Teaching Tuesday: Writing my Syllabus in the Time of COVID

We’re supposed to have some kind of syllabus available for students enrolled in our fall semester classes. I’ve been fussing over how to articulate the unsettled state of the fall semester and the inevitable anxiety that this will create in our students (as well, of course, as faculty).

I’ve also thought a good bit about Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (2020), which I wrote about earlier in the summer. He reminds us that learning is hard and this simple point is a call to be both more compassionate with how we engage our students and more understanding in how we create space for learning in our classroom. He proposes syllabi that aren’t a long list of requirements, but part of a frank conversation that we have with our students that opens the door to establishing shared expectations and aspirations and marking these out as reciprocal. 

Along similar lines, I’ve been inspired a bit by Jeffery Moro’s call for us to “Abolish Cop Shit” in our classrooms. This has obvious implications in syllabus writing (and it really summarizes a bunch of problems at the intersection of learning, ed-tech, and the role of education in disciplining bodies and minds for compliance culture). 

Here’s what I have so far as the opening to my History 105: World History to 1500 syllabus:

Hello, class and welcome to History 105: World History to 1500.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the syllabus, I want to discuss my view of the coming semester.

The last six months have been a period of crazy uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration. From endless Zoom meetings to an interrupted spring semester, social distancing, and mask, we’ve all had to figure out the “new normal.” It seems almost inevitable that this semester will be unsettled in some way.

Because we know that things will be unsettled and that we’re all in this together, I’ll do all I can to communicate with you regularly. This means I’ll respond promptly to your emails, I’ll post regular updates to Blackboard, and I’ll be available to meet with you via Zoom or face-to-face as the situation allows.

It also means that I hope you’ll communicate regularly with me and your fellow classmates throughout the semester. Good communication will not only help us all stay on the same page, but also make it possible for us to adapt quickly and flexibly to any changes in the situation over the course of the semester. We’ll talk about the various ways to communicate in this class.

The unsettled nature of the fall semester also means that you have to trust that I’m going to be fair and reasonable with this class. I’ll do all I can to maintain a consistent  workload and grading expectations over the course of the semester, and if we have to change assignments, I’ll try to offer different options to accommodate different situations and goals for the class. 

In exchange, I hope that you will all do the best that you can to keep you eyes on this class over the next 16 weeks. We’re all in this together.

 

Teaching Tuesday: Introducing World History

Over the last week or so, I’ve started to think more seriously about how I’m going to introduce my World History I class and since our syllabi are due in a few weeks, now seems to be a good time to get things down on paper.

The challenge that I’m facing when it comes to teaching World History is getting students to think globally without becoming too dependent on certain longstanding metaphors, approaches, and structures that shape how we understand the past. The goal of this class and of World History is not just to stretch the history of Europe or “The West” onto the rest of world and extend its fixation on causality, progress, universal time and space to Africa or Asia. Instead, the goal of this course is to challenge us to understand what the complexities of a World History actually means for how we view our own past and present. Hopefully, the class will produce students who are more attentive and critical to the prevailing views of history as a discipline and as a way to make sense of the present.  

As I’ve discussed in another blog post, this class will use an open access textbook and primary source reader, but will require students to read against the grain of these books and to identify and fill in gaps through drawing on other open access resources available on the web.

Each class will be about an hour interactive lecture followed by an hour or so of independent group work. This rhythm will introduce students to both the structure of the class moving forward (although he amount of time that I spend lecturing will decrease) and allow them to become familiar with their groups and start to find ways to work together while social distancing and the like.

1. Space.

The first week, we’ll consider the ways in which historians have divided the world. We’ll consider concepts like “The West” and the “Orient”; the “Global North” and the “Global South”; Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America; the nation state; and even longitude and latitude and UTM coordinates. Without delving too deeply into the history of these designations, we’ll consider how these work today in shaping our expectations of the past cultures and societies and the role that history plays in studying and understanding these cultures and societies.

The first assignment of the semester will be to use the textbook to identify 5 places from around the world. Describe the location of these sites in at least 5 ways each (e.g. by continent, modern nation, region, map coordinates, et c.) and in a brief <100 word essay define their significance.  

2. Time.

The second week of class will focus on time, chronology, and periodization. As with week 1, we’ll start with a discussion of various dating schemes from the naming of rulers and dynasties to the use of solar and lunar calendars. We’ll also start to discuss various periodization schemes from the use of terms like “Ancient” and “Medieval” to broader categories of “pre-industrial” and “pre-modern.” The goal of this is to consider how the way in which we measure time and periodize the past shapes the way in which we understand it. 

The project associated with this class will be to assign at least four different periods to each of the places established in the first week and to write at least a sentence on the significance of these various periodization schemes.

3. Causality.

The third week of class will consider causality in history. We’ll start with a general discussion of what causes events to happen and then we’ll explore how this intersects with notions of time and space. The plan is to start with very broad notions of causality – like environmental determinism – and then slowly narrow our view to more specific understandings of causes for events.

The assignment here will be to identify 5 events distributed around the work and to describe their location (in at least 4 ways), their date (in 4 ways), and their cause.

~

The goal of these assignments is to complicate the notions of space, time, and causality and to prepare students for understanding how the complexities of defining these aspects of the past create the basis of a non-linear history.

In fact, I’m tempted to start all this on week 2 and to introduce more broadly he concept of non-linear history on week 1 with a series of exercises designed to challenge students’ ideas of progress. This would leave me with roughly 12 weeks (or four, 3 week modules) for the students to pursue their own efforts that non-linear approaches to the past.

More on this soon!

Some Publishing Notes from a Small Press

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about open access and scholar led publishing. None of my thoughts are developed or even really interesting enough for a full fledged blog post, but I decided that I should write some of them down as a little list.

1. Agility and the Small Press. I have been working on one of those “sudden projects” over the last week that dropped into my lap almost completely formed, but needing a publisher. Because I have a very crowded fall schedule that involves not only my own research and teaching, but at least two other books that are deep into production.

It’s been really fun working quickly on this book project, which I’ve blogged about here, partly because with a sense of urgency comes a kind of collegiality that I’ve missed because I’m not doing fieldwork this summer, and partly because the project is really cool (and I promise more on this over the next week or so!). It has also reminded me that very small presses can be particularly agile because we don’t have the same complex production workflows that larger presses depend upon to keep multiple books moving forward simultaneously. In effect, my workflow is always just-in-time, even for projects that have a predictable publishing trajectory.

Of course, this agility has its own social costs and reflects the rather contingent character of labor that supports the smallest presses. My access to surplus time, both in my own life, among my collaborators, and from elsewhere in the publishing infrastructure (e.g. copy editors, printers, et c.) has its own social consequences and reflects, in part, the precarious nature of academic and creative work.

Despite these affordances (or perhaps because of them), books developed quickly can be quite successful. The most popular book in The Digital Press catalogue remains Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which came together in less than six weeks.  

2. Publishing and Race. Over the last few years, the “syllabus” has emerged as one of the standard responses of academics to a crisis. I jokingly call this almost knee jerk reaction to everything from hurricanes to the recent pandemic, removal of monuments, immigration reform, health care, and BLM as “I’ve got a reading list for that.” 

At their best, these often crowd-sourced (or at least academic, crowd-sourced) reading lists are thoughtful and expansive. Recent popular reading lists on race circulating on social media, however, nudged me to think a bit about how they reflect certain aspects of structural racism. Google 

This most striking thing to me is that most of the books on these reading lists are published by large presses whose catalogues consist largely of books by white authors. Moreover, publishing as an industry is largely white with only about 5% of those working in publishing identifying as black. In academic publishing, it’s worth noting that none of the presses currently members of the American Association of University Presses are based at a HBCU.  Since AAUP member presses represent most of the major academic publishers in the Anglophone world, a black academic requiring a book to receive tenure would almost inevitably have to publish with a university press based at a majority white institution likely run by a largely white staff with a catalogue of white authors. 

What’s interesting, though, is that black publishers do exist. Until 2011, for example, Howard University Press published works focused largely on black and African American culture, history, and society. When it closed, some of its catalogue was to be acquired by Paul Coates’s Black Classic Press (it’s unclear whether this played out). A quick Google search will reveal quite a few other black and minority run presses in the US alone, but very few books by these presses have appeared on various academic BLM focused reading lists.

One wonders as the structure of academic publishing is changing rapidly whether this situation will change over the next few decades. The emerging role of the open access movement, new forms of scholar-led publishing, and print-on-demand and digital technology creates opportunities for historically underrepresented groups to create publishers, practices, and series that reflect their communities and communicate their contributions to a wider audience.    

3. OA Journals. Last week, a colleague asked me whether I had any thoughts about how to fund an open access journal that had reached the end of its initial grant. It got me thinking about sustainable models in OA journal publishing and the shift from journals supported by subscriptions to those funded through article processing charges and fees (APCs). 

In the sciences, this shift follows the logic that researchers often with large grants and at larger, research oriented schools have the resources to fund the publication of their results and to make them available for free to scholars at less well-resourced institutions. For the humanities and social sciences, of course, this doesn’t really work as well. High quality research regularly comes from institutions that lack the resources of major research universities or that privilege teaching over research. Open access journals with high APCs will likely struggle to attract publications from researchers in the humanities and social sciences that do not have high levels of institutional support to say nothing of scholars working outside the academy or graduate students. The potential impact of this model on open access publishing, of course, known and troubling. 

What I was wondering lately is whether any open access journals have pursued approaches to open access publishing that seek to combine subscriptions with open access publishing? A number of presses have started to release open access books in paper first and then digitally later allowing the press to earn some income from book sales, which tend to largely occur within a year of a book’s release, while still making the book available open access for classroom use, for example. 

Would it be possible for a journal to have a trigger, for example, that releases a volume’s open access content when it reaches, say, 100 or 200 subscribers? This would ensure that the journal would have an adequate income to publish (let’s say that each subscription cost $80-$100). Moreover, since many journal subscriptions are bundled into larger packages which are sold to institutions, one could imagine an open access journal being combined with more traditional journal subscription packages to generate some additional sustainable income. Finally, an OA journal could implement variable or even voluntary APCs which would create another revenue stream. When certain funding or subscriber levels are reached, the journal content would become open. 

Maybe journals already employ this kind of hybrid approach, but I’m not aware of them. 

4. OA and OER. Finally, I’m going to apply for a small stipend to develop two new classes that use Open Educational Resources at the introductory level (Western Civilization I and World History I). Both classes will do more than just use an open access textbook, but will bake the ideas of open access publishing into the work of the class.

In particular, the classes will encourage students to understand critically their role as “prosumers” in 21st century society. I’ve written about this recently in Sebastian Heath’s edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. The goal of the class is to have students dissect, reorganized, and expand the two open access textbooks with an eye toward making them more useful, sophisticated, and responsive to the needs of their particular class and their particular interests. 

Using open access books gives students an opportunity to understand how the next generation of open educational resources is more than just swapping out an expensive textbook for a free version, but a framework both fully parallel with recent moves toward active learning and consistent with larger crowd-sources projects such as Wikipedia, which when realized in their best forms, create dynamic and democratic spaces for sharing of resources and analysis. As our students increasingly contribute to and consumer content from commercial ventures from Facebook and Twitter to Tiktok and Instagram, presenting an opportunity to engage with “prosumer” practices in a more traditional and critical environment will allow them to recognize the limits and potential of open, social, and crowd based knowledge making.   

Teaching Tuesday: Radical Hope

Like many people I’m pretty worried and anxious about teaching this fall. Not only am I teaching a new class, but it looks like I’ll be doing it in a pretty unprecedented teaching environment with social distancing, much reduced classroom capacities, and a much greater reliance on online teaching. 

In an effort not to feel overwhelmed, I’m reading a bit on teaching and trying to think very deliberately about how I frame my classes. This weekend, I read Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (University of West Virginia Press 2020). While the book didn’t necessarily tell me anything new (and it didn’t necessarily feel particularly radical to me), it did reinforce a few ideas in my head and it was short. There’s always something to be said for a useful short book.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Learning is Hard. At the beginning of every semester, I remind myself that learning is hard. Our brains do not want or enjoy being rewired. It takes time and concentration. And it usually involves failure and frustration. Whenever I try to learn something new, I find myself regularly pushing square pegs into round holes, almost uncontrollably making the same mistakes over and over, and deliberately looking for shortcuts and workaround to avoid understanding a new idea fully before trying it out. 

In college, we often do little to make learning easier. Each semester students encounter a mishmash of different expectations, methods, and topics. Even when courses have similar goals they’re often expressed in different — discipline specific — ways. Moreover, we ask students to make connections across diverse courses encountered over four or five years to reinforce key concepts which are often relatively ill-defined. Consider “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” and “the ability to read and write.”    

Because learning is hard, students do what they can to resist it. In some cases, this resistance is subtle, and amounts to little more than avoiding challenging concepts or issues. In other cases, it can be bold and disruptive: missing deadlines, confrontational classroom behavior, or simply checking out during class. 

This is all complicated by the fact that college costs have continued to rise, the promised (and often economy) value of a college education is frequently pushed into an uncertain future, and students themselves endure a barrage of criticism from “the kids these days” to questions about the politics of campus life, work ethic, and emotional durability. In short, college life in the 21st century is stressful, frustrating, and uncertain. 

Gannon’s book reminds us that teaching and learning can, and, in fact, should be a hopeful enterprise. As faculty, we need to find a way to approach our classes that embodies a hope not only for a successful outcome (whether manifest in some kind of assessment or in practice), but also for an encounter with students that communicates this hopefulness. 

Second, this book isn’t just an expression of optimism or an aspirational manifesto. Throughout Gannon offers practical examples of how sharing a commitment to hope can create significant change in our classrooms.

My biggest take away was that hope provided the basis for a shared sense of agency. By treating students as collaborators in the learning venture and ceding some of the authority that our institutional position gives us, we make ourself visibly willing to learn from our students. By subjecting ourselves to the humbling experience of learning (in public no less!), we acknowledge that learning is hard and this offers a compelling invitation to our students to join in a shared struggle.

In this context, the flipped classroom represents more than asking students to do encounter content at home and then come to class to discuss it (that is flipping the context for learning content). It also involves flipping the locus of authority in the classroom and giving students the authority to act as teachers. 

Finally, this involves more than just a willingness to demonstrate our own learning in the classroom (and with it making the pain of learning new things visible), but also doing our part as teachers to mitigate some of the more frustrating elements of the learning process. 

Of particular interest to me was ways to making a syllabus more legible to students. Some of the suggestions offered by Gannon were minor. For example, he noted the tendency of traditional syllabi to be impersonal documents full of institutional language and formal and legalistic statements. As anyone who has rapidly clicked through end users licensing agreements that use this same language, it’s easy to understand why syllabi are frequently ignored or read in only the most cursory fashion. In the place of institutional language, Gannon suggests that we adopt a more conversational and personal tone. Not only does this present learning as a shared, personal experience, but it also softens the barrier between the faculty member and the students. By changing the character of the syllabus from one of compliance to one of aspiration, we open the door to creating a hopeful middle ground of shared expectations. While this may sound like touchy-feely eduspeak, I actually buy this. I think that creating a middle ground between instructor and students is vital to for any teaching and this involves distancing ourselves from the institutional trappings of power.

Along these lines, I offer two little concluding thoughts.

First, it almost goes without saying that this fall semester will be clusterfuck on most university campuses. My institution struggles to maintain a consistent institutional framework for teaching and research in the best of circumstances with administrative turn over, ambiguous policies, and unclear and unenforceable mandates.

While this might feel like a disaster waiting to happen, I’d suggest that this situation actually makes it easier for us to build rapport with our students. The absence of a strong and consistent institutional backdrop to our classes means that both we and our students are in this together. We have to figure out a way forward to ensure that some meaningful learning happens. The university will not guarantee that.

Secondly, I do wonder how much of Gannon’s book presents a distinctly male perspective on building a classroom based on radical hope. His willingness to share authority with students and his ability both to enforce standards and communicate expectations almost certainly relies on his outward appearance as a conventional figure of authority. I found myself thinking at various points whether I would have embraced some of the techniques he explores my first few years teaching. I also wondered whether they’d be appropriate for colleagues who often have their own vulnerabilities that invite certain kinds of student resistance in the classroom. 

This is not meant to undermine Gannon’s central point, but to simply observe that this book, like most manifestos, is a point of departure not a destination.

Teaching Tuesday: Thinking about My Fall Classes

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some news on our fall semester classes. The moving target has discouraged me from getting down to brass tacks and specific course planning, but the overall trajectory seems clear: limits on the number of students in face-to-face meetings will require us to develop more hybrid instruction methods. 

This has gotten me to think a good bit about how to make my two classes work in the fall. My musings here are prompted in part by an email which informed me that my 40 person World History I class will meet in a room limited to 8 students. The class, fortunately, meets once a week from 2.5 hours in the evening. As a result, it’ll be possible to meet with small groups for about 20-25 minutes each week to communicate important instructions and to provide a chance for students to ask questions. 

The course itself — at last as far as I have it planned — is already a “flipped classroom” which means that student led learning is the order of the day. It also centers on group work which will make it easier to divide the class into groups who can fit into the limits on the classroom. The single block of time set aside for the class — 2.5 hours no less — also makes it easier to organize the face-to-face meetings. This is just the mechanics of teaching the class, however. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about the intersection of how I teach and what I teach. I suppose some of this is prompted by my having to prepare a new class — World History I — in which the vast majority of the material is outside my area of training. Some of this is also prompted by the most recent wave of protests against police brutality, the failures of our political system to cope adequately with the COVID virus and the changing social and economic landscape, and the intense feeling that higher education shackled by conventions that in some ways prevent us from thinking about our world in different ways. As someone who teaches history and ancient (Mediterranean, Classical, Christian) history at that, my own privilege, authority, and claims to “expertise” are very much part of what we teach and how we teach it. As the COVID situation has pushed higher education en masse to rethink how we teach, I wonder whether it’ll also encourage us to rethink WHAT we teach.

Here are three things, then, that I’m thinking over the past week or so about how and what I teach against the backdrop of COVIDs and the most recent wave of protests.

First, my students never tire of telling me that the goal of history to remind people of past mistakes so that they can avoid them in the future. Anyone who believes that is a fool, of course (but ironically, would have to know about the past to come to this conclusion).

The goal of history to make new futures possible and to disrupt any feeling of inevitability by creating a critical tension between the past and the present. This means that as historians our primary responsibility is to teach students to question any kind of conventional narrative and authority and read texts (of all kinds) as new ways to understand how our encounters with the past experiences of others give us both collective and individuals responsibilities in the present. This doesn’t mean we can somehow fix the past in the present or that careful reading of the past offers a tidy template for future actions, but that by making the effort to understand the past we become aware of our own responsibilities to ourselves and our communities .

Or something like that. 

All this is to say that we need to cultivate students’ willingness and ability to question authority. Whether this means rejecting textbooks and lectures or recognizing and celebrating their unwillingness to complete assignments to specification and on time. The big-picture goal of my classes is to create room for students to find, refine, and practice their voice.

This leads me to my second point.

Second, in a class shaped by the confusion and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic and our current political, economic, and social climate, I am taking a certain amont of encouragement in remembering that less is more when teaching. 

Part of me still clings to the idea that we have to make sure that students learn certain things. These things are often, but not always, “facts” and the hope is that if students understand certain facts that they will see the world in a different way. In other words, the facts prompt students to change how they think. This evokes what educational theorists from Paola Freire to almost ever contemporary SOTL thinker has called “the banking model of education” that insists that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking.

This way of thinking has also informed so much of what we do in the public humanities. We offer a beautiful gaggle of “facts” backed by our expertise and hope that they cause the world to come around to our way of thinking. In short, it’s lame. More than that, this “information deficient model” of teaching probably doesn’t work as 30 years of research on science communication have shown.  

What we need to do is to encourage our students to think differently first and that provides the foundation for the production of new forms of “factual” knowledge. The issue is, of course, that this is hard to do. It involves patience especially as students feel their way forward because as folks like Donna Zuckerberg have pointed out, the difference between being “woke” and taking the “red pill” is not one of method, both involve reading against the grain of a text and challenging traditional authority. The social context for these ways of thinking, however, are quite different with the “red pill” movement dominated my misogyny, racism, and conspiracy theories and individuals advocating for a more “woke” view of the present challenging narrative grounded in institutional racism, classism, and white, male elitism. 

At the same time, without encouraging students to develop critical tools in the relative safe-space of the classroom, the world becomes a place of competing facts rather than competing ideas for the future and the present. History with its abundance of narratives and authority offers a perfect training ground for students who want to tear down the institutions, experts, sources of authority, and — indeed facts — that create a world sadly lacking justice. If my class encourages students to see the past in this way, then I feel like I’ve done my job. 

Finally, I spent some time yesterday mulling over my COVID-inflected teaching reviews. In my introductory-level Western Civilization Class, several students appreciated the repetitive nature of the classroom routine. They commented on how it allowed them to plan for the class and it helped refine and reinforce key practices and ways of thinking.

As a student, I remember being frustrated by repetition in the classroom as a kind of step toward rote memorization. As a teacher, however, I’ve come to recognize repetition not as a step toward memorization, but as a way to encourage students to internalize certain critical practices. More than that, during the uncertain times of protest and pandemic, the rhythm of a routine because less oppressive and more an island of predictability in a world that is increasingly disrupted, abrupt, and seemingly random.

By stripping down my class to its barest essentials and then reinforcing these things through repetition, it may be that my class can give students a chance to develop skills that allow them to reimagine the past and the future, while at the same time giving the a chance to endure the present.

Three Thing Thursday: A Story, an Interview, and a Map

My grades were submitted on Monday, and I made the mistake of thinking that summer would begin now. Alas, the world had other plans with zoom meetings, deadlines, and an endless stream of emails from various administrative accounts across my university.

The good news is that despite the noise, there are plenty of fun things to keep my occupied this summer, and I thought that I’d share a few on an mid-May “Three Things Thursday”:

Thing the First

If you’re like me, you’ve already started to think about how to adapt your classes to another COVID-inflected semester in the fall. It seem highly likely that digital media are going to play a larger role in what you do in the classroom. 

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota chatted a bit with Sebastian Heath about his recent edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient MediterraneanYou can read the interview with Sebastian here. And you can download the a digital copy of the book, purchase it via Amazon, or from an independent bookstore

Another book that might help you think more broadly about teaching using digital approaches is Shawn Graham’s recently published Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. At a time when it is becoming more and more important that we act in a humane and understanding way toward our students and colleagues, Shawn’s book shines light on failure not as the prelude to triumph, but as a fundamental part of learning and empathy. We also had a long conversation with him that you can read here. You can download it for free here, buy it on Amazon here, or get a copy from an independent bookseller here.

Thing the Second

I’m pretty excited to have posted Shane Castle’s short story “Ursa” at the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. During my time as editor, it is one of my favorite stories. 

The thing that makes is so appealing is the ambiguity of it all. Is the story meant to be touching and heartfelt? Is it just an exercise in the absurd? Is it meant to be funny? All these things? 

There’s also something about the story that makes it feel appropriate for our current situation. The story reckons with the experience of coming out of hibernation, memories of our past, pre-COVID life, our efforts to stay connected over distance, and the awkwardness in how we engaged with others. In short, the story is so much of what unusual, non-commercial, and (broadly) experimental fiction can be. 

If you have a few minutes over lunch or while sipping an evening cocktail, give it a read.  

Thing the Third

The final thing this Thursday is a map prepared by a team led by my old buddy David Pettegrew. As I’ve mentioned on a previous Three Thing Thursday, he’s been leading an ambitious project, Digital Harrisburg, designed to create rich historical maps of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This past week, we released yet another update to the maps of Harrisburg’s “Old Eighth Ward” which was an African American neighborhood destroyed to produce the state capital area. Check out the interactive maps here

Needless to say, this project has inspired me to think more critically and dynamically about my own community and how constructing data-rich maps can help us understand our community in the past, but as importantly, in the present. 

Teaching Tuesday: Non-Linear World History

I’ll admit from the start that this is not a very well considered idea. In the fall, I’m teaching a new class, which is probably ill-advised during the Time of COVIDs. Also, I’m teaching a class that I’m manifestly unqualified to teach: the first half of World History, which I believe is World History until 1500. 

Finally, I think I really want to do something unorthodox with the class.

I want to teach the course in such a way that de-emphasizes the standard narrative and interpretative practices that tend to frame how we approach the past. As many scholars have shown, our interest in linear history, causality, and chronology tend to privilege European and Mediterranean approaches to the past (e.g. narratives that are often regarded as “Western”). These, naturally, tend to privilege European and Mediterranean perspectives on the “World” and support problematic approaches to the past that emphasize colonialism, progress, and culminate in modern, democratic, capitalism.

Instead, I’d like to emphasize things, experiences, flows, and critical views of temporality and chronology.

This is all just back of the napkin stuff at present, but I’ll keep writing because, you know, it’s what I do.

The first step is that I want to pull together as many open educational resources as possible for World History prior to 1500.

Introduction: Time

The first module will be a critique of linear time and the notion of progress and ask students to think critically about how they understand time (both on a micro and macro level) and to explore how other people think about time. This is partly inspired by Braudel’s view of multiple temporalities.

The learning goal is to get a bit of separation between their idea of history, the past, and time. 

The Environment

This module will start by asking students to think a bit about Lake Agassiz and its role in global climate. We can just as easily talk of thinks like El Niño or the Holocene Climate Optimum. Students will look for evidence of climate, resources, and other environmental situations (from the land bridge to volcanic eruptions, the Early Byzantine or 12th Century Seismic Paroxysm, or seasonal flooding). 

The learning goal will be to understand a range of environmental situations as co-constitutive of historical events, institutions, and relationships. 

Energy

This section owes itself to Manual De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History with its emphasis on flows and energy. Getting students to think critically about what constitutes energy in a society and to find examples of energy in the resources provided. 

The learning goal is for students to understand more broadly resource extraction regimes on a global scale and to reflect on this diversity.

Love

This is where things will get a bit more challenging. My hope is that students feel comfortable enough with exploring the abstract idea of energy across different societies that they can take this method and apply it to the equally abstract concept of love.

The learning goals for this chapter to push students to realize that concepts like love offer avenues for legitimate historical analysis. 

Violence 

The final module in the course is perhaps the most tradition. It will focus on incidents of violence in the past and consider how violence shaped the organization of society in ways that are not limited to the emergence of  state. By taking the notion that abstract concepts like energy and love can provide lenses to understand the past, the hope is students can find new ways to think about violence. 

After some conversations on social media, there were some other concepts that I could easily imagine including in the course. Below are just a few on my scratch pad:

Place
The Other
Belief
Gender
Sex
Death
Fun

The course will have weekly quizzes which mostly ensure students engage with material between classes and begin to think about the subject of each module before they come into class on a given week. 

The course will also require two individual papers that reflect on the way in which nonlinear approaches to the past open new ways of thinking about human society. One will be due at the midterm and the other at the final. We will set aside time in class for groups to prepare outlines for the paper, but individuals will have to write their own papers.

The main graded work will be group oriented and focus on four group assignments. At the start of the class, the students will be given four ways to approach reporting on their topics:

1. Texts. This will involve a 1000 word essay that presents a particular text that is significant for a particular topic. This will involve offering some historical context for the text and demonstrating clearly how it relates to the module.

2. Objects. This will involve identifying 5 objects from a museum and writing a 200 word analysis of each object that relates it to the module.

3. Events. This involves identifying 5 events from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of each event that relates it to the module.

4. Individuals. This involves identifying 5 individuals from the past and writing a 200 word analysis of how these individuals related to the module.

Most of the work for each module will take place over three days in the classroom where students will prepare their group reports, outline individual essays, and prepare brief presentations to share with their fellow students.

Teaching Tuesday: What I’ve Learned

This semester as I have frantically shifted my classes from face-to-face to online, I’ve been trying too keep track of things that I’ve learned and things that I need to learn. While I appreciate folks who point out that our current situation may not be an accurate model for how online teaching should and can work, my experience teaching online for the last 15 years or so have convinced me that the patterns that appear over this strange and interrupted semester are not all that different from those that happen regularly in online classes.

For example, it’s challenging to stress particular things in an online course because it’s much more difficult to ascertain whether a student understand what you’re saying or what they’ve read.

Also, certain very basic technical aspects of online learning become threshold concepts. If students can’t figure out how to submit an assignment or are intimidated by a threaded discussion or using wiki, there’s a tendency to disengage. Once a student disengages, however, it is very difficult to bring them back.

In any event, I think I’ve learned five things so far this semester:   

1. Repetition is the mother of learning. With students taking a full schedule of suddenly online classes, it’s hardly surprising that they are struggling to keep track of competing priorities. One thing that I’ve learned is that regularly scheduled reminders have helped students keep on top of my classes. 

2. Little Steps. I’ve been thinking a good bit about process lately and how to divide complex (and often recursive tasks) into more clearly organized and communicated processes. This is very much a work in progress as I try to figure out how to break tasks like starting a research project into easily digested steps.

3. Less is more. Along similar lines, I’m discovering that asking students to complete a simple task successfully offers more opportunities for teaching that expecting students to navigate a more complex network of tasks. In other words, having students prepare a single citation is worth more than having them compile a bibliography which involves not only navigating a range of different citations, but also discovering them and organizing them.

4. Model more, teach a bit less. In general, I like to explain things. I find explaining things gives me a chance to unpack the assumptions surrounding a particular situation. I also probably talk to much to my students and not enough with my students. Now that I’m teaching online, I’m taking more time to model things to my students and allow them to learn by seeing me do things and asking me how and why things are done rather than listening to my longwinded explanations.

5. Contract grading has a place. I’ve never really used contract grading in part because I tend to see each assignment in my classes as distinctly significant toward the learning outcomes of the class. As I’m confronting the current, COVID inflecting teaching landscape, however, I’m coming to realize that allowing students to prioritize their work and the outcomes of their classes might be a better and fairer system than pushing students to deal with the courses as they are and letting the chips fall as they may.

I suspect that if I have to teach my classroom based classes online in the fall, I will move toward a contract grading system built on smaller tasks that culminate in more complex assignments that are increasingly optional. 

Teaching Tuesday: How to Read an Article

After some frantic reorganizing, this week, I feel like my classes are settling into a routine. This has given me a little chance to look ahead and to think about the prospect of teaching online in the Fall semester or even converting my History 240: Historians Craft class into an online or hybrid course. 

This is the kind of challenge that I usually find pretty interesting. I enjoy redesigning my classes even if I’m not doing much to add content to the classes. I just redesigned History 240 the fall and this is the first run through of the new organization. You can see what I’m doing here.

Because this semester has been unconventional, it’s a bit difficult to figure out whether the changes that I’ve made to my class have mattered. At the same time, this fluidity has given me a chance to think about what I can do to improve the mechanics of my course design. Over the last few weeks, for example, I’ve created these short 1000 word long modules for introducing sometimes challenging topics central to research methods to my students. If I had all the energy in the world, I could imagine putting these together in a short digital, open access textbook. 

Here’s the module that I circulated today:

How to Read An Article

By now, you should all have starter bibliographies on a topic. As a researcher, this is always the first step. You probably generated your bibliography using Google Scholar, JSTOR, or some other database from the library. This is exactly how must scholars start our research.

Now comes the second phase of research where we back away from the firehose of Google Scholar and start to dig a bit deeper. 

When academics write things, we don’t just write about things that interest us. Instead, we write to contribute to ongoing conversations. Think of academic writing as sitting down at a table with a group of friends. When you sit down, you usually listen a bit to figure out what people are talking about before you chime in. And when you do chime in, you usually chime in on the topic that your friends are discussing.

Academic conversations sometimes happen at tables, but because the participants are scattered all over the world, they usually  occur  in academic articles and monographs. In most cases, you can figure out these conversations by reading the footnotes of books and articles. The secondary sources cited in articles and books will allow you to follow the academic conversation. The primary sources in these articles shows you how the argument is made.

This week, we’re going to look carefully at an academic article. In this case, we’re going to look at Ramsay MacMullen’s “Social Mobility and the Theodosian Code” from the Journal of Roman Studies 54.1/2 (1964), 49-53. It’s a bit dated, but it’s a very well written article.

Download and read it here. It’s only 5 pages: https://www.jstor.org/stable/298650

The first thing you do when you read a scholarly article is identify the topic of the article. It usually appears in the first two or three sentences (if not the title!). In this case, we can say that the article is about social mobility in the late Roman Empire.  

Then we go on to identify the thesis of the article. The thesis, as you know, is one or two sentences that articulate the argument in the article. It’s usually in one of the first two or three paragraphs and often at the end. In this case, MacMullen’s thesis is beautifully simple and direct: “The later Empire presents a picture of unprecedented flux.” It’s at the end of the second paragraph.

The next question we ask is WHY did MacMullen write this article. Scholars write articles for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s to challenge other scholars’ views on a topic. Sometimes it is expand those views. Sometimes it’s to bring new sources to the conversation. In all cases, however, scholars are writing in response to what other scholars have said before. In this way, academic writing is like a conversation.

In most cases, scholars explain why they’re writing their article by locating their thesis in relation to arguments made by other scholars. This is exactly how most conversations work. When we sit down with friends for a conversation, we usually make sure what we’re saying relates in some ways to what other people in the conversation are saying.

Scholars usually do this in their introduction and in footnotes. This means turning both to what MacMullen tells in his text and the footnotes. First, he notes right away that A.H.M. Jones makes a similar argument about social mobility in the Roman Empire when he says that Jones challenges the idea that Roman Empire was “a rigid hierarchical society.” 

If we go and look at footnote 1, we learn even more. We learn, for example, that Jones’s argument came from his contribution to a volume edited by A. Momigliano titled The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity published in 1963, and it was “anticipated” by  P. Petit in his Libanius et la vie municipale d Antioche published in 1955. We don’t need to know French to say Petit, Jones, and MacMullen all contend that Late Roman society had more social mobility than traditionally understood.

There’s more, though. MacMullen also notes that Petit cites “the chief upholders of the traditional view”: A. E. R. Boak, Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire (1955) and  by F. M. de Robertis, Il fenomeno associativo nel mondo romano (I955).

This gives us the conversation. MacMullen, Jones, and Petit argue that the later Roman empire experienced more social mobility, and Boak and Robertis, argued the earlier view that the later Roman world was rigidly hierarchical.

Note that all these scholars were writing with 15 years or so of one another. This is also how academic writing works and why I’ve encouraged you to find the most recent books on you topics.

The next question is: what does Ramsay McMullen have to contribute to this conversation? After all, no one wants to go to all the effort to read an article and find that is says: “YEAH! What the other guy said!”

MacMullen unpacks his approach in the third paragraph. The primary source that he’s using is the Theodosian Code (or the Codex Theodosianus in Latin). It’s a law code. 

He suggests that scholars have read the Code as evidence for social rigidity (and in footnote 4 he points out scholars who have made this argument). But, he then goes on to say that there are other ways to read and understand the Code: “There is no excuse, however, for taking the Codes at face value.”

The rest of the article goes on to make this argument.

By the end of the week, make sure you can download at least three of your article. Check back here on Thursday for the next step in the process! 

Teaching Tuesday: Strategies in Studenting

One of the challenges that my students will face over the next month or so is adapting to new expectations for their classes, which are now online rather than face-to-face. This often means dealing with faculty who are, frankly, more likely to be stressed and unfamiliar with online teaching than our students. More than that, since students are not on campus they’re dealing with a whole raft of other challenges from online access to finding room, food, and employment. Students might also lack access to their usual academic and personal support networks.  

All this means that our students will have to make calculated decisions about their academic progress in a time when everything is crazy, chaotic, and unprecedented. My sense is that this decision making is particularly challenging for first-generation students, students who come from less rigorous academic backgrounds, and students who already struggle to balance opportunities and risks in their day-to-day course work.

The proximate challenge for many students right now is whether to move a class to “pass/fail” grading. At the University of North Dakota, they’ll be allowed to change any class to P/F as late as reading and review day (May 8th). They will be able to do this for classes in their major and as Freshmen.

I’m going to do two things to attempt that adapt to this change: 

First, I’m going to make sure that most graded work is returned to students by April 28th, giving them plenty of time to make an informed decision on whether to shift a class to P/F.

Second, I’m going to present students with a clear set of options that allow them to make a decision as early as possible on whether to shift to P/F rather than waiting until the end of class.  

Here are those guidelines:

1. The class was originally divided into three modules covering Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. I’m canceling the final module which was scheduled to run from April 14-May 5. 

2. All work associated with the Greek and Roman sections of the class is due by April 21st. I will have grades posted by April 28th.

3. If you want to take the class P/F. If you have a passing grade on April 28th, you can switch the class to P/F and receive a passing mark. No other work is required. 

4. If you want to take the course for a letter grade, then you need to write the primary source paper as it was originally stated on the syllabus. This paper is due May 8th, but I’ll read drafts submitted by April 28th and return them no later than May 4th.

~

The goal of being deliberate about this is allowing students to make decisions about whether to move from a letter grade to Pass/Fail as early in the process as possible. This, ideally, nudges students toward thinking strategically by giving them as much information as possible upon which to base their decision while also encouraging them to be pro-active rather than re-active.