Teaching Tuesday: Teaching and The COVIDs

This has been a weird semester. I am teaching a new introductory level class (World Civilization I), we’re dealing with room capacity rules that have significantly changed how I planned to teach that class, and I’m teaching a couple of overloads that are being run exclusively via email. The threat of a shortened semester or all classes moving online hangs like a sword of Damocles over all of our heads as well making almost all planing feel provisional (at best) and a waste of time (on a bad day). This realization hasn’t stopped me from spending time looking ahead to the spring semester which likely be every bit as chaotic, unsettled, and unpredictable as this fall.

That all being said, I have encountered three or four things that feel worth sharing on this teaching Tuesday:

1. Engagement. University of North Dakota students run hot and cold. Some classes are almost overwhelming in their engagement while others are stone cold silent. In some cases, no amount of my antics or the latest pedagogical tricks of the trade rouse students from their hardened resistance. In other cases, I have to drag the students back on topic every 10 minutes as they chase butterflies and dance in the aisles.  

There’s something about this semester that has pushed students to engage not only more consistently, but also in a more rigorous way. Episodes of butterfly chasing and spontaneous dancing have been minimized and for reasons that I don’t quite understand, students have done more of the reading and are more interested and willing to discuss it in critical ways.

I do, of course, have theories about this. I think the COVIDs have limited certain kinds of social distractions typical of campus life. I also suspect that students do feel the weight of both this summer’s protests and the upcoming election. While our students are not prone to the kind of high-profile activism that exists on some campuses, they are thoughtful, reflective, and serious about their role in shaping the future of their communities.

2. Grading. For the first time ever, I told my students that if they do the work and take my class seriously, they’ll get “As”. In fact, I told them that, if I could, I would eliminate grades in all their classes. This is simply a reaction to the unsettled situation surrounding COVID or even the growing public awareness of structural biases inherent in our education system (although those things have been in my mind for the last few years). It is also not a response to growing pressure to retain students and to use “D,F,W” counts as a way to evaluate teaching (i.e. the number of students who receive a “D,” “F,” or “W” (for withdraw after the drop period ends) in a class), although that has simmered in the back of my head.

What prompted me to re-evaluate grading in my classes has much more to do with the success of several classes that I’ve taught where grading has been significantly de-emphasized. I also have started to worry that grading in my classes has been more about penalizing students who do not do the work or do not appear to take the class seriously. I also worry about the message that the grade is the reward especially at the college level. These two poles often push me to be either a classroom cop or a benevolent ruler dispensing largess for a job well done. Neither role suits me very well and I dislike that they put students into a position of begging for mercy or pandering for a reward.

I’m not sure how I’ll implement a gradeless class, and my instinct suggests that it would be better in my History 240: The Historians Craft class, populated by majors and minors,  than my 100 level introductory class. I need to think more about this, though.  

3. Making my classes work. This semester got me thinking a good bit about what makes a good university level class in the age of hybrid, hyflex, online, and various other digitally mediated methods of instruction. I’ve also been amazed by my colleagues’ enthusiasm and commitment to producing dynamic, immersive, and often multi-media experiences for their students. 

As I contemplated how I might make my own class more contemporary and exciting for students, I also started to wonder whether such dynamic, multi-media approaches would really suit my teaching style. To be clear, I rarely even use powerpoint in my classrooms and still sometimes resort to drawing maps on the white board to show the location of places or the movement of groups. My classes tend to focus instead on texts and ideas (not to say that my colleagues’ classes do not focus on such things!), and despite my professional preference for things, places, and spaces, I’ve managed to keep my own biases at bey.

All this is to wonder whether I could create a hybrid/hyflex/digital class devoid of bells and whistles and immersive multi-modal, multi-media experiences and instead return to a pre-digital mode of distance learning and teaching. I wonder whether adopting some methods developed in correspondence classes – clearly articulated assignments designed to move students through a series of skills at their own pace – would offer a welcome respite from the media-saturated environment of higher education? 

Like my interest in minimizing the impact of grading on how I teach, I don’t have a fully formed idea as of yet, but I’m hoping to explore these ideas a bit more over the next month or so and experiment with them a bit in the spring semester.

Teaching Tuesday: First Day of Classes 2020

These are weird and unsettled times and this semester will be a weird and unsettled semester. As of this morning over 230 members of the UND community (including 223 students) have tested positive for The COVIDs and 130+ of them are in hotels in quarantine or isolation. 

I start teaching this afternoon and despite the unsettled times, I feel my usual early semester excitement. At the same time, The COVIDs have pushed me to think more about my own approach to teaching and things I can do this semester that will have knock-on effects even after we achieve a “new normal.” 

My little list here is not meant as another contribution to the endless stream of advice appearing on teaching and edutech blogs and on social media. Instead, this is a list designed to keep me focused on the first day of classes. If it helps someone else, that’s great, but I don’t feel qualified these days to give anyone advice.  

1. Be Patient. One of my worst features as a teacher is that I am impatient. I expect students (and at time colleagues) to make connections quickly and to follow my train of thought and model my actions as efficiently as possible. I tend to see stumbles or hesitation as opportunities to interject and to nudge the process along. In some cases, this works well as my students come to understand where I’m going more quickly than if left to their own devices. In most cases, though, it short circuits the learning process and teaches the students that if they get stumped, I’ll provide the answer. At worst, it makes a student who is thinking critically about some leap in my thinking feel like their own perspective on a problem is less valuable than following my lead. It can discourage a student from thinking.

This semester, I need to remember that everything is unsettled and to be patient with myself and my students.

2. Communicate. One of the things that I’m trying to emphasize in my syllabi this semester is communication. Unlike my past efforts to encourage my students to communicate regularly with me, I avoided preemptive scoldings, condescending reminders, and ominous warnings about what happens when students go “radio silent.”

Having thought a good bit about Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor  and Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, I changed my approach and instead promised in my syllabus that I would do all I can to communicate regularly and consistently with my classes. My hope is that by putting the onus on myself to communicate, I will make it clear that communication isn’t just another thing that I expect of my students, but a mutual obligation.

3. Trust my Students. Along these same lines, I continue to work toward trusting my students more. As our lives are likely to be completely upset by The COVIDs, I’ve really tried to focus on flexibility in my syllabus. This semester, this means more than just my own willingness to adjust the class to whatever challenges come our way and includes a willingness to allow students to adjust my classes to better suit their needs.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this will play out. While I’m far from a control freak in my classes, I do tend to see changes to the class as a kind of negotiation between my priorities and those of my students. As with any negotiation, I tend to expect that my students’ interests are not consistent with my own and expect them to compromise in exchange for some compromise on my part. This approach, of course, assumes that we’re not on the same page. 

This semester, I’m going to work harder to assume that we are on the same page.

4. Keep it Simple. I like technology as much as the next person, and I’m always tempted to embrace the ideal technical solution no matter how complicated. Most of the time, I can avoid this temptation and recognize that simple processes, even if they produce less than ideal results, are more valuable than complicated processes.

I need to keep my classroom technologies simple. For one research focused class, I’m using only email to communicate instructions and expectations. For another, I’m focusing on short, weekly, flexible face-to-face meetings (supplemented, invariably, by Zoom) that can shift quickly to text-based instructions delivered asynchronously.

My historical methods class is the only one that I’m not entirely sure how to make accessible outside of the face-to-face classroom, but right now, I’m leaning toward a podcast supplemented by show notes and a threaded discussion board.

5. Teach One Day at a Time. Finally, I constantly have to resist my instinct to plan for every contingency (and invariably find myself unprepared for any of them). I need to just teach one day at a time and pivot to whatever challenge presents itself. 

I’ve long thought that just-in-time teaching was an appealing approach to the modern university classroom. It required faculty to know what they wanted to do in a “big picture” way and left the details to the moment of interaction in the classroom. The “Type A” part of my personality, however, had always resisted such a fluid situation and I developed a strange dread that some pearl of wisdom or dollop of content would go astray. In fact, my classes became oddly linear and proscriptive in design which required me to move, step-by-step, though a process in order to achieve whatever course goals I had set. While there remains a time and a place for such an approach, this semester seems uniquely unsuited to any kind of linear approach to teaching.

Instead, I’m going into my classes with some big picture goals centered as much on exposure to ideas, processes, methods, and approaches as any expectation that students will understand them in their particulars. My hope is that this will help me adapt to changing circumstances, be more willing to follow my students’ lead, and more patient with myself and my students. 

Teaching Tuesday: Writing my Syllabus in the Time of COVID

We’re supposed to have some kind of syllabus available for students enrolled in our fall semester classes. I’ve been fussing over how to articulate the unsettled state of the fall semester and the inevitable anxiety that this will create in our students (as well, of course, as faculty).

I’ve also thought a good bit about Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (2020), which I wrote about earlier in the summer. He reminds us that learning is hard and this simple point is a call to be both more compassionate with how we engage our students and more understanding in how we create space for learning in our classroom. He proposes syllabi that aren’t a long list of requirements, but part of a frank conversation that we have with our students that opens the door to establishing shared expectations and aspirations and marking these out as reciprocal. 

Along similar lines, I’ve been inspired a bit by Jeffery Moro’s call for us to “Abolish Cop Shit” in our classrooms. This has obvious implications in syllabus writing (and it really summarizes a bunch of problems at the intersection of learning, ed-tech, and the role of education in disciplining bodies and minds for compliance culture). 

Here’s what I have so far as the opening to my History 105: World History to 1500 syllabus:

Hello, class and welcome to History 105: World History to 1500.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the syllabus, I want to discuss my view of the coming semester.

The last six months have been a period of crazy uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration. From endless Zoom meetings to an interrupted spring semester, social distancing, and mask, we’ve all had to figure out the “new normal.” It seems almost inevitable that this semester will be unsettled in some way.

Because we know that things will be unsettled and that we’re all in this together, I’ll do all I can to communicate with you regularly. This means I’ll respond promptly to your emails, I’ll post regular updates to Blackboard, and I’ll be available to meet with you via Zoom or face-to-face as the situation allows.

It also means that I hope you’ll communicate regularly with me and your fellow classmates throughout the semester. Good communication will not only help us all stay on the same page, but also make it possible for us to adapt quickly and flexibly to any changes in the situation over the course of the semester. We’ll talk about the various ways to communicate in this class.

The unsettled nature of the fall semester also means that you have to trust that I’m going to be fair and reasonable with this class. I’ll do all I can to maintain a consistent  workload and grading expectations over the course of the semester, and if we have to change assignments, I’ll try to offer different options to accommodate different situations and goals for the class. 

In exchange, I hope that you will all do the best that you can to keep you eyes on this class over the next 16 weeks. We’re all in this together.


Teaching Tuesday: Introducing World History

Over the last week or so, I’ve started to think more seriously about how I’m going to introduce my World History I class and since our syllabi are due in a few weeks, now seems to be a good time to get things down on paper.

The challenge that I’m facing when it comes to teaching World History is getting students to think globally without becoming too dependent on certain longstanding metaphors, approaches, and structures that shape how we understand the past. The goal of this class and of World History is not just to stretch the history of Europe or “The West” onto the rest of world and extend its fixation on causality, progress, universal time and space to Africa or Asia. Instead, the goal of this course is to challenge us to understand what the complexities of a World History actually means for how we view our own past and present. Hopefully, the class will produce students who are more attentive and critical to the prevailing views of history as a discipline and as a way to make sense of the present.  

As I’ve discussed in another blog post, this class will use an open access textbook and primary source reader, but will require students to read against the grain of these books and to identify and fill in gaps through drawing on other open access resources available on the web.

Each class will be about an hour interactive lecture followed by an hour or so of independent group work. This rhythm will introduce students to both the structure of the class moving forward (although he amount of time that I spend lecturing will decrease) and allow them to become familiar with their groups and start to find ways to work together while social distancing and the like.

1. Space.

The first week, we’ll consider the ways in which historians have divided the world. We’ll consider concepts like “The West” and the “Orient”; the “Global North” and the “Global South”; Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America; the nation state; and even longitude and latitude and UTM coordinates. Without delving too deeply into the history of these designations, we’ll consider how these work today in shaping our expectations of the past cultures and societies and the role that history plays in studying and understanding these cultures and societies.

The first assignment of the semester will be to use the textbook to identify 5 places from around the world. Describe the location of these sites in at least 5 ways each (e.g. by continent, modern nation, region, map coordinates, et c.) and in a brief <100 word essay define their significance.  

2. Time.

The second week of class will focus on time, chronology, and periodization. As with week 1, we’ll start with a discussion of various dating schemes from the naming of rulers and dynasties to the use of solar and lunar calendars. We’ll also start to discuss various periodization schemes from the use of terms like “Ancient” and “Medieval” to broader categories of “pre-industrial” and “pre-modern.” The goal of this is to consider how the way in which we measure time and periodize the past shapes the way in which we understand it. 

The project associated with this class will be to assign at least four different periods to each of the places established in the first week and to write at least a sentence on the significance of these various periodization schemes.

3. Causality.

The third week of class will consider causality in history. We’ll start with a general discussion of what causes events to happen and then we’ll explore how this intersects with notions of time and space. The plan is to start with very broad notions of causality – like environmental determinism – and then slowly narrow our view to more specific understandings of causes for events.

The assignment here will be to identify 5 events distributed around the work and to describe their location (in at least 4 ways), their date (in 4 ways), and their cause.


The goal of these assignments is to complicate the notions of space, time, and causality and to prepare students for understanding how the complexities of defining these aspects of the past create the basis of a non-linear history.

In fact, I’m tempted to start all this on week 2 and to introduce more broadly he concept of non-linear history on week 1 with a series of exercises designed to challenge students’ ideas of progress. This would leave me with roughly 12 weeks (or four, 3 week modules) for the students to pursue their own efforts that non-linear approaches to the past.

More on this soon!

Some Publishing Notes from a Small Press

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about open access and scholar led publishing. None of my thoughts are developed or even really interesting enough for a full fledged blog post, but I decided that I should write some of them down as a little list.

1. Agility and the Small Press. I have been working on one of those “sudden projects” over the last week that dropped into my lap almost completely formed, but needing a publisher. Because I have a very crowded fall schedule that involves not only my own research and teaching, but at least two other books that are deep into production.

It’s been really fun working quickly on this book project, which I’ve blogged about here, partly because with a sense of urgency comes a kind of collegiality that I’ve missed because I’m not doing fieldwork this summer, and partly because the project is really cool (and I promise more on this over the next week or so!). It has also reminded me that very small presses can be particularly agile because we don’t have the same complex production workflows that larger presses depend upon to keep multiple books moving forward simultaneously. In effect, my workflow is always just-in-time, even for projects that have a predictable publishing trajectory.

Of course, this agility has its own social costs and reflects the rather contingent character of labor that supports the smallest presses. My access to surplus time, both in my own life, among my collaborators, and from elsewhere in the publishing infrastructure (e.g. copy editors, printers, et c.) has its own social consequences and reflects, in part, the precarious nature of academic and creative work.

Despite these affordances (or perhaps because of them), books developed quickly can be quite successful. The most popular book in The Digital Press catalogue remains Eric Burin’s edited volume, Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College which came together in less than six weeks.  

2. Publishing and Race. Over the last few years, the “syllabus” has emerged as one of the standard responses of academics to a crisis. I jokingly call this almost knee jerk reaction to everything from hurricanes to the recent pandemic, removal of monuments, immigration reform, health care, and BLM as “I’ve got a reading list for that.” 

At their best, these often crowd-sourced (or at least academic, crowd-sourced) reading lists are thoughtful and expansive. Recent popular reading lists on race circulating on social media, however, nudged me to think a bit about how they reflect certain aspects of structural racism. Google 

This most striking thing to me is that most of the books on these reading lists are published by large presses whose catalogues consist largely of books by white authors. Moreover, publishing as an industry is largely white with only about 5% of those working in publishing identifying as black. In academic publishing, it’s worth noting that none of the presses currently members of the American Association of University Presses are based at a HBCU.  Since AAUP member presses represent most of the major academic publishers in the Anglophone world, a black academic requiring a book to receive tenure would almost inevitably have to publish with a university press based at a majority white institution likely run by a largely white staff with a catalogue of white authors. 

What’s interesting, though, is that black publishers do exist. Until 2011, for example, Howard University Press published works focused largely on black and African American culture, history, and society. When it closed, some of its catalogue was to be acquired by Paul Coates’s Black Classic Press (it’s unclear whether this played out). A quick Google search will reveal quite a few other black and minority run presses in the US alone, but very few books by these presses have appeared on various academic BLM focused reading lists.

One wonders as the structure of academic publishing is changing rapidly whether this situation will change over the next few decades. The emerging role of the open access movement, new forms of scholar-led publishing, and print-on-demand and digital technology creates opportunities for historically underrepresented groups to create publishers, practices, and series that reflect their communities and communicate their contributions to a wider audience.    

3. OA Journals. Last week, a colleague asked me whether I had any thoughts about how to fund an open access journal that had reached the end of its initial grant. It got me thinking about sustainable models in OA journal publishing and the shift from journals supported by subscriptions to those funded through article processing charges and fees (APCs). 

In the sciences, this shift follows the logic that researchers often with large grants and at larger, research oriented schools have the resources to fund the publication of their results and to make them available for free to scholars at less well-resourced institutions. For the humanities and social sciences, of course, this doesn’t really work as well. High quality research regularly comes from institutions that lack the resources of major research universities or that privilege teaching over research. Open access journals with high APCs will likely struggle to attract publications from researchers in the humanities and social sciences that do not have high levels of institutional support to say nothing of scholars working outside the academy or graduate students. The potential impact of this model on open access publishing, of course, known and troubling. 

What I was wondering lately is whether any open access journals have pursued approaches to open access publishing that seek to combine subscriptions with open access publishing? A number of presses have started to release open access books in paper first and then digitally later allowing the press to earn some income from book sales, which tend to largely occur within a year of a book’s release, while still making the book available open access for classroom use, for example. 

Would it be possible for a journal to have a trigger, for example, that releases a volume’s open access content when it reaches, say, 100 or 200 subscribers? This would ensure that the journal would have an adequate income to publish (let’s say that each subscription cost $80-$100). Moreover, since many journal subscriptions are bundled into larger packages which are sold to institutions, one could imagine an open access journal being combined with more traditional journal subscription packages to generate some additional sustainable income. Finally, an OA journal could implement variable or even voluntary APCs which would create another revenue stream. When certain funding or subscriber levels are reached, the journal content would become open. 

Maybe journals already employ this kind of hybrid approach, but I’m not aware of them. 

4. OA and OER. Finally, I’m going to apply for a small stipend to develop two new classes that use Open Educational Resources at the introductory level (Western Civilization I and World History I). Both classes will do more than just use an open access textbook, but will bake the ideas of open access publishing into the work of the class.

In particular, the classes will encourage students to understand critically their role as “prosumers” in 21st century society. I’ve written about this recently in Sebastian Heath’s edited volume DATAM: Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean. The goal of the class is to have students dissect, reorganized, and expand the two open access textbooks with an eye toward making them more useful, sophisticated, and responsive to the needs of their particular class and their particular interests. 

Using open access books gives students an opportunity to understand how the next generation of open educational resources is more than just swapping out an expensive textbook for a free version, but a framework both fully parallel with recent moves toward active learning and consistent with larger crowd-sources projects such as Wikipedia, which when realized in their best forms, create dynamic and democratic spaces for sharing of resources and analysis. As our students increasingly contribute to and consumer content from commercial ventures from Facebook and Twitter to Tiktok and Instagram, presenting an opportunity to engage with “prosumer” practices in a more traditional and critical environment will allow them to recognize the limits and potential of open, social, and crowd based knowledge making.   

Teaching Tuesday: Radical Hope

Like many people I’m pretty worried and anxious about teaching this fall. Not only am I teaching a new class, but it looks like I’ll be doing it in a pretty unprecedented teaching environment with social distancing, much reduced classroom capacities, and a much greater reliance on online teaching. 

In an effort not to feel overwhelmed, I’m reading a bit on teaching and trying to think very deliberately about how I frame my classes. This weekend, I read Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (University of West Virginia Press 2020). While the book didn’t necessarily tell me anything new (and it didn’t necessarily feel particularly radical to me), it did reinforce a few ideas in my head and it was short. There’s always something to be said for a useful short book.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Learning is Hard. At the beginning of every semester, I remind myself that learning is hard. Our brains do not want or enjoy being rewired. It takes time and concentration. And it usually involves failure and frustration. Whenever I try to learn something new, I find myself regularly pushing square pegs into round holes, almost uncontrollably making the same mistakes over and over, and deliberately looking for shortcuts and workaround to avoid understanding a new idea fully before trying it out. 

In college, we often do little to make learning easier. Each semester students encounter a mishmash of different expectations, methods, and topics. Even when courses have similar goals they’re often expressed in different — discipline specific — ways. Moreover, we ask students to make connections across diverse courses encountered over four or five years to reinforce key concepts which are often relatively ill-defined. Consider “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” and “the ability to read and write.”    

Because learning is hard, students do what they can to resist it. In some cases, this resistance is subtle, and amounts to little more than avoiding challenging concepts or issues. In other cases, it can be bold and disruptive: missing deadlines, confrontational classroom behavior, or simply checking out during class. 

This is all complicated by the fact that college costs have continued to rise, the promised (and often economy) value of a college education is frequently pushed into an uncertain future, and students themselves endure a barrage of criticism from “the kids these days” to questions about the politics of campus life, work ethic, and emotional durability. In short, college life in the 21st century is stressful, frustrating, and uncertain. 

Gannon’s book reminds us that teaching and learning can, and, in fact, should be a hopeful enterprise. As faculty, we need to find a way to approach our classes that embodies a hope not only for a successful outcome (whether manifest in some kind of assessment or in practice), but also for an encounter with students that communicates this hopefulness. 

Second, this book isn’t just an expression of optimism or an aspirational manifesto. Throughout Gannon offers practical examples of how sharing a commitment to hope can create significant change in our classrooms.

My biggest take away was that hope provided the basis for a shared sense of agency. By treating students as collaborators in the learning venture and ceding some of the authority that our institutional position gives us, we make ourself visibly willing to learn from our students. By subjecting ourselves to the humbling experience of learning (in public no less!), we acknowledge that learning is hard and this offers a compelling invitation to our students to join in a shared struggle.

In this context, the flipped classroom represents more than asking students to do encounter content at home and then come to class to discuss it (that is flipping the context for learning content). It also involves flipping the locus of authority in the classroom and giving students the authority to act as teachers. 

Finally, this involves more than just a willingness to demonstrate our own learning in the classroom (and with it making the pain of learning new things visible), but also doing our part as teachers to mitigate some of the more frustrating elements of the learning process. 

Of particular interest to me was ways to making a syllabus more legible to students. Some of the suggestions offered by Gannon were minor. For example, he noted the tendency of traditional syllabi to be impersonal documents full of institutional language and formal and legalistic statements. As anyone who has rapidly clicked through end users licensing agreements that use this same language, it’s easy to understand why syllabi are frequently ignored or read in only the most cursory fashion. In the place of institutional language, Gannon suggests that we adopt a more conversational and personal tone. Not only does this present learning as a shared, personal experience, but it also softens the barrier between the faculty member and the students. By changing the character of the syllabus from one of compliance to one of aspiration, we open the door to creating a hopeful middle ground of shared expectations. While this may sound like touchy-feely eduspeak, I actually buy this. I think that creating a middle ground between instructor and students is vital to for any teaching and this involves distancing ourselves from the institutional trappings of power.

Along these lines, I offer two little concluding thoughts.

First, it almost goes without saying that this fall semester will be clusterfuck on most university campuses. My institution struggles to maintain a consistent institutional framework for teaching and research in the best of circumstances with administrative turn over, ambiguous policies, and unclear and unenforceable mandates.

While this might feel like a disaster waiting to happen, I’d suggest that this situation actually makes it easier for us to build rapport with our students. The absence of a strong and consistent institutional backdrop to our classes means that both we and our students are in this together. We have to figure out a way forward to ensure that some meaningful learning happens. The university will not guarantee that.

Secondly, I do wonder how much of Gannon’s book presents a distinctly male perspective on building a classroom based on radical hope. His willingness to share authority with students and his ability both to enforce standards and communicate expectations almost certainly relies on his outward appearance as a conventional figure of authority. I found myself thinking at various points whether I would have embraced some of the techniques he explores my first few years teaching. I also wondered whether they’d be appropriate for colleagues who often have their own vulnerabilities that invite certain kinds of student resistance in the classroom. 

This is not meant to undermine Gannon’s central point, but to simply observe that this book, like most manifestos, is a point of departure not a destination.

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. 


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.


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. 


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:

The Other

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.