May 2, 2013 § 2 Comments
I promise that this is not going to become a teaching blog (not that there is anything wrong with that), but I am all excited that I have have agreed to teach an upper level history class for the first time since 2007. As most of you know, I generally teach our historical methods course and History 101: Western Civilization each quarter. Fret not, I am not going to dump one of those classes, but add another course to my plate in the fall to move to a 3-3 teaching load. (I’ve blogged about the advantages of periodically teaching more.)
The course will be the History of the Byzantine Empire. We added it to the schedule a bit on the late side, so I have to do a bit of advertising to make sure it enrolls.
So I began to think how to advertise a course on the Byzantine Empire. I came up with five clever ways:
1. The Roman Empire II: A Sequel. For the Star Wars fans and the popular enthusiasm for sequels.
2. The Byzantine Empire: Like Larry Potter or the Hobbits. My buddy Kostis Kourelis has already published in this general direction, but I would pitch my class as the study of real life Hogomorth or whatever that place with all the domes is called.
3. The Byzantine Empire: A More Western Orient. I could continue to trade on the romance of domed buildings and combine it with mystical Christianity, be-turbaned aristocrats, and a tragic narrative arc to make it a kinder, gentler, more Christian, Orient.
4. The Byzantine Empire: The Other Christians. They aren’t the Roman Catholics or the Protestants; they’re the other Christians.
I only wish I had the graphic design abilities to produce movie posters for each of these classes. Since I don’t, this is how I sold it.
My flyer played up my reputation for innovative teaching and, in its place, promised the students that I would teach the class in a very traditional way. (In conversation, I’ve likened it to the teaching equivalent to MTV’s unplugged.)
I want to ground the class in a series of 15 lectures, discussions primary sources, and formal graded written works produced by single students after careful thought. I want the class to be large (40+), I want it to be challenging to teach, and I want the students to feel that the content and the format put them outside their comfort zone.
My hope is teaching a political and religious history of the Byzantine Empire (with some archaeology and culture thrown in) in a rather traditional way will get the students attention. I wonder whether our emphasis on “active learning” exercises (and I’ve been as involved as anyone in various flavors of experimental pedagogy) has paradoxically added life to some of our more traditional practices. Asking students to engage a lecture when more and more of their classes focus on discussion problematizes this form of instruction and encourages the students to develop skills like listening, note taking, and synthesizing lectures with primary and secondary sources.
We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.
May 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
This is my 600th post on my “New” blog. This is the sequel to the “Old” blog where I posted 859 times.
This blog has been seen 67,500 times by folks all over the world.
It’s nice to know that people find my musings interesting.
It’s also the last day of classes in the 2012-2013 Academic year. Over this time, I wrote 81,000 words for this blog and 145,000 words for various projects ranging from peer reviewed manuscripts, articles, book reviews, grant proposals, conference papers, reports of various kinds, letters of recommendations, and other odds and ends. You can see what I worked on this year here.
May 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last night was the last meeting of my History 101 class in the Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota. Most of the class consisted of students doing a robust battery of assessment exercises and, then, revising the chapters of the textbook that the class composed over the course of the semester. Some students were still working away when I left the room after 9 o’clock. It was clear that a number of the groups not only saw that they could produce a high quality product that would get a good grade, but also felt some real ownership and pride in their work. This was heartening.
As with any experimental exercise, there will some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. My first semester teaching in the Scale-Up room was no exception. I am working on a longer reflective piece that will summarize many of the reflections that I have presented in this weekly series of blog posts, but for today, I’ll hit on some of the basic, practical issues that I encountered over the course of the semester.
1. Student Engagement. The level of student engagement in this course has been astounding. I have never encountered an introductory level course with more motivated and committed students. Two-thirds of the students took every assignment serious and a half did more than yeoman’s effort on most assignments. Making the classroom the space of active work was central to this. The Scale-Up room made the students more accountable to each other and giving students the room to lead and teach undermined their tendency to resist authority (see point 2 here). In short, this format works to keep students engaged in process.
2. Attendance. One the great failings of my survey courses, particularly the night class, is attendance and retention. I was pleasantly surprised to see that student attendance remained over 90% throughout the semester and my drop rate improved from over to 20% to less than 15%. These are significant improvements. Students – despite their occasional complaints – seemed to like coming to class in the Scale-Up room. Getting the students to class is half the battle in any large class. You can’t teach the students if they are not there.
3. Organize, write, edit, revise. The Scale-Up room provided a remarkable platform for encouraging students to take the writing process seriously. The students approached the outlining process with a seriousness of purpose that was remarkable. Most took their task of writing the first draft intentionally and over the past two weeks worked hard to address critiques and produce thoroughly revised drafts. All the chapter got better and all the groups seemed committed to understanding and revising their papers in a way that I could never manage to encourage in a traditional, lecture style classroom. The Scale-Up room is better at focusing students on process because it provides them with the tools (laptops) and the space (round tables) to collaborate on the frustrating, if rewarding, task of writing.
1. Management versus Pedagogy. My greatest challenge this semester was balancing my pedagogical goals with my need to understand and managed the new classroom space. Students sat around 18 tables with 9 seats and 3 laptops each. It was impossible to lecture for more than 10 minutes in the decentralized space of the room. As a result, I had to make sure that I had activities to keep the students occupied and focused through the entire 2 hour, 20 minute class period. To do this effectively, I had to figure out how to break down various academic processes into small, manageable activities with assessable outcomes. I spent considerable time trying to figure out how to make something like producing a timeline into a collaborative activity. At times, though, I began to reflect that my need to manage this strange new classroom began to trump the actual pedagogical value. A great example of this is that I ran out of projects for students to do before the semester was over. As a result, I spent a good bit of time concocting ways to encourage students to work on revising their projects.
2. Collaboration versus Combination. One of the main tricks in managing the collaborative writing project is moving students from working on sections of a project and then combining them to actually collaborating to produce an integrated single product. The challenge was getting students to transfer their “ownership” of a particular section to “ownership” of the entire work. The most interesting thing was watching the group cut a student’s sections that did not fit into the larger project. Only best groups were able to make this decisions and many of the groups continued to see the final chapter as a combination of discrete sections authored by individual students rather than a cohesive whole.
3. Content versus Method. The first issue that most of my colleagues note in how I’ve taught my History 101 class is that the students do not get the full content of a traditional 101 class. This is in keeping with a practice known as “uncoverage” among historians that seeks to shift the focus from content to methods in the history survey course. The argument goes that most students are unlikely to remember particular bits of historical “fact” but they can learn methods that will allow them to organize and critique facts encountered throughout their lives. So we should shift our emphasis from teaching facts to teaching methods. This is a great approach, but rarely does a student come to the field of history because they love the methods. In an survey class at the introductory level, we are hoping to instill a passion for history and the past. Teaching students about the past involves some treatment of content. I will have to continue to defend how I draw the line between content and method in my Scale-Up experiment.
1. Citation and Sources. I had this hope that the students would primarily use their textbooks as sources for their chapters. To support that I ensured that each table had 7 different textbooks represented. Of course, the predictable happened. Students ignored the textbooks and went uncritically to The Googles like moths to the light. Then as they wrote their chapters, they became flummoxed by citing their rather motley assortment of online sources. Because I did not anticipate students going so quickly online, I did not develop any exercises to encourage critical reading of online sources and had to cobble together a method for having them cite these sources in their chapters.
I was similarly struck by their approach to primary sources. I gave the students my existing primary source reader and nudged them to use the primary sources provided in this document for their chapter. Most of the groups, however, charged off to Google and brought to the table a new group of primary sources. I was not familiar with most of them and struggled to develop easy to understand rules to guide the students through citing them.
I need to simplify and streamline this system.
2. Peer Review. I struggled to get students to take peer review seriously. I keep hoping that by encouraging them to critique their fellow students chapters they will refine their ability to read their own work critically. In fact, what happens is that the students offer facile and weak reviews of the other chapters, groups flail around in any effort to use these peer reviews to fix their works, and – worst of all – they see no connection between their lack of real effort to peer review and the mediocre quality of peer review. On the flip side, they seem my thorough critiques of their work as revelatory. I need to figure out a way to get the students to peer review better. This will probably involve modeling peer review more seriously for them and making their peer reviews worth more points.
3. Disembodied Voices. The most challenging thing about the room is that the combination of a decentralized arrangement of the classroom and the wireless microphone makes it very difficult to lecture or even instruct for more than 8-10 minutes. While I understand that the room is not designed for this, it nevertheless makes it difficult to even give students instructions for a complex assignment. Students get restless after about 5 minutes of my talking. Similarly, there is no way that student groups can present their work to class using their table microphones. The set up of the microphones ensures that the class activities remain decentralized.
There is a final issue that I’m curious to see develop. That is the use of this classroom as a showcase for the university’s commitment to innovative teaching. This is great, of course, but right now we have only one Scale-Up room and the work in this room is not representative of either the spaces or the kinds of innovation in teaching across campus. So while it is great to see photograph of the new provost in the Scale-Up room, it is more important for the university to continue to support innovative teaching in all forms across campus.
April 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I spent some quality time this past week with D. Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl (New York 2004). This is a fantastic book. It provides some (mildly tongue and cheek) definitions for the various types of sprawl visible in the American landscape. The great thing about this book is that it provides an archaeological typology to sprawl in action. Most of what we see in the Bakken would fall under her categories of “Manufactured housing” (70-71) or “Truck City” (112-113). Hayden astutely notes that built homes are to mobile homes as mobile homes are to R.V.s. Over 10% of the new housing (and more in the West) are not mobile homes. Truck City, of course, derives its name from John Bickerhoff Jackson’s famous essay of the same name that explores role trucks and truckers played in the expansion and decentralization of American business (and ultimately American consumer culture and life). For the Bakken Oil Patch, trucks have played a key role in integrating the periphery with the core by bringing equipment to the Patch and moving raw material out of the Patch.
Hayden’s work provides us with more than just a technical vocabulary, and provides us with an approach to one of the more curious challenge of documenting the workforce housing in the Bakken. Unlike most (although by no means all) habitation sites studied by archaeologists interested in the “contemporary past”, The Bakken is not abandoned. Abandoned sites make life easier for archaeologists because the processes associated with abandonment fit so much better into longstanding conversations about archaeological remains throughout time. In fact, most of the sites that archaeologists explore have undergone some kind of abandonment.
Still functioning sites pose new problems. Some of these are ethical and deal with the ways in which we go about documenting lived spaces. But in many cases the issues are practical. While all sites undergo formation processes, sites that continue to be occupied – particularly sites designed for short term habitation – are likely to undergo rapid changes in short periods of time. Our efforts to document a site at a moment provides just a momentary insight into a larger set of quickly moving processes (that might, in fact, move even more quickly in our contemporary age than in past centuries). While Hayden’s book does not provide a solution to the problem of change, she does demonstrate how aerial photographs use as a way to document dynamic landscapes like those characterized by various kind of non-urban sprawl.
April 29, 2013 § 7 Comments
I turned 41 this weekend and it gave me reason to stop and think about this past semester and some of the little ways that I’ve come to feel my age. Our department has been reevaluating the history major and taking stock of current requirements. I ended up on the other side of some recent decisions and that’s fine. I figure you win some and lose some, but what was most interesting was the character of the changes and my reactions. This is has made me feel old both intellectually and personally.
1. World History versus Western Civilization. I’m a “Western Civilization” guy. I received my B.A. in Latin and History and my graduate work was mostly in this history of the ancient and Medieval West and Byzantium. So, the first thing that struck me is that I completed my graduate degree completely unqualified to teach a World History survey course, although I am sure I could imagine a way to teach it at the introductory level.
This is a bit shocking because the idea that our department would require World History for our majors as well as a introductory level survey makes sense. World History is increasingly taught in high schools and many graduate programs continue to see World History as a desirable teaching field. Moreover, we recognize that our students need to be comfortable negotiating the challenges of our globalized and international economy, politics, and culture.
What made me feel old was the consensus among my colleagues that Western Civilization could no longer provide a sufficiently cosmopolitan perspective for our students. When I reflect on my graduate training and my experiences as a historian, I’ve always found plenty in my Western experience that gives me a wider perspective on the world, and I feel relatively confident that the traditions of critique in the Western traditional ensure that these perspectives are critical. That being said, I was rather surprised by the attitude among my colleagues that we might easily replace Western Civilization with a World Civilization sequence without either recolonizing the world by projecting our Western perspectives onto a global stage, or by simply conceding the value of our own heritage (i.e. the West) to our students. Times have changed, and I am feeling old.
(At the end of the day, we decided to keep both Western Civilization and offer another introductory level sequence in World Civilization!)
2. Language. Over the same time, our department took some time to examine our language requirements. Right now we offer two different kinds of history degrees. One requires students to take four semesters of a foreign language; the other requires the students to take a minor. Every year our department returns briefly to the question of whether it is necessary to continue to require students to take a foreign language. The chief argument against this requirement is whether four semesters of a language does enough for our students to be worth the risk in enrollment numbers. Students it would seem are intimidated by learning a foreign language. About half of our students opt to take a minor which is actually more credit hours “to avoid” taking a language (or at least prefer to take a minor over taking a language). The fear is that we might be losing majors in this scenario, and as a result, we do an informal cost/benefit analysis on the utility of requiring a foreign language for out students.
I have always considered history to be a philological endeavor and knowing languages (both foreign and domestic!) is key to what we do. I can hardly imagine a history major without a rigorous language component, and here I follow Theodor Mommsen famous recommendation that aspiring historians focus their energies on languages and the law. I spent as much time taking languages in undergraduate and graduate school as I did taking history classes. The shift from a field grounded in languages to a field grounded in the more ecumenical perspectives offered by “method” has caught me off-guard even as I am the one responsible for teaching our undergraduate methods course. This severing of the discipline from its philological roots is more evidence that times have changed, and I am feeling old.
3. The Game versus the Discipline. I’ve always respected the need to play the game of academia as well as to defend the discipline intellectually. The Game for me has always involved “a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous” and managing things like enrollment in our major, attempting to retain faculty and even to expand our department, and tending our standing with the administration and our colleagues across campus (many of whom will not be particularly sympathetic or even interested in disciplinary concerns). The Discipline is grounded in patterns of thoughts, epistemology, and methods that validate the truth that history can produce.
As long as we exist in the real world, there is a balance between The Game and The Discipline. We can’t create a Discipline that no one finds relevant or offers classes in which no one enrolls. At the same time, it is difficult to stomach playing a Game that sacrifices the core values of the Discipline in the name of professional or academic development. These days, however, I wonder whether I am no longer sufficient engaged in my professional or disciplinary environment to locate the line between the Game and the Discipline. Times have changed, and I feel old.
April 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
April 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today is supposed to be the day that we break the mythical 50 degree barrier here in North Dakotaland and we should be in the 60s tomorrow. It feels like we might be entering that strange liminal zone between winter and summer. I don’t remember what it’s called, but I know it involves cruel months, lions, lambs, and perhaps unicorns.
As we begin to once again feel blood circulate freely in our veins, I can offer some quick hits and varia to energize the arrival of “flood and mud” season. (You can check out the flood cams here.)
- Abandonment in modern Greece (although I do wonder how many of these photographs reflect the recent economic crisis, and how many of them reflect decades old building practices.) Here is an even more dramatic and unintentional example of abandonment. This is even more cool, an entire Soviet mining town somewhere north of the article circle, abandoned and documented by intrepid archaeologists. I haven’t seen this book yet, but I want it.
- Congratulations to Big Joe Rife for winning the CAMWS book award for his magisterial Isthmia IX: The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Human Remains. Princeton, N.J.: American School of Classical Studies 2012.
- Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire Project.
- Someone just encountered the “undergraduate slash”. (I noted its conspicuous decline as early as December 2011).
- Chris Gayle scored a century in 30 balls on his way to 175*. He hit 17 sixes and 30 boundaries from 66 balls. All of these things are records for T20.
- More cricket. I am super excited to see Chris Rogers named to the Australian team for the Ashes. This is the same Chris Rogers who dismissed early buzz about his selection with the quote: “I’d like to play but, as people keep reminding me, I’m very old.”
- Jan Chipchase chimes in on Google Glass.
- This is mostly funny.
- I am impressed, but unconvinced by this guy’s headphone system.
- I know that I shouldn’t laugh at other people’s misfortune, but since this guy has capitalized on it and it is a funny way to start your broadcast career.
- Joel Jonientz recommends that we check out Neil Gaiman’s keynote from the digital minds conference.
- An argument for the big class.
- This is a pretty cool map of the covers of Joy Division’s “Love will tear us apart”.
- An old computer that still works just fine, and the story of Steve Jobs’s visit to XEROX that transformed how we interact with personal computers.
- My blog post from yesterday, Ten Tips for a New Graduate Student, has been read over 650 times in the past 24 hours. This is by far my most popular post in its first day on the web.
- What I’m reading: D. Hayden, A Field Guide to Sprawl. (New York 2004).
- What I’m listening to: Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart. Young Galaxy, Ultramarine.