Teaching Tuesday: Time, Attendance, and Process

This semester I’m teaching three very different classes. One is a traditional lecture and discussion class that interleaves a narrative style lecture with primary sources to unpack the history of historical writing. Another is an open-ended immersive class that has as its focus a building rather than a narrative, question, or series of methodological goals. Finally, I teach a 40-student introductory level survey in a flipped classroom which is project-based. 

Each class offers some pedagogical challenges. For my little post today, however, I’d like to consider how classroom management plays a role in the success of the various classes.

1. Time. One the greatest challenges in my introductory level class that uses a project-based, flipped pedagogy is devising projects that fit into 2 hour weekly night class. So far, the first project, which involved identifying and defining five individuals, five events, five places, and five key terms from an open access textbook chapter took far less time than I imagined. The second project, creating a list of four, short, primary source readings and providing some introductory matter to guide the reading of these sources took well over the 2 hours of class time. In fact, I ended class last week by telling the students to close their computers and go home. I let them know that we’ll have time this week to finish last week’s project. 

So far, the work on the second project seems much better than the results of the first. In fact, the lists of individuals, events, terms, and places were often pretty superficial and will require additional work before they can be submitted for a grade. More than that, they showed signs of haste. I wonder whether the superficial simplicity of the assignment lulled students into thinking that the work could be accomplished quickly. On the other hand, the most complex task associated with not only identifying, but also guiding the reader through a primary source took more time than I had allotted suggesting that I underestimated the complexity of the project.

2. Attendance. One of the challenges that I’ve faced over the course of my college teaching career is getting students to consistently attend class. At first, like most new teachers, I blamed myself. I thought: “self, you’re so boring students don’t even want to come to class.” Then, as I grew more confident, I shifted to blaming the students: “the kids these days…” 

As I’ve become more perspective on my teaching, I tend to spread the blame around a bit more. On the one hand, I know that classes that encourage deep engagement tend to have better attendance. I also know that students today at my Institution are pulled in more and more directions that take them out of class. This is more than just the age-old character of student life as an incubator for contagious illness and unhealthy lifestyles. Students today work long hours, are stretched thin by extracurricular activities, and often have classes or majors that expect them to be able to miss class from time to time throughout the semester in order to attend conference, events, or lectures. I refuse to get too annoyed with my students for missing class, but irregular attendance does make it hard to develop rapport with my students and for them to digest material that I present without the backstop of a textbook or a study guide. 

Ironically, part of the design of my introductory level class (discussed above) was to shift the writing and some of the reading that often took place outside of the classroom to class time. In my lecture/discussion class, I’m often more than willing to allow students to struggle with difficult readings provided that they are willing to engage the material during classroom discussions. Needless to say, if students don’t come to class, then these discussions are both impoverished and individual students are less likely to understand the complex texts that they read.

This leaves me two options. One is to try to force students to attend class, but this tends to fail because most students feel their reasons for missing class are legitimate and unavoidable (and in most cases they are right!). The other is to ramp down the readings, which is less desirable to me, but maybe a more realistic response to the complex lives of our students.

3. Process. Finally, in my open-ended class, I’m finding it an intriguing challenge to watch my students struggle a bit with process. On some level, I designed the class with a lack of structure to encourage students to think about process. On the other hand, I’ve found it plenty challenging to watch my students spin around a bit and try to find their footing when dealing with an unfamiliar medium (a building), unfamiliar history (the history of architecture and our campus), an unfamiliar classroom environment (a largely abandoned building), and unfamiliar procedures (requesting documents from special collections). Compounding this, the class is a 1-credit class which limits how much I can lean on students to engage fully with unfamiliar tasks.

Most importantly, though, I have to resist the urge to go in and push the students to conform to my workflow. I have to give them space to figure out their process without my interference.  

Teaching Tuesday: The Open Classroom

This spring, I’m teaching a course that is based on Montgomery Hall which one of the oldest buildings on campus and slated for demolition this year. I have 10 students in the 1-credit course which does not have a syllabus, does not have pre-defined learning outcomes, and does not map clearly onto any particular curriculum or program.

In part, the class is inspired in part by David Staley’s Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Higher Education (2019). In his book, he proposes a future university based around the open-ended experience of play. To put this into practice, I let the students loose in Montgomery Hall and let them explore the building without any preconceived ideas of what they were to see, encounter, do, or understand. To be fair, I did frame this with a short bibliography, but I also did not require the students to read or digest this bibliography in any kind of rigorous way. 

The results of our first day in the building were pretty amazing. When I met with the students the week before in a classroom, the atmosphere was quiet and the students looked to me to do or say something. When we met in the building, however, the students quickly dispersed and talked eagerly and boisterously among themselves was they explored the building. In fact, they seem almost uninterested in what I had to say and much more eager to discover things on their own. Another happy change that occurred during this open-ended encounter with Montgomery Hall is that students were much more willing to argue with me about what they’re seeing. It’s almost as if my authority dissipated once I stepped out from the front of the classroom. This was a very pleasant surprise!

Engagement is one thing, but getting that engagement to actually produce something that leads to learning is something else. At the end of the class on Thursday, I asked the students to send me a question that they had after exploring the building. These questions are really good and sharp. Not only do they reflect the varied interests of the group of students, but they also are almost all interpretative questions rather than just “factual” ones. In other words, after 90 minutes in the building, the students managed go beyond the simply questions of what it this or that and reach for the more difficult questions of “why” this or that.

Finally, the proof, of course, is in the pudding. Right now, we’re still at the stage of curiosity and wonder and this is great and the engagement is intoxicating. The next step is when things get real. We have to think about how to do some research that produced evidence for them to build arguments to answer their questions. This will likely mean trips to the archive, conversations with people across campus, and research into architecture, the university’s history, and the larger culture of higher education over time.

We also have to discuss how to present what we’ve learned this semester to a wider audience. Stay tuned!

Teaching Tuesday: Reading is Optional

I’m teaching a one-credit, pop-up, style class this semester and instead of writing the syllabus at the start of the class, I’ve decided to allow the students to create a syllabus as a conversation over the course of the semester. The class is focused on a soon-to-be-demolished building on UND’s campus: Montgomery Hall.

Part of this is to give the students a bit more freedom to develop their own interest in the class, but another part of this is designed to short circuit the tendency of students to resist course expectations which fall out of sync with their interests, approach to learning, or social and economic situation. Faculty, in my experience, have a tendency to moralize student resistance and rather than recognizing it as a critique, however ill-formed, we have a tendency to see it as laziness, a lack of commitment, or, at worst, a sense of entitlement. 

Part of the project for this class is to give students more freedom to structure their learning and follow their curiosity without the pressure, necessarily, of grades, due dates, assignments, and other objects that so often form points of resistance at the intersection of the university as institutionalized learning, student lives, and faculty expectations. As part of this larger project, I’ve decided to make all the reading in the class optional, but I also wanted students to have a reasonable reading list that would allow them to at least become familiar with some of the major ways of thinking about buildings, the history of the university, or what we know about Montgomery Hall in particular.

Wherever possible, I’ve linked to the sources that I’m using below:

We’re lucky that Steve Martens has done a brilliant job describing the history of the building in his HABS report which he generously shared with us. (I provided the students with this document!)

To understand a bit more about the history of UND, you can always check out Louis Geiger’s University of the Northern Plains: a History of the University of North Dakota, 1883-1958 (1958).

Laurie Wilke’s The Lost Boys of Zeta Psi: a Historical Archaeology of Masculinity in a University Fraternity (2010) which is just a great book on 20th century campus life.

For the history of architecture in North Dakota, Steve Martens and Ronald Ramsey have published THE book: The Buildings of North Dakota (2015).

For the work of Joseph Bell DeRemer, the architect behind Montgomery Hall, Steve Martens has provided a brilliant “context study.” 

The most intriguing thing about Montgomery Hall, at least to me, is how it has changed over time, check out Stewart Brand’s entertaining How Buildings Learn. (1995): 

For some more complex ways of thinking about contemporary buildings, grounded in archaeology, check out Timothy Webmoor’s article, “Object Oriented Metrologies of Care and the Proximate Ruin of Building 500.

Or this article by Michael Schiffer and Richard Will on the archaeology of university campuses: “The Modern Material-Culture Field School: Teaching Archaeology on the University Campus.”

Or this article by John Schofield on the archaeology of modern offices: “Office Cultures and Corporate Memory: Some Archaeological Perspectives.”  

Teaching Tuesday: Without a Syllabus

Over the last few years, I’ve started to do some work to flip my classroom in both my introductory level and mid-level courses. I’ve also discovered that students have come to expect a certain amount of classroom inversion at my institution. What I used to have to explain and justify for students has now become expected. In general, I think this is a good trend in education.

This morning, I meet with a group of 10 students who have signed up for a one-credit course that will focus on Montgomery Hall. Montgomery Hall is among the older buildings on campus having once served as the university commons, then as the library, before becoming the deanery for Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, and building filled with storage and small departments. Over the years, the building’s prime spot on the main road through campus and its awkward orientation toward the rest of campus and use of Tudor style architecture rather than the prevailing College Gothic has made it vulnerable to more ambitious campus planners. As a result, the building is slated for demolition this year. 

While this is bad for the building, it is good for students, because it means that once again, we have a building that we can explore as a way to understand architecture, the history of campus, and the complex ways that we might memorialize these buildings and understand how campuses change.

Two years ago, I ran a similar class focused on two now-demolished buildings associated with Wesley College on the campus of UND. In the case of this class, I very much set the agenda and enlisted students as co-researchers who helped me document the building and the objects left behind at abandonment. Over the course of the class, however, students began to get their own ideas and set their own agendas. By the end of the class, the data that I collected was far less interesting than the work of the students themselves. The optimist in me imagined that my research established a framework for the students to explore their own interests, but part of me wondered how the students might do if I hadn’t framed so much of their early interaction with the building.

So, this semester, I’m going to leave the class more open ended. For example, I’m not going to have a syllabus. I’m also not going to tell the students what I want them to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about ways to KNOW a building in general, munch on donuts, and listen to how they think about campus, campus-changes, and commemorating or recognizing the history of campus over time. In the past, I’ve been interested in the tensions between campus as a dynamic place and campus as a place saturated with history and traditions. As recent controversies surrounding the Silent Sam statue on UNC’s campus, the renaming of buildings at Brown, Calhoun College at Yale, and others across the U.S. often marks the intersection between broadly progressive values and the role that college campuses play as mnemonic landscapes for generations of alumni and students.

Framing the class at this very intersection – between formal requirements of a syllabus and the less structured experiences and attitude of students toward their built environment – might set up new ways of thinking about campus buildings and changes over time. 

The class starts now, so we’ll see.   

Teaching Tuesday: Revision History 101: Western Civilization

For the past five years or so, I’ve been teaching History 101: Western Civilization in a large, Scale-Up style classroom. You can read how I ran that class here.

In the spring, because we no long her graduate teaching assistants, we’ve been forced to reduce the number of students in our lower division classes, and they are now capped at 40ish. As a result, I’ve had to “scale-down” my class and I’ve taking this situation as a chance to revise substantially how I’ve taught the class.

In the past, I based the class around a multi-part exercise which walked the students through the production of a Western Civilization textbook. Over the course of the semester, each table of nine students wrote three chapters focused on a particular aspect and period of Greek, Roman, and Medieval History. For example, a table might right a chapter on the social history of the Hellenistic period; another would write on the economic history of the Roman Empire and another on the political history of the Classical period. Aside from any historical content, the class emphasized various skills associated with long-form writing from brainstorming and gathering evidence to outlining, drafting, and peer review. This worked relatively well.

This semester, however, with the class only at 40 students, I decided to shift from writing a textbook to modifying and expanding one. The basic text I’ll be using is Christopher Brooks’ Western Civilization: A Concise History. This is an open access textbook that is as solid as it is concise. The goal for the class is to produce a series of supplements for this textbook that use the concise nature of the book as a guide.

First, I’m going to divide the class into 4, nine to ten student groups. I suspect I’ll lose 3-5 students to drops so the final enrollment numbers will sit at around 36. Nine-student groups seem to be best practices for sustained group work over a semester and help to mitigate the natural ebb and flow of students and attendance in a large class and give students a range of opportunities to engage in the learning process. 

The semester will be broken into three, four-week modules (with a three week introduction and a one week conclusion). Each module will include four exercises designed to develop the existing textbook in four different ways. Each four-week module will focus on a broad period: the Greek world, the Roman world, and the Medieval world and each of the four groups will be assigned a chapter from the Brooks text. These chapters, as you might imagine, are defined chronologically.

Over four weeks, the group will have to work on four tasks.

First, each group will be asked to clarify key points in their chapters by creating a list of five key terms, five key individuals, five key events, and five key places. Each will receive a 50 word definition that emphasizes the significance of the term, individual, event, or place. All key places will also be found on Google Earth and the group will attach a KML file to their glossary.

In week two, the students will deepen the reach of the concise textbook chapters by identifying three primary sources that will enrich their reading and understanding of the topics in the chapter. Each source must be around 1000 words (and no more than 1500). Their primary source selections will have a 600 word introduction that explains how these sources deepen our understanding of the chapter and why they are significant. 

I’m going to give the students a copy of my old primary source reader, as well as Ryan P. Johnson, Western Civilization-An Open Source Book and links to the Ancient History and Medieval source book.

In week three, the students will expand the reach of their textbook by developing a 1500 word “call out box” which refers to at least one primary source (and can include an excerpt of this source up to 500 words). This call-out box will explain clearly why this particular topic is significant, how it fits into the existing chapter, and how the primary source provides evidence for this topic.

Finally, in week four, students will write an essay question designed both to guide how students understand their expanded, deepened, and clarified chapters and circulate it at the beginning of class to another table along with their completed, expanded chapter. The other group will write a 1000-1500 word response to the essay question over the course of the class and the group who wrote the question will write a 500 word response to their answer.

The first three weeks will work the students into the rhythm of the class and introduce the four main tasks of clarifying, deepening, expanding, and assessing their chapters. This will also give me a chance to figure out what kinds of assignments work to guide the students to building their supplemental material.

As I get the class together over the course of the semester, I’ll share my victories and inevitable failures right here on the ole bloggeroo.

Teaching Thursday: Diversifying my Graduate Historical Methods Syllabus

This past semester, I taught a revised version of History 501: Historical Methods. This class was initially a very basic introduction to our department and the broad range of historical methods. As many of our graduate students had a rather narrow training as undergraduates that focused on conventional narratives, as opposed to methodology, this class provided a transition to a more rigorous and self-aware study of history.

I will admit that my typical syllabus for this class (and it’s sister class History 502) included the usual white male suspects. I went to the Twitters to diversity my bonds, so to speak and produced a new syllabus for the class that wasn’t entirely successful. The students and I have discussed adding a five more weeks of reading to bolster some gaps in my earlier syllabus.

In keeping with my efforts to diversify, decolonized, and transform, here are my ideas.

Week 1: Historical Thinking

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacobs, Telling the Truth About History. New York 1995.

(Maybe also, R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History. Oxford 1946.)

Week 2: History of the Discipline

Bonnie Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and the Historical Practice. (Harvard 2001).

(Maybe also: P. Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge 1988.

Week 3: Postcolonial History

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe : postcolonial thought and historical difference.  Princeton 2000.

(Maybe also: David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham, NC 2004.)

Week 4: The Ontological Turn

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC 2007.

(Maybe also: Greg Anderson, The Realness of Things Past: ancient Greece and ontological history. New York 2018.)

Week 5: Academic Life

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: a radical approach to saving the university. Baltimore 2019.

(Maybe also: L. Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas. New York 2001.)

~

As always, I’m open to thoughts and suggestions!

Teaching Tuesday: Integrating OERs in a Western Civilization 1 Class

Over the past four or five years, I’ve been teaching a big Western Civilization I class (>150 students), the proverbial History 101, in a Scale-Up Style active learning classroom. The class centered around authoring our own Western Civilization textbook. For a very recent (forthcoming!) article on this go here for my reports on the experience over time, go here

Next semester, I’m teaching History 101 to a much smaller class (40 students!) and instead of authoring our own textbook, we’re going to focus on revising, expanding, and contextualizing an existing open access textbook. Despite the large number of introductory level classes taught in the U.S. each semester, the number of open access Western Civilization is really small. In fact, the only one that I’ve been able to find is Christopher Brook’s book. There are course packets,  legacy courses made available open access, an open access source book, a good looking World History textbook, and even complete courses, but very few things that present themselves as traditional Western Civilization textbooks.

I suspect that the reason for this is a combination of two things. First is the old chestnut that students don’t read textbooks and have increasingly come to expect more dynamic classroom environments with project based learning, discussion, and learning on the fly. This is not an environment where the conventional textbook is likely to thrive. That being said, there are still an embarrassment of commercial textbooks on the market from the usual suspects. The second reason is that history textbooks – especially for introductory level courses – are hard to write and complicated (and potentially expensive to edit) and produce. It is a good example of how OERs won’t necessarily replace conventional textbooks, but encourage a support new ways of presenting course content and methods. 

For my History 101 class, which will be taught once per week at night over a singly 140 minute block, I’m going to encourage students to engage the open textbook with an eye toward their own learning styles. How can this rather conventional (if thoughtful) textbook be revised and adapted to integrated primary sources? How can we produce supplemental maps, timelines, and indexes to guide how students read, digest, and engage with the narrative that it produces? Are there other open resources available that can complicate, expand, and even subvert the stated intentions of this book?

More importantly, as we begin to adapt the book to our class’s, I will ask my students to consider how they might generalize what they’ve done so that our expanded version could be used in other classes. In other words, how do their efforts to adapt this book to our classroom reflect general trends in how they expect a college class to function? 

As OERs become more common in the higher education landscape, we need to recognize in them an opportunity to co-create new course materials, new visions of the textbook, and new ways of presenting and producing material in keeping with the needs, attitudes, and expectations of contemporary students. 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching by the Book

When I first started teaching, I was convinced that I didn’t need no stinkin’ textbook. I dutifully created my own primary source reader and pulled together a motley gaggle of secondary reading to use in my survey level class and upper level classes.

As the years have passed and I’ve acquired a dose of humility, I’ve come to realize that many textbooks offer a far more substantial and, generally speaking, informed foundation for the classroom. There remain reasons not to use textbooks, of course, that range from their cost to issues of compatibility, length, and presentation. But for most of my classes, there’s a book that does the job better than I could and at a reasonable cost.

Sarah Maza’s Thinking about History (Chicago 2017) is one of those books. 

This fall, I’m re-writing my History 240: The Historians’ Craft class. It’s a mid-level course that is required for all of our majors and minors. In the past, I’ve split the class between a 7 week course on historiography culminating in a mid-term and a 7 week course on research methods, culminating in a prospectus. Next semester, I’m dividing the class into thirds, with 5 weeks on historiography, 5 weeks in special collections, and 5 weeks on writing a prospectus.

Maza’s book is divided into 6 chapters each of which poses a simple question that is nevertheless fundamental to historical research. The first chapter is titled “The History of Whom?”; the second “The History of Where?”; the third, “The History of What?”, and so on. She grounds her consideration of each question in post-war historical work with the occasional dalliances in the first part of the 20th century. She supports her arguments with just enough footnotes to be effective and not so many as to intimidate the undergraduate. The prose is engaging and chapters are short enough to be digested efficiently. The most important thing, however, is that Maza frames historical methods in the development of past practices. In other words, history itself is not ahistorical and our methods are inscribed with the challenges and developments facing scholars in the past and present. In short, the book would be an almost ideal companion to my revised History 240 class (or any undergraduate historical methods course)!

It does have a few drawbacks, though, which is less with the book and more with its compatibility with my class.

First, Maza does not really engage with ancient or medieval historians in a serious way. Thucydides and Tacitus make cameo appearances, but Medieval practices and scholars do not. Renaissance and Enlightenment historians and philosophers do appear but mainly as historical context rather than points of attention in their own right. This pains my ancient historian heart a bit, but also reflects the reality of students who are pretty uncomfortable with ancient texts, their conventions, the names, and their approach to understanding the past. It may be that the omitting ancient and Medieval history from the book makes the entire project more approachable for students. 

Second, the final section of the the book is titled “Fact or Fiction?” In it, Maza explores the influence of postmodernism on historical thinking and writing with particular attention to the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Hayden White. She considers the debt of historical writing to fiction and the role of literary tropes as well as the potential and limits of the historical imagination. She also addresses the issue of fraudulent historical work and details a few instances in recent memory when historians fabricated or misrepresented sources. The juxtaposition of rigorous postmodern scholarship with fraudulent historical analysis is meant to challenge the student to consider the limits to historical thinking. It also, however, suggests that somehow postmodern scholarship is less credible that other forms of historical work not because its dependence on jargon, reluctance to unpack traditional causality, or even genre defying approaches to understanding the past, but because it somehow flirts with misrepresenting the past or deception. 

If I were writing the book, I’d be far more tempted to consider the continuum that ranges from postmodern works to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of history in popular media. It seems that both are informed by a desire to tell new and different stories about the past and in many cases embraces – explicitly – the ironic turn which challenges our expectations for how history works. 

That being said, the book is very good and will almost certainly appear on my History 240 syllabus this spring. In fact, it’s so good that I’ll probably follow Maza’s lead and reduce (or maybe even eliminate) my treatment of ancient and Medieval texts. The real trick will finding the right primary sources to lead students beyond the book and allow them to encounter first hand the major contributors to our modern discipline.

Teaching Thursday: A College Class Without Homework

Next semester, I’m taking my 150-180 student introductory level Western Civilization class and reorganizing it for an enrollment of around 40 students. I’ve blogged about my Western Civilization class in the past and how I used the university’s new-at-the-time Scale-Up classroom to guide groups of students to produce a textbook. 

The revised version of this class will meet once a week at night for 2.5 hours. As I’ve started to think about how to change my syllabus, I got to thinking about how to balance in class and outside of class writing and reading assignments. For an introductory level class, there is a fine line between assignments and expectations. It’s easy to expect the class to complete small assignments and reading on a weekly basis, but harder to expect them to complete – in a thoughtful way – longer writing assignments (over, say, 2 or 3 pages) and longer reading assignments (over, say, 20 pages) regularly. 

There are quite a few (and relatively predictable) reasons for this. First, students in an introductory level class have a wide range of aptitudes, skills, and tolerances. What is a barely manageable pile of reading for one student is a quick read for another. The same goes for writing. More than that, out students at UND hail from a range circumstances. For some students, school and even a lowly 100-level class is the main focus of their attention. For others, school competes with work, family, and other complicating factors. Students also have competing priorities on campus. A 100-level class has a tendency to slide to the bottom of their priority list after more demanding (and frankly important) classes in their majors. As a result, attention to this class competes with their other studies. This is compounded by students’ tendency to take more than a “full load” of 15 or so credits. 

There’s an old adage that for every credit, expect 2 hours of work per week. This means for a 15 credit semester, a student should expect about 30 hours of outside of class work, plus the 2.5 hours or so of class time for each 3-credit class. This usually amounts to another 10 or so hours per week. While 40 hours per week doesn’t sound like much, that assumes a student is only taking 5, 3-credit classes. Some of our students take 6, which would add another 8 hours to that total and this does not count labs and more demanding courses that require more than the 6 hours per week of work. This also doesn’t factor in time for employment, family commitments, and other non-academic university activities, from sports to clubs, internships, and other social and educational opportunities. 

I still have bitter-sweet memories of my college days. I spent too much time hunkered down in the library attempting (and mostly failing) to learn ancient languages, to master historical narratives, to understand challenging texts, and to write thoughtful papers. I’m not too proud to admit that grade inflation at a small, liberal arts university helped me convert those hours of work into reasonable grades. If I was graded on what I learned or what I understood of Greek or Biblical Hebrew, the works of Chinua Achebe, the History of Canada, or differential equations, I’d have barely managed a “B” average (and even that some of my professors would have disputed!). Fortunately for me, the modern system helped a student like me by rewarding work as much as learning.

On the one hand, this system is good because it levels the playing field a bit between those with strong aptitudes for various subjects, better pre-college preparation, or more experience in college and those who are willing to grunt it out and do all the work in the hope for future rewards. On the other hand, this system is designed to benefit students who, like me, only worked 10 or 15 hours per week outside of class, had few social or family complications, and was relatively healthy physically and mentally. More than that, the habits that I formed in this system were not all healthy. Even today, I am not well-rounded, often believe work can replace ideas, and achieve whatever modest success that I have because my life has been mercifully free from family or social complications, physical or mental health issues, or other stressors which might make it harder for me to allow work to consume me. In other words, the rewards I received in college for an unhealthy devotion to academic work have enabled and encouraged my current lifestyle and career.

Thinking about these things brought me back to the idea of a college class – particularly at the introductory level –  without home work. As I have blogged about in the past, my Scale-Up class had genuinely remarkable levels of student engagement. Not only did students come to class every week (and attendance has always been a problem in my introductory level classes), but they participated, often enthusiastically, in the individual and group activities. More than that, it appears that this approach produced decent quality work. I’m fairly convinced that the level of engagement in this class and the improved attendance would compensate for at least some of the conventional expectation that students read, write, and prepare outside of class.

Introductory level history course primarily attract non-majors looking to complete various requirements. These students tend to be more likely to struggle to find time or interest outside of the classroom to finish readings or focus on writing. Prioritizing classroom time, attendance, and engagement, would help concentrate the work in the class into a scheduled, supervised and crafted block of time. The hope is that not only would the instructor be better able to observe and work with students as they focus on assignments and projects, but students would have greater access to the instructor and fellow students if they struggle. Moreover, this might even short circuit the tendency for students who are struggling outside of class to skip classes because they haven’t read, completed assignments, or are otherwise unprepared. 

The hope is that a class without homework will not result in less work, at least for students who struggle the most with conflicting demands and priorities leading them to give introductory level courses less sustained and serious attention, but in better work and ultimately more learning. 

Dissecting Digital Divides: Mostly Final Draft

There’s one more week before the start of classes, and I’m trying to wrap up some small projects that have been lingering around all summer.

The first one on the list is putting together the “almost final version” of my paper for last fall’s DATAM: Digital Approaches for Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at NYU’s ISAW (I wrote a little review of that conference here). The Digital Press is going to publish a small, but intriguing collection of papers from that conference with a short introduction and conclusion. 

My paper considered the various digital divides in my classrooms at the University of North Dakota. The first divide is the conventional difference between students who have access to technology and those who do not. This shapes how they engage and use technology in their everyday lives. The second-level divide involves the willingness of individuals to produce as well as consume digital media. Finally, because I really can’t help myself, I offered a critique of how prosumer culture has shaped the way that I taught in a Scale-Up style classroom. Some of this critique came from an unpublished paper that I wrote with a graduate student many years ago (you can read that unpublished paper here).  

If you’re interested in my paper, “Dissecting Digital Divides,” you can check it out here and stay tuned for the volume later this fall!!