Teaching History and Embracing Ambiguity in the Scale-Up

One of my favorite experiences of teaching history in the Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota is watching students who are given substantial freedom to design their own projects tentatively approach the ambiguity that this entails. The Scale-Up

This past week, we finally got to the stage in my Scale-Up class where we began work on our textbook chapters. Each table received a time period (Archaic, Classical, or Hellenistic) and one of 5 or 6 different thematic topics (culture, social history, political history, economics, or military history). Each table was responsible for a single 2000-3000 word section that focuses on a particular issues.

I’ve asked the students to frame their chapters with a clear statement of intent and to then provide an outline that sets out what their chapter will say. The goal of this is to show both me and other groups how they intend to proceed with their analysis. In some places, chapters will overlap. For example, the social history of the Archaic and Classical period offers significant opportunities for overlapping content (at least as imagined by 100 level history students). Likewise, the Archaic and Classical economies could have significant overlap in the hands of generalizing undergraduates. To prevent this, I have suggested that the two groups interact and work to define their own boundaries.

It’s sort of remarkable to see how students respond to this kind of ambiguity.

Most students embrace it with a certain amount of enthusiasm. While intent on doing the “right thing,” they seem to understand that the structure of an argument is as important as the content and structure of the argument. I provide the students with multiple textbooks, a small selection of primary sources, and lots of tips and pointers how to find more sources. For example, I directed students working on the Archaic economy to Hesiod’s Works and Days and nudged students looking at the Classical economy to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. In other cases, such as Athenian politics of the Classical period, sources are more readily obvious.

 In an introductory history course, I’m less concerned about students being “right” (whatever that means) and producing “accurate” historical content, than I am with them developing the confidence to explore a topic in an independent way, to formulate an approach to presenting what they learned, and to write a section of a chapter setting out their interpretation of the past.

It is interesting to note how students respond to this freedom of analysis.

1. Demand Definition. Some students demand that we provide them with more formal definition of their topics. Particularly troublesome to students are the borders between social, cultural, and economic history. While professional historians rarely set firm boundaries between these arbitrary categories of historical analysis, my students struggled to understand what topics might be “acceptable” in their chapters.

Some of this reflects a problematic understanding of such broad and abstract concepts as culture and social history (and my rather superficial explanations to the entire class were unsatisfactory). More important, it speaks to how students in this 100 level history class expect firm divisions within their own classroom experiences and in the production of disciplinary knowledge.

So as faculty and administrators continue to talk excitedly about “breaking through boundaries” and “escaping silos” that define our disciplinary knowledge and ways of knowing, our students continue to look for rigid divisions in disciplinary structure.   

2. Putting the Cart before the Horse. At the start of the  give students a little list of things that they should do, in order, to write their chapters. Here’s the list:

1. Collect Evidence
2. Concoct a Thesis
3. Develop Outline
4. Write Draft
5. Share Draft
6. Peer Review
7. Revise Draft
8. Submit draft

Despite this list, groups get eager to delve into the writing component of the assignments and will often start to write, get frustrated, and ask for help before even formulating a thesis or establishing an outline. With words staring at them from the page, they quickly become frustrated that they can’t marshal order from their hastily arranged ideas.  

Other groups, jump on the first three or four examples that they can find and attempt to force these into order. They then become frustrated when they can’t write a thesis that brings together combine randomly selected bit of information.

Managing student frustrations as they figure out how to push their way through these assignments is my biggest challenge right now. I am impressed by students’ willingness to dive right into a complex assignment, but I wish I was better at managing their energies.

3. Critiques and Revisions. One of the challenges that I’m looking forward to addressing this next week is getting students to provide critical feedback to their peers and taking this feedback constructively as they revise their drafts. Much like the ambiguity associated with the assignment itself, students often want a single body of clear directions in the revision process rather than a conflicting mass of suggestions from their peers. Getting the students to filter the peer reviews and focus their revisions is among the most challenging (and productive) aspects of the class.

So, the greatest challenge now that the chapter writing is underway is managing student responses to rather more open-ended assignments than they commonly experience in introductory level courses. Getting the students comfortable with defining fuzzy boundaries, slowing down and managing their frustrations, and critically reading peer reviews before making revisions are all parts of the same process of getting students to approach problems and tasks independently and with confidence.

For more on my adventures in the Scale-Up classroom, go here.


  1. Great assignment and reflection on it. I have a number of assignments in my archaeology class that are more about the experience of doing the assignment than the final product, and I get so much hand-wringing and anguish because their fear of “doing it wrong” is paralyzing. I’d like to hear more about your assessment of these chapters (or do you already have a post on that somewhere?).


    1. Laura,

      I’m going to look at them next week and I’ll post some reflections on it then. I did a similar assignment last spring, but we worked slowly through the process of writing a chapter over the course of an entire semester. It was so gradual and so much handholding that the products were good, but the assignment was only superficially similar to what I’m doing this semester.

      More soon,


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