Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Summer hiatus

We'll see you next fall with new conversations and a few new voices.  Stay tuned.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Teaching without textbooks (& requiring reading anyway)

Recently, a panel of distinguished historians and authors discussed how they create American History textbooks.  General agreement?  Students don't read them anyway.

This assertion - that students do not read and you cannot get them to read no matter what you try - struck me as most strange.  If those who write textbooks don't think students read them, why keep writing them?

I do not assign a traditional textbook, yet I require a regular diet of reading to pass the course. In lieu of an assigned survey text, I suggest students buy a $5 out-of-print version.  Yes, those older versions still contain the much maligned XYZ affair and may be thin on social history.  That is okay.  A cheap textbook gives the basic benefits of an expensive one without the financial drag.

The getting them to read part is far simpler than the rhetoric surrounding it.  Quiz reading.  Quiz it weekly.  Make quizzes an enormous part of the grade.

Multiple pieces of scholarship* conducted in Psychology classrooms have made this exact (and rather elementary) point.  Regularly quizzed classes saw reading compliance for nearly 80% of students and as much as tripled the likelihood of student reading.  For the past 3 years, written surveys in my own courses indicated over 80% agreement with the question "I read significantly more in this class because of the quizzes."  Nearly as many said they "read more for this course than for my other courses."  This was no accident.  The portion of final grades that comes from quizzes has risen steadily in that time from 25%, to 50%, and this semester (gulp) 75%.

So what are we reading for so much of the grade?  Primary sources.  Lots and lots of primary sources.  In a typical week students read between 15-50 primary sources.  These are typically short.  Excerpts from major works, letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles work well.  Selections can come from a good reader or be collected piecemeal and put online.

In essence, this creates a peculiar historical variant of the flipped classroom.  It inverts the standard operating procedure in which reading is low stakes and lectures (and the exams they spawn) are high stakes.  Instead of assigning readings students won't engage and then asking that lectures form their historical awareness for tests, high stakes readings shape that awareness and class time is spent hashing out in a low stakes environment what those readings meant in time & place.

Making reading non-negotiable is not about un-coverage or the death of the lecture.  When students have read a wealth of material from the past, most any delivery system works better.  Students enter the room with questions.  Sometimes the worst questions are the best, especially "Why did we have to read this?"  Lecture, discussion, group work - there are many ways to explain to a bedeviled business major why Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments was worth his time.  He read her.  You can work with that.

So- here is to assigning different readings, more of them, and requiring students to read the past.  Who knows, but we might one day create enough historical curiosity that they consult those textbooks after all.

*see the section "Quizzes" & the reference notes.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Seeing Disability in U.S. History

Despite its exciting growth over the past couple of decades, disability history still gets relatively little little space in U.S. history textbooks.  This is a shame, in part because the work on disability reveals so much not just about the lives of the disabled, but also about the evolving politics and meaning of “normalcy” in American life.  Of course, if the challenge is to weave in yet another thread into the already knotty tapestry of the survey, images can do a great deal of the work.  This week I’d like to pluck a few images out of the fabulous collections of the Disability History Museum that might be easily incorporated into lectures on broader topics such as material and visual culture, gender, and civil rights.  The images below largely relate to physical disability, but the collection is a rich resource for understanding other forms of disability as well. 

This image offers students a glimpse of the rich consumer culture that emerged around disability in the 19th century, when notions of comfort and widening availability of goods helped put devices such as the one pictured into the hands of the public.  This image might be used to discuss the connection between disability and invalidism, as well as examine how both literature and medical expertise (the rest-cure) reinforced 19th-century associations between feminity and physical weakness.

P.T. Barnum’s famous Feejee Mermaid, consisting of a monkey sewn to a fish, might appear at first to have little connection to disability.  Nevertheless, the growth of commercial spectacle and the popular desire of antebellum Americans to see oddities helped establish the terms on which many forms of disability were made visible.  This image might be woven into a discussion of urbanization and its visual desires, and connected to later Barnum and world’s fair exhibitions such as the Hottentot Venus that displayed and exploited “abnormal” bodies.

Established in Boston in 1829, the Perkins School was and remains at the forefront of education for the blind in the United States.  It also helped transform popular assumptions about the capacity of the blind for economic self-sufficiency.  Yet this 1889 image also suggest the gendered limits of that transformation: the piano tuners shown here are all male, even though the school educated a number of its female students in the musical arts.  The image also demonstrates a young boy at work, and thus offers a useful segue into an emerging cause of Progressive reformers: child labor.

Popular depictions of the role of Americans of color (including over 10,000 native Americans) in WWI in popular culture are woefully rare.  This 1918 photograph of injured Native American soldiers recuperating at a field hospital may surprise students, and raises interesting questions about the way in which some forms of disability have both reinforced and challenged racial inequality. 

Tom Olin’s striking photograph documented the disability rights movement at a protest leading to the passage of one of its most significant victories, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).  The movement and the act goes beyond disability, demonstrating the Americans’ new ideas about the role of the government in the wake of the civil rights movement. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Faculty Advocates: Speaking Up for Teaching and Learning

Like most Ph.D. students (especially in the humanities), most of my thoughts during the last two years of graduate school centered on one question: Will I have a job after graduation? For obvious reasons, I didn't spend much time considering the larger political realities of the academy. I basically assumed that being a college professor meant focusing on some combination of teaching, service, and research/writing. 

In many ways, I was right: Most of my job IS about teaching, and most of what I do DOES relate to student learning. But I have realized there is an important role faculty must also play: advocate. Had I become a college professor forty years ago, I doubt I would have realized this so soon. Forty years ago, most deans were former faculty, most courses were taught by full-time professors, and most curriculum decisions rested in the hands of teachers. What a difference forty years makes! 

In today's world of higher education, contingent faculty teach most classes, deans frequently have little experience in the classroom, and curriculum decisions rarely rest solely with faculty. I don't say that to belittle administrators; in fact, I've had a really positive experience with most administrators at my campus. But there is no substitute for the knowledge gained from real-world classroom experience. As this blog demonstrates, teaching is an art that changes constantly and requires a very specific set of skills and experiences. If decisions affecting our courses are taking place every day (and believe me, they are), it's incumbent upon faculty to organize, advocate, and fight back against changes that have a negative impact on student learning and academic freedom. I would put the "adjunctification" of college teaching in this category, along with the push for corporate-oriented management of college campuses. 

I'm curious: What role do you think faculty should play in advocating for shared governance, academic freedom, and power over curriculum decisions? My sense is that we're often so busy teaching that we allow major decisions to be made by full-time administrators, whose lack of teaching obligations provides ample time for attending meetings. I'm about to start reading The Fall of the Faculty, which I think will give me more insight into the role we can play in advocating for our students . . . and ourselves. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Constructing the 19th-Century West

The title of this post is a little misleading. I'm actually building a course, and have run into some thorny questions.

This fall I've agreed to offer a course I haven't taught before; an upper-level seminar on the American West in the 19th century. As I've conceived it, the course will cover roughly 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase) through the so-called "closing" of the American frontier in 1890. As for what will unfold between those bookends, it's largely up to me.

I want my students to read both primary and secondary sources, to discuss them, and to produce a significant research project at the end of the semester on a topic or idea of their choice.

I've been refreshing myself on the historiography, looking at other peoples' syllabi and reading lists, etc. in order to plan the nuts and bolts of the course. What I've found is that there are an infinity of ways to approach this (or any other topical) course in American history, and there isn't much consensus on the best way to do so.

So, perhaps as a way to provoke a conversation, I thought I would pose some of the basic course-designing questions I've dealt with to you all, and hopefully learn from your experiences.

1. When you design new courses, do you organize them along conceptual, thematic, or chronological lines? How do respect various groups and perspectives without privileging one over the other, or losing sight of the larger narrative threads?

2. How do you select and assign readings? What makes for "good" and "bad" reading assignments or class discussion?

3. What's the best way to assess student involvement and progress? In other words, how do you keep them accountable and involved in a seminar-type setting?

4. Are there better or more original ways to encourage a large research project than simply requiring a paper rooted in primary and secondary research?

Thanks in advance.

Building & Testing a Hypothesis

In the spirit of continuing my week of post-conference active learning to stave off end-of-term slacking (theirs AND mine)... here's another one that worked especially well this past week. I should explain - many of my non-lecture lessons are done off the cuff, "just in time," or slapped together at the last minute (choose your metaphor), so I'm pleasantly surprised at those that don't flop; I can use them again. Come to think of it, if I were a quarterback (or a brilliant church nursery leader) I might actually write them on my cuff.

The textbook I'm using this term has documents clustered on a theme in each chapter. For the chapter on 1980s conservatism, the theme is affirmative action, with a range of views. This is a topic which could get abstract and opinionated real fast, so my goal was to keep bringing students back to the evidence. I was thinking of Joel Sipress's advice in the "Signature Pedagogy for the Survey Course" workshop I attended at the OAH: helping students move from "truth is fixed" to "truth has 31 flavors, all equally good" to " we can have a shared basis for judgment between what makes one argument better than another." He also reminded us that in history, the shared basis is the extent to which an argument is consistent with the evidence about the past; i.e. evidence is our standard of judgment – it IS the criteria (not just an ingredient). I found this to be a super-helpful takeaway among many from that awesome session. But I digress.

I decided to run a full-class discussion, since we do a lot of small group work on our document workshop days and I wanted to change it up. This took the form of a giant think-aloud on how to construct a historical argument and use evidence as the basis for deciding among possible hypotheses.

First, I had them read/review the chapter's documents and identify the range of viewpoints and for each one, performing some of the primary source critical thinking we have done all semester (genre, audience, language, structure, author, date... etc..)


Next, we made sure that we all understood the terms, concepts, and historical background of this debate with some discussion, opportunity for questions, defining words, etc. Discussion Points

Then, we explored two possible interpretations that seem (on the surface) to be mutually exclusive. Some documents supported one, some supported the other.

Contrasting statements

I pointed out that the two second sentences in each statement could actually be swapped, giving us four possible hypotheses to play with.

Hypothesis Matrix

Now, the part that feels like work: as a class, we hammered out four sentences, each expressing one of those hypotheses in a single concise statement. This is what we came up with (as raw, student-created statements, these are a little rough, but it was enough for our purposes... you might notice we were least successful with the one in the lower left of the quadrant):

Affirmative action influenced America with greater equality and portrayed American values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Affirmative action ironically achieved less equality (despite its intent), while trying to promote equal opportunity and level the playing field so more people could achieve the American dream.

Affirmative action attempted to create an environment of greater equality, but given our history of discrimination, this turned out to be impossible.

Affirmative action resulted in less equality, and one reason was because it veered the country away from the capitalist free market in hiring and education.

Lastly: this final part is very important, because one thing that beginning history students find hard to do is disentangle their own beliefs, presumptions, and opinions from the actual evidence (come to think of it, this is hard even for non-novices). Without a show of hands, I asked students to first decide which of those four sentences they personally agreed with the most, or which aligned with their own values most closely. Then ... I asked them to decide which one best fit the evidence.

Opinion v Evidence

This was the aha moment for me, and I hope for them as well, to see that those might be two different possibilities. Incidentally, we found statement #2 to best fit the evidence provided for us in the document section. In breaking down the process in this way, my hope was that students began to recognize that given a different set of evidence or a different question, other hypotheses might be considered. In other words, historical truth is not only "not fixed" but actually contingent upon the evidence itself - an insight that is actually one of the outcomes for my whole course. This lesson turned out to be a really useful way into that concept, I will definitely do something similar again; I can also imagine adapting this up to a slightly more sophisticated level into a writing exercise for the methods course, or a peer review session for the senior seminar.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chunking the Chapter: Two Examples

Hey, I just got back from the OAH last week also, which had two consequences: returning to campus invigorated with a renewed willingness to experiment BUT having had very little prep time before Monday morning's classes. So I turned to something I could pull off without a lot of prior work, to keep it from being entirely a cop-out day. I decided the purpose was to turn my students in both classes back to the textbook's assigned reading (since they sometimes need a refresher on those expectations and skills at this point in the semester, let's be honest). And I kept it low-tech; I literally copied the chapters & chunked them up into enough sections for each person to have one. Tools needed - just a working copy machine, and whiteboard with a handful of markers.

Example #1 - 200-Level Course on US Since 1945 - 2 chapters on the 1980s, one domestic and one foreign policy. Session goals: Review chapter content, strengthening ability to synthesize & connect. Format: Assembling a puzzle, in which everyone has one piece.

1) Each student got a single page (handed out in page order), which required them to check with neighbors on both sides to make sense of it.

2) Opportunity to read/study/discuss

3) Domestic chapter group was looking for evidence to answer this question: Was there a Reagan Revolution? I asked them to identify continuity AND change on their page and add example of both to lists on the board.

4) Foreign policy chapter group's assignment was to create a global "weather map" of 1980s hotspots / Cold War. I pulled up a world map image (just by Googling) & projected it onto the whiteboard (I know, it shows 2014 boundaries... I'm sure I could have dug up a 1980s version with a little better searching). Students located the trouble spots mentioned on their page, circled them, and annotated the map with a short description and assigned it a "temperature."
Once everything was on the board, we held a class wrap-up discussion - looking for patterns, commenting on our findings. Why it works: everyone had something to contribute, everyone's piece was equally important and essential to the puzzle. I noticed a high level of participation and engagement.

Example #2 - Survey course - a chapter on the rise of conservatism 1968-1992. Session goals: close reading for argument (we've been talking about creating thesis statements & I noticed it was a big bottleneck in their recent papers).

The criteria we're using is adapted from Mary Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

Instructions1) Access pre-knowledge, stimulate inquiry (give a reason to read). We began by brainstorming a list of legacies of the 1960s. Then I divided the whiteboard into two large sections: Keeping the 1960s going ('the beat goes on') vs. Trying to roll back/contain the 1960s.

2) Instructions were to read the section closely and with pen in hand. Mark places where the textbook authors provide facts, and where they seem to advance an interpretation or make an argument. I asked students to identify something that meets our criteria for a thesis statement? (Here we paused for a short full-class reflection and  discussion of a couple of examples that did or did not meet the criteria)

3) Next, students taught their section to a neighbor, checking for understanding (took about 10 minutes for both partners to teach and listen)

4) Next, I asked them to evaluate their section, and as in the other class, to see if they could add something to both sides of the board. 

5) We ended with a large group discussion - look for patterns; is it balanced? Where's the preponderance? What does that tell us about the textbook's interpretation?

Why it works: while it reinforces the importance of textbook reading, it also helps students interrogate the text as constructed version of the past, subject to criticism and revision. I found it helped them slow down to provide only a small piece and spend all class on it. This gives each student something to share with another as the expert, and something to learn from someone else. It contributes to a group understanding, and thus to the notion that history is about consensus-building. And it's open-ended (I had no predetermined answer & was just as interested as they were to see what the answers were).
Have you found "chunking the chapter" helpful in your classes, or done something similar that also worked (or didn't)? I'd love to hear in the comments.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

In Defense of Teaching the XYZ Affair

I just got back from the OAH meeting in Atlanta.  It was a great weekend.  One of the panels that I was most excited to attend was the SHEAR panel on “New Knowledge in Old Containers: How Early Republic Scholars are Changing the Story.”  During the panel, John Larson gathered together four past SHEAR presidents (Patricia Cline Cohen, Drew Cayton, Harry Watson, and Mary Kelley) to talk about the ways that they incorporate (or try to) new scholarship into their teaching.  John Fea’s storified tweets from the panel are here.

I enjoyed the panel immensely, and not just because it was extremely encouraging to hear these senior scholars whom I admire so much talk about how they, too, have trouble getting their students to do the reading.  I particularly enjoyed listening to Cohen talk about the process of revising her textbook to incorporate new material.  The questions she deals with in the book are the same ones we deal with in the classroom.  If something new comes in, then what has to go out in order to make room for the new stuff?  It’s a good question.  Much of the discussion on the panel focused on meeting the students where they are and finding the materials that would engage them.  Larson talked about how he polled his students to find out what they cared about most, and restructured his survey to reflect these themes: money, sex, race, and salvation.  Kelley and Cohen, too, talked about the ways that their students respond particularly well to issues of sex and gender.  Questions of citizenship, so long at the center of the study of the early republic, seems to be limiting our ability to get our students to sit up, pay attention, and enroll in our classes.  This is all well and good and important, and certainly stuff that I find true in my own classroom.  


Throughout this discussion about the value of teaching the history of daily life and things like this, the XYZ Affair became the straw man that we are all supposedly taking out of our courses in order to make room for this other material.  And personally, I still teach the XYZ Affair, and don’t plan on taking it out of my class anytime soon.

I should say that I don’t teach the survey here, and so I teach the XYZ Affair in my courses on the American Revolution and on the US and the World.  In these classes, it is essential material and precisely because it allows us to include some of the important new scholarship on the early republic that I find most exciting: the stuff that tells the story of the early republic in an international and global framework.  If our courses have general narrative arcs, I would say that my American Revolution class is largely about the unlikelihood of the Revolution and the instability of the nation in the early republic.  Students come in expecting a story about triumphal origins.  I teach a course that has its fair share of founding fathers, of course, but we also ask things like: why might a person have chosen to be a Loyalist?  Why would that decision make sense?  We read Pauline Maier’s Ratification and ask: why might you have not wanted this Constitution?  Why does that opinion make sense?  What the XYZ Affair (along with other related diplomatic history topics) does in a course like this, then, is to help us carry those threads into the early republic.  I think (hope) that it also meets the students where they are in some ways—if not by talking about sex, then by talking about a global America, and asking questions about how the US fit into a larger story of world politics.  

Yes, part of it may be dry diplomatic history, but if we talk about it in terms of contingency, and in terms of how Americans at the time understood their position relative to the great European powers, then it becomes engaging again.  In order to tell important stories about sex, race, money, and salvation, do we really need to take out the XYZ Affair?

Monday, April 14, 2014

History is Found in Surprising Places

Today marks 149 years since Abraham Lincoln got shot at the theater, dying the next day from the head wound. So I thought I'd post about good old Honest Abe and a pretty nifty document that survives from those last fateful days.

The paper, with a design drawn in ink and hand-colored with pencils, was signed by Lincoln and every member of his second cabinet, including Secretary Seward, who was ill at the time. (Sorry it is sideways, I am experiencing human-induced technical difficulties…) This was probably one of the last things Lincoln signed as it is also dated April 1865. The item was to go on sale at the Chicago Northwestern Sanitary Fair in the summer, but it's unknown if it actually did end up there what with the incredible events that happened days after it was signed.

This document currently resides in the privately held Nau Civil War Collection in Houston, Texas. One of the largest private Civil War collections in the country, it contains over 15,000 documents and letters, 2,000 photographic images, and 300 weapons, along with various other military accoutrements, veteran’s memorial souvenirs, and even a tiny metal Jesus statue carried by a soldier in his pocket. The collection has a full-time curator and it continues to grow. The collector, Mr. John L. Nau, III is a lifelong history lover who has given graciously of his time and resources to preserve and share Civil War history. His projects include service on the Texas Historical Commission, the Civil War Trust, and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; he has also endowed the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the Civil War in the history department at the University of Virginia, his alma mater. Dr. Gary Gallagher currently holds the Nau professorship.

The Nau Civil War Collection is a largely untapped resource filled with fascinating tales from the Civil War. It has been used by fellow TUSH bloggers Drew Bledsoe and Andy Lang in completing their dissertation research, and it is always open to anyone interested in using the resources. The curator has also been known to give collection tours to school groups and historically minded adults. Mr. Nau encourages open access to his collection, and indeed the mission of the collection is to engage the public “with period artifacts and documents” so that people “will feel a bond with the Americans that came before them and be motivated to learn more about the issues for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives.”

Unless you live in Houston, you probably won’t encounter this collection any time soon. Though the document pictured above and others associated with Lincoln have been scanned and will be part of the open access digital archive at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Series III once it is finished. But there are collections large and small all over this country, and private collectors who are incredibly interested in sharing their passion for history, objects, and stories can be found in the most unlikely places. Mr. Nau loves to talk with visitors to the collection, showcase some of the objects in his home, and he has even given tours of the Gettysburg battlefield. I encourage you to explore the possibilities of bringing private collectors and their collections into your own research and into your classrooms. Collectors are a great option as guest speakers because they are enthusiastic, and they can talk not only about the objects and archives they collect but also about the practice of collecting and what motivates them. And sometimes a collector might even bring an interesting object along with them…

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Problem(s) of Hearing the Past

Today I'm lecturing on revivalism and reform movements in the 1820s-1840s. In preparation for today's discussion, my students read this text by C.G. Finney.

We will also be looking at revival hymns -- which means we should probably listen to at least one.

I am tempted to play this version of "Rock of Ages":


I mean, if they're going to listen to something, they might as well hear something.

But to play any audio clip introduces some problems.

First, there's the problem of anachronism. In a way, it's no more anachronistic to play Ella Fitzgerald singing this hymn than it would be to play a Victrola version from 1910 (if I could find one).  Clearly, any recording I play of "Rock of Ages" is not going to give my students access to early 19th century hymnody, but to some aspect of its lingering cultural legacy, its aesthetic after-effect.  Even if I could find that early gramophone recording, that's not going to be anything close to what a revival hymn would have sounded like in its antebellum settings -- the camp meeting, the packed-out lecture hall, the church-house lit by whale-oil lamps.

There's also, I guess, the possibility of a Sacred Harp version, which would (one supposes) preserve or pass down an older style of singing that at least would have a claim to representing some conventions of congregational music from the 1830s or 1840s.  But shaped-note singing from Appalachia was not the style of revival music in the burned-over district around Rochester, I'm pretty sure.

I did find this version of the melody, which I might use -- it's a "sing-along" video, with a highlighted "cursor" moving across the hymnal page in time with the electronic piano accompaniment.  (Note: there will be no actual singing involved.)

The above recording would at least give the students an ear for the melody written by Thomas Hastings, who was C.G. Finney's music director.  This melody, "Toplady," named after the hymn's lyricist, was popularized and propagated by the revivalists and has been a part of the hymnic repertoire of evangelical Christianity in America ever since, in white and Black churches.  Theoretically, you can still hear this hymn -- these words, to this music -- in churches today.  Indeed, perhaps some of my students have heard this hymn before in a religious or a secular setting.  However, as a matter of respect for their richly diverse backgrounds and as a matter of general pedagogical practice, I would never assume their familiarity with the song.

And even if some of them might be familiar with this tune from their own experience, my task is to make the familiar strange. Among other things, I need to convey to my students the ubiquity and popularity and profusion of revivalist music, the use of music in a way that was innovative and calculated -- music carefully calibrated with message to encourage conversions in a milieu of participatory theatricality. But the thing with this kind of singing is that it carried over way beyond the theatrical setting of the revival meeting -- maybe carrying that setting within it in some ways, but also becoming more generally part of the cultural milieu, an important genre within the shared repertoire of American popular expression.  

Anyhow, I think it would be frustrating to try to tell them about a genre of music without providing them with some sense of it, some sound of it.  But whatever I play for them does not come unmediated.  They won't be hearing the 19th century revivals, whether I play footage of an old-timey hymn sing, Ella Fitzgerald, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  They -- and I -- are listening in and from the present.  Even the most "faithful" re-creation of 19th-century hymn singing would sound and signify differently for me and my students, with our aesthetic and social sensibilities shaped by our current cultural moment.

The problem with teaching history -- this history, or any other -- is that we must proceed via broken analogies.  Nineteenth century songs, recorded on 20th century technology, played in a 21st century classroom -- how is that process giving them access to a  "then" that is distant or different from "now"?  How do we help students understand the otherness of the past, how do we give them a sense of it?  How do we give ourselves a sense of it?  And how do we develop a sensibility about the past that does not depend at some level on an appeal to our senses?

That last question is the most important one.  To my knowledge, I do not presently have any differently-abled students in my class, and this circumstance could allow me to rather carelessly assume that airing an audio clip would be a useful addition to the lecture, that listening to a song together would be a useful exercise.  And I think it can be a useful exercise -- I'll do my best to make it so.  But the idea that imaginative access to the milieu and meaning of the past might depend on some sensory experience -- hearing something, seeing something, handling some artifact -- is probably not so useful.  It may be the case that my knowledge or assumptions about my own abilities and the abilities of my students are getting in the way of my teaching and their learning.

There is nothing unproblematic about trying to understand the past from the vantage point of the present, and there's certainly nothing unproblematic about teaching others to attempt to do likewise.  Playing an audio clip of an old revival hymn won't solve any of these problems.  But it might provide an opportunity to think about some of these problems, including the problems of underproblematized assumptions about and experiences of ability and accessibility.

At this point, when it comes to teaching (and many other things), I have more questions than answers.  So I would very much appreciate any insights, any corrections, any critiques of the ideas I am struggling to articulate and contend with here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Teaching American History in an Atlantic World

Six weeks ago, my colleague John Marks and I organized and hosted an exciting event at Rice University. “Race and Nation in the Age of Emancipations: A Symposium on the Atlantic World” included 6 panels, 15 presentations, 2 keynote lectures, and many informal conversations over Tex-Mex and barbeque exploring the complicated relationship between race, nation, and citizenship over the long nineteenth century. But this was not just a conference about research; John and I also wanted to discuss the usefulness, perhaps the imperative, to teach with or within the framework of the Atlantic World.  Five eminent scholars – James Sidbury (Rice University), Martha Jones (University of Michigan), James Sanders (Utah State University), Laura Rosanne Adderley (Tulane University), and Matt Clavin (University of Houston) – led our Saturday luncheon roundtable, which touched on a number of subjects ranging from textbooks to the questionable morality of Atlantic World scholarship.

Most of us around the table agreed that incorporating an Atlantic World perspective in our classes was important, as it expands students’ sometimes narrow view of what comprises American history. Particularly for those at institutions that require a certain textbook, one that might not be up to the standards of the texts produced by the past and current editors of this blog (namely, Kevin Schutz’s HIST, Ed Blum’s Major Problems series, or Ben Wright and Joe Locke’s forthcoming The American Yawp), we can take the information students learn from these textbooks and explode it by inculcating an Atlantic World outlook in class lectures, discussion, activities, and assignments. This is useful especially in survey classes, though many of our roundtable leaders emphasized that they organize upper-level undergraduate courses around a core tenet of Atlantic World scholarship: that the movement of people, things, and ideas across and around the Atlantic created potential for greater freedoms and unfreedoms in the modern age. Of course those of us that teach American history have long emphasized the paradox of freedom and slavery in our classrooms. But when we open our eyes to the pervasiveness of this contradiction around the Atlantic World, it lessens America’s exceptionalism and exemplifies the ways that American history has always been connected to a larger (and more important) global story.

Now I noted that most but not all of us agreed on incorporating an Atlantic perspective. This was because some participants were wary about this discussion in the first place. That caution stemmed from their belief that “Atlantic World” is a problematic term both at the roundtable and in the classroom. This was certainly the most contentious part of the lunch, spurring discussion about the potential harm that a specifically Atlantic World viewpoint might cause. Some scholars noted the slow erosion of diasporic studies as the more “sexy” Atlantic World field gained traction. Others argued that an Atlantic World framework has too often emphasized connections to the detriment of the many and varied disconnections within this world. Additionally, when we stress movement across and around the Atlantic, we ignore a large percentage of people (particularly women and children) who more often stayed put. Are we then telling as much of a biased story with an Atlantic World perspective as with the more traditional American history narrative?

What do you think—do you regard the Atlantic World (as a framework, concept, or analytical tool) as something essential to incorporate into the American history survey? If so, in what ways do you integrate it, and how do you feel students respond to it? If not, how do you present American history to your students?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Science of Better Homework Assignments

Though I have long been fascinated (cautiously, though, I hope) by the potential for applying the mind sciences to the study of history, I have not given as much attention to new educational psychology research.  This week, however, I learned of a new Duke and Rice study that suggests some easy but effective ways of designing homework that helps students perform better on tests.  Of course, test performance is meant to be only a means to a learning outcome, not an end in itself.  Also, the study in question looks at students of engineering rather than of history.  Still, the principles are interesting.

In the study, the usual homework in an engineering course was alternated each week with assignments that stressed the principles of repeated retrieval, spacing, and feedback. Instead of simply moving onto a new type of problem each week, students were given follow-up problems through two additional assignments that asked them to retrieve lessons they’d already learned (repeated retrieval).  Instead of receiving problem sets in one assignment, the problems were given out over three weeks (spacing). And the instructor responded immediately to student work, rather than handing back critiques a week later (feedback).  The study split the student body into two groups, alternating which group was receiving the modified assignments just discussed.  In the final exam at the end of the semester, each group received a 7 percent higher grade on material explored in the modified assignments than did the group that had completed more conventional homework assignments on that material.

I find these results impressive, and though certain aspects of the method (feedback in particular) might be difficult to replicate in the history classroom, others may be less so: one might for instance encourage repeated retrieval and spacing simply by asking some of the Week 7 discussion questions during Weeks 8 and 9.  This is, however, something we rarely do.  In theory, we instructors try to use the concept of the “theme” in order to encourage students to intellectually revisit and build upon earlier discussions throughout our courses.  In fact, I’m not sure this always works as well as it could; for one thing, undergraduates are much less accustomed to thinking about themes than professional historians.  In many history courses, there is little opportunity for repeated retrieval or spacing, as weekly discussions tend to continue the historical narrative without genuinely returning to earlier “problems.” Thus, I’d like to present the question: how do you encourage students to re-visit earlier material without confusing them or impeding the forward progress of the course?