Three More Observations on the Spring Semester

Our grades are due at noon today, and my gaze is rapidly turning toward summer travel and research. Before I leave this semester behind, I thought I might reflect a bit more on the past semester. I tried some new things this year, articulated my approach to some teaching techniques a bit more clearly, and ran another class for the second time using identical material and formats.

1. By the numbers. In my online History 101: Western Civilization class, I assign 3 short papers (1000-1500 words). One paper is paper that explores a particular primary source, one deals with a primary source in the context of assessing diversity within pre-industrial society, and there is one cumulative paper due either at the midpoint of the semester or at the end of the semester.  With the exception of the first cumulative paper, there are no deadlines prior to the end of the semester.  The papers as associated with other course material divided according to week across the entire semester. With no firm deadlines, however, the student is free to review the material from each week the best way that they see fit over the course of the semester.

Comparing the papers that student select over the course of the semester shows an interesting trend. In the AU2010 course students tended to write papers from material that appeared at the end of course. The penultimate primary source paper and diversity paper were the most popular papers for students the write. For the spring semester the trend was inverted.  The second primary source paper and second diversity paper were the most popular by roughly the same margins. In fact, in the Spring semester, the first primary source paper and diversity paper were almost exactly as popular as the final primary source paper and diversity paper in the fall.  The most popular paper by far is always the final cumulative paper which 70% of the students select over the other three diversity papers.

Here’s a chart to prove it:

Papers101

What can explain this chart?  The late autumn semester and early spring semester are cold and maybe the students feel more motivated to stay inside and work through some of the assignments for their online History 101 course.

2. Practicing Prepared Procrastination. I blogged on my novel “live fire” technique for teaching my midlevel introduction to historical methods course, History 240: The Historians’ Craft.  This involves, compressing the development and writing of a research prospectus into the final 6 weeks of the semester. It is designed to be intense and to complement the students tendency to procrastinate on major assignments while teaching them how to approach research in a more systematic and efficient way.  While this method was particularly semester the previous three semesters, this spring it was a near disaster. The quality of papers was lower than ever before, attendance was poor during the intensive final 6 weeks of the course. Even basic mechanics of the course – like properly formatted footnotes – seemed to elude my students and a number of students failed to turn in a satisfactory final assignment entirely.

This led me to reflect on whether such an intensive program was worth the potential collateral damage.  On a long walk with my wife, I began to back track and consider ways to stretch out the 6-week paper writing bootcamp. I imagined pushing the starting date for the research and paper writing section of the class earlier, I considered adding some mandatory quizzes of basic skills at the end semester, and I even considered scrapping the entire enterprise and going to a more deliberate and measured approach to teaching research and paper writing. I was not comfortable seeing students struggle and even fail to manage the assignment. After all, the weather in the spring was getting warmer, graduation, Spring Fest, and other exciting activities vied for attention with coursework, and the cumulative stress of a long year was taking its toll on attention and energies.

As I considered revising the course, I also began to wonder whether a student’s failure to complete an assignment was necessarily a negative outcome for the class.  While I would never consider it an optimal outcome, I began to wonder whether failing to complete an assignment successfully is the kind of outcome that sometimes motivates a student to engage material more systematically in the future. I have long felt that teaching research methods in some way depends on a student believing that not only is the project possible, but that the skills you provide in the class will make it possible to complete the project in the best possible way. A negative outcome could erode this trust, or reinforce the need for a student to follow a set of guidelines.

3. Historians and the Archive. In my graduate historiography class, I introduced a new assignment this semester. Since the course is meant to be reflective as much as it is designed to communicate a set body of content, I decided to introduce a more reflective type of assignment for the course. Instead of the standard series of book reviews or a synthetic paper, I asked the students to maintain a reading journal all semester. This journal then became the basis for the final paper. In this paper, I asked the students to consider their reading journal to be an archive and for them to write a paper analyzing this archive in some way. Like any archival research, I made it clear that they could bring in additional texts to help them understand their archive and they could, of course, introduce other complementary primary source materials.

The results of this assignment were fairly uneven. The most striking thing was that students struggled to see their own work as an archive. There was an overwhelming desire to correct the archive (which had to be submitted prior to our in-class discussions of the texts).  I let them do this, of course, provided that they marked out clearly what was original and what was added later.  Their desire to “fix” the Archive represented either an amazingly sophisticated notion of what the archive is – a fluid body of texts that can only ever exists in a corrected present, or a fairly simplistic desire the present the past in purified state cleansed of any inaccuracies or outliers.

The students did not quite have the distance from their own work to subject it to the kind of rigorous historical analysis that they would apply to texts in a more traditional historical archive.  Like reflecting on teaching, there is always difficult (impossible?) to see our own past in outside of pressures of the present.

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