Three Things on a Teaching Thursday

This semester provided me with significant food for thought. There was campus budget chaos, new priorities in our department, and likely changes to my family’s income (not to mention developments in our local and national political scene). These things got me thinking about about my experience teaching this year and how certain national and local trends have shaped what I do and what is expected of me in the classroom.

My ideas are a bit chaotic at present, but I think most of them can be summarized around three points.

1. Teaching, Trust, and the Syllabus. I’ve been teaching more or less the same History 101: Western Civilization online class for the past five years or so. The core of the class is a series of podcast lectures and primary source readings. The main assignments are a series of quizzes, discussion board posts, and three, 3 page papers. Instead of making things due weekly, I make everything due at the end of the semester, but urge student to stay on top of their work and get things to me over the course of the class. The result has tended to be that I have more time to work with students who are engaged in the course (and who turn in work over the course of the semester) and students who are just taking the course for the grade and turn in their work at the end receive correspondingly less attention (because of grading deadlines and the onslaught).

This arrangement is based on a few interrelated things. First, students have to read the syllabus. Second, they have to trust that I understand how to make the course work for them. Generally speaking about half to two thirds of the students (so 40-50 of the 60-80 student class) turn in papers over the course of the semester, get feedback, and improve their work. The other half turn in everything at the end. This works for me.

This semester, however, something rather bizarre happened. Students didn’t read the syllabus. Not just the usual small gaggle of harried students, but a bunch of them. At first this meant I received about 25 emails asking about due dates. I posted an announcement clarifying on the class’s page, and continued to receive emails. Students not only didn’t read the syllabus, but didn’t read my announcement. How bizarre.

Things got weirder still. Students write three types of papers: source paper, a diversity paper, and a cumulative paper. For each paper type, they have four or five options associated with particular weeks. As long as they write one paper of each type, I don’t care which paper they write over the course of the semester. (In fact, if they turn in a paper and don’t like their grade on it, they can write another of the same type to try to improve their grade.) What happened, though, was strange, a number of students wrote every paper. So instead of writing 3, 3 page papers, they wrote 16, 3 – page papers. I haven’t changed the syllabus substantially in 5 years and this has never happened before. Suddenly, this year, students stopped reading the syllabus to their own detriment and did orders of magnitude more work for this class than I required.

When this started, I wrote a few announcements reminding the students that they only needed to write three papers (one of each type). This may have stopped some folks from this misunderstanding, but not everyone. A group of students continued to write each paper and these papers were generally poor and showed signs of stress and haste.

What was causing this?

At the risk go getting political, I have a theory. The rhetoric surrounding education (and higher education) in North Dakota and nationally has become a bit toxic. The calls for efficiency, questioning of expertise (and even competence), and the language of disruption, transformation, and crisis has reached from the legislature to the college classroom. I wonder whether this rhetoric has fueled a culture of distrust among students. Instead of looking to faculty to guide them through an educational process, they question whether current practices in higher education make sense. On the one hand, I admire any student’s willingness to pave their own way and take their education into their own hands. (After all, I did the same thing in the 1990s when there was increased pressure to get a practical degree and I decided to become a Latin major!). On the other hand, if this breakdown in trust leads students to ignore the syllabus and make more work for themselves, I wonder whether they’re likely to encounter some unintended consequences of their independent mindedness. I’ll admit to having some sleepless nights even now about my decision to be a Latin major rather than majoring in marketing or something sensible.

2. Practical Learning versus Concepts. One of the most interesting challenges that I have encountered this past year is the growing tension between the classroom as a place for practical learning and the classroom as a place of conceptual and theoretical learning. I understand, of course, that some classes are designed to impart practical skills especially in fields like studio arts and in professional programs. At the same time, I tend to view graduate courses in history as having less of a practical edge and more of a focus on big picture concepts.

This year was the first year where I felt that students really wanted to learn practical skills rather than engage with big ideas. I’m skeptical whether a class can really teach the core skills necessary to be successful as a professional historian. Rigor in argument, skill in writing, and the ability to approach research in a thoughtful and efficient way are skills that practitioners learn through experience rather than following some set of rules or instructions or best practices. Classroom time, however, is about encountering ideas and manipulating them, evaluating and critiquing concepts, and interacting with challenging and often opaque texts. Time outside of class is about skill building and honing one’s craft. 

I suspect that some of the shifting attitudes toward the classroom comes from larger trends in higher education that see the college classroom as a practical training ground for employment rather than a place to engage ideas. The former is exceedingly limited because whatever skill you – at best – introduce will still take a lifetime to develop. The latter, however, is immediately productive and catalytic because it opens new ways of thinking that are really challenging to close. Classes should do more to undermine and destroy expectations and ways of seeing the world, than lay foundations for for some future competence.

3. Learning from Crisis. While there is a good bit of “crisis fatigue” on campus these days, I think most of the comes from faculty and administrators (and staff), rather than students. Some students, few I’d guess, remain blissfully unaware of the feeling of criss on campus, but many do. What has struck me as interesting and valuable is how the budget crisis has prompted a new set of conversations across campus. These conversations involve a wide-ranging critical engagement with the purpose and function of the university and the character of knowledge.

My graduate student waded into these waters with their brief collection of manifesto-y essay that we pushed out on this blog on Monday. Check it out here. It was probably the most intriguing project that I’ve managed in a graduate course in my decade of teaching at the University of North Dakota, and I credit it largely to the sense of crisis across campus. Who knew that teaching during a crisis could be so rewarding?

Teaching the UND Budget Cuts

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been posting my occasional thoughts about the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Most of my posts have focused less on the budget itself (which has not yet been finalized) and more on the impact of the cuts on the quality and character of life on campus. This continues a longer-term interest in higher education policy which also appears from time to time on this blog.

At some point, last month, I floated an idea of a book that would contribute in some small way to the institutional memory of the budget cuts. I’m still thinking about that and working with some collaborators to move that forward, but I’m also interested in teaching a class on the budget cuts at UND, and this seems like it will probably happen in the Spring semester of 2018.

I have a meeting this morning with two graduate student collaborators on the larger UND Budget Project, and I’m starting to get my ideas together on the goals of the class. At its core, I want the course to serve as a critique of modernity and the institutions that shape our daily life. My hope is that the class can serve to complicate the idea of “transparency” that administrators so frequently bandy about. Transparency and intelligibility are not, of course, the same things, and making a complex institution as transparent as possible rarely ensures that the moves an institution makes are understandable to its various “stakeholders.” To unpack the potential of transparent, modern institutions, we have to learn to read these institutions and to understand the limits and potential under which these institutions function. So that’s the main goal of the class:

1. To become more literate in reading the evidence produced by modern, public institutions and in understanding how various decisions, policies, and individuals shape the direction, goals, and performance of these institutions.

Introducing students to the complexities of modern institutions will, of course, be a challenge. My disciplinary instinct is to approach reading an institution like the University of North Dakota through the lens of history, but I also recognize that other disciplines offer a different, and perhaps more robust, set of tools for unpacking the complexities of modern institutions. From sociology and anthropology, for example, the development of institutional ethnography and the methods used by Bruno Latour to understand, for example, “who killed Aramais?” can also be applied to higher education and understanding, for example, “who killed women’s hockey at UND?” Taking a transdisciplinary approach to higher education includes reading broadly in higher education policy and criticism. So:

2. To locate the current budget situation and the institutional responses in the context of higher education policy, the scholarship on institutional dynamics in higher education, and the history of higher education in both in the U.S. and on a global scale.  

Finally, there is a certain tendency in higher education to look so intently to the future – toward innovation! – and to look back with such nostalgia, they suspend a critical engagement with an institution’s past. The history of the University of North Dakota is pretty poorly known and there seems to be a pretty strong impulse to forget the economic challenges that have long faced both the state and the university. While a certain level of historical awareness could serve to soften the feeling of “unprecedentedness” at UND, it could also help administrators, faculty, and students find new ways to understand how things like budget cuts have functioned to transform the institution in the past.

Unfortunately, the recent history of the University of North Dakota is pretty fragmentary with only sporadic efforts surrounding the 100th and 125th-aversary to produce critical, rigorous, and careful scholarly work. The good thing is that the University Archive is available on campus and well managed. Students will be encouraged to excavate the archives and find the best primary and secondary sources for the history of the university. So:

3. To place the recent budget crisis in the history of higher education in the state of North Dakota and at the University of North Dakota.  

Stay tuned for more on the “Budget Project” as it develops over the next 9 months!

For more of my thoughts on the UND budget crisis, this is the eighth installment in a little series. Here is part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5 part 6, part 7.]

Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World

Every now and then I start to worry that my interests are diverging and running away in every direction and leaving me adrift. With budget cuts, possible changing in our teaching/research balance, a shift away from graduate education, and many of my field archaeology projects entire their final seasons, I find myself like many “mid-career” faculty bereft of morale, motivation, and, frankly, direction. So I get to thinking about convergence.

Every now and then, I read something or turn an idea around enough in my creaking, void-filled, mind that I get what other people have often described as an “idea.” This weekend, I had a glimpse of how several tracks in my academic and intellectual development might actually be converging around a theme (or two maybe?) that a few blog posts this weekend helped me to recognize more fully.

I’m going to try to trace these out this morning and to make sense of what my various projects are trying to do and say.

Over the last few years, my colleagues and I have had some entertaining, and I hope useful, conversations centered on three concepts in archaeological research:

1. Punk Archaeology
2. Slow Archaeology
3. Archaeology of Care

I can’t take credit, really, for any of these, but I probably am as responsible as anyone for coining terms to describe them, and promoting the use of these terms.

Punk Archaeology celebrates the performative, DIY, and improvised aspects of archaeological field work and thinking. It has tended to focus a bit more on the archaeology of the contemporary world because this is where archaeological methods and practices have tend to break down when confronted with challenges such as modern abundance leading archaeologists to innovate on the fly, our work is less bound by the formal limits of the site and more publicly accessible, and contemporary observers are more willing to offer dissonant, alternative, and conflicting perspectives. As a result, punk archaeology – at its best – defamiliarized the familiar in everyday life (much like punk takes the basic structure of pop song and makes it something else) and familiarizes the unfamiliar in archaeological practice by putting it on display. In short, it can turn archaeology inside out.

Slow Archaeology is a critique of the role of technology in archaeological practice. I’ve argued that the Taylorist drive for efficiency has produced field practices that tend to fragment both how we describe material culture but also our experiences. At its most perverse, field work is reduced to “data collection” and digital tools are celebrated as ways to make the harvesting of “raw data” more efficient. There is no doubt that field work should be efficient and that technology will improve not only what we collect from the field, but also how we collect archaeological information. Slow archaeology, however, calls for us to maintain a space in archaeological field practice for analysis and interpretation and to be patient with these processes. Moving forward, I’d like to see slow archaeology celebrate integrative practices in archaeological field work that both bring together our fragmented techniques in the field and the information that these techniques produce.

Archaeology of Care. The archaeology of care is a term coined by my colleague Richard Rothaus and, like slow and punk archaeology, it offers a critical reflection on the practice and performance of archaeology. It stemmed from the observation that people who we encountered in the Bakken were genuinely moved by our archaeological and archaeological interest in their world and lives. While neither Richard nor I conceived of our project as a gesture to the people (or objects) that we studied, it became pretty obvious that archaeological work became a medium through which shared understanding of the past and the present are formed. For us at least, the archaeology of care was de-theorized and reflected our very practical experiences doing archaeology of and in the contemporary world.

It has taken me a while to recognize that these three moves in my archaeological thinking have focused on a number of shared themes centered largely on our practices in the field: (1) a focus on archaeology as performance and experience, (2) a tendency to recognize these experiences a bringing together people, data, and objects, and (3) a preference for DIY and an aversion to “technological solutionism” in its various forms.

These ideas have started to come together with another couple of “projects” that I’ve been slowly working on over the last few years. As readers of this blog know, I’ve invested a good bit of time and energy into The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This emerged directly from my interest in punk archaeology (which became the first book from the press). It started as an experiment in DIY publishing and has slowly expanded into a project designed to the traditional fragmentation of the publishing process that separates the authors from the publishers. At my little press, we create an environment where authors, editors, and publishers work together to produce books at a lower cost than traditional commercial publishing, but with opportunities for more experimentation and control for the authors.

I’m pretty upfront with my authors that I am not a conventional publisher. As my more critical colleagues point out, my books tend to be a bit rough around the edges, my distribution channels remain a bit uncertain, and everything is essentially experimental. But for my authors and editors, this seems to work. If anything, I have more than enough books to keep my enterprise afloat, to hold my interest, and to keep me feeling that this is a meaningful extension of my approach to archaeology and archaeological knowledge production.

What prompted this sudden bout of introspection was a little article titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump” by Audrey Waters. Go read it (and comment if you want; there is the start of a little Hypothes.is comment thread). To summarize a complex argument, trends in Ed-Tech data collection are troubling for a number of reasons. First, Waters critiques the basic philosophy that if we collect enough data on our students we can customize our educational practices to produce particular outcomes. Most thoughtful educators realize that this is not how teaching or learning works just as most thoughtful archaeologists do not think that intensified scrutiny and technologies in how we collect “all of the datas” will produce better archaeological knowledge more efficiently. (Do check out Dimitri Nakassis’s refinement of my critiques of data at his blog especially here and here and here.)

At the same time, we are lured by the temptation of easy digital data collection especially in online courses or in courses with substantial online components. Universities have developed sophisticated data collection schemes as their infrastructure has become digital and student interactions with almost all services is mediated by tools that collect data to produce increasingly comprehensive digital profiles of students. Even with the protections offered by FERPA, universities have vast quantities of data on students that can be leveraged internally to encourage practices that “better” serve students. Students are consumers and the university has indulged in all the conceits of online consumer culture. In place of a culture of care grounded in complex experiences of teaching and learning, the university as an institution has fragmented students into bundles and clusters of data that can be arranged to anticipate and serve student and administrative expectations. This has particularly toxic potential as calls to “reinvent education” often look to technologies to create the appearance of doing more with less, while obscuring the reality that less almost always means less in education.

What is more troubling for Waters is that the calls to “reinvent education” or to “innovate” almost always rest on the assumption that current practices are flawed. The temptation is to identify the problems with education through scrutiny of “big data” rather than attention to small, daily practices. With the lure of big fixes residing in big data issues of security and privacy abound. What is more terrifying still is that for public universities, this data could easily fall into the hands of politically motivated leaders either on campus or at the state or local levels who could use students and faculty data for purposes that run counter to many of our values as educators, scholars, and public servants. Waters evokes the always chilling specter of Nazi data collection as an example for how the state can mine “big data” for nefarious purposes.

To be clear, I don’t see slow archaeology, punk archaeology, the archaeology of care, or The Digital Press as a bulwark against Nazism or as explicitly political statements, but I would like to think that the common aspects of these projects represent a kind of resistance to some of the more troubling trends in academic practices and higher education these days. Calling for greater scrutiny of practice in a time of big data, promoting DIY among students and colleagues, and demonstrating how integration, and care, rather than fragmentation and “analysis” can produce meaningful and significant results. 

Graduate Historiography

Over the last few years, my various blog posts on my graduate historiography seminar have attracted a good bit of attention. I’m supremely unqualified to teach this class and agreed to teach it in a fit of assistant-professor generosity. In any event, I’ve taught the class for over a decade now and have been working on refining the course and making sure the various pieces of the class fit together into a coherent project.

The biggest addition this semester is something on the anthropocene. I think I’ll start with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History: Four Theses” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009), 197-222 and maybe some of its critiques especially R. Emmett and Thomas Lekan’s Whose Anthropocene? Transformations in Environment and Society2 (2016) and perhaps B. Latour’s “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45 (2014) pp. 1-18. Maybe: Timothy James LeCain, “Against the Anthropocene: A Neo-Materialist Perspective,” International Journal of History, Culture, and Modernity 3 (2015): 1-28. Then some books: maybe J. Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene. Berekely 2016 or J. Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Cambridge, Mass. 2015. I wish LeCain’s 2017 book might be available: The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past which is due in 2017 from Cambridge. 

As far as pedagogy goes, I have generally shied away from too much writing in this class, but this semester, I think I’ll nudge up the writing a bit and assign a comparative review after the first four books which, in turn, consider history philosophically, practically, disciplinarily, and, for lack of a better term, politically. These facets allow a student to explore history from a variety of perspectives and push them to articulate the various contours of the discipline.

Here’s my current reading list. I’ll post the full syllabus later.  

Spring 2017

History 502 Reading List 

Wednesday 1/11

What is History? 

Wednesday 1/18

R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Oxford 1946

Wednesday 1/25

E.H. Carr, What is History? London 1961

            Recommended: K. Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ London 1995

Wednesday 2/1

M. Gaddis, The Landscape of History. Oxford 2002. 

Wednesday 2/8

P Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto. Cambridge 2015. http://historymanifesto.cambridge.org/ 

 

Wednesday 2/15: Capital

E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (1967), 56-97.
E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (1971), 76-136.
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. (New York 1966). Introduction.
A. Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, Excerpts.
Recommended: K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Wednesday 2/22: Foucault

M. Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M.S. Smith.  (New York 1972)
Optional: M. Foucault, The Order of Things. (New York 1970)

Wednesday 3/1: Gender

Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. (Philadelphia 2007).
J. Scott, “Gender a Useful Category for Analysis,” AHR 91 (1986), 1053-1075.

Wednesday 3/8: The Nation

B. Anderson, Imagined Communities. London 1991.
E. J. Palti, “The Nation as a Problem: Historians and the ‘National Question’,” History and Theory 40 (2001), 1324-346.

Wednesday 3/15 SPRING BREAK

Wednesday 3/22: Time

E. LeRoy Ladurie, “Motionless History,” Social Science History 1 (1977), 115-136.
F. Braudel, The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II. based upon 2nd ed. 1966 (London 1972).

Wednesday 3/29: Space and Objects

D. Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge 1995).
Daniel Miller, Stuff. Polity 2009.

Wednesday 4/5: Narrative

H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth Century Europe. (Baltimore 1973). Excerpts.

Wednesday 4/12: Agency and Technology

B. Latour, Aramis or The Love of Technology.  Cambridge, Mass. 1996.
W. Sewell, Logics of History. Chicago 2011. Excerpts 

Wednesday 4/19: Postcolonialism

D. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton 2000).
E. Said, Orientalism. New York 1979. Introduction

Wednesday 4/26: History and Nature

Some books… don’t know yet!

Wednesday 5/4 The Future

Various Authors, JAH Interchange, “The Promise of Digital History” JAH 95 (2008): http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/
J. A. Dougherty and K. D. Nawrotzki, Writing History in the Digital Age. Michigan 2012. http://www.digitalculture.org/bo

Teaching Thursday: Student Presentations

This week, my department, History at the University of North Dakota, enjoyed capstone presentations from our senior history majors. They were pretty decent, but there are several cosmetic quirks that drive me crazy, and I’m writing about them now mostly to remind myself to make a handout for my students next semester and on the off hope that an ambitious student might find this through the Googles and put it into practice.

I tell my students that the final “capstone” presentation is not just a chance to show off their research, but an opportunity to render it down a 20-30 page paper to its essential argument. So, taking time to prepare the presentation is a way to reflect critically on one’s work and often is a useful guide to making revisions to the final paper and ensuring that the argument is strong and obvious.

Things to think about when preparing short presentations (a guide for students):

1 Make sure I know the paper’s topic, your research problem (or research question), and your thesis within the first 30 seconds of your paper. Your audience has a short attention span, so get to the point.

2. Avoid “background information.” To be clear, background information is not historiography. I like historiography (or for our social scientist types: the literature review), but I don’t like historical background. If it is not vital to your argument, leave it out of your paper.

3. Do not tack on “sources and historiography” to the end of your presentation. Historiography are the things that justify your argument. They provide the answer to the dreaded “who cares?” question. Sources are what makes your argument possible. So both historiography and source should appear early in your presentation. 

4. Do not put up a Powerpoint slide with only words on it unless it’s a text you are discussing in your paper. This means no Powerpoint slides that spell out your thesis, list the organization of your paper, or provide bibliography.

5. If you do need to put a text in your Powerpoint, do not read it to us. We can read. The point of putting text on a Powerpoint slide is to avoid having to read during the limited time for presentation.

6. Avoid pictures of old white men. Do not include pictures of old white guys in your Powerpoint presentation unless your paper is on “the hair styles of old white guys.” They are too boring (and I say this as an old white guy). In general, avoid photos that are not of analytical value. Do not just post a nice photo or image.

7. Stop calling sources or people “biased.” All sources are biased. All people are biased. It is not a meaningful or useful term. If you feel compelled to use the word “bias” tell me what the basis for this bias is!

8. Do not respond to question from the audience by saying “That’s a great question…”. Most people know their questions are good. In fact, that’s why they ask them. 

9. Read it or prepare. I know that people have increasingly turned against the idea of reading a paper, but in history (and Old World Archaeology) scholars still tend to read their papers. This allows us to use our time efficiently, articulate complicated arguments clearly, and levels the playing field between people who are comfortable with public speaking and those who aren’t. I suggest all my students read their papers, but I also know that some performers like to ditch the script and present their research in a more spontaneous way. That’s fine, but if you go that direction, prepare your talk.

Teaching Thumbelina

On the recommendation of a commenter on this post, I read Michael Serres’s Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. (2014). As readers of this blog realize, I’ve been struggling with the growing gap between my expectations as a teacher and the expectations of my students. In particular, I have come to recognize more and more of the daily annoyances – refusing to read, refusing to follow directions, irregular grammar and style, modest levels of classroom engagement – have less to do with laziness, lack of preparation, or even just apathy, and more to do with active strategies of resistance. I find the approach to teaching has led me become more sympathetic with student attitudes and less likely to devise strategies that undermine their autonomy as learners (even if I find that their learning styles run counter to my own expectations in the classroom). In short, I’ve become more inclined to meet students where they are – bored, restive, resistant – than force them into a form that I have created.

Serres’s book is empowering because it recognizes the remarkable character of the millennial generation and suggests that it should be celebrated. In particular, he embraced the desire of millennials to be connected and to talk to one another and work and plan together rather than to lectured. For Serres, Thumbelina talks with thumbs that blur across mobile phone and table screens. Chats with multiple people simultaneously and exists within a dense network of connections. Unlike Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which presents a desperate and isolated generation only superficially connected through digital media, Serres offers a more uplifting view of a densely networked generation and any superficiality intrinsic in this form of networking as a generally positive rejection of such superficial identifiers as race, nationality, and even – to some extent – economic disparity.     

More importantly, this densely networked generation has a world of knowledge at their fingertips (or thumbs) and is no longer anxious to be told things by authorities. In fact, they are eager to discover connections – links if you will – on their own using their own networks to bring together disparate bits of information into a unified whole. In other words, they don’t need us to tell them what to do because they already do it. So when they are chatting away on their phones and laptops during our lectures, they’re not distracted, they’re working. They’re figuring life out, creating connections, and de-centering knowledge that we remain desperate to re-center.

In fact, Serres indicts the generations that constructed the modern university as the same who brought (in my words, not his) war, colonialism, neoliberal ideologies, and authoritarianism. Our students are actively resisting systems that privileged the authority of the teacher as the keeper of the knowledge and while we grow frustrated talking at them, the students are building new communities of knowledge on their own in defiance of our droning voices heavy with the past. What we need to do is meet our students where they are and enter their networks as legitimate partners in learning. (This is easier said than done in that we carry the burden of generations of privileging and commodifying access to information and we still claw at the vestiges of authority fortified by these practices, but Serres (and I) think it’s possible. In fact, it’s necessary because the next generation with their tools, techniques, and communities will continue to subvert how we do things.)

The book is short and has done more to fuel my imagination than to solidify some particular line of argument. More than that, it’s overwhelmingly positive. I’m increasingly fatigued by articles that tell me that I need to slow down (and to realize that I contributed to this is painful), to read less, to say “no,” and to savor the moment. I wonder if I share more with my students than the authors of these works. I want to read more. I want to speed up. I want to do less with more things. And most importantly, I just want to do stuff. I get tired to talking about things, building skills, practicing, planning, and learning. Maybe this is why I found Serres work so refreshing.  

Teaching Tuesday: Some More (Maybe the Same) Thoughts on Student Resistance

Each year around this time my heart sinks a little. With the start of the school year, I am pushed into the role as someone who coaxes effort and enforces consequences among students. The ubiquitous memes appear mourning and mocking students’ reluctance to read and digest syllabi. And the annual season of “why don’t students read” articles appear each with a different take on the the perennial problem of convincing students to engage material outside of the classroom. As someone who has now taught (in some capacity) for nearly 20 years, I experience the same frustration when students aren’t prepared and struggle to find ways to motivate students.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve also come to hate the role as motivator, as cajoler, and as enforcer of standards. Part of what as sucked my enthusiasm for these roles is the growing recognition that campus culture, not just at UND, but everywhere has drifted increasingly toward audit culture, assessment practices, and skill building and away from instilling a passion for engaging ideas, confronting problems, and negotiating challenges. This isn’t to say that I’ve lost my excitement and interest in teaching, but I feel like the shift in the conversation on campus has pushed me to be complicit in a scheme to make the university into an increasingly corporatized education factory. In this new arrangement, I’m compelled to make students learn stuff as part overseer and part machine operator pressing reluctant minds into assessable and monetized commodities.

In this context, every time a student complains about the structure or expectations of a class, I feel less obligated to justify my pedagogical decisions and more of a vague glow of pride as the students resist mounting pressure of the modern educational establishment.

Why don’t students read?

Because learning is hard.  

But there’s more than that. Our expectations of student work is increasingly couched in terms of skill acquisition which then equate to success in the post-collegiate world. It makes sense then, as students struggle with the bleak reality that they will invariably confront as they are dragged toward adulthood and responsible (corporate? economic? political?) citizenship, that they resist. The simple act of refusing to read or of confounding our expectations should not be seen simply as an act of petulance or a sign of being overwhelmed by other things, but as an act of resistance to the dominant mode of contemporary educational culture. 

As faculty, we are obligated, then, not only to encourage students to read, but more importantly give them reason to read that goes beyond the language and culture of current university culture. Student resistance to reading is more than simply an act of resistance to overcome, but may well demonstrate a shared disenchantment with modern academia. In other words, students not reading might be a shared strategy that could be profitably redirected rather than subverted. When I think this way, I can almost convince myself that students are on our side as we struggle to resist the growing debasement of higher education. Almost.

(And it’s sure better than complaining!) 

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.