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!! 

Revising my Graduate Methods Course

This fall, I’m teaching a small graduate methods class. We originally designed the class as the first class an incoming MA student would take from our department. The first half of the class was a discussion of historical practices and the second half consisted of two-week, mini-courses offered by various members of the faculty on their specialization (oral history, archival research, ethnohistory, material culture, et c.). Next semester, I’m offering the class to two prodigal graduate students who are returning to our program after a few years away. They don’t really need to meet the department as much as get a tune up on what’s going on in the discipline and get back into thinking, reading, and writing at a graduate level.

Since I’ve been pretty out of the loop in terms of the academic study of the past, I partly crowd sourced my syllabus and got some great advice. You’ll obviously be able to see the books that make clear my rather olde skool background (and those that have been recommended to me from “the crowd”) and I recognize that it is a bit dated in places. I’m still fishing for something that does a nice job of considering digital practices for historians.

Here’s the syllabus so far:

Week 1: Introduction to Graduate Research

Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. MIT Press 2015.

Week 2: Introduction to Historical Thinking

Sarah Maza, Thinking about History. University of Chicago Press 2017.

Week 3: Introduction to Critical Theory

Elizabeth Clarke, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Harvard University Press 2004.

Week 4: History and Globalization

Lynne Hunt, Writing History in the Global Era. Norton 2014.

Week 5: History and Identity

Kwame Appiah, Lies that Bind Us: Rethinking Identity. Profile Books 2018.

Week 6: History and the Environment

John Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 7: Activist History

David Armitage and Jo Guldi, The History Manifesto. Cambridge University Press 2014.

Week 8: Materiality, Heritage and Decay

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press 2017.

Teaching Tuesday: The End of the Semester

Usually by the end of the spring semester I’m a bit frazzled and ready for the start of my summer reading and writing time. This semester, however, I managed to stay more or less on top of things which left me surprisingly relaxed and while tired, not particularly overwhelmed. 

It has also given me more time than usual to reflect on my semester and the two class that I taught: History 240: The Historians’ Crap and History 101: Western Civilization I (Online). Both versions of these venerable classes will be retired after this semester. In the case of History 240, it will be replaced with a “High Impact Practice” class that will involve the students spending substantially more time in UND’s Special Collections in the library. My online History 101 class should have been retired a few years ago, but for one reason or another kept getting rolled out. This time, however, really is the last time, and there is a kind of symmetry as I also shut down my large “Scale-Up” style 101 class which I last taught last fall.

The odd thing about teaching a class for the last time is that they invariably leave behind a sense of disappointment. I know that my classes can be better and when I teach a class each semester or even every year, I have some hope that I can revise and improve what I do in incremental ways. After the last class, however, there’s nothing left to fix. In hindsight, the class appears to be just a rambling, slewing, careening hulk of small changes duct-taped together with hope. 

The next time that I teach either class will be in Spring 2020. My Western Civilization class will be a 40 person, 1-day-a-week night class. I really liked the flipped lecture style of my Scale-Up version of the class and will probably look to do something in that format. It not only promoted a very high degree of student engagement, but also was fun. As for the focus of the class, however, I’ve started to think about asking the students to engage with the topic of “Western Civilization” in a more critical way. Too much of my class leaves implied the continuity between our “Western” world and Classical antiquity. This approach to understanding the roots of the contemporary world not only is complicit in historical colonialism and imperialism and racism, but also the startling rise in the so-called “alt right” in the 21st century (here’s a nice primer on the historical development of the term). The problematic associations with the concept, in fact, threaten to unmoor the entire project of the humanities and require some remediation even if it’s just framing the conventional narrative of Western Civilization as a space for critical engagement rather than a fixed body of knowledge. 

The way that I’ve imagined my History 240 class likewise calls for a bit of revision. Currently I divide the class into two sections. The first half is a 7 week course on historiography from Homer to the present; the second half is a practical crash course on historical research that culminates in a prospectus. In the new version of this class the historiography section is compressed to a four week module. As a result, I need to rethinking the priorities of this section of the class. Is it really vital to link modern historical writing to Herodotus and Thucydides? How do I balance global historical writing with (North) American traditions? If I have only 8 classes and readings for students at the 200 level (that is lower-mid-level students) what should I make sure that every student reads?

One of the more intriguing challenges associated with revising these classes will be the curious new rigidity imposed on our contracts at the University of North Dakota. For various reasons (that seem to have nothing to do with faculty work and everything to do with bean counting), each class on our contract can only count for 10% of our total contract time. That means, if we assume a 50 hour work week, that each class can count for no more than 5 hours per week or 90 hours per semester. When classes are in session, each class runs for 2.5 hours and meets 16 times, so that accounts for approximately 40 hours of contract time. If we factor in 30 minutes of office hours per class over 17 weeks, that’s another 8.5 hours. If we assume another hour per week or so grading over the course of the semester, that’s 17 more hours, and it brings our total hours per class to 68.5. That leaves 21.5 hours to prep the new course or at our 50 hour week, just a little over 2 days. This seriously limits how creative I can.

It goes without saying that I’ll violate the terms of my contract by working more than 10% of my time on each of these two classes.  

Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.     

 

Teaching Thursday: The Historians Crap

In keeping with my end of the semester reflections on teaching, I’m starting to feel that my History 240: The Historians Crap Craft is tired. Part of this is because, like my Greek History class, students seem to increasingly struggle with lectures. More than that, students seem to be excited about spending time in the archives with historical documents and our colleagues in Special Collections seem eager to open their collections to students and classes. Finally, when I designed this class originally, it was only for history majors, but in recent years it has been required for minors and now for students majoring in Indian Studies. More than that, I am getting a steady stream of students who are just interested in history and are testing the waters to see if this is a major for them. In other words, this class is now a recruitment tool for majors as well as a foundational course for the degree.

These considerations have shifted my priorities for the class. At present the class is taught as two courses. I dedicated the first seven weeks to the history of the discipline and practice of history from Homer to the present. The second seven weeks focus on a series of assignments designed to prepare students to write their capstone paper (and to introduce them to basic forms of writing used in other history classes like the book review or prospectus). I explain that seven weeks of the second part of the course simulate the first half of their capstone course and reinforce the need to work efficiently to discover sources, build bibliography, and articulate a research question.

In the spring of 2020, I want to break the class into three courses. 

1. Introduction to the Discipline of History (5 weeks). This course will devote a week to Ancient and Medieval historical practices, history in Renaissance and Reformation, 19th century history and the formation of the discipline, 20th century historical practices, and, finally, 21st century priorities. This will loosely chart the development of historical practices and the emergence of the professional discipline with an emphasis on explaining how certain fundamental characteristics of historical thinking developed over time: primary and secondary sources, citation, plagiarism, peer review, articles and monographs, and departments and associations. 

2. Archives (4 weeks). Budgeting a week at the start of the semester for introduction and organization will cut into our time in the archives, but I think four weeks might be the perfect duration for a short, public facing archival process. The first week will be a general introduction to Special Collections, and this is something that our friends in the archives already offer. The next three weeks will focus on three things: a single document or (small) collection of documents, understanding its significance, and producing something public from it as a group (or a number of small groups). 

3. Producing a Prospectus (5 weeks). One of the threshold concepts in our history program is understanding how to problematize a historical thesis. In fact, during our capstone presentation at the end of every semester, it is possible to draw a clear and distinct line between students who understand how their work fits into a scholarly conversation and those who do not. The former start with a brief sketch of historiography and the latter start with a description of events. While it is difficult to say that one approach is substantively better than the other, the former tends to reflect disciplinary practices more closely and the latter tends toward antiquarianism. In my experience, antiquarianism serves a useful purpose only when it is approached critically and this is a leap that students sometimes struggle to make. Framing the last 5 weeks of the class around writing a prospectus with a substantial bibliography and a clearly problematized thesis give students experience with this kind of thinking well in advance of their capstone paper. More than that, it serves as a kind of “live fire” drill in preparing a prospectus efficiently in 5 weeks which parallels the first five weeks in their capstone course. In my experience, students who are able to problematize their thesis in the first month of their capstone course are significantly more likely to be successful than those who take longer. 

Students obviously struggle with both the abstraction of historiography and the complexities of the academic discourse, but these can’t be avoided if our goal is to produce thoughtful and critical students in the discipline. On the other hand, most students are drawn to history not because of the invigorating debates between distinguished scholars, but because they are curious about the past as the past. Giving them time in the archives to handle documents and explore collections feeds that sense of wonder and giving them a chance to put these collections in context allows them to see how their interest in the past and the discipline of history can mutually reinforce one another. This kind of gently introduction to the discipline might help us recruit some majors from our required class and make the course itself more enjoyable. 

 

 

Teaching Tuesday: Greek History

It’s the time of the semester where I tend to jot down some class notes for the classes that I’ve taught. Ideally, these notes are to serve as a guide for the next time that I teach a class, but in most cases are more effective as an opportunity to reflect on the semester rather than as a template for improvement.

This semester I taught my first “new prep” in about a dozen years. The course was a significant rethinking of my Greek history class that I taught in 2004. I expanded its coverage into the Medieval, Ottoman, and starting this week, the modern national period. Covering a such a wide span of history history for a rather narrow geographical area has proved challenging because I expect my students to have broad familiarity with the narrative of European history. A graduate-school mentor once noted that we tend to imagine classes with long time spans to be surveys and easier to teach and best suited to students at the introductory levels. Oddly enough, the ability to synthesize and to understand vast swaths of history is usually bound up with certain threshold concepts in history: managing and deconstructing issues of continuity and change, the ability to integrate simple and complex causality, and the relationship between disparate historiographic traditions. In other words, survey classes are often more appropriate pedagogically for upper division students, whereas more chronologically focused narratives often suit introductory level students better. (Of course, I do understand that chronology and focus are only part of what makes a class appropriate for a particular level of instruction. Writing and reading levels, performance expectations, and the ability to dig deeply in research and analysis also play key roles. 

In any event, my Greek history course brought with it some interesting challenges and opportunities. Here are some of them:

1. Narratives. I am not aware of any English language textbook that covers Greek history from Antiquity to the present. John Bintliff’s Complete Archaeology of Greece was the best that I could do and that book served as a de facto textbook. It’s emphasis on material culture, however, made it challenging to use to frame more historical (and political narratives). Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Era of Austerity (2017) offered another perspective for the class that allowed me to connect Greek antiquity with the modern period, but it overlooked the Frankish and Ottoman period and focused mainly (and appropriately) on the relationship between modern Greece and the West. The Edinburgh History of the Greeks is pretty remarkable, but far too expansive to use as a textbook.  

As a result, I had to craft a narrative of the Byzantine, Frankish, Ottoman, and Modern periods. On the one hand, this is my job as a teacher, but on the other hand, this was pretty hard! I had to both manage the complexity of unfamiliar periods and institutions with the students (e.g. feudalism, devşirme, the Septinsular Republic, et c.) while maintaining a useful tension between continuity and change. This means that students had to take notes!

2. Continuity and Change. One of the great opportunities in teaching a class like this is that we can dig deeply into the significance of the classic “continuity or change” argument in history. Often the larger significance of the tension between continuity and change in how we understand and construct the past and the present gets lost in the details about a particular period. For my period, Late Antiquity, we fixate on ceramic chronologies, architectural change, and the appearance of new kinds of settlements and assemblages. The issue of continuity and change determines the relationship between (various) present(s) and (various) past(s), and while we can approach the question using empirical methods, the goal of this kind of question is usually associated with claiming the past for a particular identity. Obviously, discussions of continuity and change play an important role in the construction of modern ethnic and national identities and are often a kind of rearguard action used to reclaim useful pasts from the explicit discontinuities introduced by the Enlightenment’s effort to produce a narrative of progress. The nice thing about starting the class with Hanink’s book is that we begin our study of Greek antiquity with the recognition that we’re reading about the past through a series of modern narratives that, in some way, shape the kinds of questions, problems, and arguments that we can make. 

3. Social History. Unfortunately, my fascination with modernity and the Greek nation pushed me toward a rather top-down view of Greek past. I’m particularly envious of my colleagues who manage to integrate gender, race, and slavery into their courses on antiquity and to use the past to problematize pressing issues in the present. While I recognize that not all history classes can address all the pressing issues facing the world in the 21st century, I do feel a bit tone deaf when I have the class pivot around issues of modern political history to the exclusion of groups, processes, and events that fall (or where pushed) to the margins of national building and the construction of the Western world. The best I can hope for is that by acknowledging the parts of the story that I do leave out and by making clear that our view of the past exists in a particular political and social context that allows me to narrate history as I do.

4. Limping Lectures. Because I don’t have a textbook that offers the kind of narrative that I’d prefer, I’ve had to lecture in class. My students are clearly a bit uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” scene and the classroom is rather ill suited to my approach. To be clear, I do work in regular discussions and try to be interactive with my lectures, but its pretty clear to me that the age of the lecture may be coming to an end. In any future versions of this class, I need to weave in more primary sources, more activities, and more opportunities for engagement than I do at present. 

What’s remarkable to me is that this shift from the expectation of lectures in an upper level history class to the expectation of more active learning has happened so suddenly. While I don’t teach very many upper level courses, between 2004, 2013, and 2018, the classroom environment has changed significantly. Ten years ago, I’d have to beg students to engage and to participate in classroom discussion or activities, whereas today, students know the drill and chime in with the understanding that participation is part of their educational experience. On the flip side, lecturing students now seems to all the more uncomfortable as students clearly struggle to take notes, process information on the fly, and recognize that listening to a lecture is a form of active learning.

5. Pacing and Coverage. Finally, I have basically three classes left to cover the 19th and early 20th century. The post-war history of Greece was covered in part by Hanink, but I’ll have to weave some of that into my class over the next few days (while also preparing them for a final exam). This is not entirely satisfactory, of course, and partly because I missed a few days for conferences throughout the semester. At the same time, I need to determine when and where to cut or compress material. It was easy, for example, to skip lightly through the Ottoman period which I began with a lecture on Mystras, discussed with readings from Evliya Çelebi and William Martin Leake, and wrapped up – more or less – with the Orlov Rebellion (1770).  I tried to introduce some of the themes present in Molly Greene’s history of Ottoman Greece, but my lack of ease with the Ottoman period certainly showed. By marginalizing the Ottomans in the history of Greece, I’m more or less continuing the kind of colonial practice that imagines away these centuries in the formation of Greek identity. My hope is that I still do enough to demonstrate that by recognizing the discontinuity in my own narrative, that I can problematize this decision for students. At the same time, I’ll draw rather freely from Tom Gallant’s volume in the Edinburgh history which uses a narrative grounded in a Thucydidean approach to causality to balance between the proximate and local (Ottoman) causes of the Greek War of Independence and the larger position of Greece in the European world. Compared the Hanink, Gallant spends little attention on the various 19th century Philhellenes and their economic and political bases in Western Europe, and instead focuses on Greece as a post-Ottoman state. In hindsight, I wish I had my students read Gallant’s book at the end of the class and compare it to Hanink’s, not to point one out as better and another as worse, but to wrap us the class with a good example of how the questions we ask of the present shape our view of the past.