Blog Post

A Missing Piece?: Historical Thinking Isn’t Just for History Majors

*See update on upcoming discussions of history in general education.

The very timely white paper, “Measuring College Learning in History,” authored by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Measuring College Learning Project, is a welcome consolidation of the historiography and key principles of historical thinking.*

Calder and Steffes, with the input of other scholars and faculty in the field of history teaching and learning, distill historical consciousness into five essential concepts and four essential competencies:

A summary of the essential concepts and competencies outlined in the full white paper.

The author’s selections of concepts and competencies reflect the rich debate (which I’ve previously written about here) between scholars surrounding the definition of historical thinking, but handily narrow the focus to the most common and most teachable values and skills of historians. While careful not to suggest too specific a program for teaching these concepts and competencies, Calder and Steffes offer a helpful outline for structuring learning outcomes and assessing historical thinking in undergraduate history majors.

Here-in lies my only critique of the otherwise immensely useful summary and white paper: Calder and Steffes implicitly view the core history concepts and competencies  as the reserve of history majors. They appear to have little concern for how the suggested foci might function within general education history courses.

To be fair, Calder and Steffes point to the reality that not everyone is a history major and that the history major itself is a shifting (and shrinking) institution. They acknowledge the need to consider history’s role in “a moment of declining history enrollments, popular attacks on the humanities, and growing demands that a college education have practical utility and demonstrable economic benefits” (Measuring College Learning in History, p. 41). Beyond that, the authors are also keen to defend the continued benefits of introductory history courses and encourage history professors to work toward including the competencies and concepts in their intro courses (p. 66). In general, though, the white paper is explicitly about facilitating and assessing the learning of history majors.

The omission of concern for history courses conducted for a broader population of students is, obviously, a personal concern for me. I teach a general education survey course in a program that does not have a history major. My students’ exposure to these concepts and skills occurs in three general survey courses (World Civ I, World Civ II, and American Pluralism – essentially the U.S. since 1945). This means I and my fellow instructors have a very limited amount of time (9 credit hours) in which to communicate concepts significant not only to our discipline, but also I would argue to students’ development as critical thinkers more generally. (Calder and Steffes would seem to agree – see p. 63).

The consequence of teaching a general education class and trying to incorporate historical thinking concepts and skills is that it becomes difficult to incorporate all of the core concepts and competencies within a given course in a given semester. At the moment, my course is explicitly focused on two concepts (history as interpretation, the “pastness of the past,” and historical significance) and two competencies (interpret primary sources and construct a historical argument – usually based on secondary, not primary sources). Ideally my counterparts and I would take up carrying aspects to complement one another, we aren’t that coordinated (yet).

My point, in short, is that I think deeper conversations about the role of historical concepts and skills in the context of a liberal arts education – and not just a BA history program – are in order. These conversations are necessary given the greater number of students who take history courses as requirements and electives, as opposed to selecting history as a major, and in light of the continued debate over whether or not history deserves to maintain a place in undergraduate education. To have those discussions, the literature of historical thinking should, I believe, broaden its focus to include a wider variety of courses in which students encounter history.


* The Measuring College Learning (MCL) project also produced frameworks for thinking about core concepts and competencies in Biology, Business, Communication, Economics, and Sociology.

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….

Blog Post

“This is hard. It isn’t very linear.”

Class Blogging and Non-Linear Storytelling

The World Civ I classes I teach are embarking on the final stage of their blogging project this semester. This is a thoroughly self-directed project. Students can choose any topic within the time frame of the course (10,000 BCE to 1500 CE) and they can present their topic however they choose. Thus far, I have tentative proposals for Instagram feeds, Pinterest boards, Tumblrs, fashion videos, and songs and I am pretty darn excited to see where things go.

I also have a few groups clearly struggling to figure out how digital storytelling works. During our last workshop for the blogging project, I was working with one group to define a topic, a takeaway, and a creative medium they would be comfortable working with. In the midst of the conversation, one member of the group encapsulated the difficulty of pinning down this project. “This is hard,” they said. “It isn’t very linear.”

That, I think, is exactly the difficulty of creating good digital material. It isn’t especially linear and when you’ve really only been taught to think of writing in linear ways (intro, thesis, body, conclusion), it can be incredibly difficult to think about organizing information in a way that is connective but not linear.

The student’s comment prompts a number of questions for me (which I’ll record here in the hopes that I can come back to them sometime):

  • What’s the purpose of trying to think in non-linear ways if it feels so unnatural?
  • How can I teach non-linear and creative thinking?
    • Is there more prep and introduction I can give students to this sort of task
    • Undoubtedly, yes – but what prep should I give? The 5 Photos exercise might be a good place to start…
  • How do I help students locate models and assistance (outside of the class and myself) for trying to think and create in new ways?

The Dissertation Project and Boundaries of Storytelling

The last question is especially pressing for me as I try to work out the purpose and shape of my dissertation project. My project currently centers on how students understand and express the importance of a particular person, event, or idea in history. My working hypothesis is that the default definition of “historically significant” for most students at the start of a class has to do with whether or not something or someone is relatable.

I suspect this definition is, at least in part, a product of the pervasiveness of social media platforms that encourage us (the students and myself) to react to or comment on everything. I’m wondering if this preference for interactive material prompts us to consider our own reactions to content as co-equal in importance to the content itself. I think that might cause us to filter all information (past and present) through that question of whether or not something is personally relatable.

This is all very tentative stuff at the moment. In order to understand whether that hypothesis is reasonable, I need to ask students what they actually think about history and how they use digital media. No surprise there; lots of historians concerned with what students think about history or digital media have asked them before.

I think, though, that I’d like to play with the linear way historians usually ask students what they think about history and digital media. In academic work about historical thinking (see the work of Sam Wineburg, the edited volume Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, or the Perspectives series, “Thinking Historically in the Classroom“) or digital media (I’m thinking especially of Henry Jenkins and Mills Kelly here), the research model is usually pretty traditional. The researcher formulates a hypothesis, designs a study, collects the data, analyzes the data, and publishes her/his findings. In the case of works about pedagogy, the author of a book or article might simply reflect on what they’ve observed in their classes.

In either case, the researcher has the final word when it comes to interpretation. That makes sense given the short-term nature of many studies and the clear knowledge difference between, say, primary- or secondary-school students and a researcher with a Ph.D. This process also produces perceptive frameworks for thinking about how people think about history, many of which as a springboard for my own work, so I’m not by any means trying to overturn this model altogether.

I am wondering, though, if it might be worthwhile to interrupt the linear research model by asking for feedback from participants about the conclusions of a study. I’m planning to work with adults (most of whom aren’t much younger than me) who possess the self-awareness to tell me if I’m misinterpreting their written or spoken responses in an activity. I’d love to make them collaborators in this process and seek their input throughout the project. I am also unsure how to accomplish that in meaningful ways.

I currently lack a model for that sort of collaboration and there are a lot of questions I would need to address to do this sort of work:

  • Would students (participants even be interested in providing feedback about conclusions?
  • What would it take to get students to agree to provide regular and helpful feedback about my work? Would I need to incentivize their participation bribe them with extra credit or the possibility of putting a line on their CVs as collaborators or research assistants of sorts? What are the ethics of that?
  • How would I incorporate their feedback? Who gets the final say about the interpretation of a set of data – the students who provided the data or me as the researcher?
  • How might student feedback shift the trajectory of the research or the shape of activities that are part of the research? [That last question matters immensely since I need to seek the approval of an ethics committee – an institutional review board (IRB) – for every aspect of the project.]

These are hard questions. I don’t know if that will possible to come up with good answers in the progress of this project or if I will be able to put any ideas about these questions into practice. I do think I agree with my student about the difficulties of this unfamiliar territory: “This is hard. It isn’t very linear.”

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A Moment of Empathy

There is a moment every semester in which a student steps up to the desk after class to ask, “Prof, I heard a lot of different answers to the discussion questions today. Which one was the right answer?” At which point I smile in my most professorial manner (which may or may not include a touch of condescension) and remind the student that interpretation is the heart of history. I tell them to revel in the multitude of answers! Look for different perspectives from which to understand the source! Don’t worry so much about being wrong – think boldly!

I’m starting to think that’s an obnoxious answer.

While I stand by my insistence that interpretation is the essence of history, I’d rather there weren’t quite so many possible interpretations when it comes to my own research. My dissertation, for instance, will have something to do with the topic “historical thinking.” What’s historical thinking, you say? Well. Depends on who you ask:

The ever-helpful Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts) strikes at the heart of the issue,

“To researchers, historical understanding can mean anything from memorizing a list of dates to mastering a set of logical relations, from being able to recite an agreed-upon story to contending with ill-defined problems resistant to single interpretations.” (p.29)

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke’s alliterative answer in “What does it mean to think historically?” is perhaps most useful for it’s brevity:

“the five C’s of historical thinking: change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.”

However, their definition does not take into account more recent concerns with students’ abilities to recognize historical significance (was that event important? why?) or historical empathy (can students think their way into a worldview distant from them in time or space?).

So. Multiple interpretations of a foundational concept of my dissertation. This doesn’t bother me so much; for me, trying to reconcile definitions is half the fun of deep historical work. (No really! I love it.)

The greater difficulty is the question of how to teach students to think historically – and here I am in sympathy with my student’s discontent with my insistence that there are many right answers. Some writers recommend more time with primary sources; others proffer the usefulness of historical fiction. (Some suggest the benefit of both sources and historical fiction in the same short article…) Some insist analyzing textbooks with students is beneficial; others insist the textbooks are useless. Historian-educators ask students to write their own autobiographies, role-play legal battles, backchannel on Twitter, and “think aloud” as they read through the primary sources. Also, researchers have been trying for over a century to determine how students develop the “historic sense.” Results are still…inconclusive.

So, to adapt a question we’ve been discussing in class: How then shall we teach? I don’t know yet – and that is as aggravating a feeling as my students occasionally tell me it is. Ideally, I’ll have my own perspective among the multitudes by the time this dissertation thing is complete. For the moment, I will simply appreciate the opportunity to empathize with my students.

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Google Gradebook Templates

Over the weekend, I went hunting for a gradebook to incorporate in my class website. I was looking for something intuitive (for me) and accessible by individual students (obviously I don’t want them to see everyone’s grades). I hoped to use Google sheets, as I already run activities and assignments through Google Forms in class and I’m encouraging the use of Google Docs for students’ group writing projects this semester.

I didn’t quite find what I was looking for, but I did find lots of piecemeal instructions that allowed me to create what I needed. In particular, I found some elements’ of Anthony’s Google Sheet/Script Editor app helpful (the code is, alas, too buggy to use) and I appreciated the assistance of a few good souls at Stack Overflow who suggested fixes for the code. (Javascript is, unfortunately, a bit beyond me at the moment.)

In the end, I cobbled something together using basic functions in Google Sheets. As my dissertation project touches on the Internet’s potential to produce collaboration and encourage transparency about how ideas, objects, and knowledge are produced, I thought I’d share what I’ve made in the hopes of demystifying the process and improving it through collaboration with yet-unknown others.

The files below can be used as templates. These are particular to the needs of my class, but should provide a decent foundation that can be customized for any classroom. There is a “Master Gradebook” that compiles the grades of all students and an “Individual Grades” template that can be endlessly reproduced and adjusted depending on the number of students you have. If you’re comfortable with Google Sheets/Excel, feel free to download and open up the grade books and start adjusting them to suit your own needs.

Master Gradebook Template

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 12.49.07 PM

Individual Grades Template

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 12.49.25 PM

If, however, you’re learning Sheets/Excel as you go (like me), here are some of the nifty formulas that make things work in the spreadsheet.

  1. SUMPRODUCT: On the first sheet of the Master Gradebook (‘Master’), I calculated weighted grades using the SUMPRODUCT function rather than a basic mathematical formula – i.e., [(E3*5+F3*15+G3*5+H3*15+I3*5+J3*15+K3*10+L3*15+M3*15)/100]. Not only is the SUMPRODUCT formula cleaner, it also updates automatically if you choose to change the weight of a grade.
  2. TRANSPOSE: The second sheet in the Master Gradebook is the ‘Transposed’ sheet. I wanted student’s grades to display on a single sheet in the Individual Grades sheet, so transposing information from rows to columns seemed like the way to go. The information remains the same, it just changes how you view it.
  3. LOOKUP: The LOOKUP function allowed me to create a grade scale and then transform the percentages into letter grades. It took a little finagling to get it to work (the trick is to sort in ascending order in the percentages column), but it’s fantastic to see the formula switch things over automatically as the grades are adjusted.
  4. IMPORTRANGE: This is the thing that makes it possible to create individualized grade sheets from the master sheet. The function utilizes the Spreadsheet Key and an established range from another spreadsheet to filter data into individual sheets. To share with individual students, I will send an email invite to each student from her/his Individual Grades spreadsheet.

The rest of the formulas in the spreadsheet are very simple mathematical functions (sums, division, etc.) that can be adjusted as you go.

Please Note: changing the text formatting in the ‘Transposed’ sheet on the Master Spreadsheet will not transfer to the Individual spreadsheet. You’ll have to manually format the text in that sheet. Adding or subtracting cells/rows in the ‘Transposed’ sheet does, however, does directly affect text formatting in the Individual spreadsheet. That is, it completely destroys all of your formatting below the point where you added the row. I haven’t quite figured out how to fix that yet (except to just remove all text formatting), but I’ll update this post and the document as I can.

If you have questions regarding how something works (or if something stops working), leave me a note in the comments. I’d also love to hear suggestions for improvements from people more spreadsheet savvy than myself. You can add comments to the spreadsheet itself or leave me a note below.

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Things I Found This Week: Dissertation Distractions Edition

The best/worst part of a dissertation project involving social media and technology is the constant discovery of blogs, online journals, and tech tools for teaching and researching. After reading any book or article, after every discussion with a peer or scholar, I’m left with a lengthy list of new resources – which at the moment seem far more interesting and exciting than the harder work of sitting down to, you know, actually think, read, and write about my topic. For instance:

I’m itching to play around with Omeka and Scalar, two resources a fellow Drew student, Jessica Brandt, was good enough to alert me to.

Omeka looks like a more traditional blog/website platform, but it’s designed to assist scholars (amateur and professional) and institutions in creating top-notch online archives, exhibits, and narratives. The platform allows for beautiful image collections, searchable tags, interactive images, and customizable themes, fonts, etc. The software is free and open source and looks like a powerful story-telling tool.

(What Is Omeka from Omeka on Vimeo.)

Scalar is exciting for the way it allows scholars to structure their narratives in fully digital ways. The platform’s purpose, according to creators, is to give “authors tools to structure essay- and book-length works in ways that take advantage of the unique capabilities of digital writing, including nested, recursive, and non-linear formats.” Authors can create multiple paths through the same project, tag paragraphs and sections to create relationships throughout the “document”, and insert multimedia content related to the text portions of the project. My project could, I think, benefit from all of these possibilities and I’m excited to give it a test run once the topic is a little more structured.

(Scalar Platform — Trailer from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.)

I’m also super tempted to enroll in one (or…all) of the online courses offered by Hybrid Pedagogy. The upcoming course topics are “The Flipped Classroom,” “Teaching with Twitter,” and “Learning Online” – all topics of interest to me and all for very reasonable prices ($250-350, with discounts for adjuncts and students). Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that adding an online class to the mix of dissertation prospectus + two classes + training for half-marathon would turn out to be a little much… Alas. I’ll just have to keep an eye on the offerings in the Digital Pedagogy Lab in the future.

Two final resources/projects on my radar this week: Educause Review (my thanks to Gamin Bartle for this one), which looks to be full of all sorts of thoughtful pieces regarding technology and the digital age in and education, and the Wikipedia page for the feminist sci-fi film, Advantageous. The film is gorgeous and provocative and made my cyborg-loving self terribly happy. The Wikipedia page doesn’t do it credit – by which I mean the information is super basic. So I added a link for one of the actresses last night and today (or tomorrow or whenever I decide to neglect other work), I’d really like to add a plot summary or something about critical reception, and them maybe begin work on pages for Freya Adams and Samantha Kim. I’ve been meaning to make a foray into editing Wikipedia for awhile and this seems like a good place to start.

Leave a comment if you’re using similar resources or if you want to talk ed-tech, social media in the classroom, or dissertations. Or anything else. Now to the real work of the day for me – updating my class website to include the new syllabus and a list of topics for the semester’s portfolio project. (Will provide links for those once they’re ready to go…) I also need to finish off an e-book of last semester’s blog posts for my students – it’s the closest I can get to preserving their work for the moment and that task has been on the back burner for far too long.

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Things I Found This Week

1. Everything from the ROY ROSENZWEIG Center for History and New Media.

Seriously, the deeper I dig the more useful resources I find for my research and classes. But, most notably this week, I’ve discovered the work of T. Mills Kelly, Digital Humanities Now, and World History Sources as well as a fabulous app/software: Zotero.

I read Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age in preparation for the dissertation and found myself Googling references, jotting down ideas for courses, and babbling happily to my spouse about things I found inspiring. I do have some reservations about the book; most of Kelly’s best case studies of digital humanities at work are drawn from small, historical methods classes, so I’m a bit uncertain how some of the practices he suggests would translate to a broad introductory/overview class, like World Civ, with a roster of 55 students. Concerns with issues like departmental parameters/expectations and how one instructor’s course fits with others in her department are also missing from the book. That being said, it’s an excellent introduction to pedagogical concerns and possibilities in the digital age.

Digital Humanities Now is exciting, first, for its content. The site pulls stories, blog posts, and articles about best practices, projects, studies, and thought pieces in digital humanities from RSS feeds around the web. Editors then pick and choose content to highlight any given week. There are also links to job postings, grants/fellowships, and CFPs/conferences on the site. The second exciting thing about DHN is that it invites readers to volunteer as “editors-at-large.” These community editors nominate content for the editor-in-chief to highlight twice a week and are then asked to provide some feedback about the process. This seems like a brilliant opportunity to participate in digital humanities work and I’m hoping to volunteer later in the summer.

And how have I not found World History Sources before?! I’m familiar with Fordham’s archive – which is incredibly useful – but World History Sources links to loads of additional archives and provides some resources/guides for educators and students reading primary sources. I think this may be, at least in part, the answer to doing digital history in a largish survey course. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to mining the archives and resources for new primary sources and better activities this semester.

Finally, check out Zotero – it’s sort of a cross between Endnote and Evernote. You can run the program through Firefox, storing everything in your browser, or you can download the standalone program and web browser plugin (available for Safari, Chrome, and Firefox) for Mac. The plugin is pretty neat because it detects author information available on a page and then gives you the option to download into your library or libraries in the app. The app also includes an options for note-taking, tagging, and connecting to related content in your library. All in all, very cool.


I utilized a number of student comments in my conference presentation, “Hey Prof, Is There a Crash Course for That,” last week and I’m hoping to continue including their insights in similar work. Ideally, I’d like to write this dissertation with my students. I think they’re terribly smart, they notice things I do not, and I think both the students and I benefit from dialoguing with one another about the content, methods, and evaluations in courses. With that in mind, I want to find ways to treat them with respect and value – so the Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights seems a good place to begin.

3. You Cannot Do It All

Much as I’m enjoying delving into the digital humanities/pedagogy/ed tech stuff, it’s also frustrating to see all the possibilities and simultaneously recognize I cannot do everything in one semester. My wishlist for what I hope students learn in a class is extensive. I want them to learn how to read primary sources, how to write historically, how to identify bias/perspective in a source, how to discuss sources intelligently with one another, how to take notes, how to be considerate toward other cultures, how to be considerate toward one another, how to speak up in class, how to use the internet in savvy ways, how to write for social media, how to edit Wikipedia…

But that’s simply too much. So I’m finding ways to make peace with the fact that I cannot do it all and I’m hoping that, in conversation with other colleagues, I can begin to identify what skills my course is best suited to communicate.

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Hey Prof, Is There A Crash Course For That?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of presenting at the third Dean Hopper New Scholars’ Conference at Drew University as part of the panel, “The Digital Age in the Classroom.” My fellow panelist and I had similar concerns (I love when that happens): What does digitization mean for textbooks in the classroom? How do we balance content and critical thinking skills? How can we leverage new media/mediums for the benefit of our research and our students?

The conversation that followed our presentations was energetic; attendees had great questions for us and offered their own ideas about digital mediums in the classroom. I left feeling really excited about the conversation and deeply appreciative of how thoughtful other history educators are about their pedagogy.

The presentation would not have been possible without the input of my former students. They offered their impressions of the Crash Course: World History series (the subject of my presentation) in an informal survey leading up to the conference and their insights helped me more fully evaluate the potential impact of the Crash Course videos. So, if you are a student reading this: many, many thanks to you!

If you’d like to know more about my preliminary conclusions regarding the Crash Course videos and the digital age in the classroom, please check out the files below. I’ve uploaded a pdf version of my Keynote presentation; the videos used in the presentation are linked below as well. You can also read a rough, written text of my presentation (not verbatim, but close).

“Hey Prof, Is There A Crash Course For That?” PDF of Keynote (Intro Video for Slide 3 and “Alexander the Great and the Situation…The Great?” for Slide 10 – watch to 2:32)

“Hey Prof, Is There A Crash Course For That?” Text Only

If you find these ideas intriguing, if you’re using digital mediums and social media in your classes, or if we met at the conference, I’d love to hear from you. Please do get in touch via the contact form on this website.

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LSTS 2: What Are You Trying to Achieve?

(You can read LSTS 1: Best Learning Experiences, Best Teaching Experiences here.)

The third question posed by Neil Haave (see Learning Style, Teaching Style) reads, “What are you trying to achieve in your students in your teaching?” I’m not overly fond of the way the question is articulated; the idea of achieving anything in my students strikes me as very odd. (What instructor, really, has any measure of control over her students’ internal states of being?) However, I think the question at its heart offers an opportunity to reflect on what I hope my students will learn in a given course.

The benefit of having delayed this blog post is that the end of the spring semester has provided greater clarity in terms of my goals for the World Civilizations course I instruct. Students’ exams, their final round of blog posts, and some intriguing Facebook posts to our class group illuminated what students have learned this semester – and what they have not.

I was encouraged to see their collective ability to identify the major themes of the course improve from the first exam. The final blog posts also displayed tighter writing and more diligent citations. And the links, posts, and comments students’ shared on Facebook for extra credit points suggested greater willingness to look for the connections between the past and present. These skills served as neat reflections of some of the course goals stated in my current syllabus, particularly my hope that they become “savvier media consumers” (and producers) through use of the blog and Facebook group.

The exams and posts to both the blog and FB group, however, also revealed two significant areas of concern.

First, most students still struggle with chronology – which is a bit problematic for a history course. Understanding the order of events is essential to comprehending the significance of a given person or event. My guess is that my emphasis on overarching themes and the freewheeling nature of our primary source discussions in class often obscures the order of events – or at least makes chronology seem less important than concepts. My goal for next semester, then, is to strike a greater balance between concepts and chronology. I’m already considering replacing exams with more frequent quizzes (probably multiple choice) to reinforce material, so it should be easy enough to test students’ understanding of chronology within that format.

The second area of concern is more worrisome and undoubtedly requires a more complex solution. In some of the posts on the blog and FB, I noticed a lack of cultural sensitivity – articles or comments that described a particular practice as “weird;” rituals, family ties, or beliefs that were outright condemned. For example, a sticking point this semester was Mongol marriage laws. Within Mongol society in the thirteenth century CE, sons are legally and socially permitted to marry their father’s wives (i.e., their stepmothers of sorts) if the father dies. Students were genuinely puzzled and shocked; this went against their conceptions of who could and should get married and they struggled to understand why this would be allowed. The problem was, they weren’t asking why the practice was allowed within Mongol society at that time; they were considering why it would be allowed anywhere by anyone at all. The context, in other words, was not influencing the questions.

I partly understand their shock, condemnation, and bafflement over the way ancient and medieval people have lived; I have and do experience those emotions myself at times in relation to certain material. And I want to create an environment in which students feel safe and respected enough to grapple with those reactions. I don’t want students to think they all need to share my opinions – or anyone else’s.

However, I do want to encourage them to ask, “Why was it like this?,” before they ask, “Do I agree with this?” There are practical reasons for this. You can disagree with slavery, but that tells you very little about why it was so commonly practiced in the ancient worlds – which in turn leaves you with very little knowledge about why and how to prevent or overturn modern instances of slavery. And, to play the globalization card, learning to respectfully consider the practices and beliefs of past societies is very good practice for respectfully considering the practices and beliefs of present societies in this interconnected, diversified world my students and I inhabit.

Again, I do not want them to agree with everything – but I do want them to understand as much as they can.

The difficulty is figuring out how to foster that particular outcome. I can adjust my material to account for the times when I am insensitive or too quick to condemn and I can be more explicit about that aim on my end. But how best to give my students the opportunity to practice cultural sensitivity? How best to respond to moments, posts, words that lack sensitivity? I suspect I will be wrestling with those questions for years, but it is good, I think, to have these goals.

And for these goals to influence my summer reading list… Would any fellow educators care to recommend good reads about fostering culturally sensitive/compassionate/respectful classrooms and courses?

Next Post:

As I’ve already (at least partly) answered question four, “Why is this important to you?,” in this post, I’ll plan to address question five, “How do you achieve your objectives?” in the LSTS 3 and then I’ll wrap up with the last question, “Why do you use these particular teaching strategies as opposed to others that are available to you?,” in a final post. Ideally the next installment will be up in somewhat less than a month this time…

Blog Post

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.