Teaching Thursday: Technology, Narrative, and Practice

My first classes were this week, and as per usual, I left with a head full of ideas and challenges. I want to get back to doing a little blogging about teaching so I’ve put up a few of my thoughts after my first week back in the classroom.

1. Technology. I teach History 101 in a slightly thread-worn Scale-Up classroom here at University of North Dakota. The technological potential of this class is really impressive. For example, three-laptops at each of the 9-student tables can be routed to flat screen TVs at each table or larger projection screens in the corner of the room. This has the potential to facilitate collaborative work at each table and across the entire room, but with the complications associated with this technology come some real challenges. Unfortunately this did not work for about a quarter of the tables making it difficult for the entire group to share the work of the person on the lap top. This is not a deal breaker of course, but it put me in the awkward situation of navigating technology rather than teaching history or helping the students think through a complex problem.  

I recognize in a professional sense, taming the technology is not my responsibility, but once the class starts, some of this has to be navigated on the fly. I need to get better at problem solving classroom technology.

2. Narrative. The most compelling idea probably didn’t come from class, but from a quick chat with one of our D.A. students after class. We were discussing his History 103: US History until 1860 class and got to talking about whether one could design a compelling textbook using Wikipedia pages complemented by one of the numerous open access primary source readers for U.S. History. We got to talking about the role of narrative in teaching introductory level history courses. My History 101 course lacks basic narrative structure (although parts of the class do proceed chronologically) and focuses instead on the construction of historical arguments. The downside of this is that students sometimes feel unmoored from big picture patterns of historical causality and the systematic production of what we today call Western Civilization. Of course, these are the kinds of patters and processes that are often the most challenging for history students to understand. (In the past, I’ve blogged about the ironic situation where we teach the incredibly complex diachronic narratives to survey students and then present much more simple, focused historical problems!) Breaking the introductory level history survey course down into more manageable historical problems and giving up on the sweeping narrative and drive for coverage actually offers a better route to helping students understand the basic skills of historical analysis. 

3. Big Ideas and Little Learning. One of the most stimulating conversations that I’ve had in a graduate seminar happened yesterday evening. As per usual, I started my graduate methods course with the rather open-ended question “what is history?” I got a good range of responses from the highly analytical (making arguments from primary sources) to the expansive (storytelling). The conversation turned to the practical question of what do we need to learn as professional historians to become good stewards of the practice of writing history?

It was really cool to work between the big idea of History (as a way of thinking about the past) and as a professional discipline and to understand more clearly the “little learning” that informs how we confront big ideas. What was challenging was coming up with an assemblage of particular skills necessary to write our version of history. We certainly got the idea that writing and reading were important, but beyond that things were a bit hazy. Since the next 15 weeks will be concerned with historical methods (both in terms practical professional skills and the larger context of disciplinary practice as part of the 20th and 21st century university).

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