Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale Up Classroom (Part VI)

This was the fifth class for my History 101: Western Civilization course in University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up room. So far I have introduced students to some of the basic tools for the historian: historical models, primary sources, chronology, agency, and (next week) space and place. The students have used a series of exercises on these large, but central topics to historical analysis to organize and analyze a smaller, chronologically and topically cohesive body of historical material. The goal is to shift attention away from the vast body of content to the ways in which historians organize, interpret, and analyze material. Each table is responsible for part of the historical narrative and the combined efforts from the 18 tables of 9 will produce a textbook. So far, the course has gone well with the students accepting the flipped classroom environment, working decently well with their colleagues, and dutifully absorbing both the basics of the historical method and the some key elements of a particular time or set of issues that I have assigned to each table. 

Tonight was the first night that I felt like the class was a bit frayed at the edges. I will probably have to change up the routine some so that the students still have some sense of adventure. Fortunately, the midterm exam is on February 19th and next week, I will bring the course together for a summary and recap of the main points in the first six classes in the semester.

The second half of the class will also involve some new classroom management methods. I want to encourage peer review between groups, make sure that good quality work is happening in the 3 person pods, and try to establish some new ways to evaluate individual student performance.    

So now is as good a time as ever to express some concerns:

1. Setting the bar. I’ll be honest. I am thrilled that the students have engaged the material as well as they have, but my expectations were rather low. Having spent the last decade teaching lecture style class and online courses, I am usually satisfied with 25%-30% of the class “getting” the material in a sophisticated way. In this class, I have seen hints that closer to 50% of the class have some of the key concepts under control. While I wonder whether I was too conservative in my expectations for this class, I do suspect that limited the amount of content that the students were expected to command gave them an opportunity to concentrate on the larger conceptual framework useful for understanding that narrative.

2. What is a midterm? I decided to include a midterm exam this semester as an intentional nod to traditional courses. I also thought it would give me a break from teaching on one night and serve as a tool to assess individual learning after the first 5 weeks of class. The challenge of the midterm is that I have to write a series of questions that can be plausibly answered using almost any period and subject matter. Fortunately, I have attempted to stress the use of specific evidence and primary sources to support historical arguments so far this semester, so my hope is that I can ask relatively open ended questions that draw on the basics of the historical method. The questions will ask students to use the specific evidence from their period to support an argument.

The biggest challenge, of course, is to set a standard for where the students should be at this stage of semester across a range of content. As my next point will make clear, teaching history may have shifted their emphasis from content to method, but content still matters. Some content and historical questions are simply more complex than others and require more creativity, nuanced analysis, and sophistication to unpack. 

3. Groups and Challenges. One of the most interesting experience that I have had so far is that the topics assigned to each group (and I’ve included a list of my chapters at the end of this post) require such different sets of analytical skills. Groups that have particularly challenging topics have come to embrace the challenge. For example, the group assigned to study the Bronze Age Aegean has to deal with a period with no narrative textual sources (and one group, the Minoans, lacking textual sources at all), but a wide range of archaeological sources. This group has embraced this challenge and interrogated the existing sources with a much greater degree of enthusiasm and rigor than groups with much better documented periods. 

Here’s my chapter list for the class. Since the class did not enroll 180 students, I had to combine Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 and Chapter 12 with Chapter 11. Tables of 9 students will collaborate to produce a 5000-7000 word chapter on each of these subject area.

1. Prehistory I: Pre-Bronze Age Near East (combined with Chapter 2)
2. Prehistory II: Bronze Age Near East (Mesopotamia and Egypt)
3. Prehistory III: Bronze Age Greece and Aegean (Mycenaeans and Minoans)
4. Archaic and Classical Greece (Athens and Sparta)
5. Greek Society and Culture
6. Hellenistic Greece
7. Roman Republic
8. Roman Empire
9. Roman Society and Culture
10. Roman Religion and the Rise of Christianity
11. Late Roman Empire
12. Byzantium and Islam (combined with Chapter 11)
13. Early Medieval West (Carolingians)
14. High Middle Ages I: Feudalism and Manorialism
15. High Middle Ages II: The Imperial Papacy
16. High Middle Ages III: The Crusades
17. High Middle Ages IV: The World of the Town
18. Later Middle Ages I: The Black Death
19. Later Middle Ages II: The 100 Years War
20. Later Middle Ages III: The Decline of the Papacy and Rise of Kings

Check out more posts on my experiences in the Scale-Up room here.

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