Professor Andrea Balis has been teaching history at John Jay for 16 years. She teaches history methodology courses as well as a wide range of topics including the history of science and medicine. For the past two years, she has also been teaching Doing History, a course which focuses on how historians think and encourages students to examine physical and textual primary sources helping them to connect the past and the present.

What are some of the resources you encourage your students to take advantage of?

The library! And New York City. Free research resources in the city. The statue on your street corner.

When you developed “Doing History,” the title suggests action and experiential learning. What is the most valuable lesson students come away with in this class?

How to ask questions. That might well be the most important thing you learn at John Jay. Learning how to ask searchable questions. Learning how to investigate. And of course, the library teaches you how to investigate.

What are students’ attitude about this kind of approach when you first meet them?

Their experience is restricted. Most students’ experience with doing research is that they are given a topic but not questions. So they don’t know how to get from typing in the name of their topic to knowing how to find interesting ways to ask the questions.

How do you help them get started with that progression?

We teach content at John Jay, and we should. But we also have to teach learning curves. Knowing how to learn how to research is what keeps you from having a flat learning curve. This is my standard pitch: Knowing how to acquire new information is a critical 21st century skill, and that should be one of the things students think about while they’re here. In Doing History we spend a lot of time figuring out where to start, how to begin.

How can they get motivated to do that? Do you have tricks?

Yes! I have tricks but students need their own. You need to learn how to engage yourself. It might be that a way for you to connect is to look at pictures. For someone else it might be to listen to something or else it might be thumbing through newspaper articles. We all have things that spark our imagination in our everyday lives. We know how to find a pair of shoes we really want. We know how to find out the best way to apply make-up. What students need to realize is how to take those skills that they already have and connect them to the things they need to know in the professional or academic world. Students have research skills, but they don’t realize it. But you need to connect those things and know how to transfer your skills for finding the best price for a particular backpack – they are the same skills. That is research. You know what kind of question to ask if you’re looking for shoes. You know to look for materials, prices, heel height. You know the criteria. And people are good at it! So to motivate them is to remind them, “You already know how to do it.”

And is a database!

Yes! That should be the title.

Kathleen Collins


Read more from the Fall 2016 issue of Classified Information, the Library newsletter