Blog Post

Small Steps Shattering Ceilings

Celebrate the small steps?

I teach ancient and medieval history. Gender equality is not a thing in the civilizations my students and I study. Ever. Women are always at a disadvantage – biologically tied to childbirth, socially valuable primarily as wives who bring property or wealth or labor to a family, and economically dependent due to inequitable inheritance laws and educational/occupational limitations.

But that is an exhausting story to tell over and over again. So I spend the semester trying to convince my students to look for ways that women claim agency and societies as a whole take small steps toward greater fairness. In ancient Egypt, women could initiate marriage and divorce. In Han China, Ban Zhao wrote history and pushed for equal education (at least in the aristocracy). In the Roman Empire, gravestones and graffiti women owned property and had a wider variety of careers than many contemporaries. Women hosted church meetings for Roman Christians and missionaries too.Rome Spring 2016.001.jpeg

According to the traditional narrative of early Islam, Khadijah convinced Muhammad of his prophetic calling. Women gained new rights to inherit and control their own property (one wonders if Khadijah the merchant had a say in this). In medieval Europe, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote soaring melodies, medical texts, and mystical devotions while she led a community of women dedicated to holiness and simplicity.

In the absence of greater transformation, I say, we must celebrate the small steps.

No. Shatter the ceilings.

My students typically reject my careful narrative in favor of a focus on kickass, exceptional the world over. Their blog posts, this semester and in the past, have focused on:

  • Wu Zetian, the first female emperor of China
  • Tomyris, the Scythian warlord responsible for the death of Persian king, Cyrus the Great
  • St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, often credited with ending the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
  • Matilda, contender for the English throne and mother to Henry II
  • Artemisia, a satrap (ruler) under the Persian king, Xerxes, who led her navy in battle against the Greek navy in the Greco-Persian Wars
  • Joan of Arc, the medieval mystic and eventual saint
  • Cleopatra, ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt and one of the wealthiest, most educated persons of her time. (Quite possibly more educated and powerful than Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, thank you very much).
  • The Trung Sisters, who led Vietnamese military resistance against China in the first century CE.

I think I know why they choose these women over my midwives, laborers, property owners, and holy women. These women are triumphant, inspiring, and terribly alive. They are #unstoppable, #fierce, #girlpower, #nastywomen in the best possible ways. Heck, I want to cheer when I read the celebration apparent in their posts.

My students, understandably and beautifully, gravitate towards stories that defy oppression and seem to offer hope in the midst of their study of broken social structures and massive inequality. They seek stories of radical, rapid success in the hope that these women’s stories signal progress for everyone.

When it’s not enough.

I had hoped to invite them to cheer with me last week as I announced the election of the first female president of the United States. That wasn’t what happened, of course.

As my colleagues and I watched the results of the presidential election come in, I expressed anger and sadness and frustration at the results. Expressed is the wrong word. I burst out in tears and anger as my hope that we would see our first female president was obliterated. A friend, more gracious than me, offered perspective, “But she ran! On the ticket of a major party. And nearly won. That’s a huge deal. Plus Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar…” To which I angrily proclaimed (yelled? I might have yelled…), “That’s not enough!”

I didn’t want small change. I wanted big change. Now. Not just the change that brought with it the election of a female president, but (ideally) the sort of change that ushered into power a president who would listen to the diverse group of people who comprised her electoral base.

We can talk about whether or not those hopes were misplaced some other time. (No really, we can – I’m not trying to put you off forever.) For the moment, I need you just to hear: This was my hope. And it hurt like hell when that hope was crushed.

How do I teach this?

I’m wondering now how best to teach the sort of gender-inclusive history that is so near and dear to my heart in this world that is clearly so desperate for big change, not small celebrations.

How do I present triumphant, resilient, energizing female warriors and rulers – but still communicate to my students the limitations of those exceptional people? Because the historical reality is that these women were awesome, but didn’t always creating lasting change for other female-bodied people. Their reigns or battles didn’t usually create conditions in which other women could achieve the same success. [See Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh; only two women (maybe) officially ruled after her in the next millennium before Ptolemaic rule and all the Cleopatras]. They often perpetuated the worst abuses of their class (which included slavery, conscripted labor, taxation to fund lavish spectacles…pretty standard stuff for the ancient world).

How do I tell them about the inequality that pervades history without leaving them feeling helpless and lifeless? Because the historical reality is that many ‘ordinary’ women lived significant, even remarkable lives. Women’s household labor and craft in China made possible the initial silk production that fueled international trade for the powerful Han dynasty in China. Women have steered new humans into the world on a daily basis in every culture since forever. Women navigated ships in the perilous Mediterranean, they created diplomatic ties between nations through marriage alliances, started new religious movements, and staged anti-war demonstrations.

This is what it takes.

Now that my initial anger has (mostly) passed, I want to find ways to leverage the sort of discontent that makes me and my students desire radical change BUT I also want them to understand that, historically, we have proven ourselves a stiff-necked species, slow to truly disrupt the status quo. I don’t love that about us, but I think it’s true. I wish it wasn’t for the sake of my friends and loved ones who are less safe, more tired, rightfully more frightened than me.

I don’t want to assume how silk makers, midwives, ships captains, demonstrators, political wives, rulers and warriors felt about their work or, in many cases, their minority status in work and the world. I want to give them the respect of not projecting my own agenda onto their lives. But I also want to acknowledge that whether or not they felt like they were working for the betterment of women and of humanity, the lesson of their lives – the thing I want my students to know – is this thing that echoes across the writings of all sorts of workers for justice this week:

It takes difficult, constant, persistent, everyday working, living, and being to create greater freedom of movement, economic freedom, occupational opportunities, and inclusion in religious communities for the populations left out of the best things in society. 

It shouldn’t but it does. Also sometimes change happens by accident. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But those are other posts, I think.

I don’t know what this means for my syllabus yet and there are always the limitations of time, institutional expectations, and my own knowledge gaps to deal with. But this is what I’m thinking about. If you’re thinking about that too, leave me a comment or come find me on Twitter. Let’s get to work together.

Blog Post

Spreadable Media in the Classroom

I’m getting back into the swing of things with the dissertation this week and my book and website of the moment are Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, 2013).

NYU Press, 2011

The work is aimed at media/culture critics, communication scholars, and businesses (an exceptionally inclusive audience already), and I think there are some significant takeaways for my dissertation (which focuses on historical significance, i.e., value and meaning, in a digital world) and for teaching more broadly.

I especially appreciate the author’s exploration of “sticky” vs. “spreadable” media. According to the authors, sticky content, as first articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (2002), is created by a particular person or group and then placed in a single location on the web. The creator then makes an effort to attract the presumed audience to this location and counts the votes or views or purchases in order to measure the success of their strategy. Spreadable content, by contrast, is meant to be easily shared on a wide variety of platforms. In the creation of spreadable content, creators cede much of the control over the content’s virtual life to the audience.

Jenkins and Ford sum up the difference:

“Sticky sites often incorporate games, quizzes, and polls to attract and hold the interests of individuals. The participatory logic of spreadability leads to audiences using content in unanticipated ways as they retrofit material to the contours of their particular community. Such activities are difficult for creators to control and even more difficult to quantify” (p. 6).

For me, this resonates with much of the conversation surrounding ed tech at the moment. Some of the current literature focuses on “sticky” methods – How can we gamify our grading structures or activities so they hold students’ interest? If we introduce periodic polls or quizzes in class, can we get students to tune in to us (instead of Facebook) more frequently?

There is, though, also a strain of think pieces, books, and Twitter conversations more interested in “spreadable” methods – How can we communicate content (especially utilizing technology and digital media) in a way that leaves it open to multiple interpretations, remixes, and appropriations by our students?*

As someone who teaches a subject (ancient/medieval history) that isn’t always apparently relevant to students, I think I often find myself using “sticky” methods in the classroom. I give my most enthusiastic performances when students have the least energy, I utilize entry and exit quizzes, and I encourage the use of a Padlet for questions in class so we can take breaks to answer those questions. These are all tactics to attract and hold the interests of students.

I do use some “spreadable” methods as well. The student blogging project is perhaps the best example of this. I try to give students the historical, technological, and methodological tools they’ll need to write their posts and I provide some suggested topics and sources of information. What they do with a given topic or post format, however, is up to them – and out of my control.

That means when I suggested to a group that the best format for their topic might be a BuzzFeed-like listicle composed on our class website…they created an honest-to-goodness BuzzFeed article instead. Or when I asked that they only use Creative Commons/fair use/public domain images, they used GIFs to illustrate their post instead of or in addition to other images. (Do pardon the images not working in some of these posts. That’s a WordPress issue, not the students’ fault.)

Jenkins and Ford note that there is a place for both sticky and spreadable media in the digital world, but their preference is pretty clearly for the latter (p. 8). I think there is room for sticky and spreadable methods of teaching as well, but I want to think a bit more about when each is most effective for communicating content and helping students create meaning and value around their study of history.





*I hearby promise to come back and add examples of these diverse conversations at some later date….

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LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences

ENFPs should not promise to write blog post series. My attention span is somewhat better than that of a goldfish (an unfortunate misconception about ENFPs), but I do prefer to consider all the things I could write about over writing about the things I said I would write about. Case in point, as soon as I committed to addressing the six questions posed by Neil Haave in my last post, I promptly set off thinking about all sorts of other interesting things. I signed up for an archived mass open online course (MOOC) offered through EdX. I found a new (to me) presentation tool, Prezi, that I think holds a great deal of potential for communicating material to students who identify as visual or spatial learners. I’ve also started considering how to revise my syllabus for next semester; it’s time for some new primary sources and the blogging project could use tweaking. All productive lines of thought, but not at all focused on what I intended to write. Hence my delayed return to blogging and to the series of posts I sketched out in Learning Style, Teaching Style (LSTS).

Haave’s first two prompts for reflection are:

  1. Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student.
  2. Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor.

He encourages readers to consider how the two answers intertwine. What similarities exist between the two experiences? And what do those similarities reveal about the choices we make about teaching practices?

Learning Experience

My best learning experiences have been in courses that challenged me to work hard for the grade or for intellectual parity with my classmates, but did not seem like a hopeless cause from the start. My undergraduate astronomy class falls into the latter category; even basic knowledge of pulsars, quasars, and simple constellations eludes me. The semester-long program I spent in London as a freshman undergraduate is one of the former.

The program satisfied the college’s general education requirements for philosophy, history, literature, and fine arts – but nothing about the program felt basic or required. Each week, my cohort of twenty-five students attended two lectures that set the historical context for the week – and then our professors set us loose in the city with assignments to visit galleries, museums, or performances and read primary sources related to the period covered in the lectures. We also met three times a week for colloquies (small discussion groups) to sort out the important themes from texts, images, and exhibits. Weekly writing assignments prompted us to pull together artifacts, texts, and lecture material into a synthetic, insightful, interesting commentary about the week’s material.

The program was wonderfully immersive and encouraged deep and intimate camaraderie among participants. I pulled all-nighters with fellow procrastinators and had my ego taken down a notch in peers by people who were clearly more thoughtful and gracious than me. (That was a necessary thing at that point in my life – and definitely still needs to happen from time to time.) The learning experience was foundational not only because the rigors of the program required me to live and breathe the material, but also because it impacted my values, character, and friendships in significant ways. It was the closest I’ve come to a holistic learning experience.

Teaching Experience

The connections between one of my best learning experiences and my current teaching practices are transparent. Each class is bookended with lecture material, but centered on primary source texts and discussion. I also include short prompts aimed at getting students to think about connections to their lives and society in some classes. More often than not, the conversation moves in that direction without my guidance and I have the privilege of witnessing a student internalizing a text or idea in unexpected ways. These are my favorite teaching experiences.

Last semester, for instance, I assigned a portion of Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis as the primary source for the class on Medieval Europe. The assigned passages relate stories about Francis’s conflict with his father, his interactions with the poor, his conversations with animals, and his audience with the pope, in which his order was given official sanction by the Catholic Church. When I read the source as an undergraduate, the professor emphasized Francis’s compassion for the poor and loyalty to the church as well as the madness of some of his actions (because, remember, this is a man who has conversations with fish). I intended to bring up similar themes in class, but my students connected with unexpected portions of the source.

Their first concern was with the conflict between father and son – and they tended to side with the father, not Francis. Their second major concern lay in the sustainability of Francis’s care for the poor (or lack thereof) – how effective was it, really, to just give someone a cloak? How many people could that really help? I later discovered, in conversation with an instructor of Global Development, that the second theme was a significant one in her course – and students were quite possibly carrying the idea over into their reading of the source. The students in my course were, with very little prompting from me, discovering their own connections and allowing the source to prompt reflection about their society. A beautiful thing, if I may say so.

Next Post

I am generally satisfied with the way my course is structured and I think students respond well to the format – especially the discussions. I do wonder, though, if I could shift my attention more often to the rigors of the course. In other words, is the course actually intellectually challenging – or is it just a lot of talking? And what would “intellectually challenging” look like for an introductory-level, required module for a program without a history major?

My queries (or worries, depending on the day) fit nicely with Haave’s third prompt, “What are you trying to achieve in your students with your teaching?”, so I’ll pick those up in the next post.

Blog Post

Learning Style, Teaching Style

I’m preparing to rewrite the “Teaching Style and Practices” page on this website – partly because I think my perspective has shifted thanks to a bit more teaching experience and partly because that page needs a lighter tone (it’s deadly earnest at the moment). Ideally, the content will ultimately serve as a better reflection of my current teaching practices and the prose will be more immediately accessible to both potential employers (who will undoubtedly need to skim the page) and to students who are interested in gaining some insight into my philosophy and methods.

I found inspiration today in the Faculty Focus article, “Six Questions That Will Bring Your Teaching Philosophy Into Focus,” by Neil Haave. Rather than focusing on the history of education or education philosophies, Haave asks readers to think about six questions:

“1. Describe the best learning experience you have had as a student. (This helps to identify how we best learn and reminds us as instructors what it is like to be a student. Maryellen Weimer (2013) recently discussed this in the context of influencing the learning environment.)

2. Describe the best teaching experience you have had as an instructor. Are there any similarities to the learning experience you described above? (This question attempts to link our learning to our teaching.)

3. What are you trying to achieve in your students with your teaching? (This is a big question and may be best initially answered by thinking about it in the context of what you feel is the course you teach with the most success.)

4. Why is this important to you? (This helped me to begin articulating my approach to my discipline in the context of teaching. For others I know it becomes larger than the discipline itself and may link to the personal growth of students and not only their intellectual growth.)

5. How do you achieve your objectives you wrote down for question #3 above? That is, what teaching strategies or approaches do you use in your classes that produce the learning environment or opportunities for your students to reach your teaching objectives? (Hopefully, this has been informed by your answers in questions #1 & 2 above. If there is no apparent connection between this question and your answers to #1 & 2, then this might be cause to pause and reflect why this is.)

6. Why do you use these particular teaching strategies as opposed to others that are available to you? (This is where you start developing the argument or citing the evidence for the value or success of your approach to teaching. Hopefully, you are able to make links to your own learning philosophy.)”

Since my teaching style is still in formation, I’d like to use these questions to focus my own thoughts over the next few weeks – and, ideally, to start a conversation with others (or join one already running). I especially love the invitation to consider the ways my learning style influences my teaching. I think that opens up the opportunity to think about how that experience (and inevitable bias) either serves students well or blinds me to their learning preferences and needs. To that end, my next post will tackle the first two questions and then I’ll take the other four in turn, probably redirecting my attention towards other teaching/student concerns from time to time. If you’re already considering these questions, though, let me know your thoughts in the comments!