Teaching Tuesday: Thinking about My Fall Classes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something like that. 

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

This leads me to my second point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thing the First

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

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

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

Thing the Second

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

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

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

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

Thing the Third

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: Non-Linear World History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction: Time

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

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

The Environment

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

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

Energy

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

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

Love

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

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

Violence 

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

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

Place
The Other
Belief
Gender
Sex
Death
Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: What I’ve Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: How to Read an Article

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

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

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

Here’s the module that I circulated today:

How to Read An Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Tuesday: Strategies in Studenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are those guidelines:

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

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

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

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

~

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

Teaching Tuesday: Pandemic Papers

Last week was spring break and this week is my first full fledge foray into pandemic pedagogy. Fortunately, I’ve had about 20+ years of experience teaching online and one of my two classes already used hybrid methods. This is an introductory level Western Civilization class which draws on many of the techniques that I developed teaching in a large Scale-Up style classroom. You can read about the Scale-Up class here and my current class here.

Unfortunately, one of my two classes was designed to use our local archives and to emphasize hands-on directed research. This class will have to pivot. You can read about that class here. I’ll blog on that class sometime later this week.

As for my introductory level Western Civilization class, I’ve stated to think a bit about how to incorporate the pandemic into my pedagogy. There are a good many recent pieces that offer resources useful for thinking about the pandemic from this very recent Atlantic article to this collection of archival material on epidemics in Early America or this Yale class.

My class spends a good bit of time working back and forth between primary and secondary sources. So I’ve concocted a couple of papers that ask students to think about the pandemic. These are optional and, I’ll admit, not particularly good paper prompts, but considering the circumstances they might just work. 

Pandemic Primary Source Papers

In Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, contagious disease was always a matter for concern especially when combined with war, famine, or other social, political, or economic disruptions.

Primary Source Paper 1

Two of the most famous episodes of famine in antiquity occurred in 5th century BC Athens, when the Athenians had huddled within their protective walls and the Spartans were ravaging the countryside, and in the 6th century AD, under the reign of the Emperor Justinian. The historians Thucydides and Procopius describe the plagues here.

https://www.livius.org/sources/content/thucydides-historian/the-plague/
https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/542procopius-plague.asp

Compare these two descriptions and consider how these two texts are similar and differ. What do their similarities and differences tell us about the times in which they were written? Are they more similar or different? How do these texts speak to our current situation?

Primary Source Paper 2

Chaucer and Boccaccio are two of the most original voices of the tumultuous 14th and 15th century. Both writers features the Black Death as the backdrop for more wide-reaching social commentary. Read Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and the short excerpts from Boccaccio’s Decameron (both available in Chapter 12 of the Western Civilization Reader on the books page of the class!) and consider the changes that took place in the 14th and 15th centuries. Using specific examples from Chaucer and Boccaccio, consider how both authors use the Black Death to criticize and comment on their contemporary society. How do these texts speak to our current situation?

~

My general feeling is that universities are so conservative that they require massive, society-wide, shocks to their system in order to adapt. I suspect that the current situation which is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, will be exactly what the modern university needs to pivot to align more with our changing world. How we do this will be the focus of the next few years. Pandemic proofing instruction, advising, and research will be central to any preparedness model in higher education. 

New Book Day and Teaching Tuesday: DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

As the coronavirus has continued to disrupt higher education in the US and globally, The Digital Press accelerated the release of Sebastian Heath’s edited volume, DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean as a way to contribute to the ongoing conversation about digital and online teaching not only in Classics, Ancient History, and Mediterranean Archaeology but across the entire humanities. 

The book is a free, open access download and will be made available as a low-cost paperback by the middle of next month.

We’re calling this version, the “Digital First, Alpha Version” because it sounds cool. You can download it here.

Here’s the description of the book:

DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean provides a series of new critical studies that explore digital practices for teaching the Ancient Mediterranean world at a wide range of institutions and levels. These practical examples demonstrate how gaming, coding, immersive video, and 3D imaging can bridge the disciplinary and digital divide between the Ancient world and contemporary technology, information literacy, and student engagement. While the articles focus on Classics, Ancient History, and Mediterranean archaeology, the issues and approaches considered throughout this book are relevant for anyone who thinks critically and practically about the use of digital technology in the college level classroom.

DATAM features contributions from Sebastian Heath, Lisl Walsh, David Ratzan, Patrick Burns, Sandra Blakely, Eric Poehler, William Caraher, Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci as well as a critical introduction by Shawn Graham and preface by Society of Classical Studies Executive Director Helen Cullyer.

Here’s the cover:

DATAM Cover AlphaVersion2

For those of you working to bring your classes online, you might also find useful insights and ideas in Shawn Graham’s recent, award winning, book: Failing Gloriously and Other Essays and the journal that he edits Epoiesen (which can be found here in PDF and on the web here).

Quick Note on Creating a Podcast Lecture

I’ve been asked by a couple of folks about any tips I can offer about creating a podcast style course lecture. I’ve argued that relatively low-tech solutions like podcasting are a good way to convert traditional or hybrid lecture courses online because most of our students have the means of downloading a podcast and listening to it. In a pinch a podcast can be delivered over email and requires only the most basic technologies to create.

I’d like to emphasize that I’m not a great podcaster. At the same time, I’ve played with this medium enough to know think my experiences might have value.

Here is what worked for me:

1. If at all possible, get a external USB-powered microphone for your laptop. This will vastly improve sound quality which makes the podcasts easier on students’ ears. I use a Blue Snowball microphone.

2. Find a quiet place with a little ambient noise as possible. Colleagues who regularly record for radio, for example, often use hotel closets and damp out echos and external sound by covering their heads and microphone with blankets and towels. This isn’t necessary (or even really possible) in most cases, but recording in a small room with a minimum of noise will make sound quality better. Also try to avoid rooms with lots of reflective surfaces like windows.

3. Use the right software. I’ve used Adobe Audition (which is part of the creative cloud suite of programs), but there’s a bit of a learning curve. Mac users can use Garage Band which is just fine for podcasts and comes with your computer. PC users (and Mac users) can use Audacity which is free and open source. These programs allow you to remove background noise and, perhaps more importantly, record in chunks. It also allows you to export your recording as an MP3 which will play on virtually any device.

For an even easier trick, my colleague Nikki Berg-Burin records on her phone using the voice memo application on her iPhone , which saves and then uploads it to Dropbox for transfer to our LMS (Blackboard). This is a great and simple way to do shorter mini lectures and the like.

4. Record in chunks. If you have longer lectures that you want to record, I’ve found it immeasurably helpful to record them in 5-7 minute chunks and then either stitch them together into a longer recording or organize them into an album. I found it much easier to maintain my stream of thought for 5 minutes than for 10 or 15.

5. Record short “quick hit” podcasts. While my lecture podcasts can go on (and on and on so my students have told me) for up to an hour (most are <45 minutes, though), I also found it useful to include “quick hit podcasts” that in ❤ minutes tell the students how to organize their engagement with material. I usually note where the reading are, what podcast to listen to first, and what kind assessment or writing the week or section will require.

6. Edit Metadata for podcasts. Since many students will download podcasts onto their devices, it’s super helpful to have good metadata which allows these devices to organize your recordings in a rational and easy to find way. I’ve found it really helpful to organize my recordings into an “album” with tracks organized in the order that they’re to be listened to. This doesn’t take very long and is super helpful. Here’s a list.

7. Provide text. In the best situations, I’d urge my colleagues to provide transcriptions of your lectures for students who struggle with audio lectures. This is not the best of situation, so I would suggest faculty provide lecture notes (if they use them) to help students follow along with what you’re saying.

8. Distribution. I expect, although I don’t know, that our LMS will be under some significant strain as everyone moves their courses online (and our LMS is cloud based and I’m sure that since we share capacity with other institutions, this will put even more strain on our system). As a result, you might consider distributing podcast via email (using, say, a Dropbox link since the files tend to be pretty big).

I’m sure there are tips and tricks that I haven’t thought about that will help you get your lectures online quickly, but hopefully this is a start. There’s a bit of a learning curve to producing a nice podcast (and I never explored the far reaches of this curve as my podcasting career undoubtedly shows), but once you get the basics down, they’re not very hard do in a decent way. 

Online in a Hurry

It seems to me that there are two kinds of universities in the U.S. right now: those that have suspended face-to-face teaching and those that will suspend it soon. I’m guessing that UND will suspend face-to-face instruction after spring break and they’re already nudging us politely to get our course materials online.

In the social media world, there are already a good bit of buzz and helpful advice on how to get your class online and ensure that it will be a quality learning experience for students. The Chronicle has posted this and NYU in Shanghai has posted this

There are legitimate concerns that students without good internet access at home will suffer. As someone who has taught a good bit online and taught students who don’t always have the best internet and home technologies, I thought that I would post some of the best advice that I’ve received over the past ten years.

1. Dogma vs. Doctrine. One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever received is to consider course learning goals to be like doctrine rather than like dogma. In other words, retain a bit flexibility in what you want your students to learn and realized that learning goals sometimes change over the course of a semester. This is fine. My online courses often have different course goals than my face-to-face classes and moving a face-to-face class online makes a change to course goals almost inevitable. 

2. Remember Bandwidth. There are a number of potential bottlenecks that can really frustrate student learning especially those who are not familiar with online classes. When I first started teaching online, I wanted to use all the latest bells and whistles, but I found that not only were these time consuming to develop, but that students found them difficult to use especially when they had irregular internet access. Since many of my first online students were deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq or worked jobs that kept them from high speed internet access, I developed modules that could be easily downloaded for use away from the internet. For example, I used podcasts, downloadable readings, and downloadable assignments and made them available so that students could grab them all with on click (in a zip file). This made it easier for them to, say, download a module to process while deployed at a frontline base or to download parts of the class at a truck stop to listen to on a long haul drive.

2. Text is still king! One thing that I rapidly discovered is that some students struggled to process podcasts for various reasons. I was fortunate to have hearing impaired student in one of my first online classes who requested that my podcast lectures be transcribed. I used these transcriptions for years (despite the mediocre quality of the transcribed text). As I developed the course away from my podcast lectures, I took more time to make sure that anything that I did in video or audio (and I rarely use video) also had some text associated with it. In most cases when I didn’t have a full transcription, this was a well-developed outline that I also made available. 

3. PDFs and their Discontents. I love PDFs and read them regularly, but I also have access to a full-size iPad and a laptop which makes it easy enough to read them at my desk or on the go. Today, many students have phones or smaller tablets as their primary mobile computing devices. These don’t always play well with PDFs because it is hard to reflow text for smaller screens (although, I have to admit my students appear willing to read tiny fonts on their small high-resolution screens!). My students have found it helpful to provide the text from the PDF as a txt or other simple file. Adobe Acrobat features a perfectly serviceable OCR function for most higher quality PDFs downloaded from, say, Jstor. I tend to use ABBYY’s FineReader because it is slightly better at creating easily reflowable texts. 

4. Skip the Gimmicks. Learning management systems have become increasingly bogged down with various gimmicks designed presumably to hold students’ attention and to make learning more fun and dynamic. I don’t doubt that many of these gimmicks work, but for the students who I teach familiarity with interfaces trumps bells and whistles. My courses rely on three tried-and-true interfaces: simple online “multiple guess” quizzes, discussion boards, and wikis. Each of these interfaces are familiar to students. All but the multiple guess quizzes can be also be approached with intermittent or low-bandwidth  internet access and updated when it a good connection is possible. More than that, these familiar interfaces eliminate frustration among students who might not be as comfortable doing online work as you would expect.

5. Be Asynchronous. If there is a disruption to teaching, anticipate that students will respond to this in different ways. Some will hunker down, develop a routine quickly, and attack the course with a regular rhythm. Others will become lost in the wilderness for a time. Unless you relish the plaintive emails begging for extra time, explaining late work, and explaining poor planning, I’ve found it best to keep due dates and synchronous work to a minimum. Allowing students to find their own level during a period of disruption demonstrates a trust in your students that is often rewarded with better work, fewer excuses, and mutual respect. I make most assignments due on the final day of classes. It has been a game changer both in my quality of life as a teacher and in the quality of work from my students. 

6. Develop a Routine. Finally, I’ve found that developing a routine, even a schedule of regular reminders, announcements, and updates, helps students feel confident that they know what’s going on. It’s pretty easy for students used to daily interaction to feel the radio silence associated with many online courses as disconcerting. Regularly scheduled updates, encouragement, and reminders will let students struggling to adapt know that things are going as they should be! 

 

As you probably understand, I don’t offer these tips as some kind of orthodoxy or even as best practices, but in the hope that someone might find them useful as they have to move their class online in a hurry and in a crisis. If there are other things that you might want to add, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.