March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning, I’m off to a faculty seminar organized by our Office of Instructional Development. The seminar will discuss the new edition of M. Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching (2013). The book is well-known to folks interested in finding new ways to reach students in the classroom and questioning the traditional commitment to lecture style classes. Her book provides a useful summary the last two decades of work to shift the teaching environment into one that moves the learner and learning to the fore. Most of the techniques she espouses involve giving up some authority to the students in the class as a way to get them to buy into the learning process. The book has obvious parallels with my efforts in the Scale-Up classroom this semester.
Despite the acclaim and the good intentions, these kinds of books (and this one in particular) leave me a bit cold. Here’s why:
1. The Problem. Like many books of this kind, the author assumes that the existing system of higher education has a problem that learning centered teaching can fix. The problem is ill-defined, but revolves around student engagement, the absence of deep learning, and sense of frustration that many faculty members (myself included!) feel when entering a tradition classroom. While there certainly is a feeling of crisis in higher education these days, the cause for these problems are hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s students have changed, perhaps its the technology, maybe it’s the expansion of “audit culture”, or perhaps we as faculty have changed in some way that has put us out of touch with our students. One thing is clear: the “problem” remains far more poorly defined than the myriad solutions. This book is no exception. The point of departure is that we, as faculty, can do better than soldier on with traditional methods of teaching, and most of the scholarship that she marshals assumes that the current system is some how broken.
2. Who is the learner? Like one would expect, she locates the solutions to the current problem (however defined) in the classroom and the shift from a “teacher centered” approach to a “learning centered” approach to eduction. As a college-level educator, I agree with her call to change how we teach, but I remain skeptical that changing what we do in the classroom alone will somehow transform student expectations and practices. The entire culture of student learning in the U.S. revolves around teacher centered activities, and, while this might be changing, the response of students to our “learning centered” environment remain deeply conditioned by the consistency of traditional teaching practice. In other words, I am skeptical that the success of learning centered teaching comes from it being “better” as much as from it being different. Its difference depends upon the relatively stable landscape teacher centered learning in secondary and post-secondary eduction today.
3. Do we really share authority? For Weimer, sharing authority in course design is a key step in shifting from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered classroom. Students may be reluctant at first, but they enthusiastically respond to opportunities to become involved in course design, deciding on activities and even point values within a class. I am hesitant to see this as sharing authority as, in my experience, student decision making is pretty predictable and in most cases we are not ready to allow students to access inner sanctum of learning or content goals for the class. In other words, the most important things that faculty “author” remain set apart from student input. Weimer’s suggestion then, reads more like a stratagem or teaching trick than actual ceding of authority to students.
That being said, my experience is that students generally want to remain in their comfort zones and for classes to be more traditional (i.e. teacher-centered) than learning-centered. While we can certainly load the deck so that students have to share experience of the class within a learning-centered paradigm (and Weimer advocates as much), there remains a vast grey area between the edges of our authority as experts and student expectations for a class. I’ve allowed students to push into the area of course and content goals in the past and found it fairly disconcerting. How and where to set the limit for shared authority remains unclear.
My skepticism toward book runs the risk of overshadowing some of the really positive things that I learned from it.
1. The Learning-Centered Classroom. I shifted to more of learning-centered teaching method because I began to have anxiety attacks when attempting to lecture to a large auditorium style classroom. I have no idea why these attacks started, but they were paralyzing and deeply unpleasant with side-effects lasting for days. As a result, I changed my teaching style and started using classroom time as laboratory time where students worked to solve historical problems, interrogate primary sources, and produce historical analysis.
While I no long dread going to teach, I often find myself at loose ends during class time. In the Scale-Up room, in particular, well designed assignments leave very little for me to do in the classroom other than watch the students work. Weimer addresses this feeling and, in essence, told me it was to be expected. That little reassurance, as superficial as it is, makes a big difference in how I engage the classroom.
2. Student Failure. I am still uncomfortable with assignments that students struggle to complete successfully, but my tolerance for failure in the classroom is increasing. I think it is a produce of the learning-centered classroom, in fact. Students have to be given space to approach problems on their own, make a mess, and then regroup and attack the problem in another way. Failure in the classroom or on an assignment is a productive prelude to innovation and, if approached in the right way, authorizes students to find their own path, to individualize methods, and to own content.
3. Coverage and Uncoverage. I still get obsessed with coverage in my history classes, but recently I’ve become more and more interested in how LITTLE I can cover before the course become so generic and so method driven that it loses disciplinary integrity or meaning. Interestingly, students push back in part because they love the stories that history offers and they love the vast panorama of the past more than the hard work of analysis, interpretation, and research. Balancing coverage and content with method and practice comes up again and again in Weimer’s book giving me confidence to know that I’m not the only one struggling with the limits of content in a learning-centered environment.
Finally, when I put the book down on Saturday afternoon, I did think a good bit about the large implication of learning-centered teaching. I wondered how this approach speaks to larger changes in how universities work and what we’re expecting from education. On the one hand, we can argue that focusing on learners and learning prepares them for a rapidly changing world where their greatest skill might be their ability to learn.
On the other hand, I always worry that we’re teaching students to exchange traditional forms of authority (of the teacher, for example) with a less centered and more ubiquitous form of authority that is both everywhere and nowhere.
I’ll update this post after the seminar this morning.
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s overcast Friday morning here in North Dakotaland, but the temperature has inched its way over the 0 mark and promises to get around 20 ABOVE by later this afternoon. I’ll spend the morning looking for sunscreen!
As we enjoy in this balmy late winter day, it is my pleasure to provide you with some reading material.
- Papyrus and looting from Douglas Boin and Dimitri Nakassis.
- More collapse in Pompeii.
- In related news, this is what happens when you sample one of my favorite Pompeiiologist voice.
- Kim Bowes was named the new professor-in-charge at the American Academy in Rome.
- Sebastian Heath is doing Sebastian Heath things here.
- Kostis Kourelis will be talking about “Corinth’s Forgotten Architects” here and his talk will be streamed. You can get a quick primer on his talk by perusing his blog here.
- Socially responsible archaeology.
- The sequel to the 300 looks… strange.
- But more importantly, I’m always disappointed when scholars go and ruin something as cool as Medieval rocket cats.
- And we’re supposed to convince people that our discipline is not boring! (I kid, because this is a well considered post.)
- Bone buildings.
- Anthropology and how we poo.
- Apparently, all evidence for the oil industry in North Dakota will be gone in 100 years.
- If the moon was one pixel.
- Atari and archaeology: this is so cool and potentially important for how we understand the archaeology of 21st century capitalism.
- Writers on the train. This is a cool and clever idea.
- Some cool stuff on Philadelphia this week. First, some photographs of Philadelphia slum from the early 20th century. Next, the decline of the Philadelphia accent. Finally, a little primer on how some folks talked where I grew up.
- Landscape photos of prisons with death row.
- Good luck to Kiara Kraus-Parr/Jendrysik in her run for state attorney general!
- What I’m reading: M. Weimer, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. 2013.
- What I’m listening to: The New Puritans, Fields of Reeds. Beck, Sea Change.
March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
I had the real pleasure of listening to my colleague Sebastian Braun present some of his research in the Bakken last night. His paper looked at the complex relationship between global capital, extractive industries, and local (and, particularly, indigenous) communities in the Bakken. The talk was good and well attended. The conversation afterward was thought provoking.
Since this is stuff that I’ve been working on lately, I thought I’d write down some of my ideas in as straightforward a way as possible here.
It was particularly useful to hear Sebastian talk about the relationship between the Bakken oil play, the frontier, and the local experience. This has become one of the more vexing issues in my recent efforts to articulate the impact of workforce housing (i.e. man camps) on the region and our understanding of global trends in settlement in the 21st century.
So far, I’ve argued, like Sebastian, that the Bakken represents both a historical and a contemporary frontier. Historically, Western North Dakota – a semi-arid grassland – never supported a large population, had limited resources available for commodification, and stood well away from established centers of population, industry, and commerce. This remains true even today. Last night, Sebastian made the interesting point that the contemporary frontier may be as much beneath the ground as across its surface with hydraulic fracturing representing the newest way to commodify natural resources in the region.
Any argument for the Bakken’s peripheral location implies the perspective of the core, but in the 21st century localizing the core is not at all easy to do or clear. The old national cores of the 19th and early 20th century or of the first wave of globalizing capitalism have largely receded from immediate importance (although the Bakken is peripheral to these locations as well). In their place, we have the oddly decentered (and dislocated) cores presented by transnational corporations and their myriad (often obscured) subsidiaries. In short, the core is no longer a particular place, but a concentration of authority, capital, and technology that can be deployed in the periphery very quickly.
If we can accept that the core is a “non-place” (that is outside of any clearly understandable spatial relationships; a shinny office tower in Houston can be for a company incorporated in Delaware), then the periphery becomes merely the area or field in which the core articulates its authority. Peripheries become non-places too. We have noticed this “on the ground” in the Bakken as Type 1 man camps tend to be nondescript modular units that are as at home on the North Dakota prairie as in anywhere in the world (or are equally alien in all places). The same might be said for the massive drill rigs that can be disassembled, shipped around the world, and reassembled for their task and operated by the same crew.
The collapse of place is vexing for the archaeologist who assume that social relations occupy recognizable spatial perimeters and transform “space” (which is empty) into “place” which has meaning. The place making exercise also has a temporal dimension in that it relies on time to deny the contemporaneity of object in order to make it accessible for study. This temporal displacement is typically the first step in the historical or archaeological project. We have to recognize something as an object of study and “space” must become place (that is, instilled with social, historical, temporal or other relations) to be knowable.
Traditionally, the work of the nation played a central role in creating places even if it was the nation as refracted through local agents. And the disciplines of archaeology and history developed in parallel (and in collusion with) the nation and emphasized and contributed to similar place-making activities. In other words, history and archaeology are very good at making meaning from place, but not as good at understanding the transnational non-places at the contemporary periphery.
This is where Sebastian’s talk last night really got my attention. When I asked something along these lines, he pointed out that people still worked, lived, loved, and played in the Bakken. These individuals have agency within a world that struggles against the commodification of everything and the alienating spread of the new core. So the ongoing lives of people in the Bakken – from the contingent workforce to the longtime residents – present a desperate strategy to stability their own places.
March 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
This semester, I’m teaching for the last time my History 240: The Historians Craft. The class has run for close to 5 years, every semester, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The class usually runs about 30 students, most of whom are sophomores or juniors, and is required for all history majors.
The first part of the class surveys the development of the discipline of history from Homer to our own post-modern, digital era. The goal of the course is to familiarize the students with the broader intellectual context for the development of history while refining their skills as student historians. Generally the first part of the consists of lecture and discussion of primary sources. This segues into the second half of the class when I emphasize formal writing and some of the disciplinary practices common to historical argumentation, style, and format.
Since teaching the course this way, I’ve been moderately pleased with my students willingness to take on the challenges associated with understanding and interpreting the complex history of our discipline, difficult and foreign texts, and unfamiliar concepts. In general, their performance on my essay based tests has been good enough, but only scratched the surface of what they were willing to do in class discussions or on shorter assignments. The exam was timed and consisted of two essays. One question asked the students to identify and contextualize a quote from a primary source that we read during class. The other essay asked the students to explore the intersection of an issue like nationalism, professional history, or philology within the narrative of the class. In other words, one essay asks the students to go from the specific to the general and the other asks students to go from the general to the specific. This is fairly standard stuff in my class.
This semester, I only have 10 students in the class, probably because I scheduled it late in the afternoon. The students are good and conscientious. So, I’ve decided to experiment a bit and off an optional oral midterm exam. It will be one-on-one, in my office, and run for 20 minutes in two, ten-minute sections, each of which will begin with a single question that is not fundamentally dissimilar to the questions that I will ask on the written midterm. My plan is to use this question as a point of departure for a conversation that probes the extent of a students familiarity with a particular topic.
I’ve decided to experiment with oral exams for three reasons.
1. Discussions are good. My students have not been entirely comfortable discussing primary sources and complex issues like historiography and the philosophy of history in a classroom setting. Prompted in the right way or painted into a corner, they tend to respond in ways that demonstrate a much greater understanding of issues than they would in a typical classroom conversation. The idea of an oral exam is to draw the students into a conversation about a complex topic and to give them confidence to engage challenging material.
At the same time, some of my colleagues have experimented with oral responses to written papers and exams. These are recorded in our Blackboard course management system and appended to the student paper. While I haven’t done this yet, my colleagues report that oral comments seem to have a significant impact on the students and work to establish a stronger relationship between teacher and student as well as communicate more effectively the strengths and weaknesses of student work.
The spoken word can be more engaging, transparent, and familiar than the written.
2. Exams are fake writing. As much as I liked the challenge of taking an exam, I have come to see essay exams as a kind of fake writing. Fueled by anxiety, misguided strategy, and the relentless ticking of the clock, in-class, essay tests are a catastrophe of compromises that almost always produce disappointing results. While all student writing assignments are in some ways artificial, essay tests are among the most problematic with time constraints, handwritten answers (in an era where most students type their work), and bodies of evidence limited by student memory (rather than the abundance of the internet).
3. The class is small. Oral exams will take about 30 minutes per student (that’s 20 minutes of conversation and at least 5 minutes of note taking afterward). Even for 10 students, this will be close to 5 hours. Fortunately, a handful of students will opt for the traditional written exam so it will probably only 3 hours of student exams. It is hard to imagine doing this in this class if it was even the standard size of 30 students.
There are drawbacks to oral exams, of course. Some students might be intimidated by being in a faculty members office and the oral interview will certainly benefit students who think better “on the spot”. I’ve also wondered whether male students might be more at ease in an office conversation than female students.
A small class that is due to for revision is the perfect place for experimenting with some new techniques. I think I have most of the variables sorted out in the class, and I have a robust sample of past written exams carved in my memory. I’m not sure that oral exams will become a major part of my pedagogical toolbox, but a little experimentation right before sabbatical can’t hurt too much.
March 4, 2014 § 2 Comments
One of the advantages of riding my bike indoors (on a stationary magnetic trainer) is that I get to look around the basement a bit more closely. Since we moved into this house in 2011, we’ve been trying to sort out its architectural phases. Fortunately, the house has only seen one major addition (but the changes to the interior space of the house are substantially more complicated).
Like many homes in Grand Forks, it received an addition on the back (west) of the house probably with indoor plumbing. The original back wall of the house then became the plumbing wall with both the upstairs and downstairs bathroom (both of uncertain date) being located just to the interior of the original back wall of the house.
This photograph from around 1900 shows the addition with a drain pipe or a piece of moulding just beyond the second window on the side visible above marking the west wall of the original house.
Looking at the beams used in the new addition, I couldn’t help but notice a few loose nails. So after wiggling a few of them (and noticing that they were not in structurally sensitive places), I decided that I should remove one for closer examination. After reading around a bit on the internets, I was able to identify and date this nail with some confidence.
Here it is:
What we have here is, if I’m not mistaken, an iron, grain-in-line, face-pinched, cut nail. The crack running along the face is clearly visible as is the nicely pinched face.
The head on this nail is slightly smashed, but is square and consistent with the pinched-face. The nail type would dates easily to the 19th century with the massive crack along the face suggesting – according to Tom Wells 1998 typology – an earlier rather than later date for this type.
These are the most common nails of this period and while the cracked face makes me wonder a bit, they are nevertheless consistent with the late 19th century date for the addition to our house. As my wife sagely observed, a nail dating to a decade or two earlier than the addition may simple indicate the use of older construction materials available at hand or the relatively outdated supply available in a small, rural community in the new state of North Dakota.
While I’ll never say its fun to own an old house, these little archaeological project do make a blustery, snowy, and cold March morning more interesting.
Do let me know if you can either refine my chronology of this nail or tell me that I’m hopeless and should stick to Early Christian basilicas.
March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
As readers of this blog know, I’ve become interested in the “slow” movement. This was initially prompted by discussions of pace in teaching which then developed into interest in the slow teaching approaches, and, as so many of my ideas about teaching go, it became an opportunity to reflect on slow archaeology (here, here, and here). My interest in cricket is well known.
Over the last year, I’ve been on a committee tasked with saving or revitalizing the venerable interdisciplinary, literary journal North Dakota Quarterly. As we were planning our special issues for next year, the topic of “slow” came up, and, next thing I know, I’m co-editing an issue dedicated to “slow” with a colleague from our department of philosophy and religion Rebecca Rozelle-Stone.
We are open to submission from every corner of the intellectual world, from hard core academics to part-time essayists. The volume is peer-reviewed and looks to be national, even international, in scope.
Here’s the call for papers:
North Dakota Quarterly (NDQ)
Volume 80, Number 2
Special Issue: Slow
William Caraher (University of North Dakota)
Rebecca Rozelle-Stone (University of North Dakota)
North Dakota Quarterly, an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal, seeks contributions for a special issue on the theme of “Slow.” In recent years, there has been increasing attention paid to slowing down various aspects of our lives as we attempt to navigate a fast-paced, instantaneously gratifying, highly technologized, and digital milieu. The “slow movement” has become a distinct cultural presence, affecting our thinking about food, art, design, religion, travel, parenting, recreation, pedagogy, and more. We invite non-fiction essays, short fiction pieces, poems, and artistic images that address or are inspired by this concept of “slow” and its emerging importance. We are interested in perspectives on the significance of “slow” from a diversity of disciplines, including: art, cultural studies, history, literature, philosophy, religious studies, and sciences, among others. Non-fiction submissions should be written for a broad audience.
Length: Non-fiction essays and fiction writing should be no longer than 6,000 words, inclusive of notes.
Deadline: October 1, 2014
Send hard copy submissions to:
North Dakota Quarterly
Merrifield Hall Room 110
276 Centennial Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202-7209
Or send electronic submissions and all inquires to the following email:
Rebecca Rozelle-Stone at: firstname.lastname@example.org with subject heading: “Slow Issue NDQ”
North Dakota Quarterly is a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal published four times per year by the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of North Dakota. It is indexed in Humanities International Complete, the annual MLA Bibliography I, among others, which may be found in libraries across North America.
Interim Editor: Sharon Carson (University of North Dakota)
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s the cold before the colder here on the Northern Plains as we move toward springtime. It’s -4 now, but supposed to be -30 by first thing tomorrow morning. I am not sure if March is arriving like a lion or not, but it sure will be cold.
Fortunately, I have a few writing assignments, some reading for class, and a bunch of other odds and ends to keep my occupied indoors this weekend.
And, I have a little gaggles of quick hits and varia to keep you guys distracted no matter what the weather is where you’re from.
- My graduate student, Stephanie Steinke, is presenting at this conference this week (.pdf).
- A Roman school for gladiators in Austria.
- Byzantine Money: The Politics and Aesthetics of a World Currency.
- A bit more on the Apollo of Gaza.
- The curious case of some Early Christian papyrus in Iowa.
- Along similar lines, there is lots of good stuff going on over at Charles Miller’s blog.
- Olives and Akrokorinth.
- Along similar lines, some Corinthiaka from David Pettegrew.
- Unity between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in Kontea, Cyprus.
- How do Muslims pray in space?
- A Google Map of London in 1746.
- North Dakota’s loneliest places.
- A huge mango was stolen in Australia.
- And here is a dot matrix printer playing “Eye of the Tiger”.
- The photography of jazz musicians by Aram Avakian.
- I like these photographs too.
- Congratulations to my good buddy Paul Worley on the publication of his book.
- I’ve probably posted this before, but Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel” are useful tips for any writing.
- I watched Ghost Busters this week (see below) and was struck by the scene in the movie which showed the Ghost Busters on the cover of Omni Magazine. Well, here’s something about Omni Magazine.
- And here is an oral history of Ghost Busters.
- Along similar lines, here’s a visual history of the Warner Brothers’ logo.
- What I’m reading: C. Honoré, In Praise of Slowness. HarperSanFrancisco 2004.
- What I’m listening to: Beck, Morning Phase; St. Vincent, St. Vincent.
A North Dakota Bike Ride