Teaching Tuesday

I’m back to teaching in the fall and am looking forward to getting back into the classroom. I’m teaching a section of History 101 at night in a Scale-Up classroom and a history of our introductory methods class for graduate students, History 501. Both classes involve a bit more preparation than I’ve given them so far, so I thought a teaching Tuesday post might motivate me to start to get my act together with only a few weeks remaining before the start of the semester.

To avoid being overwhelmed, I’m targeting one specific issue in each class: 

1. New Class, New Priorities. The main goal of History 501 is to introduce graduate students to the methods and techniques of graduate level research in history. The course was installed about 5 years ago in an effort to level the playing field among graduate students by offering a bit of remediation for students who hadn’t developed strong research skills in their undergraduate programs or had taken time off between their undergraduate degree and graduate school. The course also provides students with an opportunity to meet the faculty in the department and have them present their specialities over the course of a couple of classes during the semester. This means the students have a basic understanding of oral history, quantitative history, labor history, intellectual history, material culture, digital history, and so on. 

The course, in other words, provides a bunch of details ranging from basic research tips to short, but nuanced introductions to larger research methods. Finding a way to organize priorities in a class like will be a challenge because the class will have to be a bit of everything for everyone. 

2. Balancing Group Work and Individual Performance. The challenge in my History 101 class is a bit more basic. As I have blogged about extensively, the class is built to run in a Scale-Up classroom. Our Scale-Up room offer 20 round tables for 9 students each. This makes the room ideal for group projects and collaborative problem solving and not particularly suitable for individual work or lectures. 

History classes have traditionally focused on lecture and individual work, and introductory level courses even more so. Over the last few years, I’ve created an introductory history class that focuses on collaboration to teach writing, argument, and the basic narrative of the past. The class writes its own history textbook over the course of the semester with each table providing a single module on the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. Student engagement is generally high and the product is decent. 

The biggest complaint from students is that the effort across the teams is uneven with stronger students doing more than their share and weaker students loitering around the margins. While the complaining is annoying (albeit pleasantly naive about asymmetrical distribution of work in the “real world”), I have come to recognize that I can do more to motive the more marginal students to engage in the process. So, this semester, I need to figure out ways to devote at least 40% of the class to individual effort in the service of the 60% of the class that is given over to group work.

The last two times that I’ve taught the class, I’ve given 20% over to daily assignments – these range from short take home assignments to in-class group work. These were largely designed to “keep students honest” in class by offering immediate rewards and consequences for various in class assignments. The first time I taught the class, I had a midterm exam after the first third of the class designed around basic historical argument skills. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the results of that, however. I was also tempted to assign a short paper and make it due sometime during the first third of the class. Two short papers, each worth 10%, would also be an appealing way to include some individual accountability in the course. 

The goal of these short papers will be demonstrate that skills refined through group work actually emerge in individual assignments and to promote ongoing engagement and collaboration in the course.

More soon as I think through these classes over the course of the next few weeks!

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