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

This is my 11th week teaching History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s new Scale-Up Classroom. The goal of the class was to introduce the students to the major aspects of the historical method, to get them to organize a substantial writing project, and to develop some skills necessary to collaborate in a group. To do this, we tasked each table of 9 students to write a chapter on a particular topic in Western Civilization. These chapters will come together to form a textbook. 

Last week the students presented first drafts of their chapters. Many of the students are now getting excited as they see both their chapter take shape and the textbook take shape across the room. Several students have even asked whether they could get a copy of the book when they were done!

The chapter drafts themselves and the process of revising these drafts gave me a chance to think about how the class worked to produce historical knowledge with a body of assessable text in front of me. Here are my observations on student writing, process, and my writing: 

1. Narrative vs. Thematic Approach to History. One of the main successes of my class is that students are clearly struggling with the tension between narrative history and history of institutions or trends. This is mostly an issue of organization and figuring out how to move within the chapter from the presenting a specific and detailed historical account to treating institutions or even “structures” that shaped pre-industrial society. Some of the more ambitious groups have begun to think about how they can integrate primary sources into the mix and move from the very specific bits of historical knowledge to larger synthesis. To my mind, this emphasis on the specific and the general is a key aspect of the study of history.

2. Students and Textbooks. The chapters were remarkably decent. There were the predictable issues with organization, some niggling grammar problems, and some need to clarify citation. There were remarkably few factual problems, intermittent episodes of good analysis, and solid evidence for student effort across the board. What is interesting in their imitations of textbook chapters is the almost total absence of coherence and continuity between the various historical factoids present. I got to thinking whether their imitation of textbook chapters represented the way that they read textbooks. In other words, do they read textbooks like long strings of relatively unrelated facts?

3. Managing Unstructured Time. Getting students comfortable with actual dynamics of collaborative work is among the most difficult parts of teaching in the Scale-Up room. Over the course of the semester, students have become better and better at figuring out how to manage open-ended assignments (e.g. revise your chapter) and unstructured time. Last night, for example the class featured two big blocks of unstructured time. One at the start when the students produced a blueprint for revising their chapter and one toward the end where the students began revisions and devised the best approach to making their blueprint for revisions actionable. While I still wish the students would take better advantage of time toward the end of class, I also realize that a two hour and twenty minute class is a long time for sustained work, and it is clear that students are getting better at using time to its fullest extent.

4. Peer Review. The big step in the next few weeks is going to be peer review. Right now, when groups engage each other it is still pretty perfunctory and tentative. (It was cool to watch the students fan out across the room to present their chapters to other groups.) Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to work to increase student engagement in the peer review process. Some written reviews and some reflections on how the structure, quality, and content of chapter differ will help students to see how writing a peer review can help their own work. We will also have to think about ways to get students within the groups to reflect on the distribution of the work on the chapter. 

5. Writing the Scale-Up. I’ve begun to write an article length reflection on my semester teaching history in the Scale-Up room. It’s my first real effort at writing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). I’ve long thought that those who can’t do, SoTL, but I also want to provide a basic record and guide to what I learned from doing this. So I am thinking in terms of writing my Scale-Up experiences as an exercise in archival work along the lines of G. Stanley Hall’s Methods of Teaching History (1896). (Some of my reflections on this are here.) More on this work soon…

For more on my adventures teaching in the Scale-Up room, check out these earlier posts.

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