t have to go to the bathroom to read the nastiness and threats; you can just pull out your phone, as students do in compulsive fashion, and this can increase a student’s sense of fear and isolation. Even if the vicious comments are a minority of the posts, the things people say on Yik Yak “are real thoughts,” according to Francesca Tripodi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia who is completing a dissertation on this particular social media outlet. Students can feel more vulnerable because “[t]here are people on campus with those thoughts.” And one obvious remedy – don’t use the ap – is not a solution for those who either use it to stay “in the loop” or who, like most of us, can’t turn away from a car crash.

A Teacher’s Vulnerability                                 

Dick Vos, "The Teacher," Creative Commons Flickr

Dick Vos, “The Teacher,” Creative Commons Flickr

So perhaps it is not unusual that I would frame my own growing concerns as a teacher within this same discourse of safety. The fact of the matter is that I feel increasingly vulnerable in a country in which a large and vocal minority, many leaders of one of the two major political parties, and some critical media outlets, have all turned their back on history (a subject I deal in) and no longer believe that facts are a way to resolve debates or disagreements (a subject that all of us deal in).

Yes, I worry when some of our students get it wrong and overstep. To invoke a hunger strike to the death over an offensive tweet (as two students did at Claremont McKenna College) suggests a lack of nuance, to say the least. To call for the reestablishment of internment camps as the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Donald Trump, and retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark did, is an act of stunning ignorance by those who (unlike our undergraduates) are actually in positions of power to act on their beliefs. To rebuff the humanitarian plight of refugees from Syria, a position taken by 34 governors, or to call for them to be placed in “camps” in order to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri,” as did the Speaker of the House in that state, should be a cause for anxiety. It is deeply troubling for any student of history, not to mention anyone with a shred of compassion. that 53% of the U.S. population favor slamming the door on Syrian refugees, much as the United States previously refused any action to protect European Jews prior to 1944.

But it should be even more disturbing to those of us whose stock-in-trade is education that large parts of the discussions on these and other of our most troubling issues are taking place in a fact-free zone. This campaign season, probably more than any other in the past century, has seen a wholesale slippage from “spin” (casting your opponents’ positions in the worst possible light), to “untruths” (guilt-by-association assertions), to outright, pants-on-fire fabrications (claiming as fact something that simply never occurred). You are probably familiar with the many examples that seem to appear daily; Donald Trump is responsible for a large number of them, as in his assertion that “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed. Nope, sorry, never happened. Carly Fiorina, when asked recently as to the difference between politics and business, replied, “Here’s the difference: Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know, as her claims about what she saw on a Planned Parenthood sting video were not actually on the tape, as even the National Review was forced to admit. (“The exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos,” Jonah Goldberg explains before going on to defend her argument anyway. It’s as if, by adding “exact” enough times, you absolve yourself of a need to be…exact.)


Stephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to someone who will claim something is true because he or she just knows it is true; it feels right in their gut. (“I don’t trust books,” Colbert’s on-screen persona proclaims, “they’re all fact and no heart!”) As Colbert later expanded in an interview, “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” I just wish this were still funny rather than threatening.

                  Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central

Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. Most Americans now accept that the climate is changing, but majorities in almost 80% of U.S. counties deny that it is “caused mostly by human activities.” Majorities in 97% of the counties in the United States disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” whereas, in fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

Jenny McCarthy was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s massively popular show where she repeated (without any Oprah-pushback) the truthiness that vaccines and mercury cause autism. And where does she get her information? “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.” One in four parents believe that vaccines cause autism. (This past week, Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, spoke with the neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, the author of Failure: Why Science is So Successful. Most people don’t have any idea how science works, Firestein argued, and think that since it is often revised, it is no better than any layperson’s opinions.)

At least one reason (and there are many) why the public via their elected state legislators has withdrawn its support of higher education, according to Randy Martin’s perceptive study, Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn (Temple University Press, 2012), is that “experts” are now everywhere. Why pay for the hard-won knowledge that universities have always provided when Google can tell you what you need to know…right now…for nothing?

Judy Baxter, Creative Commons Flickr

Judy Baxter, Creative Commons Flickr

So why am I frightened? Why does this make me feel vulnerable and unsafe? To answer that, we have to reaffirm what it is that we do here and (hopefully, fingers crossed, please, please) at all institutions of higher education. At Oberlin we’ve just completed a process of identifying the outcomes we want all Arts & Sciences students to have achieved during their time here. Here are the first three in a list of nine:

We want our student to (1) deepen their understanding of specific fields while building their capacity to create new knowledge, approaches or creative work in those areas; (2) to broaden their knowledge of and appreciation for the variety of ways, including but not limited to the scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral, that knowledge is, and has been, constructed; and (3) to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence and an understanding of the context in which evidence is produced.

At the root of all of these learning outcomes (and the others on the full list) is an understanding that, as an educational and intellectual community, we live by rational argument, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties it holds, and we maintain the undeniable significance of evidence in analysis. We will disagree on many points and in many contexts, and those disputes can be painful and heated. But, at the heart of it all, we are committed to engaging in a process whose rules are known to us and which have mattered in intellectual disputes for hundreds of years because we can see their results. To use an example close to the moment, what the Black Lives Matter movement is telling us is not just that “you must recognize our pain,” but that their pain is the product of a history that can and must be examined. It has taken their anger to get many of us to investigate that history, but the history is there to be investigated, it is not made up out of whole cloth.

If I feel unmoored in the world we are entering, it is because I am defenseless, with no conceivable means of engaging those with whom I disagree, in a world where facts do not exist. I have no way to interact with those who say that we will all be safer if everyone carries a weapon even if the limited research shows the opposite. (Speaking of fact-free, the research is limited because the Centers for Disease Control has been prohibited by Congress since 1996 from engaging the topic.) How can I hope to dialogue with those who say that climate change isn’t happening, or isn’t a product of human action, or won’t affect us if no facts can enter the conversation? My replies to those who insist that vaccines cause autism, that all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are terrorists are like so much sand to the wind. I do not feel safe in that world.

Know Nothing Party ("Native Americans" in this context are white Protestants)

Know Nothing Party (“Native Americans” in this context are white Protestants)

If this is nothing new in the United States – the “Know Nothing Party” didn’t get its name for nothing – the moment nonetheless should be massively troubling for those of us charged with helping our students know something! As Martin argues, education is at once “central to the social enterprise” and degraded for what it offers; even as the world outside our campuses relies on the knowledge produced by those who have passed through our gates, the very basis of what we do is under attack.

So yes, I feel unsafe, vulnerable, and anxious. But the only way forward is not to abandon what has been core to our values, but to redouble our efforts, to be aware of the world in which we live, and never to lose sight of the critical role we can play in the shaping of the future. We will disagree on many things; hopefully we will agree on the importance of instilling in our students an appreciation for the work that is involved in reaching a complex understanding of a difficult issue, as well as the value that is inherent in compassion and empathetic engagement.

So, I’m anxious, but, as Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, “You have to have anxiety to be courageous. Without anxiety there is no courage.”

How to Solve It

Steven Volk (Director, CTIE)

December 9, 2013

An article I was recently reading (“Teaching Learning Processes – to Students and Teachers,” by Pamela Barnett and Linda Hodges) reminded me of a 1957 book on mathematics by George Pólya, How to Solve It (2nd ed., Princeton: click on link for a partial pdf of the volume). The issue is a central one for all teachers: Rather than solving problems for our students, we provide them with strategies for problem solving. Or, as Pólya put it, we are always “trying to understand not only the solution of this or that problem but also the motives and procedures of the solution, and trying to explain these motives and procedures to others…” (vi).  Pólya is quite clear that while his book “pays special attention to the requirements of students and teachers of mathematics, it should interest anybody concerned with the ways and means of invention and discovery” (vi). “Invention and discovery” – what better to words to describe what we want to inspire and develop in our students?

G. Polya, How to Solve It, Princeton Science Library

George Pólya’s Approach

Pólya’s approach has four parts, which I’ll copy here from his text before suggesting some changes I have made when approaching problem solving in history, and which others can similarly adapt to their specific discipline.


You have to understand the problem: What is the unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? Is it possible to satisfy the condition? Is the condition sufficient to determine the unknown? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory? Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation. Separate the various parts of the condition. Can you write them down?


Find the connection between the data and the unknown. You may be obliged to consider auxiliary problems if an immediate connection cannot be found. You should obtain eventually a plan of the solution. Have you seen it before? Or have you seen the same problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem? Do you know a theorem that could be useful? Look at the unknown! And try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown. Here is a problem related to yours and solved before. Could you use it? Could you use its result? Could you use its method? Should you introduce some auxiliary element in order to make its use possible? Could you restate the problem? Could you restate it still differently? Go back to definitions.

If you cannot solve the proposed problem try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem? A more general problem? A more special problem? An analogous problem? Could you solve a part of the problem? Keep only a part of the condition, drop the other part; how far is the unknown then determined, how can it vary? Could you derive something useful from the data? Could you think of other data appropriate to determine the unknown? Could you change the unknown or the data, or both if necessary, so that the new unknown and the new data are nearer to each other? Did you use all the data? Did you use the whole condition? Have you taken into account all essential notions involve in the problem?


Carry out your plan. Carrying out your plan of the solution, check each step. Can you see clearly that the step is correct? Can you prove that it is correct?


Examine the solution obtained. Can you check the result? Can you check the argument? Can you derive the result differently? Can you see it at a glance? Can you use the result, or the method, for some other problem? (From 2nd ed., p. xvi).

Revising Pólya’s Approach for History and other Social Sciences & Humanities

Pólya’s approach is well designed for math and other quantitative disciplines. But, with a few tweaks it can be equally useful for the (non-quantitative) social sciences and humanities where we are not looking for proofs, and where experiments cannot be repeated. Rather, we are after the strongest arguments (the best readings) that take account of the evidence at hand. Problems in history are quite different than math problems, but “solving” them (i.e., putting forward an empirically based, well reasoned argument) can be approached in a similar manner. The steps below are revised from an approach put forward in the Pamela Barnett and Linda Hodges article (which, in addition to the link can be found on CTIE’s Blackboard site), and are based on answering the following question: “Why did the Tupac Amaru II rebellion of 1781 fail and were there any circumstances in which it could have succeeded?” (For those so enthralled with the question, check out my “flipped class” lecture on the topic: “The Great Andean Revolts.” )

Tupac Amaru II (Flickr creative commons: seriykotik1970)

I. Understanding the problem: What information do you have to begin with (secondary sources, primary sources, lecture notes, other information gained in different courses or non-assigned readings, etc.)? What information do you still lack in order to be able to address the problem? Can you restate the problem in your own words, or in a way that helps you understand it better? Is Tupac Amaru II’s failure in 1781 similar to or different from the failure of the first Tupac Amaru’s rebellion? What characteristics in the information you have strike you as potentially important? Why do you think they are important?

I have found over the years that this first part of problem solving is critical. Nine times out of ten, a poorly argued paper comes back to the fact that the student hasn’t understood what is being asked. Advise students – many times!! – not to begin writing their papers unless and until they are clear that they understand what is being asked. This is a good time to consult the teacher, a peer instructor, or a colleague from the class.

II. Setting out your plan: Trace out your initial ideas: Could it be inter-ethnic rivalries? Lack of broader sets of allegiances? Lack of military strength? Problems of communication?

  • Initial ideas. To the extent that the question implies some comparative data (have other rebellions succeeded or failed?), look for similarities, differences, other kinds of approaches that have worked for you in the past.
  • Following up with these ideas: Begin to gather data on your initial points. Will they help you answer the question? Do they make sense (no, it had nothing to do with Spain’s ability to control death rays from the Planet Xynthar)? Are they going to lead to either a dead end or a tangential issue that has nothing to do with Tupac Amaru II’s failure? (Go back to the initial question: Do you understand it?)
  • Avoiding Rube Goldbergian approachs: Yes, it’s a plausible answer, but are there, um, more straightforward approaches? Think of breaking the problem into smaller pieces that can help in the solution (List all the elements that can account for Tupac Araru II’s failure; list all the elements of Tupac Amaru I’s failure; what contextual events were similar or different in 1781 compared with 1572? Any contingent events to think of?)

III. Carrying out the plan: Beginning to draft the paper. With your arguments and data in place, begin to draft the answer, always making sure that the points are leading to an answer to the question that was posed and not answering some tangential issue, are supported by evidence, and are presented in a logical (and, in this case, chronological) order. Make sure to support your evidence with footnotes/endnotes in the proper format.

IV. Revising the draft. There are a lot of questions you can ask yourself after you’ve completed a draft: Does it make sense? Is it plausible? Does it conform to the evidence? Have you left anything of importance out? Is there a piece of historical evidence that doesn’t fit – kind of like the bolt that’s still lying on the floor after you’ve put your desk together? Have you documented your evidence and used the proper formatting? Is something nagging at you about your work that you haven’t come to grips with? Can you share your work at the Writing Center, with a peer instructor, or a classmate (if allowed in that class)? Have you checked spelling, format, grammar, etc.?

V. Reflection. While reflection is not necessarily a part of problem solving, it is an essential part of learning and should always be a part of an assignment: What did you learn in this project: not about the topic per se, but about how you approached it? What steps did you take to solve the problem, to answer the question? What did you learn in this process that you will use again? What approaches led you to a dead end and were ultimately unproductive? Do you feel pleased with your paper? Why? Why not?


Pólya also offers a set of heuristics that can help students (and faculty) solve problems with reference to different approaches.

Heuristic Informal Description
Analogy Can you find a problem analogous to your problem and solve that?
Generalization Can you find a problem more general than your problem?
Induction Can you solve your problem by deriving a generalization from some examples?
Variation of the Problem Can you vary or change your problem to create a new problem (or set of problems) whose solution(s) will help you solve your original problem?
Auxiliary Problem Can you find a sub-problem or side problem whose solution will help you solve your problem?
Here is a problem related to yours and solved before Can you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved and use that to solve your problem?
Specialization Can you find a problem more specialized?
Decomposing and Recombining Can you decompose the problem and “recombine its elements in some new manner”?
Working backward Can you start with the goal and work backwards to something you already know?
Draw a Figure Can you draw a picture of the problem?
Auxiliary Elements Can you add some new element to your problem to get closer to a solution?

Final Considerations

I found two things interesting when returning to Pólya after so many years:

(1) how similar problem solving techniques can be across the disciplines, and

(2) how important it is to keep disciplinary differences that do exist in mind when instructing our students.

These diverging points often come back to the “experts vs. novices” problem. As experts in our fields and disciplines, problem solving, particularly at a relatively basic level, is so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t think about the fact that it is not second-nature to our students. When we hit a road block, it will happen at a much higher level than will be confronted by students.  So, early on in our classes, particularly in introductory (100-level) classes, it is always good to formally trace out problem solving strategies in our disciplines. But it is also important to be explicit about the fact that many of these strategies can be used when solving problems in other disciplines (e.g., Pólya’s math problem solving strategies are quite applicable in physics or economics), and when certain approaches are specific to one’s discipline and cannot be used in precisely the same way in other disciplines. History is not an experimental science: we don’t  look for proofs in the manner of mathematicians or biologists.

Finally, this leads to a greater understanding of the rare opportunity we have at a liberal arts college. By teaching in a place where we know our students will be receiving instruction in a variety of approaches and disciplines, we can strengthen their learning (and their problem solving abilities), as well as our own approaches to the problems that we set out to solve, by consciously engaging in activities that bring disciplines together, asking: how would a physicist solve this problem? A biologist? How would a literary critic pose the question? A sociologist? What would happen if an artist were a part of a biology lab? If a physicist taught in the museum?

George Pólya and Alexander Ostrowski (Photograph: Paul Halmos, 1958)