Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Three Things Wednesday: Fake News, Grass Kings, and NDQ

This week has ended up being a bit more hectic than I wanted, but it’s a good kind of hectic — a dry hectic, and when better for a good kind of hectic than the weeks running into the start of the academic year. So, today will just be three quick things that are hanging about my head as I gain momentum heading into the new semester.

1. Scale-Up and “Fake News.” One of the things that I’ll miss this fall (and this year) is teaching in UND’s large “Scale-Up” style classroom. I’m starting to work on ways to scale-down my large History 101 survey classes from 150-180 students to closer to 40 or 50 students. At the same time, I’m starting to think a little about how recent concerns about “fake news” could offer an interesting critical foil to how we think about the past. This could be further fueled by the reissue of James Loewen’s modern classical Lies My Teacher Told Me this fall.

There seems increasingly to be two views of the past: one is true and the other is fake. Anyone who knows anything about studying history realizes, of course, that our reading of the past is rarely (I’d contend never) black and white, and always shades of grey. This realization, however, isn’t really the problem. The problem is how do we arrange our shades of grey into a coherent image of the past. Any given issue might be fake or true, but the onus on the critic should always be oriented toward the relationship between a given point (or points) and our larger image of the past. 

Approaching the past in this way does two things. First, it shifts the conversation from authority (i.e. we know this thing because we trust this person) to argument (i.e. we know this thing because it makes sense). And, secondly, it emphasizes the causal relationship between events in the past and perspectives from the present. We’re constantly aware as historians how our own view of the past requires cohesion that is grounded in present understanding. Historians (and archaeologists) know this, of course, but I think that we sometimes forget to teach this to our students. 

2. Grass Kings. My buddy Kostis Kourelis sent my a copy of Matt Kindt’s and Tyler Jenkins’s graphic novel Grass Kings (2018) this past week. I’ve only started it, but one thing stands out to me. The plot revolves around the tension between the denizens of an autonomy trailer park kingdom (the Grass Kingdom) and the nearby town of Cargill. So far, the book has been a meditation on what it means to be free and what day-to-day conveniences are worth sacrificing for freedom.

The most striking thing to me about the book, though, is that the Grass Kingdom consists largely of refitted trailers, RVs, and at least one houseboat (as well as some old houses). This setting should be familiar to anyone interested in near future science fiction: William Gibson’s The Peripheral is set in and about an elaborately modified Mercedes RV and a heavily insulated 1970s airstream camper. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) similarly sets part of the action in “the stacks” which is a landscape of old RVs and trailers stacked in metal frames.

This view of the future has eerie echoes of some of the conversations and experiences that I had on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The rows of RVs set up on the North Dakotan prairie represented relative freedom for the residents especially compared to the more corporate “work force housing facilities” because they could live more as they pleased enjoying company, beers, and opportunities for self expression. They also could up and leave moving their dwelling and possessions with them if greener pastures presented themselves. On the other hand, life in the cold prairie winter in an small RV designed for short-term summer excursions seems like quite a sacrifice compared to the comforts offered by housing designed for more long-term or even permanent occupation.

What is clear is that in the near future (and perhaps today) housing and freedom are intimately related.    

3. Moving NDQ. I got the email last night and it would appear this week is moving week for North Dakota Quarterly. Over the past few months things have been slowly churning forward with NDQ as we move to a new publisher, prepare volume 85 for publication, and issue 86.1 (2019). The wolf closest to the sled these days is moving NDQ to a new office down the hall from our current digs in historic Merrifield Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. The new offices are a bit smaller, but we hope to put them to good use with a pretty vigorous publication schedule planned and a revived internship program in collaboration with UND’s program in writing and editing. 

As I’ve quipped on the Twitters, most of my responsibilities at NDQ editor involve putting books in boxes and taking them out! But sometimes, I do get to celebrate the successes of our authors (and by extension, our editors)

Teaching Tuesday (on a Wednesday): Trust the Process

In past years I’ve blogged pretty regularly about my experiences teaching in History 101: Western Civilization in the University of North Dakota’s Scale-Up classroom. This is my fifth time teaching in this room on Tuesday nights to about 150 students per semester. I’m not sure whether or when I’ll be back teaching in this room in the future. Changes in our graduate program will likely limit the pool of graduate teaching assistants which are vital to making this room work at scale.

For those unfamiliar with how a Scale-Up room works, it consists of 20, round, 9-student tables with three laptops each, large flatscreen monitors, and dry-erase boards. My class focuses on student writing with each table responsible for a section of a textbook chapter. Each table has an array of textbooks and can use the web for both primary sources and additional information. In a sense, my class is 15-20 separate seminars guided by myself and my graduate teaching assistants who primarily focus on issues of writing and organization as well as the mechanics of getting a group of nine students to work together.  

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things by teaching in this classroom (despite a less than successful effort to get some of my experiences published a few years back). Here are three of them:

1. Patience. At its core, my class is about writing. The course starts with three short paper which tables work together to design and students then submit as individuals. The final two-thirds of the class is dedicated to each group producing three, longer (2500-3000 word) chapters of a textbook. Each chapter gets comments on an outline, a rough draft, and even the provisional final draft which can be revised in limited ways at the end of the semester. Invariably the first chapter, typically dedicated to some aspect of Greek history, is rough. The outlines are rough, the rough draft is rough, and the final draft can be awkward and uneven. By the final chapter, some 9 weeks later, however, the outlines are better, the rough drafts are good, and a few of the final chapters are quite excellent.

The regular, incremental improvement in student work is rarely acknowledged in conversations with that tables. In other words, they rarely “close the loop” explicitly by telling me what they’re doing better with a particular draft or outline, but their work does improve steadily over the course of the semester. This used to frustrate me because there has been so much emphasis on making learning explicit, but in this class, I wonder whether it is more telling that the students aren’t entirely conscious of how they’ve improved. Being patient, trusting the process, and not forcing things seems to make learning happen.

2. Conversation. Last night, I had about 65 of the 90 students in attendance. It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and many of my students head home early this week. While this is a bit annoying, UND doesn’t have a fall break and only has Thursday and Friday off for the holiday, so I’m inclined to be sympathetic. 

One benefit of the smaller class and a general attitude of holiday good cheer is that I was able to float around the room and chat with students about their holiday plans, their semester, and the class. While this was not strictly speaking relevant to their task at hand, students seem to genuinely appreciate my interest. More importantly, at least from an institutional and pedagogical standpoint, this kind of interaction builds trust, encourages retention, and, on the classroom level, makes students more susceptible to encouragement, critique, and open conversation about the learning process.

This reminded me that one of the key advantages of the Scale-Up room is that it allows for more informal interaction with students and if learning in the Scale-Up room is all about the process, then the process is grounded in a trust that comes from familiarity.

3. Content and Freedom. My greatest discomfort in the Scale-Up room is that I basically allow my students to control the content from which they build their arguments. This means being tolerant of less than idea sources, questionable interpretations, and imaginative and unexpected points of emphasis. At first, I tried to control the sources of information that the students could mine for their arguments, but this is rather like hugging a wave. 

As a result, I’ve gradually shifted my attention from controlling access to “good evidence,” but now need to step up my efforts at managing how students critically evaluate the vast quantity of data available on the web. For a 100-level history class focused on producing good arguments, this involves shifting emphasis from producing a walled garden or allowing uncritical free-range scavenging for information, to  structuring critical engagement with available sources of historical information. That’s a big task, and one that’ll have to wait until when and if I teach the class again.

Throwback Teaching Tuesday

I still get excited about the first day of a new academic year or a new semester. I have a pocketful of new pens, some new ideas for my classes, and the naive optimism that this semester, it’ll all be different. Sometimes I even feel like a baseball player who knows that small changes in my swing, my stance, my head position or follow through is the difference between batting .300 and hanging below the Mendoza line

What makes this all the more interesting for me is that I’m probably teaching my big History 101: Western Civilization I class for the last time in the Scale-Up classroom. I’ve been blogging about this for a few years now and you can follow the development of this class here. I have a half-baked article that’s been rejected a few times that I still have an itch to send out somewhere, and maybe the end of this semester and the final opportunity to teach this iteration of the course marks as good a time as any to refine my thinking, revise this article, and send it out again.

I’m also teaching History 240: The Historians’ Craft which is our required mid-level course for history majors. This is course that I last taught in 2014 and I’m dusting off my 5 year old version of the class to fill in for a colleague on leave. I’ll be interested to see how much I still can engage the course and how much I end up changing it on the fly. 

Finally, I am working with a small group of graduate students to put together a course that I’ll teach in the spring on the history of the latest round of budget cuts at the university. We have collected bibliography and primary sources over the summer and plan to produce a little source reader for the course in the spring with thoughtful introductions that locate various documents in the history of higher education and the history of UND. 

So despite teaching a couple retread and a practically minded class, I do have a few casual teaching goals for the next three or four months that I’ll try to track here on the ole blog as much to keep myself honest as to keep my rapidly diminishing audience engaged in my carrying on.

1. Content and Engagement. I started teaching in the Scale-Up classroom largely because I struggled to get students engaged in my survey-level History 101 class. Now, I have student engagement in spades, but I realize that I need to continually step up my game in delivering meaningful content.

Over the last five years, I’ve focused on the role of argument building in the historical discourse and suggesting that this a “signature pedagogy” for history and a genuine threshold concept for students. The goal of the class then is to get students to marshal historical evidence and deploy it in defense of a historical thesis. And to do this over and over again until they start to recognize that the strength of a historical argument rests in the tension between the evidence and the thesis. This also fits into the curricular compromise on teaching writing present at some many larger state universities. While all courses in the humanities have the responsibility to teach reading and writing skills, many of them are too large to teach them comprehensively (from style, grammar, and tone to content, argument, and structure). Large classes can, however, teach certain aspects of good writing, particularly those elements that involve the organization of complex bit of information to support an argument, but have to overlook things like the fine points of style that require constant, incremental remediation and refinement.

The challenge is, of course, creating opportunities for concepts and practices to be reinforced without making the class repetitive. With engagement being high, I feel like I have a bit more flexibility in how many times I repeat a basic exercise (i.e. like producing an outline to support a solid thesis statement), but I’d also like to change our weekly routine a bit. I am not terribly optimistic that I’ll find the balance between repetition and familiarity and tedium, but I’ll certainly try. 

2. Rapport. Leading into my small History 240 class (capped at 20 right now), I have thought more and more about the need to build rapport with our majors especially in light of recent studies that demonstrate retention and success at the university level depends in significant ways on personal connections between faculty and students. This, predictably, has led to numerous efforts by administrators to mandate personal interaction between students and faculty and to balance the needs maintaining a kind of professional standing around students, as well as allowing them to feel comfortable enough to build rapport.

With the enrollment in my History 240 class capped at 20, there are few structural barriers to engaging students on an individual level, but it involve breaking through both an aspect of professional distance between faculty and students and the typical reticence common to our students here on the Northern Plains. The class tends to be difficult with aspects of rigorous lecture-and-reading based coursework and aspects of independent research. That can, in the best of circumstances, invite a collaborative spirit (i.e. we’re all in this together) and at worst breed resentment and disfunction. And the more I do to self-consciously build rapport, the less likely it will happen. Students are pretty sensitive to any effort to promote a particular “college experience ™.”  

3. The End of the Line. Both History 240 and History 101 are at the very end of their productive lives as courses. I will almost certainly keep teaching these courses from time to time, I will do them different. For History 101, I’m thinking of offering it to smaller classes (capped at 40 or 50 instead of 150), shifting it from an emphasis on method back toward an emphasis on certain kinds of content, and perhaps trying to offer multiple sections each semester with significant differences between the classes.

For History 240, I’m not sure what my plan here is. I suspect that I’ll teach it from time to time, but don’t, at present, have a plan for revising the class.

All this is to say that I need to find a way to keep some momentum down the stretch and glean from these classes things that I can apply in future courses. I’ll journal it as I have thoughts here on the blog.

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).

Maps and Space in an Untextbook

Over the past month or so, I’ve been putting together some material – partly a proposal and partly some content – for a guide to producing an untextbook. I’ve struggled a bit with how I should voice it. My section on sources for the textbook, for example, spoke to students directly. My section on time, however, spoke to the issues of time in teaching survey-level history courses more broadly. The book would be designed for active learning and scale-up style classrooms like where I teach my Western Civilization I class at the University of North Dakota.

Last week, I suggested that time is a challenge for students who retain a century-old phobia about names and dates and for whom periodization schemes too often appear to be self-evident and lack clear connection to historical arguments. Space and maps are also vexing for students who are not always as familiar with European geography as we could hope. Traditional textbooks offer maps usually with each chapter, and these maps are useful guides to events and places from a particular period, but are less successful in conveying change through time or connecting ancient places to the modern geography. The goal for this exercise is for students to build maps rather than to simply memorize or study them. The process of building maps also allow students to think actively about how to present spatial relationships through time.  

Fortunately, we have a number of new tools that make producing, sharing, and using maps easier for students. First, Wikipedia provides a massive quantity of geographic data that can be used in any number of free mapping programs. Here’s the coordinates in various mapping formats for Ancient Corinth in Greece. For ancient sites, like Pompeii or Olynthus, the plans of the cities are clearly visible. Major sites, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Athenian Agora, are visible and loosely understandable on Google Earth as well. The key for students, however, is not just to locate famous places but to recognize that the map serves as evidence for making historical arguments.

Google Earth

The easiest and perhaps most familiar mapping application to students is Google Earth. It is easy to create maps of ancient and Medieval places in Google Earth, and because Google Earth is a composite of contemporary satellite images and includes a significant amount of modern geographical data (i.e. national borders, cities, modern roads, et c.), these ancient places are set in relation to the modern world. Students can easily build maps of places, regions, and even individual monuments in Google Earth and share them as super portable KML files with their peers. Each chapter, then, in the untextbook would have a KML file that contains places and spaces for each chapter. These files can be loaded into Google Earth and made visible or invisible to create new maps and new relationships.

None of this technology is new and that should make the practice of constructing maps and marking places and regions easy for students. The practice of creating maps pushes students to think about how they represent spatial relationships and how these spatial relationships and locations support historical arguments.

Time and the UnTextbook

The semester is looming and as per usual, I have discovered that I forgot to order textbook for my History 101: Western Civilization course. Fortunately, textbooks are not a vital cog in this course and the texts that I tend to use are fairly common.  Because I teach the course in the university’s large Scale-Up style, active learning classroom, students have ample opportunities to share books, can find search the web for key content, and spend as much time producing text than reading it. 

As readers of this blog know, I have been puttering around on two textbook projects for the last few years. One is a fairly conventional history textbook and the other is taking shape as an untextbook that leads students through the process of pulling apart conventional history texts and writing their own. I’ve been blogging my effort to pull together my various notes on this second textbook project. Two weeks ago, I wrote up a short section on sources for history. This week I deal with time, chronology, and periodization.

I haven’t quite decided whether this project will work alongside a conventional textbook or whether this untextbook will replace it entirely. Since I use an assortment of textbooks in my course, this part of the untextbook project asks students to not only critique their textbook, but also to begin to uses dates to frame their own arguments.

It’s rough, but it’s something:

Time is the medium in which history happens, but chronology represents a unique challenge to students. Some of this stems from the long-standing fear of having to memorize names and dates. Historically, survey courses courses have managed chronology in various ways. In many cases, particularly for World History and Western Civilization, topical approaches have trumped chronology as an organizing element in textbook and classroom narratives. For example, despite the contemporaneity of the Hellenistic period and the Roman Republic, they often appear in different chapters. As the goal of this class is for students to create a textbook, one of the priorities for this work is to understand how chronological conventions and periodization schemes shapes the way in which we understand the past.

At the highest level, this section unpacks the assumptions (and historical circumstances) that created the BC/AD (or BCE/CE) convention in annual dating. Some of this involves the simple recognition that BC/AD dating was not used by most of the societies that we study in the course. Then, in a slightly complex register, we can discuss how Christian dating conventions and reflect our own distinctly Western approach to organizing historical time. As a start, we can, then, demonstrate that even our most basic chronological conventions depend on historical and cultural circumstances.

Approaching chronology at a slightly more complex level involves introducing students to the basic periodizing conventions common in the student of the premodern West. For example, students should understand that the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean depend in large part on material culture difference. Whereas scholars have defined the the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods in Greek history on the basis of historical events. Likewise, historians divide the Roman world into the Roman Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but, much to students’ consternation the Roman Republic controlled an empire. In each case, divisions between the early, middle, and late carry judgements that speak to traditional views of the birth, life, and death of particular social, political, and cultural practices. Understanding the distinction between the Early Medieval, High Medieval, and Late Medieval period requires an understanding of both political and larger cultural contexts further complicating the superficially simple tripartite periodization schemes that tend to dominate high-level historical periodization.

Unpacking the scholarly and political conventions behind these periodization schemes allows students to recognize some of the decisions that textbook authors make when organizing their content. This forms the basis for a timeline exercise that starts with students preparing a timeline on the basis of the information in their textbook(s). For a single chapter, students should make a timeline of the important events, dates, and periods from their textbook? What do these names and dates tell us about the priorities of the textbook authors?

Alternately, students could be asked to make a timeline on the basis of a traditional historical question. I’ve used two:

1. How did the Athenian democracy accommodate the challenges of the Athenian Empire?
2. What caused the fall of the Roman Republic?

The first question required students to pull apart Thucydides narrative of the Peloponnesian War (usually on the basis of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, the Melian Dialogue, and the the Mytilenean Debate) and interleave it with historical events from their textbooks or another source. The second question has a greater emphasis on historical causality and pushes students to sort through the complex series of events that led to fall of the Roman Republic as well as traditional sources that critique the Republic’s decline (involving brief excerpts from Sallust and Tacitus and Augustus’s Res Gestae). Both exercises push students to understand to connect chronology with arguments and this contributes to a more general appreciation of the how periodization schemes reflect the arguments that scholars have made about the past.

Thinking about Sources for a Western Civilization Textbook

Last week I talked a bit about putting together a proposal for an un-textbook designed for an active-learning style Western Civilization class. The proposal is probably never going to amount to anything “real,” but it is designed to pull together various notes and ideas from my four semesters of teaching Western Civilization I in a Scale-Up style classroom

The little section below doesn’t really do the larger project justice. The goal of the class has been to get the students involved in writing history from the very first week. To get them going, however, I need to introduce some basic technical vocabulary (primary and secondary sources, chronological systems) and some basic tools (working in groups). I’ll bring these components into my chapters as I go (and maybe later today).

Sources

Sources are at the heart of any historical work. Historians divide their sources into two kinds. This division is largely arbitrary but it nevertheless reflects two different ways of thinking about the past.

Primary sources are sources more or less contemporary with the time in which they describe. A newspaper is a primary source. A law code is a primary source. A ancient inscription on stone is a primary source. Tweets and Facebook posts produced during an important public event like the Super Bowl or Presidential election night. As long as the document describes a contemporary event, it is a primary source.

Secondary sources are works that bring together primary sources usually to advance an argument. A history textbook, like the one that you will write in this class, is a secondary source. Articles in Wikipedia or by professional historians are secondary sources as well. These sources use primary sources to advance arguments about events in the past.

While this distinction is obvious is its most simplified form, things get more complicated in practice. For example, an ancient work of literature, like the epic poems of Homer or the history of Tacitus – are primary sources as well for the period in which they were written, but secondary sources for the period that they describe. The same might apply to, say, a history textbook written in the 1930s which described European politics before WWII. It is a primary source for attitudes toward, say, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but a secondary source when it pulls together sources for European political history between WWI and WWII.

Primary and secondary sources should be read in different ways. Primary sources are generally read to understand something about a past culture. They might provide some basic information – like who was in ruling a state – or insights into social situations – like whether women could own a tavern. Some primary sources provide us a kind of “factual” information on the past. For example, census record can give us an idea of how many people lived in a community at a particular time. Reports from a battlefield can tell us what units participated in an campaign. At the same time, primary sources can also provide us with an idea of how people thought about their world in the past. For example, census records can tell us who the state counted and why. Political records can tell us why a political leader acted as he or she did. This kind of information can help us understand what people in the past valued, how they understood political power to function, and what motivated them to behave in certain ways. To extract that information, however, primary sources must be read carefully and critically. Always ask yourself what a document say as well as why is says is.

Secondary sources should also be engaged in a critical way. Works written by professional historians, like your textbooks, draw upon primary sources to make arguments, but this doesn’t mean that the professional historian can’t be wrong. It is always smart to go back to the primary sources to make sure that even the best professional historian has made a convincing argument. To facilitate this, professional historians use footnotes and cite the sources that they use allowing readers to track them down. Become a careful reader of footnotes and always ask yourself how the author of a secondary sources supports his or her arguments.

For secondary sources like Wikipedia, an extra level of scrutiny is necessary. These sources sometimes cite their primary sources or cite other secondary sources, but the authors are often not as careful. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is useless resource. For basic information – names, dates, and places – Wikipedia is unparalleled, but for historical arguments and analysis, it should be used with great caution.

That being said, read all secondary and primary sources carefully.

Thinking about Teaching by Proposing an Untextbook

I’m finally back at home after a long summer of fieldwork and getting re-settled into a work routine. I’m particular interested in sorting out my History 101: Western Civilization I course which I teach in UND’s fancy Scale-Up classroom. I’ve blogged extensively about it here.

As part of my effort to continue to refine this class, I’ve decided to write a textbook proposal in an effort to sort out my ideas in a more formal and structured way. 

Here’s the first part of that proposal and look for more of it over the coming weeks:

Since the 19th century, history has embraced the seminar as the primary approach for teaching students a systematic approach to the past. Grounded in the scrutiny of primary source documents and access to specialized libraries in secondary sources, aspiring and professional historians developed honed their craft by forging analysis from historical evidence and presenting it to their peers. Over the course of the 20th century, the changing needs of higher education and the role of history in the undergraduate curriculum shifted the focus from the seminar to the lecture as the primary space for demonstrating and developing the historians craft. The lecture allowed for economies of scale and reinforced the position of the historian as a professional practitioner with a unique – and sometimes obscure – set of skills largely out of reach to an undergraduate audience who may only take one or two history courses over their academic career. At the same time, the goals of history instruction – particularly at the introductory level – shifted from methods to content. This is not entirely the result of the growing popularity of the lecture course, but is more or less contemporary.

In the past decade, faculty from across the 21st-century university have started to explore new approaches to teaching introductory level courses. Hybridizing the economies of scale achieved through the lecture with the traditional practices of the seminar and the laboratory has led to the emergence of the “flipped classroom.” The ubiquity of information and digital tools on campus has provided a way for large groups of students to share information both within and outside of the classroom. For historians, the web offers access to a significant number of primary and second sources ranging from vast repositories of open access sources such as the Ancient History Sourcebook and the Library of Congress to the massive compilation of basic historical data in Wikipedia. Moreover, digital tools also allow for new forms of collaboration both between students and between instructors and groups which allow us to simulate some aspects of the seminar experience at a large scale. While the abundance of good and bad historical material on the web requires vigilance on the part of instructors, the vast quantity of material serves as a suitable foundation for introductory level course work. Even Wikipedia, which has been received with significant ambivalence by many university faculty, contains a massive quantity of geographic, chronological, and visual information useful for the college classroom.

Access to information on the web complements changing classroom technologies which support collaborative, problem-based learning that is often at the core of the flipped classroom. For example, the 21st-century has seen a growing number of active-learning or “Scale-Up” classrooms that provide a physical space for groups of students to collaborate, to access digital content, and to work under the supervision of faculty. Online learning management systems likewise offer digital spaces for collaborative learning ranging from wiki-based collaborative writing environments to threaded discussions, live chat applications, and even collaborative reading tools. It is now possible to develop a courses that leverage these old and new digital assets in a critical and dynamic ways to teach the basic skills of historical interpretation and analysis even to the largest classrooms. In the 21st-century flipped classrooms, digital technologies allow faculty members to engage individual students, groups, and the entire class at varying scales suitable to various learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, textbooks have remains conspicuously behind the curve in offering support for these new approaches to university learning. In the discipline of history, textbooks continue to privilege narrative and “facts” at the expense of skill-based, problem-based, or method-driven approaches to the past even as access to basic historical information and sources has exploded across the web. The formal structures of traditional history textbooks limit the opportunities for students or faculty to adapt the content and approaches to particular classroom environments. Finally, the expense of textbooks led many critics to see them as part of growing cost of higher education. The well-known limits to existing textbooks has given rise to the calls for open educational resources that are both less expensive and more adaptable to the changing needs of the 21st-century classroom. 

This proposal offers an alternative to standard textbooks that is adapted to use in the changing classrooms of the 21st-century university. Keeping with the tradition of the “flipped classroom,” this book will be an untextbook which offers a flexible guide to students and faculty suitable for introductory-level, active-learning classes in both standard classrooms or online. 

The book will emphasize basic skills associated with historical research and knowledge with the overarching learning goal being the ability to produce formal arguments grounded in historical evidence. On the way to this goal, students will address basic challenges facing all scholars of the past that include the ability to read sources critically, to marshal diverse types of historical information, to understand chronological and geographical contexts, and to recognize and critically appraise disputes between historians both in the past and the present. 

The untextbook will be built around a series of 15 modules. Five of the modules address basic challenges common to most historical research: chronology, geography, sources, historical narratives, and historiography. The ten remaining modules will draw upon these first five modules to offer approaches to particular historical periods and problems. As my expertise is in pre-modern history, this book (unbook?) will focus on the premodern European history.

The goal of this untextbook is to produce a template for students to write a textbook of their own.

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!