Teaching Tuesday: Scale-Up Syllabus Tweaks

I’ve had about a year to think about how to tweak the syllabus for my Western Civilization I class that I teach in the Scale-Up class room (for more on my adventures in teaching history in a Scale-Up room, go here). The Scale-Up classroom is organized around 20, round, 9-person tables with three laptops each and a bunch of options for collaborative work. Over the last three years, I’ve been working with about 130 students a year in the room to write our own Western Civilization I textbook. The class has been high in student engagement, but not always satisfying on educational outcomes.

So, this semester, I decided to make another round of tweaks on the syllabus designed to bring the class closer to some of the learning outcomes that I desire without eroding the impressive level of student engage that I have enjoyed.

My learning outcomes include the ability to use specific evidence and primary sources to support arguments, to identify arguments, evidence, and themes in a text, and to be able to grasp multiple narratives that make up our idea of Western Civilization. The following reflection on my syllabus tweaks reflect the intersection of practical classroom concerns with these larger learning goals.

1. Balancing Rewards for Individual and Group Work. It goes without saying that students hate group work. Actually, they don’t mind working in a group; what they don’t like is getting graded on group work. What seems to bother the students in the scale-up class the most is not how well they do on the work, but whether some people get the same credit for doing less work. (Insert political commentary here.) 

When I last taught this class in the spring of 2014, I skewed the points available heavily to group work figuring if I go in for a penny, I’d go in for a pound (or something). The point distribution clearly motivated most students to take their collaborative work seriously, but a visible minority seemed satisfied to allow the better and more engaged students to carry the load. While this visible minority was still more engaged than students in a big lecture type class or even a smaller traditional classroom, they seemed particularly marginal in the acquisition of key skills in the class. And I found myself at a loss for a method to determine what these students learned.

This semester, I’m going to balance individual graded work and group work at 50%/50%. Students will grasp that a strong performance as a group will balance a lackluster performance as an individual and vice versa. This recognition seems to motivate students to work together (many hands making the load lighter) while still taking individual work seriously.

2. Being Critical Readers. One of the issues that I’ve encountered in the class is that students hate textbooks, but don’t read them. So asking them WHY they hate textbooks is a difficult task. They claim that they’re boring, but can’t articulate why they’re boring, because they don’t read them. So when they write their own textbook chapter, students fall into the same trap as most textbook authors. They produce “one damn fact after another” and the resulting work, while well researched and more-or-less carefully organized, is boring. 

This semester, I’m going to run a 3-week mini-seminar on reading textbooks in my Western Civilization class. I assign an assortment of 7 or 8 textbooks to the class so that each table of 9, has as wide a range of different textbook as is possible. This fall, I’m going to explicitly ask the students to evaluate their textbooks along three lines:

a. What arguments do the various sections of the textbook make? If they are not obvious arguments, what themes do they emphasize?

b. What sources do they use to support these themes? What primary sources do they provide and how do these fit with the arguments or themes in the texts?

c. What specific evidence – names, dates, places, et c. – do they use to make their arguments or articulate their themes? How do they make these specific bits of evidence familiar?

These basic questions will be asked of the textbook chapters covering the Greek, Roman, and Medieval worlds. At various times, I’ll ask the students to compare the textbooks around their tables, and at other times, I’ll ask the class to reorganize themselves into groups according to their textbooks for the class.

Each section will result in each student preparing a short (ca. 700-1000 word) paper on their textbook section, and ground each student more firmly in both critical reading of textbooks as well as preparing them to create textbook chapters that address the weaknesses and emulate the strengths of existing works.

3. History as History. One of the main weaknesses of my class is that I don’t spend much time worrying about “the historical method.” In part, this reflects my deep ambivalence regarding the historical method (and my doubts whether it really exists) as well as a skepticism whether it is possible to prepare introductory level students to engage in disciplinary science. In other words, even if I accepted that history had a clearly articulated method, I’m not sure it is very honest to pretend that 100 level history students are learning any part of it. At best, my students learn a few ways to produce and critique strong arguments and some factoids about the past. If they somehow leave the class imagining that this is history, then I probably have done more harm than good.

That being said, students should recognize that various historical methods, themes, and points of emphasis reflect different priorities in how we understand the past. In general, these different priorities reflect different views on historical causality (the most famous example is the contrast between “great men” and “social processes” as agents of change) as well as different attitudes about the present. I’m going to try to bring a bit more historical sensitivity to the class by emphasizing the different between these ways of thinking about the past.

I’m going to meld this with the critical textbook reading “seminar” and encouraging the students to recognize the differences in emphasis and argument among various texts as efforts to promote the priority of various historical forces from the individual to institutions, social and economic structures, and the slow change of cultural expectations. Hopefully, this introduction to how historians think about the past will not detract from the more basic (and, frankly, transferable) skills associated with making coherent and compelling arguments.



  1. It’s boring for a complete novice to begin studying an historical personage “dry.” How much more interesting to learn about Hannibal. for example. if he first reads Will Cuppy’s essay about him in his Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, surely my favorite history “text.”


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