Three Teaching Thoughts on Lectures and Textbooks

A few things over the past few weeks have inspired me to think a bit more about teaching particularly in my larger survey style classes which I have taught online for the past three years.

1. Lectures return? Recently several articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education have hinted that the traditional lecture format might not be as useless as people have generally thought. In fact, a short article about Michael Wesch, long the poster-child for Teaching 2.0, has spent some quality time with a faculty mentor, Christopher Sorenson, who is “decidedly old-school in his approach”. Wesch apparently had become concerned that some of his high-tech teaching tactics were not as universally applicable as he hoped and decided to try to understand better why some things work for his students and his classes, but not elsewhere. He comes to the conclusion that empathy between teacher and student is far more important than even the most robust set of teaching practices.

I reached similar conclusions over the past several years, but articulated empathy as trust (see here and here). Students have to trust the teacher to lead them. I am working toward an idea that one of the key steps to building trust is for teachers to recognize student resistance (in all forms) as an authentic, legitimate response. By recognizing and legitimizing student resistance, we can begin to address its root causes, undermine its consequences, and generate space for a productive metadialogue concerning the value of learning.

2. Flipping? In another recent article, the Chronicle discusses the practice of “flipping” the lecture classroom. This seems to involve breaking large classes into groups and letting the students in these groups work out problems, analyze texts, and even articulate interpretations.

I did this for years in my large (100+) Western Civilization class that met in a traditional lecture bowl. I taught the class for 2 1/2 hours at night and regularly broke the students into groups so that they could wrestle with a text. Then I circulated with my graduate teaching assistant and engaged the groups of students as they tangled with the text and worked to address (or create!) a research question.

I really liked the chaotic atmosphere that this kind of classroom environment created. The better students embraced the opportunity to chat with the professor, and I had a chance to get the attention of some marginally engaged students and pull them into the class.

Other students, however, resented the chaotic environment, resisted group work by sitting sullenly in silence or ignored the assignments, or just stopped coming to class (or, better still, left class when the students re-arranged themselves into groups). At first, this bothered me, but as I grew to expect it, I began to (begrudgingly) accept this behavior and see it as an honest critique of my methods.

In partial response to this, I began to make it possible for students to engage material more fully without having to spend time in the flipped lecture. To do this I created a set of podcasts which allowed students to listen to my lectures on their own time, I cut back on the amount of flipped time in the classroom, and focused a bit more specifically on the methods of writing and interpreting historical documents.  It was at that point that I moved the entire class online, so I was not able to get a clear idea of whether this shift would produce better results, but it did help me reflect on how creating a modular, flexible body of easily recombined course material could provide the foundation for a more dynamic and responsive class.

3. The modular textbook.  Recently I was asked to review an almost completed manuscript for a new textbook. As part of this review, I was asked what new trends I saw emerging in teaching survey classes and the survey textbook market. I suggested that the textbook of the future will be a radically modular affair with short sections (1000 words max) linked together by interrelated themes and arguments and complemented with interactive maps (I prefer Google Earth kml files), primary sources (preferably openly available), timelines, and images.

The era of the long textbook – expensive, daunting, and too rigid for the dynamic and diverse methods in the history classroom – is nearing its end. I am working on a Western Civilization textbook right now built from my Western Civilization podcasts and customized for my course.  I have to find ways to make it modular and dynamic.

It’ll be free.

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