Rethinking Teaching History Survey in the Scale-Up Classroom

This spring I will once again teach History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s relatively new Scale-up classroom. For regular followers for this blog, you know that this will be my second time doing this and that I documented my first effort at this over last spring. The end result of this effort was a paper with my teaching assistant Cody Stanley that is currently under revision.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Scale-Up room, it is a 180 student room where students sit at 20 x 9-person, round tables. Each table has 3 laptop computers around which students form a “pod” (each table, then, has 3 pods). 

While I think that for my first time teaching the course in this new room, it went reasonable well, there were some pretty loud and aggressive complaints. The most shrill and constant were complaints about group work. I’ve decided to ignore these as nothing about the room makes it conducive to individual work, and, while I admire the rugged individualism of the solo-striver, I also see the value in getting students familiar with working together as this is a skill that most of them will need throughout their post-university lives. (It’s ok for me to celebrate student resisting the influence of Taylorism in higher education in one blog post and then argue that students need to develop “real life” skills on another.) 

On the other hand, I did listen to students when they thought that my “uncoverage” approach deprived them of learning about periods and events that made history interesting, exciting, or even just a little more tolerable (this is a non-majors class, so for many, we’re aiming for tolerable). The first time I taught the class, I had each table write a single chapter of a Western Civilization textbook (here’s the list of chapters).

The students wanted more diversity in their encounter with Western Civilization, so instead of asking each table to write a single 5000-7000 word chapter, my teaching assistant this semester suggested that we ask each table to write a 1500-2000 word chapter on one aspect of Greek, Roman, and Medieval civilization. Instead of each table covering every aspect of a particular time period (say, the Hellenistic World or Late Antiquity), each table will cover one facet of a rather more narrow time period.

Each period will be divided into three periods: Early, Middle, Late (e.g. Early Middle Ages, High Middle Ages, Late Middle Ages). Each table will then get one aspect of that period: Culture, Religion, Politics, Military, and Social. So, one table will write on Hellenistic military achievements, and another will write on Classical military achievements, and another on the Bronze Age military.  For each aspect, I’ll pose a series of questions to provide some guidance for the students as they engage these aspects of each period over a 4 week span of time (leaving 4 weeks at the start of the class for an introduction to the room and basic approaches to studying the past). At the end of the class, we will collate all these short chapters into longer chapters focused on each period. 

This effort to give the students a slightly broader coverage will also change the pace of the course. A few weeks ago I discussed the idea of “slow teaching” and pace in the classroom. In general, the first version of my Scale-Up class has a particularly slow pace. Students dug deeply into a particular period and prepared a deliberately organized, written, and revised chapter. There was plenty of time to work through historical and mechanical issues surrounding each chapter. The results were relatively good. The one downside to this approach is the students only produce one chapter, and we did not have a chance to repeat or reinforce the methods that they had developed. I also struggled at times with the rather uneven rate at which the various groups engaged the research, writing, and revising process. 

By asking the students to write three small chapters over the course of the semester, I have the opportunity to reinforce how students identify and approach historical problems and compose arguments and analysis. While I haven’t worked out the details for how to use the four weeks (approximately 10 classroom hours) for each chapter (I imagine it will be a truncated version of what I did with each chapter last semester), I can imagine adding aspects to the research, writing, and revision process as we go through the semester so that students engage the material in a slightly more refined way for each unit.

I also think that by pushing the students to move more quickly through the process of writing a chapter, it’ll produce less variation in the rate which groups manage the tasks in the classroom. Groups that struggle to keep up will have more work to do at home.

Stay tuned as I work out the details this spring! For my on my Scale-Up Adventures click here.

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