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 More than that, students seem to be excited about spending time in the archives with historical documents and our colleagues in Special Collections seem eager to open their collections to students and classes.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.  

Thoughts on the #DATAM conference

I was blown away by the quality and diversity of conversations at last week’s DATAM conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.

The papers at the conference reminded me of the tremendous range of digital tools at use by my colleagues who study the Ancient world that allowed their students to organize, analyze, map, play, and animate the ancient world.

Five things:

1. Real World Experiences. One of the key aspect of this conference is that the participants and the audience members were willing to share their experiences in using digital tools. Folks at the conference drew from across the digital (and digital humanities) ecosystem and discussed frankly the results of applying these tools in their classes. Sebastian Heath showed how students placed elephants at Ostia, Eric Poehler discussed his use of vertiginous first person videos, Sandra Blakey worked with students to populate a video games with proxenoi and pirates, and Sarah Bond mapped readings of ancient Rome. The frankness of these discussions motivated me to continue to experiment with digital approaches and opened my eyes to new tools.

2. Student Directed Learning. So much of what the conference participants did was not scripted by the instructors but student directed. Instructors presented digital tools, experiences, and goals, but students framed questions, figured how to work with the tools, and presented their results. Marie-Claire Beaulieu and Anthony Bucci encouraged students to ask questions of datasets and create workflows to answer them. Lisl Walsh worked with a class to consider word frequency in Seneca in a statistical way. While there was nothing distinctly digital about student directed learning, it was hard to avoid the feeling that digital tools offered students at least the feeling of greater control over how they created knowledge, and this seems to have been empowering to students.

3. Empathy and Democracy. One of the more compelling observations made is that the use of digital tools in the classroom exposed students to their democratizing potential. Sarah Bond emphasized how digital humanities can affect empathy in participants in these projects and serve as a significant counterweight to narrow and illiberal perspectives on both the past and present. The projects that she developed in her classes used digital technology (as well as analog tools) to contemporary University of Iowa students to an earlier time on they campus were both accessible to anyone with basic digital skills and inspiring. 

4. Politics of the Digital. The final session of the day featured two papers that looked at the politics of digital tools and the digital classroom. These ranged from the kinds of narratives that digital tools (as they currently exist) allow in our classroom to the danger of seeing sources as “data.” I added my usual screed in which I called my class a “late capital and neoliberal disaster.” You can read my paper here.

5. The Goal of the Digital and the Goal of Classics. The most interesting conversation of the day occurred at the end of the conference when we began to unpack the relationship between digital tools, digital practices, and the goals of Classics. Several participants set the role of Classics in a digital world against its unique place in the academy. On the one hand, the lack of a neat connection to a singular method (or even methodology) makes it hard to place Classics within a modern university organized around discipline grounded in particular (if often ill-defined) methods. On the other hand, Classics would appear to be a model for a post-disciplinary (and perhaps post-departmental) university organized around particular problems, periods, or issues. This latter scenario might appear forward looking and appealing to the current climate of university politics, but is also risky for a field like Classics that has historically been risk averse. 

The role of digital tools – in the classroom as well as in the field of Classics – offers ways for Classics to redefine itself as both forward looking, dynamic, and engaged with technological and social changes. At the same time, this move involves certain risks both to how the field sees itself and to how it fits into the modern university. These risks involve change for the field and change will involve new opportunities for students and faculty who position themselves to take advantage of the changing landscape of higher education as well as new dangers for vulnerable individuals who don’t, won’t, or can’t adapt. 

The conversations started at the #Datam conference will linger in my mind for a long time, and I hope they’ll continue as we work to publish a little volume based on the papers at the conference through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean

I’m off to New York this morning to give a paper at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. I’m also hoping to convince the participants (and hopefully some of the other folks who are doing using digital approaches to teach the ancient world) to publish a little book of the paper with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The hashtag is #DATAM and since the usual ancient world twitteroti will be in attendance, I suspect the twitter stream will be vibrant. Who knows, I might even flex my twitter fingers a bit.    

Conference Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean  Institute for the Study of the Ancient World 2018 10 25 05 57 48

If you follow the link above, you’ll see that there are some pretty interesting papers. For my part, I’ll be presenting on my use of the Scale-Up Classroom at UND to bridge digital divides. My paper is here.

Long time followers of the ole bloggeroo, will recognize that this paper is a version of a larger and more buttoned-down paper that I wrote in 2013-2014 on my experiences teaching in UND’s Scale-Up room. I still would like to send this out somewhere, but right now, it’s a pretty low priority!

 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching Greek History

For various reasons, I dusted off my Greek history class this semester for the first time since 2004. I generally don’t teach upper level courses which at UND have a 300 or 400 designation. Since 2004, I think I taught Byzantine history once and that’s probably it for upper level offerings. But departmental needs change, so I offered Greek history.

So far, I’ve managed to stick to the original plan for the class which is a survey of Greek history from the Bronze Age to the modern period. The focus is on ways of seeing the past and starts with Joanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in the Age of Austerity (2017) before the typical litany of primary sources, Herodotus, Thucydides, Pausanias, and this week Marinos’ Life of Proclus, as well as material culture using John Bintliff’s The Complete Archaeology of Greece (2012) as our guide. For each source, we consider how they understood and communicated the Greek past and the midterm and final ask students to bring this together.

So far, so good.

Now that I’m half way through the class, I’m confronted by several things.

First, the course is largely political history and maybe this is appropriate in a time seemingly dominated by politics, but it feel sort of olde skool to me. My original goal of starting with Hanink and thinking about how people in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era thought about the Greek past was to foreground and problematize the way that we think about the past. This is a very conventional historical approach which supports most critiques of the West, for example, as well as larger conversations about what matters in history. 

Recently, however, I’ve been following the work of various scholars who deal with complex issues of race and gender in antiquity and come to realize that structuring my course around a framework of political history profoundly shapes how students read the ancient sources (e.g. Rebecca Futo Kennedy and the various scholars who contribute to Eidolon as well as conversations with my old buddy Dimitri Nakassis). While the structure of a course and its goals will (and should!) always shape how we engage a text, it structure me that the chronological organization of my course into politically defined chunks (e.g. the Archaic period, the Classical period, Antiquity, the Byzantine period) move the students to read these same political priorities into the sources and makes it much more difficult to use these sources to read these sources as evidence for race, general, social institutions or even continuity (as opposed to historians persistent interest in change).  

Second, lecturing feels antiquated. My course is structured around the conventional lecture/discussion format. One out of every three classes focuses on a discussion of a primary source in a way that either ties this source into the themes of the course or uses the source to anticipate issues that will appear in the next few lecture. Today, we discuss Marinos Life of Proclus, for example, and that will intersect with my lectures on Christianization. (There will probably a powerpoint of Early Christian churches in the near future, just sayin’). 

This approach feels pretty tired to me. After a five years teaching in a Scale-Up style classroom and, in particular, after last semester, running a discussion-based class on the UND Budget Cuts and about understanding and documenting Wesley College, it’s really hard to go back to lecturing. It feels pretty stale. Moreover, it feels almost authoritarian. Of course, I have my excuse (that I tell to myself before every lecture class) that there isn’t really a single volume survey of Greek history from antiquity to the modern era so I HAVE to provide narrative structure (which is, of course, too often a code word for political history, see my first point).

The frustrating thing is that I know I can do better in this class, but more than that, I know that I can do this differently because I have in other classes. Version 2 of this course will be different. And as I look ahead to teaching Roman history (gasp!!), I realize that to be comfortable in the 21st century classroom, I need to engage it like a 21st century teacher.

Finally, while I love antiquity and have now spent the majority of my life thinking full-time about ancient things, my passions and interests have changed over the past decade. In fact, I often feel more nostalgic when preparing or teaching my Greek history course than genuinely passionate about the material (with some exceptions). Part of me realizes that the expectation that one feels passion for one’s work is the ultimate sign of privilege, but another part of me thinks that my students might be better served if I taught things in which I’m currently invested like publishing, digital concerns, or archaeology of the contemporary world.

 

Worrying Wednesday: DATAM Conference Paper and Modernity

Over the weekend, I spent some time puttering around with a paper that I’ll be giving at the Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean (DATAM) conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World next week.

I prepared a first draft a few weeks ago and posted it here. The paper argues that there are several digital divides. The first is the typical one between those with access to a well developed digital infrastructure and those without (or with significantly less access to broadband, to computers at home and at school, or to the latest technology). The second is sometimes called the “second level digital divide” that distinguishes consumer from so-called “prosumers” who produce content for the web as well as consume it. These prosumers are not only more invested in the digital world, but also more comfortable with digital tools and practices. The final digital divide that my paper dissects is that between data and analysis. Data is often represented in exclusively digital ways and articulated as a raw material (i.e. “raw data”), as a natural resource to be mined or drilled into, and as something that exists outside of (or beneath) analysis and interpretation. While most critical archaeologists understand that these metaphors have limits and do not reflect the realities of practice, there is a tendency in the classroom to place data and analysis into sharp relief. I then go on to discuss how an awareness of these divides has shaped my teaching in a Scale-Up style active learning classroom.  

As it reads now, however, the paper lacks an edge and a conclusion. My instinct, at present, is to try to demonstrate how the Scale-Up classroom creates another kind of digital divide between how the students engage with their learning and how my position as instructor can see their engagement. The barrier between what they can see and do and how I can see it is essential to the rise of a digitally mediated surveillance culture. The way that social media, search, and ecommerce companies track our behavior and produce responsive algorithms that depend on obscuring not only how they collect information, but also how they shape the way that we engage with their sites.

The metaphor of the panopticon from Bentham and Foucault, of course comes to mind, and its ability to condition the modern subject through the practice of being observed. That the panopticon also describes many aspects of our digital culture which strive to make us more willing consumers of both products and experience on the web is hardly debatable. What’s more worrisome, I suppose, is the way in which this same logic has shaped educational expectations. While it might sound naive to assume that somehow education – a thoroughly modern discipline – could avoid inculcating students with the expectations of the market, I do worry that our own use of digital tools and environments do little to prepare students to resist these pressures. On the other hand, perhaps an encounter based around dissection and breaking down these digital divides at least offers a tool kit for students to expect there to be limits to practices and to engagement in the digital world. This, of course, does nothing to undermine an ironic view of the modern world where strategies of dissimulation and occlusion obscure the real function of power and the making of meaning.

Three Thing Wednesday

It the time of the week (and frankly, semester) where the best I can do is muster three quick thoughts for the ole bloggeroo.

1. Inspiration. In my historical methods class yesterday, we read Michelet and discussed historical writing that sought to convey the emotional power to inspire readers and create the powerful emotional bonds that often define nationalism. My class was singularly unimpressed with Michelet’s project and declared him biased, unprofessional, and (in classic North Dakota style) arrogant. (Reader’s note: In North Dakota, arrogance is a blanket term to describe anyone who does anything in a way that deviates from fairly narrow norms. The assumption is that personal motivations and a sense of individual superiority are the only possible reason to be different. Standing out is the same as standing above and is a moral flaw.)  

This got me thinking about whether I do enough as a teacher (and, here, I’m thinking about UND in particular) to inspire our students. We do well to instill within our students a kind of a sense of confidence in the organization of the university and the curriculum. Students dutifully fulfill requirements, advance through majors, and achieve credentials. In fact, the confidence in the structured experience of credentialing is sufficient that many programs are concocting certificates, minors, and, there’s even talk of “badges” that indicate an individual has fulfilled the requirements for a particular program. The more of these credentials that exist, the more they structure how a student engages with a curriculum and forms expectations of performance and achievement. In such an environment, there is little room for the kind of individual or personal experiences evoked by Michelet, in part, because such experiences fit awkwardly within a curriculum that emphasizes the achievement of certain credentials that have explicit and often quantifiable benchmarks. In this context, experiences like self discovery, inspiration, and, even just chance, are, at best, epiphenomenal to the accomplishment of a common goal, and, at worst, a distraction or complicating factor that requires streamlining. 

In other words, as higher education becomes more formalized, structured, and quantifiable, it also leaves less room for inspiration, contingency, and inspiration. To paraphrase a colleague of mine in music, this song achieves its intended goals because every note is where I learned to put it in class. I need to do more to challenge this view of education in my students. 

2. Open Access. I had a nice chat with a colleague the other day about open access publishing in archaeology. She made the point that many graduate students or early-career academics can’t afford the time (or the risk) to do what I’ve done and start an open access press. In fact, many of them can’t even necessarily afford to publish in open access journals or series because many of these journals rank lower than their limited access counterparts and universities have come to rely more and more on the reputation of journals (some of which are from commercial publishers) to vouch for the quality of academic work. These are understandable and real problems for open access scholarship.

There are, however, some solutions that do not involve taking a risk by publishing in a new, untested, or less well-established, open access publication. Cite open access publications in your work. One of the key metrics for establishing the quality of a journal or publisher is, for better or for worse, citation counts in other quality publications. There are plenty of high quality open access publications that contribute to a wide range of fields. If you want to promote open access publishing, be sure to include these in your footnotes, citations, and bibliographies!  

3. Extended Intelligence. I need to get back to revising the ramshackle paper that I pre-circulated prior to the EAA meeting. It was not terrible, but it had – as the kids say – a lot going on. I would like to develop a bit more fully the sections on “logistics,” “assemblages,” and the archaeological “supply chain.”  In particular, I’d like to tie it a bit more closely to the concept of transhumanism and a transhuman archaeology. 

Yesterday, I stumbled across some of Joichi Ito’s work on extended intelligence and think that it offers an appealing hook for understanding how networked intelligence leverages the rhetoric (and technology) of logistics to transform and expand the very concept of thinking, knowing, and even in some cases feeling and experiencing (check out this rather extensive bibliography of the work of the MIT Affective Computing group). I’m not sure how much of this will make it into the final draft of the paper, but Ito’s reading of Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1954). As quoted by Ito, Wiener opined:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.”

 

 

Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean: Dissecting Digital Divides

Next month, I’m giving a paper at a conference called “Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean” and hosted by NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It’s title is “Dissecting Digital Divides: Teaching, Writing, and Making Knowledge of the Mediterranean Past.”

Right now, I only have a title and the dread feeling that I really have nothing significant to say about digital approaches to teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. 

I do, of course, have a little swarm of unrelated ideas and a strong yearning to be the kind of senior professor who can give a paper on three of four random things to a rapt audience. (Rather than feeling like an undergraduate who is trying to recycle the same three ideas that I’ve had since 2004 into another paper and hoping that nobody notices!).

So here are my ideas.

1. Digital Divide. There’s been a good bit of scholarship on the digital divide in secondary and higher education. The digital divide, in its most basic form, argues that a significant divide exists between those who use and have access to digital technologies and those who do not. This divide usually mapped along social, economic, and regional lines. Rural states, like North Dakota, tend to fall on one side of the digital divide especially when access to broadband internet is concerned, but I’d also argue —at least anecdotally— that students at UND are generally less technologically savvy and comfortable in digital environments than their more affluent and more suburban counterparts elsewhere in the U.S. 

I need to get data for this, but just observing my classes over the last few semesters, I continue to be struck by the significant number of students for whom technology is not a constant companion. Many of my students do not bring their laptops to class regularly, for example. In a recent field project that involved using mobile phones to take video, a number of students had such outdated phones that they could not accommodate more than short video clips; one student had a flip phone. While it was easy enough to negotiate the different access to technology, it remains clear that the digital divide—in terms of hardware—remains firmly in place. (A recently updated “smart classroom” with a series of small group work stations relies on students to use their own laptops too access the large, shared monitor. This seems like an optimistic implementation of technology.)   

Access to the right hardware, however, is only part of the digital divide. Over the last decade of teaching at UND, it has become clear to me that something as simple as a broken hyperlink or a pdf document oriented the wrong way, represents a significant barrier to accessing information. A significant group of students lack the standard tool kit of web “work arounds” that range from savvy web searches to negotiating the standard elements of user interfaces across multiple software. Even something as simple as using a mobile device as a quick and dirty scanner or looking for an article on Academia.edu or institutional repositories that they can’t access at UND remains on the fringes of their practice (even when such approaches are modeled in class).     

In my larger Scale-Up style class where groups of 9 work together to produce text, it was pretty apparent that even relatively simply digital interfaces – like editable Wikis or shared documents in Google or Microsoft 365 – caused myriad small scale obstacles that frustrated students and complicated group work. 

2. Prosumer and Consumers. My experience teaching at UND has suggested that access to hardware and familiarity with software (and these often go hand-in-hand) sketches one level of the digital divide and contributes to the existence of the “second level digital divide.” The second level divide maps the difference between individuals who are consumers of digital material on the web and those who are so-called “prosumers” of digital and web-based content. I contend that this second level divide is far more problematic that the first level divide for implementing digital approaches to teaching and, as a result, I have dedicated more time to cultivating prosumer culture among my students and demonstrating how digital tools facilitate certain kinds of collective knowledge making.

I will admit that my general approach is a naive one. I continue to have a certain amount of faith that the last unfettered wilds of the internet hold out a glimmer of hope for a society that is far more likely to be shackled, monitored, and manipulated by technology than liberated by it. I want my students to understand the power of Wikipedia, the ecosystem that produced the growing number of open educational resources and good quality open access software, and the potential, if not unproblematic character, of maker culture, and be prepared to contribute to it. 

On the other hand, I also understand that most aspects of prosumer culture have been coopted by the usual suspects of capitalism, exploitation, sexism, racism, and technological solutionism. By producing new knowledge, creative works, and tools, we are also likely to be producing profits for transnational corporations who are as comfortable limiting access to our own work as they are preventing us from foment even very small revolutions that cannot be monetized. As the kids say: “the revolution will now be monetized.”   

I still have hope, though, and at very least I want to work to undermine still-persistent attitudes that certain incredibly exploitative industries (like textbook publishing) represent a meaningful source of authority in the time of Wikipedia. 

3. The Other Digital Divide. History students obsess over and are baffled by the distinction between primary and secondary sources. For students of the ancient Mediterranean, their consternation is understandable and useful in unpacking the relative uselessness of this distinction among practicing historians. A source is a source and only primary or secondary in relation to its use. 

Practicing archaeologists sometimes find ourselves in the same bind, of course. The divide between “data” and “interpretation,” for example, coincides with the primary and secondary source divide among historians. The persistence of terms like “raw data” (which I think is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from use) reveals an understanding of archaeological knowledge making the divides data from interpretation. It seems to me that digital data makes this divide all the more convenient in part because the data itself appears so distinct from interpretative texts, and partly because digging down into the data represents a useful play on the modernist assumption that excavation (literally or metaphorically) provides access to a view of the past less encumbered by present interpretation. While intellectually, we may understand this divide as naive—as generations of archaeologists who celebrate reflexivity and methodology has taught us, we nevertheless tend to lean on the distinction between data and interpretation to frame our conversations. Endless references to archaeological data populate academic conferences, publications, and, I suspect, our teaching. For students who continue to want to see “facts” as the antidote to “fake news,” the transparent use of data appears to be a compelling ontological tonic for their epistemological anxiety. 

To my mind, this digital divide is every bit a pernicious as the other digital divides described in this post. In fact, it might be more dangerous in the era of “Big Data” than the other digital divides because it tends to see data as holding a particular kind of fundamental and inescapable authority in how it describes the world.  

4. Prosumption Critique. For the last 5 years, I’ve taught a large, Introduction to Western Civilization class at the University of North Dakota in a Scale-Up style classroom. The class generally enrolled 150-180 students and the room was set up for them to sit around round, 9-person tables. Each table had three laptops connected to a monitor and also came with a whiteboard and a microphone for the students to play with when bored. A central teaching station allowed me to observe most of the groups and to project content from the tables onto four large projection screens in the corners of the room.

The design of the room encouraged students work together and at least in theory sought to mitigate the hardware aspects of the digital divide by ensuring that at least three students had access to a laptop. In the most common implementations of this design, a student or students worked as the scribe for the table on a provided laptop or students worked in smaller groups, three to a laptop, sometimes installed with appropriate software for the task at hand. While I did not formally leverage the practical aspects of three-laptop design, it did work to mitigate the uneven access to technology among my students.

The class sought to mitigate the “second level digital divide” by encouraging students too critically work as prosumers of educational content. In practice, this involved having the students write a Western Civilization textbook with each table working on a series of chapters that would come together at the end fo the class as a completed book. This task encouraged students to recognize the value of their own voice, critical abilities, and their ability (and maybe even responsibility) to produce their own historical narratives and analysis. It also subverts some of the economic and political power of textbook publishers, although, I do ask them to buy a used copy of an older version of a textbook as a model.

Finally, the students start with more or less a blank document. I do not provide an approved list of primary or secondary sources or even offer much in the way of a critical guide to navigating the internet. Most students get that journal articles are “better” than random webpages (of uncertain authorship and content), that Wikipedia is a good place to glean chronology, geography, and additional sources, and that historical arguments are only as good as the sources they identify to build their arguments. If they can’t find good evidence for an argument, then no amount of rhetorical savvy is likely to make it compelling.

 

At the same time, this approach de-emphasizes the idea that there is a body of data “out there” ready for consumption, analysis, and interpretation. Instead, it encourages the students to see the body of useful evidence and data as the product of their research questions and priorities. The “raw material” of history is not something that is “mined” for knowledge, but something that’s built up as evidence FOR arguments about the past. 

In an era where relational data is literally being treated and traded as a commodity, it is hardly surprising that we envision knowledge making as a kind of extractive industry (and, here, I’m thinking of a paper that I recall my colleague Sheila Liming giving a few years back on the metaphor of “data mining” and “text mining”) rather than, say, performative or generative. It seems to me that encouraging students to be critical and conscientious prosumers of historical knowledge offers a little space to push back on both the economic and intellectual (or at very least metaphorical or rhetorical) underpinnings of our digital world.     

 

Teaching Thursday: Teaching to the Room

This semester, I’m teaching in two classrooms that enjoyed recent renovation. Both rooms are active learning classroom, of a type, with tables, white boards, and as many TV monitors as a sports bar. The rooms are fancy, well-appointed, but also a bit awkward for teaching history. 

The building in which they are located is the old medical school and many of the rooms were originally designed as labs. As a result, they were originally oriented perpendicular to the central hall way with large windows on one wall and a door on the other. To make them into classrooms, the university removed the divisions between the labs or offices and oriented the rooms parallel to the central hall way. In some cases, this created square rooms that can accommodate about 30 students:

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This room is oriented by the teaching station which stands in front of a wall with a large dry erase board and a pull down screen for images. While it lacks the bells and whistles of an active teaching room, the chairs are on wheels and can be easily rearranged and the additional white boards on the back and side walls allow for students to re-orient the classroom or to break it group work spaces with their own dry-erase boards. 

The room where I’m teaching Greek history is a bit less flexible, but it seats 60 students. One of the challenges of O’Kelly hall is that the central hallway and weight-bearing walls mean that a room of this size must be substantially longer than it is wide.

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Rather than chairs with desks on wheels, this room is organizes around 9, six-seat desks each with a video monitor and a dry erase board. The teaching center in on the hallway side, flanked by two doors and opposite a wall with several large banks of windows. Because the room does not allow for a clear view of the wall behind the teaching center, it lacks a large pulldown screen for projecting images, and instead it is possible to send images out to the remote monitors on each table. The wall behind the teaching station does feature a small dry erase board, but it is not visible from every table in the classroom. Finally, the teaching station is not centered in the room. The classroom extends about 4 meters further to the right of the monitor than it does to the left.

This presents some challenges for my teaching style.

First, despite the ability to send images out to individual tables, it is hard to teach from images or plans because it is difficult to point to various features in an image. The little pointer disappears when its stationary for more than a moment and to illustrate or point out any feature, I need to be focused on the monitor at the teaching station rather than the rest of the room. This is awkward.

Second, the asymmetrical orientation of the room means that I have to shift to the right to be equally close to the entire room when I talk to the class, and this moves me away from the teaching station. This invariably starts a little dance where I walk to my right, say things, and then move back to the monitor to point things out. Back-and-forth, I’ll wear a path in the carpet.

Third, the group work space is not bad, with six chairs around each table, but since the classroom accommodates classes from 35 students to almost 60, this arrangement doesn’t necessarily scale well across the entire range of possible class sizes. My Greek history class is ~35 students with about 30 showing up on any given day. This is at the upper range of a class in which a full-class discussion can happen. The arrangement of this room, however, makes this almost impossible. In fact, the orientation of the students toward one another and the monitors makes it challenging to get the students to engage the entire class. 

Lurking behind these observations is that my class remains anchored in lectures and full-class discussions. In the normal class, I engage the students every 10-15 minutes with a discussion of a text or an image. This style of teaching is a hybrid of the lecture style and the seminar and is generally appropriate for a class of 30-50 students.

While it is not the latest in active learning methods, it represents a disciplinary tradition that is consistent with what many of my colleagues do in upper level classes (giving the students a sense of familiarity), and also general effective in achieving learning outcomes that emphasize basic content knowledge and improvements in reading unfamiliar and challenging texts and images. The difficulty in using this room for this style of teaching is, to me, an interesting problem.

On the one hand, this is the tail wagging the dog with classroom design forcing faculty to adapt their teaching style. At UND, department have less control over their classrooms than in the past, and it is clear that the room in which I’m teaching was not designed with history classes in mind. In fact, when we created a similar active learning room, we designed it with more flexibility making it easier to adapt to the lecture-discussion style favored by our department.

On the other hand, I’m kind of intrigued by the challenge of making this space work and adapting my teaching style to these unique constraints. One of the more interesting things about teaching at a university is seeing how shifts across campus impact what we do in the walled-garden of our department. Budget cuts, new classroom architecture, no strategic initiatives and other shifts in big picture university planning influence how we do what we do, teaching what we teach, and know what we know. It’s fun to have such an explicit example as this classroom to use as a laboratory!

 

 

Teaching Tuesday: First Day Jitters

Like most of us who teach for a living, the first day of classes is exciting. It’s when we get back to doing what we’re sent here to do and for all the chaos and competing priorities in our professional and personal worlds, the classroom is one place where we can block those things out and focus on the task at hand.

I enter most semesters with a sense of confidence. I do all the teacherly things that are hot these days. I design my courses backward from the final assignment of the class to how I present the syllabus, I flip the classroom (and one a good day, I can get it to loop-de-loop), I try to maintain an inclusive classroom, and I am attentive to a range of assessment needs among my students.

The one thing that I rarely fret is content knowledge. This is mostly for two reasons. First, I am so intent on issues of pedagogy, course design, and method that I rarely spare much thought for what the class is about content wise. At my best, I have packaged content into neatly organized modules around course goals and manipulate what I know (or what I can learn or teach) to accommodate what I want to do in the classroom. As I’ve blogged about before, one of the key things in, say, a flipped classroom or in a classroom that is open to wide range of views is to be tolerant of ideas and perspectives that I think are probably wrong. Learning how to learn is often about a willingness to confront ambiguity in what we know. That means, as a teacher, we have to give folks space to be wrong, to rethink, to be wrong again, and then – maybe – eventually be right (but never to think you’re so right that you can’t be wrong). In other words, encouraging students to be wrong and giving them space to be wrong is fundamental to my pedagogy. The downside to this is that I have to check at the door the privilege that I’ve acquired from my expertise in a particular area. Knowing that a student is wrong is far less important than letting them figure out – whether in my class or later – that they’re wrong.

Second, I tend to teach at the margins of my area of expertise. I teach Western Civilization I where most of the time is spent with a high altitude survey of the West. I spend as much time wandering the Ancient Near East and the Middle Ages as I do in Ancient Greece and Rome, and even when I do find myself in my bailiwick, most of what I teach is rather different from what I know about the ancient world. Describing antiquity in a general way produces an ancient world that is quite different from the nitty-gritty that I’ve spent so much time learning. Otherwise, I’ve taught graduate historiography classes, undergraduate historiography classes, and methods courses at various levels. In other words, I never teach what I know, and this has given me the space to focus on both teaching and methods.

This semester, though, some of this will change. For the first time since 2004, I’m teaching Greek History. Not only do I know Greek history (well, some of it), but it’s something that I am still actively researching through my work with the Western Argolid Regional Project, through publishing on abandoned villages in the Corinthia, and through my longterm interest in Late Roman and Early Christian Greece. In other words, this semester I feel like content matters.

This realization has sent me into a bit of a spiral. Usually my classes are tightly organized around learning goals  and outcomes, pedagogy, and classroom practices. And while I recognize that this is might sound like putting the cart before the horse, I think it speaks to a classroom where our hope is to teach students broad concepts, transferable skills, and methods for learning that they can hone throughout their lives. These things are important, of course, even in my Greek History class, but perhaps because of my own passion for Greece and the topic, they are less important than actually understanding Greece. 

Starting this afternoon, I have to do more than let the latest pedagogical best-practices and course design philosophy dictate what I teach, I have to teach what I want students to learn and hope that over the course of the semester we find out way together. 

Wish me luck.