Three Teaching Things for the New Semester

The new semester looms over me, and I am beginning to shift my attention from field work to teaching related matters. This semester, I’m teaching three classes: two that I’ve taught every semester for the last few years (History 101: Western Civilization and History 240: The Historians Craft (which is our required mid-level majors course)) as well as a graduate research seminar on Landscape History.

I am attempting to do three things a little differently this semester:

1. No Boring Syllabus Talk at the Start of the First Day. I am old school in terms of what I do my first day of class: I usually begin my class by introducing myself and going through the syllabus. This semester – at least in my History 240 class – I am going to begin with a direct question: what is history? And start the course with a discussion rather than a lecture on the technical aspects of the syllabus. What prompted this was an experience I had last semester where my class almost entirely refused to discuss or engage the material that we read and I presented in class during class time. Despite their reluctance to discuss in class, the students performed exceptionally well on the exams and my teaching reviews sparkled. I wondered after this experience whether it was really the atmosphere in the classroom rather than the students’ reluctance to engage the material intellectually that caused the problem. As a result, I’m going to change things up on the very first day. 

2. No More Dogmatic Dependence on the Graduate Research Paper. I am teaching a graduate research seminar for the first time ever. One of my little causes over the course of the last few years is to help steer our department away from some of the standard expectations for graduates students. For example, I worked to install a non-thesis M.A. for students in public history or who had no intention of continuing their graduate careers. In my research seminar this fall, I am going to let the students opt out of the traditional 30-40 page graduate seminar research paper. In its place, I’m going to propose a series of skill based papers (book reviews, annotated bibliographies, historiography papers, short case studies, et c.) that will ensure that these students get exposure to the basic research skills necessary to be successful in graduate school, but not saddle them with the onerous task of producing (probably mediocre) 30 page paper that no one (other than myself) will (begrudgingly) read.

3. No More Twitter. I am shuttering my grand experiment of using Twitter in my History 101 Online course. It was never particularly successful in improving student engagement in the course and, while it was never very much work for me, I was never able to integrate it successfully into my class. It seems pretty clear to me that students prefer the “walled garden” of the Blackboard Course Management System to the open-ended Twitter interface. In short, it seems like students saw logging into Blackboard as the first step in engaging course material rather than looking at their phone or their Twitter account.  

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