Day-to-Day Life in the Scale-Up Room

March 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

My brother recently asked me to explain what went on in my Scale-Up class. He’s a middle school principal with more than serious interest in pedagogical innovation, technology, and student engagement. I realize that over the past couple of years of writing on it, I probably haven’t described what I do in the classroom very effectively.

For those who haven’t followed my adventures of teaching history in a Scale-Up classroom, I’ll give a quick overview. The Scale-Up classroom accommodates over 150 students at 20, 9-student tables. Each group of 9 works around 3 laptops in 3, 3-person pods. The goal of my class in the Scale-Up room is to produce a textbook and each table works on 3, 3000 word chapters over the course of the semester. The three chapters cover chronologically the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world and each table writes on either cultural, political, social, economic, or military history for each period. 

Of course, last nights class was probably not a model, but I can at least explain what I should have done (and what I did) to demonstrate that some things work and others do not.

I start most classes with a quiz, and like almost everything in the class, the prompt for the quiz is delivered by a powerpoint slide. Typically it’s a maintenance quiz that asks the students to demonstrate that they did something outside of class. Often, I ask the students to summarize a critique given to written work on the class wiki. I’ll prompt them with a simple powerpoint slide and say: “Having read the peer reviews of your chapter, what is the most important thing to revise in the coming week?” Or, in other cases, I’ll offer a quiz that will prompt them to demonstrate that they’ve done their reading for the week “Brainstorm 5 key issues or pieces of evidence relevant to your chapter.”

This week, I went a bit outside of the norm and let the group to brainstorm a bit on their topic before I asked them to take an individual quiz on the work of the group. I thought it would interesting to see how much student engagement there was. We’ll see when we have graded the quizzes this next week.

After some kind of quiz, I usually have a short lecture that frames the week’s work. Lately, for example, I’ve been troubleshooting problems with group dynamics so I tend to focus on ways that help groups work more efficiently. Usually I also offer some modest comments on content as well.

After this interlude (when student who take more time with their quiz can finish up), I usually move on to group work starting with the three-person pod. On my best days, the pod work builds upon the individual quizzes. If the quiz features an individual brainstorm, then the pod work asks the students to bring together their quiz answers into a synthetic list. Pedagogically, the goal is to have students discuss their answers with each other and toss out poor ones and build on the good answers. Realistically, some pods work better than others and some pods engage the process of compare and critique at a higher level than others. I offer little in the way of direction for these exercises.

As pod work is well underway, my GTA and I typically circulate the room constantly responding to questions by pods and tables. In most cases, questions at this point revolve around clarifying expectations or definitions. For example, students struggle to differentiate between social and cultural history, and since these are two chapter topics, they often request some guidance. Depending on how well a table works together, the pod work often develops directly into table level work.

The next step is generally bringing pod level work together as a table. This is when we move from collecting evidence as an individual and a pod to organizing evidence as a table. This is where my GTA and I have to work the most. Groups struggle to find ways to integrate the work produced by individuals and pods. At this point we usually emphasize the importance of  The most obvious struggle is that the table wants to both validate the work done by individuals and pods and use existing evidence collected by the pods rather than collect more evidence.

Most of our intervention involves critiquing the table’s thesis statements and helping groups organize their ideas into a cohesive chapter. In some cases, we provide nudge groups in a particular direction particularly if they appear to be heading off track or taking a tack that will be difficult for them. In other case, we make sure groups working on adjacent periods (e.g. the cultural history of the Roman Republic and the cultural history of the Roman Empire) or overlapping topics (e.g. the social and economic history of the Roman Empire) do not focus on the exact same areas.

As the semester has gone on, students have become better at organizing their workflow at the table, but not quite as good as I had hoped. Last night, for example, I did not dictate the move from pod work to table level work and found that tables struggled a bit to organize their activities. The biggest problem, this week was that without the definite prompt to move from pod work to group work, students did not stop and formulate a thesis. Instead, they created a list of ideas and then forged a crude outline that did not support a statement of historical argument. Since we’ve been pushing students to formulate a thesis consistently over the course of the semester, watching tables skip this step was disappointing. It also showed how dependent the groups remained on prompts from us to structure their work. 

Moreover, without the clear prompts from pod work to table work, groups tended to rush through their tasks and hurry to leave the room. The prompts helped the groups to structure their time and move through their work deliberately. Without the prompts, many groups left class a half-an-hour early. 

As we move toward the end of the semester, we will experiment further with removing prompts that structure the groups’ engagement with the writing process. In general, we had hoped to slowly move the groups toward a more independent, collaborative process. We’ll have to see how this goes. 

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A simple post today in memory of a student that we lost over spring break. 

In memoriam:

Matthew J. Heisler

The Slow Movement and Modernity

March 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I keep turning over in my head ideas for a contribution to North Dakota Quarterly’s issue dedicated to the slow movement that I’m co-editing this fall (go here for the call for papers!). While I suspect I’ll write something on slow archaeology, I spent some time this weekend with Paul Halstead’s new book Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean (2014) and it got me thinking about our current fascination with slow in the context of the preindustrial world.

Halstead’s book looks, in part, on the rhythms of pre mechanized farming in Greece through several decades of ethnographic and archaeological research. One thing that comes through in his work is that very little about the process of farming in the preindustrial world was properly slow. In fact, during crucial times of the year – like when harvesting and threshing overlap or when multiple fields require plowing – there is constant pressure on the farmer to move from one task to the next. Halstead’s informant on Amorgos harvested in the morning, transported around mid-day, and threshed in the afternoon. Time pressure also accompanied sowing and plowing routines in the fall when delaying by even a day risks the loss of seed to birds or miserable situation of having to plow waterlogged fields. Constant communication with members of the community as well as strategic collaboration ensured that farmers kept abreast of situations present in distant or dispersed fields. 

At the same time I was reading this, I was reading over some of the buzz about the unplugging movement and the National Day of Unplugging (March 7-8). The idea behind unplugging relates somehow to an ancient practice of taking a day of rest where you disengage from the rest of the world. Whether the organizers have understood these “ancient” ideas correctly or not is less a concern than the general indulgence in anachronistic notions among unpluggers and slow advocates. They seems to hang onto this romantic notion that somehow life was slower, less rushed, less dominated by the press of time in the past. Advocates of the infamous “work-life balance” likewise harken back to a mythical day when work and life were sufficiently well defined to be set in balance against one another.

The irony, of course, is that questioning the value of a hectic pace of life is a luxury available only in modern, industrialized societies. In other words, it is a profoundly modern indulgence that we can slow down without fear of crops being ruined and we can disengage from our social networks without losing information vital to our survival as individuals or a family. 

Does this irony undermine the basic idea that a slower, less distracted pace of life is better? I don’t think it does. Certainly, the intense pace of life experienced by farmers in a preindustrial economy was not conducive to long, healthy lives. In fact, Halstead points out that the toil of harvesting alone was something that 20 or 30 years olds could endure best, but older folks – you know, in their 40s! – avoided, reminds us that the physical exertions of premodern life were intense and, by modern standards, debilitating. Maybe remembering this will help us keep our rhetoric in check a bit. Slowing down and unplugging are modern indulgences available to a very small number of individuals in the wealthy, western world. We should celebrate these opportunities, but always realize that they very tools that we blame for the robbing us of work/life balance are the the same tools that have allowed us to define work and life as separate entities.

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Spring in North Dakota comes in like a lion and goes out like delicious grilled lamb. I have no idea what that means, but we’re under some kind of winter storm warning right now. There’s snow, wind, and some kind of airborne slush as well. Happy Spring!


Writing as Process and the 7th Century on Cyprus

March 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

Spring break is one of my favorite times in my busy semester because for the last few years, I’ve been able to dedicate this time to a sustained writing project. In a normal semester, my writing has tended to get broken into tiny fragments of time – a morning here or an afternoon there – between teaching responsibilities, service, and other faculty duties. The result of this situation is that anything I write tends to be highly granular and composed of tiny 300 word snippets cobbled together and smoothed over in editing.

This is fine in some circumstances, but is hardly conducive to producing sustained and careful arguments. Spring break writing (and this goes for winter break and late, post-field season, summer writing too) holds forth the elusive opportunity to write in a series of 1000 word chunks over the course of five consecutive days (until a wife-mandated “rest day/date night”!). 

What this sustained writing has helped me to see are the little strands that make intuitive connections communicable. For my paper on Cyprus in the 7th century, for example, I’ve been able to notice the arguments for the appearance of handmade pottery in 7th century contexts on Cyprus and the disappearance of large issue coins are  interrelated in my argument. Handmade pottery appears in assemblages alongside both imported fine wares and locally produced cooking wares indicating that it was not a response to the abrupt end of regional or local trade and production. Instead, it would appear that handmade table and utilities wares appeared on Cyprus in a gradual way as a local response to slowly changing pattern of access. As for coins, the disappearance of large issues on Cyprus has sometimes been seen as evidence for abrupt economic decline, and there is little doubt that the disappearance of large issues after the reign of Constans II indicates some kind of economic change on the island. At the same time, Guy Sanders has noted that we are likely missing many of the small issues (nummi or minimi) that circulated throughout Late Antiquity because they were so small that they slipped through the excavator’s sieves. Like handmade pottery, these tiny coins served to shape Late Antique life on Cyprus in a way not entirely visible to the 20th century excavator. 

Nummi and handmade pottery have parallels with the ephemeral character of short term settlement to the careful eye of the contemporary survey archaeologist. We know that local communities throughout history adopted flexible strategies to manage agricultural risk even during times of apparent economic, political, and social stability. During times of unrest or rapid change, like the middle decades of the 7th century, there would be a tendency to adopt more flexible approaches to survival and to shy away from longterm investments that would be more visible to the archaeologist 1500 years later. Like handmade pottery and nummi, ordinary features of everyday life would have persisted as low risk strategies and objects like imported pottery or large issue coins would decline as communities and individuals became less inclined toward significant investments or more substantial economic transactions warranting the use of larger coins.

The fragments of my writing over the course of a normal semester reflect the day-to-day strategies adopted to survive 21st century academic as a moderately productive scholar. The long, lazy writing days of spring break allow higher risk strategies to unfold, and these included interrogating intuitive connections and making obvious their relationships.

Gender at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting

March 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week Dimitri Nakassis wrote an insightful post documenting the percentages of men and women at member organized panels at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting last year. This post was a response to a short study on Doug’s Archaeology blog which highlighted the disparities between men and women in  NSF archaeology grants. As a member of the program committee at ASOR, I thought I should run the numbers from our annual conference and the good folks (especially LeeAnn Barnes Gordon!) obligingly sent along the participants, panels, and papers in table form for the 2013 annual meeting. You can check my numbers against those in the 2013 annual meeting program here.

My findings from ASOR more or less parallel Dimitri’s from the AIA. First, I looked at Member Organized Panels. These are panels where the organizers of the panel participate directly in inviting, evaluating, and organizing sessions. 44% (N=12) of these panels were organized by men, 30% (N=8) by women, and 26% (N=7) by both men and women. These numbers are similar to the numbers from the ASOR sponsored panels. These are essentially standing sessions at the annual meeting and the chairs are selected from among the willing: 49% (N=17) were chaired by men, 40 (N=14) by women, and 11% (N=4) by both.

At member organized panels chaired by men, 66% of the papers were given by men and 34 % were given by women. This is identical to the numbers Dimitri produced for the AIA annual meeting. At panels chaired by women, 46% of the papers were given by men and 54% were given by women. In panels organized by both men and women, 82% of the papers were given by men.   

The numbers produced above refer to only the presenter as listed in the ASOR program, but because I had the program in a tabular form, I was also able to look at coauthors of papers. I didn’t break these down according to session type because I wasn’t sure that it was relevant. It is interesting that of the 56 papers listing a man as the primary authors, 45 had male coauthors (80%) and 19 had female coauthors (33%) with 9 (16%) having both. (These numbers do not add up to 100% because it is possible to have both a man and a woman as a coauthor!) Overall numbers are a bit more charitable with the 54 papers had 82 male coauthors and 27 female (75% versus 25%).

For 51 papers authored by women with coauthors, 57% (N=29) had female coauthors, 53% (N=27) had male coauthors, and  14% (N=7) had both. 56% of the total coauthors on women authored papers were men and 44% were women.

Finally, I can offer some overall numbers. 58% of the named authors on papers are men and 42% are women. 55% of papers list men as the primary author and 45% list women. 

Some final thoughts. Since I’ve been on the program committee there has been a consistent interest in using the annual meeting to influence the shape of the profession. For example, we have implemented an appearance policy designed to ensure spots are available in the conference for a wide range of perspectives and to prevent the conference from becoming dominated by a small group of ambitious and aggressive presenters. I wonder whether we need to think a bit about how to use the annual meeting to promote a more gender balance in the profession.  


Giving Oral Exams in an Undergraduate History Class

March 18, 2014 § 5 Comments

This past week I decided to try our oral exams in my history 240 class. This class is required for all majors, and the first half of class is basically a survey of historical thought from Herodotus to the digital age. I explain my rationale for trying oral exams here, and I promised to report back with the results.

The exam was 20 minutes with two 10 minute questions. Many students took about a minute to think through the question and to compose their answer with many using a notecard to organize their thoughts. Then they general declaimed for 3-5 minutes before running out of steam. At that point, I prodded them to clarify points, to expand on particular ideas, or, most frequently, 

Here are my observations.

1. Different format, same issues. My greatest fear with an essay exam is that the question itself worked to obscure the best possible responses. In a traditional written exam, I knew that the student’s solitary struggle with an essay made it impossible for me to intervene and correct a possible misunderstanding, set them gently on the right path, or encourage them to dig just a bit deeper. My idea was that an oral exam would allow me to intervene to fix potential problems, probe the limits of what students understood, and gently guide them through a historical problem.

After sitting through 4 hours of oral exams, I feel much better that my written exams work. The same issues arose. The best students were able to explore the connections between primary sources, individuals, and events. The less good students struggled with the most basic recall of names, dates, and evidence. Even with my gentle nudges and prompts, some students struggled to support even the broadest generalizations with specific details. If anything, the oral exam environment was more frustrating than mediocre exams because the students lost a bit of autonomy in how they could obfuscate what they didn’t know. In the oral exam environment, I tried to nudge them to disclose information that I considered basic and vital rather than allowing them to craft an exam that papered over or simply avoided challenges.  

2. Nerves.  I was shocked by how nervous the students were and how much the nerves inhibited their performance. This is a small class – 10 students – and the classroom is comfortably relaxed. In the one-on-one environment of an oral exam, however, the relaxed classroom environment turned to darting eyes and nervous fidgets. I held the exam in a student lounge which I hoped to be a neutral venue. The sun was out and the weather warm enough for me to open a window. I tried to chat a bit with the students to break the intensity of the mood. I thought I did everything I could to defuse test anxiety.

Despite my efforts, even the best students struggled to relax for the first half of the 20 minute test. I was heartening, however, to see some students get into a groove by about the 10 minute mark and answer their second question better than their first. If I do this in the future, I have to find a method for getting the students to relax (at least some) prior to the most rigorously evaluated part of the oral exam.

3. Facing the Students. Perhaps the most valuable part of the oral exam is facing the students as they struggle to articulate answers, look for evidence, and respond to my prompts and challenges. There was something deeply humanizing about the oral exam experience. 

Some of my colleagues have taken to providing oral feedback on papers and exams using our course management system software. They feel that this helps them to connect with their students in ways that written responses do not. While I haven’t experimented with this particular technique, I think the oral exam shares some obvious similarities. It reminded me how foreign the concepts that I am trying to teach are to the students. The idea of evidence, specifics, and argument are so fundamental to how historians approach the world. It was revealing to see students struggle to articulate arguments, marshall evidence, and piece together causality.

This experience has reminded me to slow down and to model more explicitly and clearly the process of using evidence to support arguments, being specific, and finding connections. 


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