Innovation and Teaching

I spent some time yesterday reading over a draft version of the College of Arts and Sciences new strategic plan. It’s riveting as you might imagine and filled with talk about innovative teaching. 

Innovative teaching terrifies me. First off, innovation is relative. Something is only new compared to something that’s old. Secondly, it’s a slippery slope, and as we’ve seen in the consumer sector, innovation seems to beget more innovation, and fixing something that’s not broken for the sake of innovation is not useful. Finally, innovation does not mean better or more effective. 

In any event, I am clever enough to read between the lines in things like strategic plan. Much of its content is not meant for me, but for other administrators. At the same time, I’m struggling to come up with clever new approaches to a new course that I’m developing.

The course is The Ancient World and it is targeted at the 200 level which is a step up from the introductory level and designed to prepare students for upper level course work in Classics and Ancient History.

As of now, the course have 5, 2.5 week modules: Archaic and Classical Greece, Hellenistic World, The Roman Republic, The Roman Empire, and Late Antiquity. That’s 25 classes over a 30 class (15 week) semester, and it gives me time to miss a day or two for travel, snow, midterm, introduction, and review classes.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I plan to provide most of my lectures via podcast. I’ve done this in History 101 and found that students are no less likely to listen to a podcast than read an expensive (and no less boring) textbook. That leaves me 5 class per module to get things done. After reading about “active learning” or similar approaches to improving student engagement for the last few years and experimenting with group work in UND’s Scale-Up room, I’m leaning toward adopting similar methods in this class. Leaving one class each module to talk about the lecture, to reinforce key content points, and to allow students to ask questions about the lecture, I have four classes for active learning activities per module.

I understand that backward course design is all the rage these days, but, in the spirit of innovation, I’ve tended to look beyond it to the next thing. I prefer learning goals to develop organically over the course of the class and to vary between individuals rather than being dictated in such a way that reinforces the student-instructor dichotomy. 200 level courses have the added challenge of attracting a wide range of students at different levels so traditional goals like improving student writing tend to encompass a wide range of actual outcomes. Some students are working on rather fine stylistic and rhetorical points while others struggle with grammar and basic argument. 

That being said, I envision the course as a basic introduction to method, sources, and arguments. Moving with some facility between various media is central to what ancient historians do. Our source material is so relatively limited and the methods necessary to understand various sources critically are relatively specialized, it is crucial to become familiar with these challenges even at the introductory level, but I’d like my students to at least be familiar with the methodological challenges associated with particular sources and approaches, including: ancient chronology, archaeology, art history, and the critical reading of ancient sources (in translation). So for each module there will be not only different sources, but different kinds of sources.

For the Archaic to Classic periods, traditional history and Homer will provide a familiar start among texts. Thucydides and Herodotus provide opportunities to talk about chronology in antiquity. For the Hellenistic world, I will probably introduce archaeological and architectural sources from the Eastern Mediterranean. For the Roman Republic, we’ll likely return to textual sources and perhaps dip our toes into prosopography. For the Roman Empire, we’ll consider the archaeological evidence for Romanization and look at epigraphy as a source. Late Antiquity, then presents an opportunity to bring together the various sources and methods that we’ve studied over the course of the semester. Discussion of sources should represent 2 days of the 5 available for each module.

That leaves two course periods for group work each module. My plan now is to develop 5 group projects that draw upon the sources and methods that they’ve learned and synthesizes it in some way. These synthetic project will push students to  get move toward higher levels of thinking within Bloom’s taxonomy. They’ll also be fortified with individual work that depends on skills developed in the group context. The class will have a final, a midterm, and at least one short, synthetic paper. 

This is largely an approach to teaching brought over from my experience in the Scale-up room and designed as much to improve student engagement as to advance particular learning goals or skills. It draws on ideas that have been floating about higher education for the last 30 years, if not a century. I wonder whether they’ll qualify as innovative?

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