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 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!  

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.