Teaching Thursday: Using a Building for Unstructured Teaching

This semester I’m teaching two very different classes to a similar (and somewhat overlapping) group of students. The student response to the two different classes is pretty different and I think I have a grasp as to why (although one can never entirely isolate the variables!) and I’m not sure that it’s entirely “fixable,” but it is at least intriguing enough to me to warrant a little blog post.

As a bit of preface, I have always benefited from structure. When structure is absent, I tend to create it. I’m a creature of routines, self-imposed deadlines, and arbitrary, but deeply held goals. Academically, I always sought out structured educational environments and gravitated toward languages which required daily discipline and history which conducted a syncopated rhythm of writing and reading. I have generally tried to bring this sense of structure to my classes, but over the past decade or so of teaching, I’ve found that, in some cases, my love of structure has produced a kind of compliance culture among students who see the structure less as an opportunity to systematically explore a topic and more as a series of tasks to be completed for points and, ultimately, a grade. As a result, I’ve gradually backed off from some of the more structured aspects of classes and now even build open days into my classes so that we have more flexibility to approach a challenging concept or skill or just get a breather. 

This semester, I’m teaching a three-credit honors class on the UND budget and guiding students through the complexities of a large institution with a large budget to get them to understand where various decisions and structures impact their lives. I’ve tried to balance the need for structure and the need for more conversational and exploratory time in the class. Over the semester, though, I’ve probably tipped the balance more toward structure lately. The results have been a bit predictable as the class has slowly slid into a kind of sleepy malaise as the students look to me to frame the next challenge. This isn’t bad, but as we have six weeks left to the semester and the larger project of completing a small book on the budget for students is going to require creativity, energy, and independence. I hope I haven’t stifled that.

Some of the same students are taking another, one-credit, class focused on documenting two buildings associated with Wesley College on UND’s campus and what we’ve called the “Wesley College Documentation Project.” This class is completely unstructured. Aside from causing me some late-night anxiety and following a loose set of practices – for example, we’re systematic in how we document the modern spaces and objects left behind in the building – but the goals of the activity remain pretty open ended. What’s remarkable is that the students are more engaged and enthusiastic.

Of course, the class isn’t even bound by the structure of the classroom, much less the tyranny of the contractual syllabus or a set of well (and narrowly) defined education outcomes. In fact, the class is much more like play than my typical classes. The time in the abandoned buildings is filled with music, laughter, as well as pondering, serious conversations, and unanswered questions. While this isn’t a profound observation, I wonder whether students don’t actually get more out of such an open-ended, play-oriented class.  

Teaching Thursday: Two Old Buildings on Campus

I have come to realize that I’m more or less addicted to one too many things on my plate, one too many adventures to be had, one too many ideas, one too many books, and one too many causes to champion. Maybe it’s the adrenalin rush or the welling up of anxiety that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of losing it with your mind skipping from idea to idea like a rock skimming across a flat pond. In fact, for me, I suspect, it’s the tension between flat pond and the skipping rock that draws me back to being over-extended day after day, week after week (well, that and the prodding (and encouragement) of friends like Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, and Bret Weber. They all at various times feel like the academic equivalent of that friend in college who convinces you to start drinking at 1 pm on a Thursday.)

This is a long introduction, to introduce my first effort at a one-credit pop-up class.

HIST 300

History 300 will focus on two (actually four) old buildings on campus of the University of North Dakota: Roberstson/Sayre Hall and Corwin/Larimore. They’re both hybrid buildings with one part built in the first decade of the 20th century and one part built in the 1920s. They offered housing and classroom space for a hybrid institution: Wesley College. Wesley College grew out of Red River University which had branches in Fargo and Whapeton. In Grand Forks, it worked in symbiosis with UND and offered classes in music, art, and religion. Some of the most famous graduates from UND came through Wesley College in one way or another including Maxwell Anderson. The college functioned as a residential unit that also offered classes and in that way, it worked a bit more like today’s residential colleges in the UK and, say, at the University of Toronto. In 1965, it was absorbed formally by UND and since then, the buildings have served as the homes to various department and university units.

Earlier this year, both buildings were slated for demolition and Corwin/Larimore is empty. Robertson/Sayre is almost empty as well. Because I can’t resist the temptation to document, explore, and investigate, I created a one-credit class to get some students into these buildings before they’re are gone to study and document them. While the outsides of the buildings are on the way to becoming pretty well documented, I’m interested in getting the students to help me notice the traces of use left in buildings that have stood on campus for over a century. The class will focus on the history of the buildings based on archival documents in UND special collections, the history of the architecture of the buildings (and the UND campus, which Kostis Kourelis is already developing), and, more importantly for me, the careful autopsy of the buildings.

Since the class is only one-credit, I can’t expect too much from the students in terms of reading, but I can’t resist including some recommended readings (and I suspect that Richard and Kostis will add to this list!):

Shannon Lee Dawdy’s Patina: A Profane Archaeology (2016).
Laurie A. Wilkie’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a historical archaeology of masculinity in a university fraternity. (2010)
Timothy Webmoor, “Object-oriented metrologies of care and the proximate ruin of Building 500”in Ruin Memories ed. Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir (2014).
Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer, “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus” in Modern Material Culture: the archaeology of us. Richard Wilk and Michael Schiffer eds. (1981).

Teaching Thursday: Two Classes and a Textbook

I haven’t written a Teaching Thursday for a while, and this semester, my teaching has been particularly invigorating (aside from having to fix a million broken links in an online class!). 

Teaching the Controversy: The UND Budget

First, my class on the University of North Dakota’s budget cuts has been a joy to teach. (Here is my syllabus). In fact, I’m doing far less teaching and mostly working hard to stay out of the way as the students explore the complexities of higher education. They’ve already wrestled with the big picture issues related to state-supported higher education as a “public good” and the small scale complexities of the methods used to distribute funds on campus. They chatted with our budget gurus, a dean, and, this week, with UND’s Provost. Next week, we welcome a vice chancellor, the following, an important legislator, and then the VP of Research and the Dean of the Graduate School at UND. We’re working our way through Christopher Newfield’s book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Johns Hopkins 2016). As we gain momentum in the next six weeks, I’ll post some more substantial information here.

Abandoned Campus Buildings as Laboratory Classrooms

Second, because I just can’t leave well enough alone, I decided to teach a one-credit (well, this is pending our ability to create a class at his point in the semester and allow students to enroll!) class on two buildings on the UND campus slated to be destroyed this year. The buildings are hybrid structures and twins with the original buildings dating to the first decade of the 20th century and additions dating to the 1920s. They were originally part of Wesley College, a Methodist institution that from its early days was associated with the University of North Dakota and offered classes in arts, music, and religion. They are beaux arts classical in design. A. Wallace McCrea was the architect of at least Sayre and Corwin halls, if not the entire complex. They form the east and west sides of a lovely quad that opens onto University Drive and stand as a orderly counterparts to the college gothic of most of the UND campus. They’ll be missed! 

My plan to document these buildings currently involves three phases. First, we make sure that the architecture of the buildings is thoroughly documented – including plans, 3D scans, and photographs – and the location of the buildings and the surrounding space and situation is documented as carefully as possible. Second, we need to do some archives work and sift through the relatively extensive records on the history of Wesley College and these two hybrid-buildings. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, I’m going to put together a team to comb through the buildings looking for the traces of their past lives in both the building fabric and the things left behind. In short, the last intervention in the life of these buildings will be an archaeological one. 

Open Education Textbooks

The last week or so, I’ve been working my way through a pretty complete draft of an open access textbook on Late Antiquity. The book offers a compelling political and ecclesiastical framework for the Late Antique world. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that some of the author’s discussions of the religious controversies in Late Antiquity are among the clearest that I’ve ever encountered. 

What is intriguing to me is that Late Antiquity, despite being defined by political events and institutions (whether the fall of Rome or the reign of Diocletian, Constantine, Justinian, or Heraclius), has become increasingly described as a series of cultural phenomena ranging from the rise of Christian practices (and various forms of syncretism) to architectural forms, decorative practices (like spoliation), urban transformation, tastes in movable goods, literature, art, and even ritual practice. A political narrative is not necessarily outside the realm of culture, of course, but for Late Antiquity, the long shadow of Peter Brown and his amazing lineage of students has ensured that cultural issues have eclipsed political ones. The concept of the “long late antiquity” is almost always a culture one which argues that despite political and religious differences, certain aspects of the Late Antique world persist into the 7th, 8th, or 9th century. While this sometimes harkens to Pirenne’s old argument that the end of the ancient world occurred when the caliphate moved its capital to Bagdad and the Mediterranean moved from the front yard of both Western Europe and the Early Islamic world to their collective backyard, it also embraced similarities and connection around the Mediterranean that produces common cultural affinities. 

In the next month or so, I’ll be returning to this project and asking for folks to help me navigate this unique open educational resource into the public realm! Stay tuned!  

 

Teaching Thursday: The Syllabus for a Class on the UND Budget Cuts

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had a growing interest in higher education policy and history. Most of this stems from my close attention to a series of budget cuts here at the University of North Dakota and my general dissatisfaction with the deluge of publications on the history and policy in higher education. Most of these seem to be either technocratic or variations on the jeremiad which presupposes a crisis in order to hand-wring (at worst) or to justify radical or reactionary changes in the practice and policies in higher education.   

While I was fretting about this, I decided to offer a “pop up class” in our honors program on the UND budget with the idea that it would be useful to learn how students view both higher education, in general, and UND in particular. It would also give me a chance to “think out loud” about the constant state of flux at UND and the prevailing sense of crisis. Some of those “out loud” thoughts have become part of an essay that I’m writing for a special issue of North Dakota Quarterly (part 1, part 2, part 3).

My thinking over the past year or so has shaped the course’s four goals:

  1. To become more familiar with the complexities of the modern university and UND, in particular. 
  2. To encourage critical thinking about the institutional structure of higher education in the U.S. in a historical context and local context.
  3. To understand the relationship between the institutional organization and the purpose of the university. 
  4. To produce a short guide to the UND budget for students that allows them to be more critical consumers and participants in university life.

The main books that I’m using are Christopher Newfields, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2016), which I blogged about here, and David Labaree’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (2017) which I’ve blogged about here.

I’ll do my best to keep folks up dated on my class. In the meantime, do check out my syllabus which I’ve posted here.

Threshold Concepts in History

A few years ago campus was abuzz about something called “threshold concepts.” While we no longer talk much about these things (and instead have refocused our attention on “high impact practices,” the idea returned to my head this week as I finished grading my undergraduate history methods class. The idea of a threshold concept, if I understand it completely, is that certain concepts form barriers to students moving from one level of understanding to the next. These threshold tend to represent irreversible developments in student understanding and serve as stepping stones that allow students to move from simple to more complex disciplinary tasks. 

As our historical methods class is required for our majors and is designed to introduce and help students come to terms with both a number of related threshold concepts in history as well as basic narrative of our discipline. More specifically, the course does three things. First, it introduces majors to the history of our discipline from Herodotus to the 21st century and the rise of digital practices. Second, it works with students on disciplinary writing practices that range from niggling issues of style to organization and argument. Finally, it works with our majors to develop practical research skills from bibliography building to problematizing a historical question. To my mind, the key threshold concepts are (1) the ability to recognize the complex grey area between primary and secondary sources, (2) the ability to move beyond facile claims of “bias” toward recognizing that all sources offer distinct perspectives on the past, and (3) to develop an ability to recognize the debates that motivate scholars in academic writing.

The final paper in this class asks students to write a prospectus for an undergraduate capstone paper. The goal of the paper is for students to problematize a historical issue using historiography. To do so, they need to use skills that they’ve developed to research in an efficient and focused way. More importantly, however, the have to recognize the conversations between scholars that motivate their research. This means that they need to be able to read for not only content and detail (or “facts”) – something that students already tend to do well – but also for argument. To introduce students to this kind of reading, I not only have them write papers where they make their arguments explicit, but we also read examples of well-made historical arguments. The hope is that by watching and by doing, students become familiar with the disciplinary dance described by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein as “they say, I say.

What is really interesting is that consistently about 60% of the class clears this conceptual threshold and offers a prospectus that frames an ongoing (broadly construed) debate across multiple sources in the discipline and then offers some perspective on this debate whether it is a nuanced addition or a new direction for research. The paper design itself is quite formal so that the students could focus more on content than the structure of the paper. They still had to organize the ideas and debates surrounding their topic into a compelling and useful way, however. What surprised and gratified me the most was that the students who were successful in producing a thoughtful paper correlated quite strongly with students who came to class regularly and did well on various other indicators of classroom engagement.

I don’t say this to pat myself on the back (after all, my class is not particular unique or distinctive), but to say that such a clearly defined threshold concept really brought this idea home to me. In other words, it was a threshold experience for this threshold concept. 

 

Teaching Tuesday (on a Wednesday): Trust the Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: Writing a Course Description for my Class on the UND Budget Cuts

This weekend, I put fingers to keyboard to produce a course description for my honors course in the 2015-2017 University of North Dakota budget cuts.

My course description had to accommodate three basic assumptions. First, students generally are not interested in their universities from an institutional or historical perspective. I once taught a class on the history of the University of North Dakota and most students found it boring in comparison to, say, Nazis or Romans. Second, the course has to have both specific learning goals (i.e. gaining a better understanding of complex institutions and UND in particular) as well as general learning goals (i.e. analyzing a range of documents to produce a narrative and analysis). Finally, it needs to produce something tangible and public. I’m thinking a little book titled A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget with an accompanying website.

So here goes: 

Between 2015 and 2017, the University of North Dakota experienced a series of seemingly unprecedented budget cuts. These results in a flurry of media coverage, cut programs, transformed priorities, and – perhaps most predictably – outrage. Faculty and staff lost jobs, academic, athletic and student programs were cut or modified, and campus life became punctuated with news of the latest cuts, public fora, and discussions.

Budgets are a fundamental aspect of most complex institutions, and in this way UND is no different than a company enduring an economic downturn or any other public institution experiencing retrenchment. The main difference between a university and these other entities, is that the university positions itself – at least for four or five years – as the source for a comprehensive experience that includes both most aspects of daily life (room, board, safety) and a student’s intellectual, social, and cultural life. Budget changes at the university can transform in basic ways a students experience during the fraught transition to adulthood.  

This course will explore the complex series of decisions, assumptions, and expectations that led to the 2015-2017 budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. Along the way, we’ll think critically about the history of higher education, the history of UND, and how complex institutions make decisions, execute plans, and respond to crises. We will explore these issues through a wide range of readings, projects that allow us to dig into various sources and data related to the cuts, and guest lectures from various people involved in the cuts.

In the end, we will produce a short guide for your fellow students (and maybe the general public) that explains what happened, how it happened, and why we should all care! (Let’s call it: A Student’s Guide to the UND Budget). The course will be fun.

Teaching Thursday: New Classes, New Methods, New Goals

Yesterday our department had a 3-hour meeting to discuss how we might adjust our curriculum now that our graduate program has been de-funded. The positive side of this is that we will have the ability to offer more classes at the undergraduate level, and this opens the door to developing a more innovative approach to how we teach. At the same time, we also have declining enrollments in our history major, which is more or less a national trend, and this combines with more stringent expectations on enrollments in individual courses, a changing landscape of “essential studies” requirements, a growing emphasis in “high impact practices” in our classroom, a recognition that a number of my colleagues will be retiring in the next 5 years, and a new school in our college (The School of Everything Everywhere Studies). 

It many ways it is an exciting time at the University of North Dakota, but it’s also a bit stressful and confusing time for the Department of History. There are some great opportunities to innovate, but also very real consequences if our innovation is less than successful. If our classes don’t enroll and they get cancelled, this could be read as a lack of demand and the consequences of this could be administrative and impact our resources and opportunities moving forward.  

While I recognize that these pressures are fairly common in academia, they impact me personally right now because I need to revitalize a few long dormant upper level classes. I’ve made it no secret that my preference is to teach big sweeping classes like Western Civilization or The Historians Craft. I like to innovate at scale and iterate in classes taught every semester rather than once every two or three years. It seems unlikely that I’ll have this luxury moving forward.

In fact, I’m going to have to dust off some classes that I last taught in the early 2000s like History of Greece and Roman History. When I taught these courses they were basically lecture and discussion and had a couple papers. They were scaled to work at 40-60 students. With our declining enrollments and the changing educational expectations, I will have to try to adapt these classes to a new educational environment with new methods and new learning goals. I literally have no idea how to do this. Part of my hopes that the department will develop their courses leaving mine to stand as “old school” experiences that evoke an earlier era.

I like to imagine that this earlier era emphasized that doing history was learning history. In other words, the humanities weren’t sensationalized, gamified, TedTalk-ed, revolutionary, or remixed to be made more palatable. The idea that history is craft (and the title of our historical methods course) emphasizes that history teaching is, at its very core, practical, vocational, and experiential. We don’t have to create some kind of student engagement experience to communicate what it is like to be a historian or to do history because students write history from the first paper in their first history class. Students don’t learn in a simulated environment (even the rhythm of the semester is more or less consistent with deadlines) like in more professional programs. Students don’t have internships or residencies because every class is an internship designed to produce historical scholarship that is substantively no different from what professional historians do.

That we struggle to see the work in the humanities classroom in the 21st century as experiential, active, and high impact, is the consequence of our growing immersion in hyperreality and our addiction to the spectacular. 

Throwback Teaching Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?