Teaching Tuesday: A Scale-Up Up-Date

It’s week 15 of our 16 week semester and I’m beginning to reap the results of the energy that I put into revising my History 101: Western Civilization class taught in our increasingly threadbare Scale-Up classroom. The Scale-Up room organizes the class into 20, 9-student round tables, making it easier for collaborative work and discouraging straight lectures. For more on my adventures teaching in this class, go here.

At the start of the semesterI decided to make a few changes to the class including encouraging more individual writing, speeding up the pace in which I expected the students to immerse themselves in content, and providing quicker and more feedback on work. 

The results have been pretty good.

1. Individual Writing First. In past semesters, I eased students into the expectations of the class with lots of little assignments completed by either 3-person pods or the entire table. This term, I required each student to work on 3 assignments of 500 words each at the beginning of the semester. Each of these assignments encouraged students to focus on (1) making an argument, (2) using evidence, and (3) different types of history (political/military, social/economic, cultural). The results of these papers were uneven, but they did introduce students to the expectations of the class and to various types of historical analysis.

Unfortunately, this introduction did not appear to carry through the entire semester. Students struggled to understand the different types of history (which admittedly overlapped) and found it difficult to identify and deploy evidence in support of an argument. On the one hand, these skills take time to develop and no amount of explanation can substitute for practice. On the other hand, students seem to regard each assignment as a stand alone project, unrelated to other assignments in the class. This problem is my fault. I need to emphasize the coherence of the class better and reinforce how each assignment, both individual and group, contributes to the learning goals in the class.

2. Faster Feedback. I was quite enamored with a system that would allow us to give students very rapid feedback on their writing assignments this semester. This involved having a couple of the teaching assistants evaluate papers during class and then, allowing them to present general trends in these papers to students on the same day that the students turned in the work. I figured this would be useful in a one-day-a-week class because it allowed students to do weekly assignments without having the “grading lag” between the papers.

I was hoping this would accelerate student learning and performance, but it didn’t really work very well. Students made the same mistakes in the second paper as they did in the first. I think the biggest issue was that general comments on student work do not translate very effectively to individual students. Since part of what my 100 level history class teaches is the skill of moving from general observations (and arguments) to specific examples (and evidence), it was perhaps a bit optimistic to think that students could easily take generalized comments and apply them to their specific work within the intervening step of individualized remarks on individual student papers.

3. Routine. The last nine weeks of the semester focus on each table writing its own chapter for an imagined Western Civilization textbook. Every three weeks, the class goes through three steps to produce a 3000 words chapter section: outline, rough draft (with peer review), final draft. This is a comforting and productive routine for most of us who write for a living, but for students, in a class, this routine is a system to be gamed. Clever groups immediately begin to figure out how much effort to put into the various parts of the writing project to ensure the maximum feedback for the least work. Undergirding this is the idea that assignments are not the successful completion of a task that is fundamentally independent of the classroom experience, but rather “what I want as the teacher.” In this scenario, the goal is to position the group to get as much information about the assignment from me (or my teaching assistants) as possible because I am the ultimate arbiter of success (rather than successfully completing a task independent of my assignment).

While I do everything that I can to discourage this behavior, it remains difficult to disabuse students of the notion that the goal in the class is not to get a good grade (i.e. make me happy), but to learn a skill. As long as the students imagine the class as a grade-getting game, they will look for ways to subvert the system and any routine will do less to reinforce good habits and more to offer an iterative game to overcome. The challenge, of course, becomes how to keep the assignments in the class changing to keep students engaged, encourage attention to good practices, and to undermine efforts to game the system, while reinforcing the idea that research and writing are practices best learned and refined through repetition.

This is the challenge for next fall!  

Teaching Tuesday: Half Way in the Scale-Up Room

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching History 101: Western Civilization to about 150 students in a Scale-Up style classroom this semester. I had great hopes of revamping this class in a massive way, but decided close to the start of the semester to make a few little changes than a substantial re-imagining. 

These small changes focused on improving how I implemented three main areas. All these changes have improved student engagement in the material and the quality of student product. It’s too soon to say that they are entirely successful (or will continue to be successful in future versions of the class), but it’s been a good start.

The goal of this course is to have students write a textbook. They do this in 15 groups of 9 students (or so) and each group is responsible for three chapters. Each chapter is researched, outlined, and written by the students over a 3 week period. The course meets once a week at night in a Scale-Up room room. Each student has a different textbook that they share with the group as a reference work. They are also directed to online primary sources and allowed to use online resources to supplement their texts.

1. More is more. When I taught this course in the past, I had a tendency to ease into chapter writing phase which began the final 9 weeks of the semester (3 chapters written over 3 weeks each). The first six weeks tended to emphasize basic team building to get the students familiar with the classroom, a basic introduction to historical methods, and some short assignments designed mainly to get the students writing and thinking.

This year, I ramped up my expectations for the first part of the class, and assigned three individual writing assignments (300-500 word essay) that constituted 30% of the grade for the course. The tables could work together to prepare the assignment by doing research together, outlining a paper, and even constructing a thesis, but the papers themselves had to come from each student.

Each paper focused on a kind of history – political and military, social and economic, and cultural and religious history – and that introduced students to the ways that historians divide up the past and helps them understand these approaches when they write their chapters.

While I’m not sure that the students have a stronger grasp of these various kinds of history, I do think that making more work due at the start of the semester builds expectations for the course more clearly and engages the students in the work of writing history from the first weeks of the semester. 

2. Fast feedback. One of the disadvantages of a one-day-per-week class is that it is hard to maintain an ambitious writing schedule and provide the students with quick feedback on their work. I was lucky this semester to have a few GTAs who were willing to do read papers very quickly during class time and provide a list of key issues with the papers before the end of the 2.5 hour class. This gave us a chance to provide immediate feedback to long form writing assignments. 

Fast feedback has often been limited to the use of clickers in the classroom or other rapid response type devices or applications which allow for instantaneous feedback on questions asked during class time. The downside these devices is that they usually limit student responses to short answers or multiple-guess kinds of queries. I’ve found that giving students quick feedback on longer, written work this semester has produced much improved results.   

3. Go fast to go slow. The reason why rapid responses to student written work has produced improved results is that it has allowed us to keep the pace of work high in the class. I know that I’ve celebrated techniques associated with slow learning (and other forms of the slow movement) on this blog, but, with the Scale-Up room pace is everything. The space of the room is incredibly distracting to students, lectures are impossible, and it’s all I can do to keep the students settled and quiet for 10 minutes quizzes at the start of the class. 

In this environment, variables in attention span, work speed, and comprehension make it vital to keep the class moving. To do this, I’ve increasingly broken down the work of writing (and writing history, in particular) into smaller parts which take less time to understand and practice. Focusing on specific aspects of historical work – from writing a single sentence thesis, to constructing an outline with primary source evidence and specific historical details, to learning when and how to cite formally – allows students to grasp and work through various parts of historical writing process without being overwhelmed.

These opportunities for attention to detail – even if they involve only 10 minutes of sustained attention per class – provide a chance for students to focus attention on many aspects of the writing process that often get overlooked when students are confronted by the complexity of even short writing assignments.  

As I introduced these little changes, I’ve thought a bit more carefully about what I want to accomplish in my History 101 class. In fact, I’m participating in a faculty reading seminar on a book about assessment. At UND (and I assume elsewhere) we’re often confronted with the idea that the actual goal of the class (i.e. writing a textbook) is somehow separate from what we hope the students learn (i.e. a learning outcome). This division allows us to separate grading the assignment (the actual goal) from assessing student learning (the real goal). History (and I’m sure other fields as well) has seen this division as a bit of a challenge. After all, our discipline has long valued the production of historical knowledge more than the process itself. Our methodology is underdeveloped and we lack much in the way of an ethical, practical, or even philosophical foundation. As disciplinary practice confronts the ironic view of the modern academy (i.e. teaching history is really teaching something else – citizenship, critical thinking, reading and writing, et c.) we are constantly pushed to figure out what our discipline REALLY does and to assess that. I find that more confounding than helpful. After all, one thing that historians are good at is recognizing good history. 

Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Class Film Strip

I am back on campus for the first time in almost 15 months and looking forward to thinking more about teaching this semester. One of the first challenges will be the 140 smiling faces tonight in the Scale-Up classroom. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching in the Scale-Up room for  few years now (you can read more about it here), and have been moderately successful porting a History 101: Western Civilization class into a collaborative learning environment.

During my year away, the folks coordinating the use of the Scale-Up room asked that faculty using it be a bit more explicit in articulating the philosophy behind the room and its attendant benefits. So I decided that I would do a brief presentation on the history of active learning in history during my first session in the Scale-Up room tonight.

Oh, and I thought it would be cool if I organized it like a film strip mostly because I like the BEEP noise in the recording that would advance the film strip to the next image.

So here’s my opening film strip in 25 slides.

Slide 1: 

In the beginning, there was the seminar.


Slide 2: 

It was invented by historians in German and imported to the U.S. in the late 19th century.


Slide 3:

The typical seminar involved a group of 8 to 15 students arranged around a table (the seminar table).  


Slide 4:

This group of students studied original documents that they called “primary sources” and shared their research with one another in a critical environment.


Slide 5: 

The best seminar rooms provided access to basic reference works, maps, and specialized works of history to help the students understand ofttimes difficult documents.


Slide 6:

The goal of the seminar was collaborative, active learning in the service of history.


Slide 7: 

The seminar arrived at the University of North Dakota in the early 20th century at the hands of renown historian Orin G. “Orangey” Libby. 


Slide 8: 

He had learned history through seminars at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of Frederick “The Frontier” Jackson Turner.


Slide 9:

At UND, the seminar thrived and produced the first generation of historians of the state of North Dakota. 


Slide 10:

While it was mainly designed to educate graduate students in history, it was quickly adapted to other history classes.


Slide 11:

As the university grew and history attracted more and more students, the seminar became difficult to maintain, because it was such a hands-on learning experience.


Slide 12:

With the rapid growth in university enrollments both at UND and around the country, new methods for teaching students history emerged. 


Slide 13: 

These methods sought to refocus student attention from hands-on learning from “primary source” documents and specialized libraries to building massive factual repositories in their heads.


Slide 14:

The best way to give a large number of students the tools necessary to think about history without giving them access to “primary sources” was to fill their brain with raw material for history: names, dates, places, battles, dynasties, and countries.


Slide 15:

This could be done at an impressive scale and this led to the famous “lecture bowl” style history classrooms filled with bored students. 


Slide 16:

This method created the impression of knowledge – students could recite the names and dates of important people and events – without the substance derived from working together to read primary source documents.


Slide 17:

The professor went from being an experience guide and resource who led students through the difficult work of reading primary sources, to a fact dispensing machine tasked with filling brains with the most important bits of knowledge.


Slide 18:

Needless to say, this system sucked for both the professor who became Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and for students who began the annual tradition of claiming they’re not good at remembering dates. 


Slide 19: 

It also led to the rapid growth of the textbook industry which sought to make it easier for students to learn names and dates while at the same time presented a watered down version of historical analysis. Unfortunately, showing someone how to tie a knot is not the best way to teach someone to do it. 


Slide 20:

Textbooks are expensive and usually make money for big corporations. 


Slide 21:

The Scale-Up room is a modified return to the seminar system.


Slide 22:

Each table will function like a small seminar in which participants will work together to produce historical analysis.


Slide 23:

Instead of the specialized libraries, we will use the internets and the resources available through UND’s library. 


Slide 24:

Instead of buying an expensive textbook, we’ll make our own textbooks.


Slide 25: 

Instead of memorizing a bunch of names and dates, we’ll actually learn how to write history.






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.


The Long Dark Tunnel of Sabbatical

I have slowly become aware this holiday season that my sabbatical is half over. I’ve done some of things that I pledged not to do, but avoided other pitfalls, and now I have to try to focus of the next 9 months to ensure that I survive sabbatical with my motivation intact.

I was particularly heartened to read Sara Perry’s recent post about her sabbatical. In it, she said that she focused part of her sabbatical on being quiet. I’m not really sure what that means in her particular context (as readers of this blog probably can surmise, I’m not a super quiet person), but it led me to think about how focused I can be on making a product. Every day, I go through this annoying process of reprioritizing my work based on (largely self-imposed) deadlines, goals, and schedule. For example, some tasks, like basic writing, can be interrupted and done with distractions. Other tasks, like careful editing, can’t be interrupted, but can only be sustained for about 2 or 3 hours at a time. Anyway, this process of prioritization is geared primarily to getting things done, rather than doing things.

This is where Perry’s idea of quiet comes in. When I become so focused on accomplishing particular goals, I find that I lose my ability to enjoy the tasks required to complete those goals. For example, I like to read, but when I read to glean bits of information from a book or an article, I find that I’m not very engaged with the reading process and more determined to find the answer to some question. This urgency to complete tasks, of course, probably isn’t a bad thing until it becomes all consuming like I fear it will become over the last 9 months of my leave. So, I’m going to focus less of my time on making noise (well, unless that means playing my stereo at socially unacceptable volumes), and more of my energy on just doing work.

My experience with this approach is that doing work, for me at least, is less gratifying than the tremendous rush that comes from completing a project, but also involves less of a let down. The famous burn-out/blow-out comes only from the exhausted, self-congratulatory let down when a task is completed. Making the hamster wheel turn, on the other hand, can feel endless and pointless, but that very feeling encourages me to focus on finding the pleasure in the little things rather than the almost incomprehensible big picture. So, if I seem a bit quieter (that is less productive in a big picture way) over the next 6 to 9 months, it’s not because I’m hopelessly behind, frantically working to meet some deadline, or flailing about in a endless reprioritization loop. It’s because I’m trying to find quiet again and enjoying the work that I do.

That being said, my tasks over the next 9 months will focus around 3 major projects (leavened by the usually gaggle of ankle-bitting obligations!):

1. PKAP II. My colleagues and I managed to get PKAP I through the publication process this fall and while it’s tempting to being “operation shutdown,” I know that I really need to keep focused and get the second book which documents five seasons of excavation at the site into proper order.

This involves making sure that we have good data from our last excavation season in 2012 at the site of Pyla-Vigla. We are pretty confident that our work in 2012 confirms and strengthens the chronology revealed in our previous two seasons excavating at the site. We have a working draft of a manuscript that documents this excavation, and now I need to collate that with our more recent work.

I’ll also need to return to my work on the Late Roman room associated with the Early Christian basilica at the site of Koutsopetria. This was excavated in the 1990s and will be published with our one season of excavation at the site in 2008. We managed to refine the chronology of the building on slightly and to document a bit more thoroughly the events associated with the room’s decline and abandonment. Beyond that, our work mostly consists of putting the architecture of the room and its wall painting in the context of church architecture on Cyprus.

2. Polis Preparation. With any luck, I’ll have a three week season at the site of Polis-Chrysochous this summer that hopefully involves putting the finishing touches on a major publication of the Late Antique phases of the South Basilica there. To be able to maximize my time in Polis, we need to work out the stratigraphy for the last few trenches of EF2 and the trenches associated with Roman period site of EF1.

More important than that, we need to make sure that our work over the last four years is ready for publication. To do that, we have to complete the manuscript that we drafted about 6 months ago and figure out where we need to fill in gaps during the field season. With a little luck, that manuscript might be submitted by the spring with the understanding that for it to be publishable, a few loose ends need cleaning up.

3. Man Camp Writing. With crashing oil prices and budget cuts among the major companies active in the Bakken, I have the creeping fear that the boom will be over before any of our major publications on our work appears. That’s probably unfounded, but it does encourage me to stay focused on tasks associated with my three major Bakken Boom writing projects:

a. Article. Our major scholarly product, representing the first 2.5 years of field work, is currently under revision. I’ve made some pretty major cuts, reorganized and hopefully strengthened the argument, and, most located our work more fully in the conversation about settlement, domesticity, and masculinity in the U.S. With any luck and with the approval of my coauthors, we’ll be able to resubmit this article in the next few weeks. 

b. The Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch. After a few weeks of cajoling, my co-author, Bret Weber, convinced me that we needed to add another loop to our itinerary. This look will run from Watford City south to Belfield, east to Dickinson, and then north on ND Route 22 through Killdeer and Mandaree on the Ft. Berthold Reservation. In fact, he’s scouted this route over the winter break and I’ll hopefully be able to do a follow up run through the area in late January. With this last leg of the itinerary being complete, we’ll work on producing a final copy and figuring out where to send the product before I head to the Mediterranean this summer.

c. The Bakken Boom Book. This massive tome which includes papers by nearly 20 contributors is out in peer review right now and it’ll need attention as soon as it returns to my desk in the late winter. I’m very pleased with how the book is shaping up and excited for it keep moving along without delays.

Other projects:

1. Publishing. As readers of this blog surely know, I have started a small press called the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. I’m probably too excited about it, but our first book, Punk Archaeology, currently ranks #1,191,400 on Amazon’s sellers list, right behind (sort of) Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C. This month, our second book will appear, called Visions of Substance: 3D Imaging in Mediterranean Archaeology edited by myself and Brandon Olson, and our third book will appear in April! 

2. Book Reviewing. I’m embarrassed to say that I have not yet finished my review of Michael Dixon’s Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Corinth, 338-196 B.C., but it’s almost done, which is good because there’s another book in the way! I’ll, as per usual, post my completed, pre-publication draft here.

3. Paper Giving. Next week, my colleagues on the Western Argolid Regional Project are giving a paper at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting in New Orleans. I can’t take much credit for that fine paper, but the project directors are accomplished writers and the paper is entertaining! I would love to say that we’ll post it online, but with increasing restrictions on the dissemination of archaeological information on the internet, I don’t think the project directors will feel confident posting the paper. So, if you’re at the Archaeological Institute of America meeting, go and check it out. Nakassis, James, and Gallimore is better live anyway.

I’ll be giving a paper in Boston in February at the Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future workshop though, which will be a major update to my paper given last spring at the University of Massachusetts and revised as “Slow Archaeology” for North Dakota Quarterly.

4. Serving. One of aspects to my sabbatical is that I insisted on continuing to fulfill some service obligations both on campus and in the community. I get the impression that this is quite unorthodox. That being said, our campus is currently oppressed by the tyranny of a faction, and it would seem irresponsible to leave the situation wholly unopposed, for many of the boldest spirits have left the university, quit academia, or worsewhile the remaining faculty, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion. (Ok, that was overly dramatic, but that was called love for the workers in song, probably still is for those of them left.) So, I’m on some committees and doing that thing on campus.

I’m also serving on the North Dakota Humanities Council and the State Historic Preservation Board. Fun work that would be a shame to abandon to the selfish delights of sabbatical.

5. Reading. One of my colleagues (of a rather Sallustian comportment when it comes to campus politics) remarked at a holiday party that he was working to get back to the basics and do things like… read. I’ve been haunted by these words since then and plan to redouble my commitment to reading and listening to what books have to say, rather than mining them for my own, largely inconsequential purposes.

6. Running. I need to write a blog post on this, but I’ve started running. Not far, not fast, and not with any great purpose, but my goal is to run a 5k in late September. Right now I’m nursing an aggravated adductor in my left leg, but once that calms down, I’ll be back in my shoes making steady progress.

Day-to-Day Life in the Scale-Up Room

My brother recently asked me to explain what went on in my Scale-Up class. He’s a middle school principal with more than serious interest in pedagogical innovation, technology, and student engagement. I realize that over the past couple of years of writing on it, I probably haven’t described what I do in the classroom very effectively.

For those who haven’t followed my adventures of teaching history in a Scale-Up classroom, I’ll give a quick overview. The Scale-Up classroom accommodates over 150 students at 20, 9-student tables. Each group of 9 works around 3 laptops in 3, 3-person pods. The goal of my class in the Scale-Up room is to produce a textbook and each table works on 3, 3000 word chapters over the course of the semester. The three chapters cover chronologically the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world and each table writes on either cultural, political, social, economic, or military history for each period. 

Of course, last nights class was probably not a model, but I can at least explain what I should have done (and what I did) to demonstrate that some things work and others do not.

I start most classes with a quiz, and like almost everything in the class, the prompt for the quiz is delivered by a powerpoint slide. Typically it’s a maintenance quiz that asks the students to demonstrate that they did something outside of class. Often, I ask the students to summarize a critique given to written work on the class wiki. I’ll prompt them with a simple powerpoint slide and say: “Having read the peer reviews of your chapter, what is the most important thing to revise in the coming week?” Or, in other cases, I’ll offer a quiz that will prompt them to demonstrate that they’ve done their reading for the week “Brainstorm 5 key issues or pieces of evidence relevant to your chapter.”

This week, I went a bit outside of the norm and let the group to brainstorm a bit on their topic before I asked them to take an individual quiz on the work of the group. I thought it would interesting to see how much student engagement there was. We’ll see when we have graded the quizzes this next week.

After some kind of quiz, I usually have a short lecture that frames the week’s work. Lately, for example, I’ve been troubleshooting problems with group dynamics so I tend to focus on ways that help groups work more efficiently. Usually I also offer some modest comments on content as well.

After this interlude (when student who take more time with their quiz can finish up), I usually move on to group work starting with the three-person pod. On my best days, the pod work builds upon the individual quizzes. If the quiz features an individual brainstorm, then the pod work asks the students to bring together their quiz answers into a synthetic list. Pedagogically, the goal is to have students discuss their answers with each other and toss out poor ones and build on the good answers. Realistically, some pods work better than others and some pods engage the process of compare and critique at a higher level than others. I offer little in the way of direction for these exercises.

As pod work is well underway, my GTA and I typically circulate the room constantly responding to questions by pods and tables. In most cases, questions at this point revolve around clarifying expectations or definitions. For example, students struggle to differentiate between social and cultural history, and since these are two chapter topics, they often request some guidance. Depending on how well a table works together, the pod work often develops directly into table level work.

The next step is generally bringing pod level work together as a table. This is when we move from collecting evidence as an individual and a pod to organizing evidence as a table. This is where my GTA and I have to work the most. Groups struggle to find ways to integrate the work produced by individuals and pods. At this point we usually emphasize the importance of  The most obvious struggle is that the table wants to both validate the work done by individuals and pods and use existing evidence collected by the pods rather than collect more evidence.

Most of our intervention involves critiquing the table’s thesis statements and helping groups organize their ideas into a cohesive chapter. In some cases, we provide nudge groups in a particular direction particularly if they appear to be heading off track or taking a tack that will be difficult for them. In other case, we make sure groups working on adjacent periods (e.g. the cultural history of the Roman Republic and the cultural history of the Roman Empire) or overlapping topics (e.g. the social and economic history of the Roman Empire) do not focus on the exact same areas.

As the semester has gone on, students have become better at organizing their workflow at the table, but not quite as good as I had hoped. Last night, for example, I did not dictate the move from pod work to table level work and found that tables struggled a bit to organize their activities. The biggest problem, this week was that without the definite prompt to move from pod work to group work, students did not stop and formulate a thesis. Instead, they created a list of ideas and then forged a crude outline that did not support a statement of historical argument. Since we’ve been pushing students to formulate a thesis consistently over the course of the semester, watching tables skip this step was disappointing. It also showed how dependent the groups remained on prompts from us to structure their work. 

Moreover, without the clear prompts from pod work to table work, groups tended to rush through their tasks and hurry to leave the room. The prompts helped the groups to structure their time and move through their work deliberately. Without the prompts, many groups left class a half-an-hour early. 

As we move toward the end of the semester, we will experiment further with removing prompts that structure the groups’ engagement with the writing process. In general, we had hoped to slowly move the groups toward a more independent, collaborative process. We’ll have to see how this goes. 

Scale-Up Midterm Report

This past week I finished grading the midterms for my History 101 class in a Scale-Up classroom. I also submitted a revised draft of the article that I co-authored with my T.A. last spring reflecting on our teaching in this room. So it seemed like a good time to stop and take stock of how my semester has gone and some thoughts on my future work in this room.

1. Midterm Evaluation. The students worked over 4 weeks on midterm exams. Each table produced, one 3000 word essay with sections on the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. The most striking thing about the midterm exams came not from the exams themselves which were of slightly higher than average quality, but from a brief quiz that I gave hours before the midterm was due. The quiz asked them to reflect on their midterm exams and to identify one thing that they would change if they could.

I naively expected most of the answers to this quiz to focus on stronger theses, better use of primary and secondary source evidence, or even one more round of proofreading, and, indeed, students mentioned these issues. More surprisingly, however, were the number of students who commented on some aspect of process. Whether it was the way the group organized their workflow to produce the chapter, the time allowed between various drafts and revisions, or the distribution of work among members of the group. In fact, a number of students admitted to not working hard enough or contributing enough to the group’s efforts.

The frankness of the students’ self evaluation was shocking and refreshing. These were not anonymous. The students clearly recognized that how they worked as a group to write the chapter had a directly relationship to the quality of their work, and the changes that they offered were process oriented rather than simply outcome oriented. As this class has emphasized the close relationship of methods and processes in the production of knowledge, it was heartening to see that students have internalized this approach to learning.

2. Repetition and Learning. One the shortcomings of my previous class in the Scale-Up room was that we spent all semester writing a single chapter of a history textbook. This allowed us to spend a good bit of time managing research, structuring the chapter and revising the prose, but we only engaged this process one time through. There was no repetition to reinforce or refine the processes developed over the course of the semester, but the end result of our careful work was fairly refined.

The midterm quality was not nearly as good as the work from the final project last semester, but I’m hoping that the opportunity to reflect and revise their process will improve the final product at the end of the semester. It has taken a bit of discipline on my part to allow groups to find their own work rhythms and to turn in products that I know could be better with more time and revisions. At the same time, I think bringing a part of the class to an end and presenting a final evaluation has a kind of impact that revisions and other provision assessments do not have. In short, the students need the grade to establish their own sense of progress and performance in the class. 

3. Peer Review and Consequences. My students are terrible peer reviewers. In the most recent round of peer critiques I provided them with a template that asked them to award a grade to the paper that they peer reviewed. No matter how bad the paper was, how incomplete the ideas, and how poorly proofread the prose, my students found ways to give it a high-B or A. This astounding act of generosity promised to leave their fellow students buoyed with confidence at their progress in the class and free to spend spring break taking some well-deserved down time.

Of course, this kind of uncritical engagement with their fellow students’ work is not at all helpful to anyone. While the concerned pedagogue in me worries that the my criteria for grading are not clear or that the students have not internalized the key components of a good paper, the practical teacher sees these overly optimistic grades as a result of a reluctance to engage critically their fellow students’ work and a tendency to put a superficial loyalty to classmates over a longterm commitment to collective learning. The pedagogue’s concerns are fixed by articulating once again, and maybe with different words, the expectations for these papers; the teacher’s concerns are best resolved by some mildly apocalyptic penalties meted out to students who offer uncritically inflated provisional grades to their fellow students. Middle ground is probably best in this case.


With my first short article submitted on my experiences teaching in the Scale-Up room, I’ve begun to think about a follow up article or two. While I’m slated for sabbatical next year, I’m sorely tempted to ask to teach in the room next spring as part of a three year research cycle that focuses on three iterations of my class in this kind of learning-centered environment. That would be the topic of a second article of a trilogy. The third article would look at the relationship between learning-centered spaces and the changing architecture of higher education with references to online teaching, MOOCs, Scale-Up rooms, and traditional lecture bowls. This paper will take some research and more careful consideration, but as this blog has suggested, our growing interest in process and making “invisible learning” visible has clear echoes with 20th century modes of industrial educations that run counter to disciplinary tendencies to history (or the larger humanities project) as craft.

For more of my reflections on teaching in the Scale-Up go here.

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.

Some Notes on Teaching History 101 in the Scale-Up Classroom

Some of my regular readers have complained that I have not written as much about my teaching in the Scale-Up classroom this semester. This is mostly because I’m doing all sort of other things right now, but there are still exciting and baffling things taking place in the Scale-Up room

For those who are unfamiliar with what the Scale-Up room is and how it works, here’s a very brief summary. It’s a 180 student classroom with 20 tables for 9 students each. Each table has 3 laptops. The tables, then, constitute a group and the 3 students around a laptop computer constitute a pod. The basic organization of my history 101 class involves a short, individual quiz to encourage individual student engagement followed by work in the pod and work in the table. The goal of most days activities is an essay produced by the table and posted to a wiki in our course management system. The objective of the class is to produce a 100,000 word textbook made of shortish contributions from all the tables.  

Last spring, my course involved a long, slow feeling out period where I worked to acclimatize the students to the collaborative work environment (and to figure out how best to use the technologies available in the classroom). This worked relatively well in that the final results were satisfactory, but I felt like I could have done more to reinforce certain skills. I discuss the changes I made to the class here and here.

So this semester, I’ve intensified the class by introducing more, longer writing assignments earlier in the semester. I eliminated the individual midterm exam and replaced it with a series of three, 1000-word essay produced by each table. The essays cover the Greek, Roman, and Medieval periods and provide a broad overview of the material in the class while giving the students a good bit of flexibility in how they engage it.

This approach has had three interrelated side-effects:

1. Hard Work. Last semester, I had very few complaints about the class being too challenging. I had chalked this up to my easy going attitude and ability to encourage students to be their best. It may have been, however, that the class was not very hard. This semester, there is a constant low rumble of the course being too challenging. Students have begun to yearn for the warm and familiar experience of lectures and signs of resistance have appeared.

I am interested in determining whether the increased opportunities for student interaction in the Scale-Up room presents better opportunities for concerted student resistance. I am committed to recognizing many common forms of disruptive student behavior (laziness, apathy, disengagement, et c.) as forms of resistance and working both to accommodate these behaviors as legitimate expressions of student ideas without accommodating them entirely.  I usually attempt to take student behavior seriously and I am rare to dismiss it as a “student not ready to be in college” or to take offense. 

2. Group Breakdown. For example, there has become a relative stark division between individuals in the groups who want to work hard, grasp the material, and produce text, and those who are really into Flappy Birds. I’ve been particular fascinated by students who have just admitted to their groups that they are lazy and will not do the work. While, on the one hand, their honest is impressive. On the other hand, they have made their resistance to the learning process pretty obvious. This has not endeared them to their groups but it does provide me with a clear statement of intent (explicit admissions of laziness are far easier to accommodate than confusion, disengagement, or absenteeism).

Interestingly, the more engaged students in the groups seem far more concerned that “lazy” students will get credit for their hard work than the laziness of individuals within a group will effect the grades of the group as a whole. As a result, I spent a good bit of time reassuring groups that the hard work of some individuals will not benefit their more “lazy” classmates.

3. Late Work. Along with the break down in group dynamics, there has been a slow down in work production. Last semester, my course required relatively little work outside of the classroom. This semester, I have expected my students both to prepare each week for class and to complete group writing assignments outside the classroom. To be clear, this is not an excessive workload for a 100 level class and usually amounts to writing less than 150 words per week and reading fewer than 100 pages.

For the midterm assignment, I have provided weekly feedback on their group writing, but so far it has been a challenge to get groups to present their work promptly or in a sufficiently complete way that I can provide adequate feedback. Some of this is clearly because group dynamics have broken down, but some of this is also a simple act of resistance. In response, I both pushed the students to refine how their groups worked and gave them an extra week to complete the midterm.

Hopefully, I can find a balance between recognizing the legitimacy of student resistance (even if it, frankly, gets on my nerves) and the encouraging the class to perform more consistently.

I’ll update my readers as I move forward.

Three New Things about Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

This week began my Spring 2014 Scale-Up adventures in earnest. I introduced the class to the first of three units new for my modified Western Civilization I class. Whereas last time I taught this class, I spent the first four weeks discussing historical methods, presenting various kinds of sources, and introducing the students to relatively narrow content areas. This year, I’ve moved in the other direction and dedicated three of the first five classes to a broad survey of Western Civilization with one class devoted to Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. The last 10 weeks of the semester will involve the students writing more focused studies on various aspects of Greek, Roman, and Medieval civilization so these next three weeks are designed to set the stage both methodologically and in terms of content. Each of these three weeks has a specific exercise that will produce an essay. The three essays will represent a single grade that stands in for their midterm exam

The first of these three broad survey classes involves creating a timeline and essay dealing with some aspect of the Greek world. As we had just spent three weeks exploring how preindustrial societies were so very different from our own, I expected essays that dealt with Greece as a preindustrial society in some way. Floating madly from table to table, I was a bit surprised to see how many groups abandoned thinking about preindustrial societies as a phenomenon and decided to focus their essays on philosophy rather than more traditional political questions.

On the one hand, it is heartening to see students take their own directions and follow their own interests. On the other hand, it is quite strange to see student deviate from the larger thematic structure of the course which emphasized preindustrial societies. It does remind me that, despite my tendency to see our students as little materialists (i.e. “all about the Benjamins”), they retain a strong interest in the life of the mind and want to wrangle with abstraction more than get their hands dirty with the complexities of ancient politics or the economy.

The first time I taught the class, I started slowly and kept work that had to be produced outside of class to a minimum. Most of the outside of class work focused on reading. This year, however, I have set the class up so that class time is dedicated to conceptual and organization work which has to be executed fully outside of class time.

This has prompted more complaints about how the groups are functioning and has shown the logistical challenges of, say, ordering books or balancing individual expectations against the work of the group. The more work that has to take place outside of class time the more pressure there is for the group’s to function successfully.

For more on my Scale-Up adventures go here.