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? 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Teaching Free Speech: Edward R. Murrow

In my history/psychology learning community (team taught with a colleague from the Psychology Department), we have given special attention to the role of personality in history. Exploring 20th-century history through the lens of biography led me back to Edward R. Murrow, to whom my undergraduate professors first introduced me.

Murrow's courage in taking on Joseph McCarthy is well documented; but I was stunned (and pleased) to witness how my students reacted to learning about Murrow for the first time. Not only were they shocked that McCarthy survived as long as he did, but they basically cheered Murrow's speeches and marveled that "communism was even an issue."

For students who grew up in the social media age, the idea of speech restrictions seems totally preposterous. It's difficult to bridge the gap between 2014 and 1954 and for students to imagine a time when speech (or even knowing someone who said the wrong thing) could land you out of work or in jail. But as I learned today, the power of Murrow's critique still resonates and his words did more to convey the darkness of the McCarthy era than anything I could say.

So, I leave you with this great clip:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Writing together- class projects as learning experiences

Of course you have assigned your students writing projects.

And you've probably had students write collaboratively.  (Collaborative writing is already the scholarly buzz word, and there are some great thoughts on that in Chapter 14 of this book.)

But have you ever written with your students?  That is what happened to me last semester. The end result was a blast- a fun project that didn't so much flip the classroom as ignore it, and in the process made for a great learning experience for professor and students alike.

Let me explain.  A course on Colonial and Revolutionary America seems hard to make dull, and my 1st time through had been a blast.  Yet on my 2nd offering of the course everything fell flat. The time slot was different, the student make up was different, even the professor (without that fresh, 1st-year energy) was different.  Discussions went nowhere.  Paper topics seemed unenthused.  We careened toward monotony.  What is a history professor to do when he can't get people excited about the American Revolution????!!!!!

Thanks to the ubiquitous and unconventional @benjamingwright I was aware that the new on-line textbook The American Yawp was in need of contributors.  The up-side of a free online scholarly textbook is the potential accessibility to many cash-strapped students. The down-side is obvious: the human capital to create such a work with quality needs to be cheap free.

Here was my proposal to Ben.  Under guidance, these students would do in-depth research on aspects of the Loyalists in the American Revolution.  Each would contribute, after which I would corral their work into 500 words.  Then - poof - my students get engaged and the American Yawp is 500 words closer to completion.  I was amazed when Ben took this deal, but hey, the man hasn't met a box he doesn't want to think outside of.

If it wasn't exactly a Dead Poet's Society turn around, it wasn't half bad either.  Dubbing ourselves the "Gardner-Webb Loyalist Project," (I'm no good with tiles) we dove headlong into everything Loyalist we could get our hands on.  A class blog became our nexus point to assign readings and post our reading notes.  Assignments were made by interest.  The Accounting Major/History Minor got the numbers problems.  The graduate school-bound student interested in the Caribbean got Atlantic World.  Other facets included class, religion, race, and Empire.  I took an equal share, reading on Loyalist ideology.

You can see their division of labor here

Their reading notes are posted along the blog here (especially below the top 3 posts)

I operated as a 1st among equals, guiding discussion and assigning topics, but mostly staying out of the way of a rejuvenated classroom.  We read everyone's reading notes, commented online and via email, and then created our 1st overview here.

After comments in and out of class, our 500 word collaborative effort can be found here.

Students reported greater enthusiasm for the course, and were intrigued to see their professor take on the role of peer-writer.  Suddenly they were the experts on things I had not read.  How to count Loyalists, Atlantic Loyalists Diasporas, etc. were their areas of expertise now, not mine.  This empowered students and kept them engaged with minimal effort from me.  Also, students became deeply appreciative of judicious word choice.  500 words suddenly seemed so short!  All of these insights led to what our classes always hope to achieve: students engaged the scholarly process as scholars themselves.  They debated inclusion or exclusion of material.  Should we cut ideological history to make room for social history?  How much social history was too much?  How to account for space and time? These were questions they brought to our discussions.  I observed, debated, fought, occasionally lost, and was generally ecstatic about it all.

I'm sure online commentators might crowd source some critiques, and our editors will have final word.  Still- I'm quite proud of this group of young scholars and their collaboration.  May it, or a version of it, live on in the free textbooks of future generations.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Teaching the History of Media, Part 2: Radio

For my second half survey this semester, I am asking my students to evaluate the significance of shifts in media technology. We began the semester with a discussion of commercial photography.  You can read more about that assignment here.  Our second assignment focused on the radio in the 1930s.  

After reading Tom Lewis’s short OAH Magazine article, “A Godlike Presence: The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s,” the students were instructed to listen to several hours of radio programming from the 1930s to create an argument answering how radio changed the way that Americans understood themselves and their nation. 

I relied heavily on the Internet Archive's Old Time Radio Project, a truly remarkable resource.  I wanted to both give the students a broad overview of popular programming, while also allowing them to follow up on their own interests.   As a result, I required all of the students to listen to ten programs and then invited them to choose any additional five.  Here is a list and links for the programs I provided the students.  

Listen to all ten of these programs:
FDR's first fireside chat (1933)

Lone Ranger (1937)
News and Mary Lee Taylor Cooking show (1939)
Aunt Jenny Real Life Stories for Women (1939)
Jean Abbey Shopping Guide (1939)
News (1939)
Presidential address and address of French Premier (1939)
Commentary on presidential address (1939)
Amos 'n' Andy comedy (1939)
Father Coughlin radio program (1938)

Listen to any five of these depending on your interests:
Sunshine News Report (1939)

Certified Magic Carpet Quiz Show (1939)
Bachelor's Children Soap Opera (1939)
Pretty Kitty Kelly Soap Opera (1939)
Brenda Curtis Soap Opera (1939)
Big Sister Drama (1939)
Career of Alice Blair soap opera (1939)
Scattergood Baines comedy (1939)
Sports news (1939)
The Parker family drama (1939)
Joe E. Brown comedy (1939)
Strange as it Seems entertainment (1939)
Major Bowes Amateur Talent Show (1939)
Americans at Work, entertainment show on American workers (1939)

Here are two additional, entirely optional, programs that you might find interesting:
Music (1939)

Baseball Game (1939)

Students wrote on a variety of topics, but gender roles garnered the most attention.  These essays ranged from semi-obvious pieces detailing the many ways that the radio prescribed separate spheres to more creative pieces imagining how both women and men might use the radio as a means of imaginatively transgressing gender boundaries. Other students used the radio programs to consider one of our key themes for the course: How Americans understood the role of their nation in the world.  Another student intended to write a paper on the radio and the Great Depression, but after finding almost zero references to economic suffering, the student instead wrote a clever piece on the problems of relying on media as a means of understanding the past.  

I made at least one key error.  I should have provided the students a schedule of daily programming.  Most of the radio programs came from WJSV in Washington, D.C., and I very easily could have provided the students this schedule.  For students interested in exploring the gendering of radio programming, this would have been particularly useful.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Teaching Local History as National (and Transnational) History

What is the role of local history in the American history survey? Should the history survey always be taught in the same manner, with the same emphases, and with the same material? Should it be taught, for instance, in Massachusetts as it is in Texas? In cities as in suburbs? In poor schools as in rich schools? When it comes to states, for instance, major textbook publishers don’t offer 50 slightly different versions on the American history survey. Should our courses?

Surely most of us do, at some level, incorporate the local into our surveys, even if only in casual references and occasional illustrative examples. I certainly make it a point to integrate local history into the American history survey whenever possible. At its most basic, local history offers an immediacy and a reliability that is otherwise lost in the long train of far-off events. It’s one thing to talk about a mass wave of early-twentieth century racial violence, it’s another to delve deeply into a local incident that occurred on streets and in neighborhoods that students are familiar with. In Houston, for instance, while glossing over the details of several other well-known race riots, I delved into the 1917 Houston Race Riot to explain the many complicated historical dynamics surrounding race during the country’s racial nadir. Conceding that full-coverage is not only impractical but impossible, instructors have to pick their spots. So why not shop locally?

Dangers lurk in using local history to teach American history, of course. Teaching local history as national history can too easily fall into an inward-looking provincialism. While local history can empower students by enmeshing their surroundings in larger national and transnational narratives, it can also blind them with localism. History, and higher education in general, is, I think, designed to liberate us from our narrow surroundings and at a time when transnational scholars can criticize the narrowness of a bounded national history survey, what is there to justify local history in an American history survey? Local history, or at least deploying it in an American history survey, therefore needs a theory.

I resort to local history whenever I feel that it can 1) better illustrate a larger national or transnational trend or 2) reveal something about the process of history itself. The first option is perhaps the most obvious: local history offers something real and immediate. But if you can satisfy the second rule as well, local history is that much more useful. This year, for instance, while teaching in the Rio Grande Valley (along the U.S./Mexico border in South Texas), I assigned several readings on the history of the Valley in the early-twentieth century. The readings variously covered local politics (progressivism versus “bossism”), immigration (the transnational forces and politics that pushed and pulled Mexican immigrants into the Southwest), racial violence (the wanton terror of the Texas Rangers in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and the aborted Plan de San Diego), and civil rights struggles (the politics of whiteness in the origin of the Mexican American civil rights movement). I asked students to compare these readings and these narratives to standard textbook narratives. The readings, discussions, and resulting essays shed light not only on a poorly understood chapter of regional history, but on the complexity of textbook construction and the broader narrative construction of American history itself. Why did textbooks mention some of these incidents, and not others? What aspects of the Valley’s history reinforced established historical narratives and which challenged them? What does all of this say about the process of “making” history?

Teaching local history as American history, if done consciously and with particular pedagogical ends in mind, promises not to provincialize American history but to expand and enrich it. Content and strategies will vary from place to place, but the ends and rewards remain the same.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Midterm Check-In

We’re back from “spring” break this week, and my students have all gotten their midterms handed back to them.  My inbox and office hours were both accordingly more full than usual.  Some of the students are taking the time to check in, talk about their performance, and think about what they can do to improve in the second half of the term.  These meetings can be tough, but they fill me with hope.  There are still seven weeks left in the term!  Plenty of time to turn things around if you’re not happy with how you’re doing.  We talk about strategies for them to improve their work.  We talk about note-taking.  We set up plans to check in more frequently going forward.  I hope that they will take me up on it.

It’s a good time for me to check in as well, and think about whether my performance in these classes is where I’d like it to be.  I’m teaching two lecture courses this semester, and I’ve been trying out a few ideas from the TUSH bloggers as I go forward.  I’ve particularly been trying to think about Ben Wright’s suggestion that teach like we write.  I could probably do better with conclusions (I clearly lack Ben’s discipline with timing), but I’ve found the idea of opening the class with big interpretive questions extremely helpful, and I think my students do as well.

If I were to give myself a midterm report, I'd have to admit that I’m having problems with readings this semester.  We do not have discussion sections, and I’ve found it hard to dedicate considerable classroom time to reading discussion.  The result of this is that a lot of my students are simply not doing the reading.  Several of them are, and are doing a wonderful job on their papers and exams, but many of them clearly need more accountability.  When I have smaller classes, I’ve assigned frequent response papers to keep tabs on the reading.  This semester, though, there are simply too many students for this to work for me.  In one of my classes, I’ve bitten the bullet and begun shifting around my syllabus to give us more time to talk about the readings in class.  I split them into small groups, give each group a question to talk about, and then we all come together to discuss the answers.  This has made a huge difference, and I am trying not to kick myself too hard for not having done it earlier in the semester.  I’m not sure what to do in my other class, where the seats are fixed to the ground (so they can’t move around to form small groups) and where only four or five students will talk when I raise questions.  I’ve begun distributing reading questions to them every week, in the hopes that some will be encouraged to keep up the reading because they will know what the “important” parts are. 

I am trying to give myself the same pep talk that I gave my students in office hours: the middle of the term is a good time to check in and see what is working and what isn’t.  It’s a good time to think of new strategies for fixing the things that aren’t working so well.  I’d love to hear some new ideas: outside of additional writing assignments, what do you do to ensure that your students are doing the reading?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Montana and Women's History: An Amazing Resource

Since it is women's history month and I am a women's historian I figured I should post something, but what to choose? Last Friday's post at the AHA Blog of this amazingly awesome picture inspired me to talk about suffrage: student's often come into the classroom knowing that most women did not have the right to vote in this country until the twentieth century. What they do not understand is that many states passed women's suffrage bills before the 19th Amendment. And, as the image above indicates, these state were in the Wild West.

Having been raised in Montana, I am most definitely proud that I hail from a state that brought enlightenment to the East (one thing I love about the above image is its reversal of Manifest Destiny!). This year marks the centennial of Montana women's suffrage.

Rather than continuing to tell you all about the incredible state of Montana, I'll point you instead to one of the best online resource bases I've encountered on any topic. It's a model for how to use technology in an effective, user-friendly, and simple way. To celebrate the centennial, several history-oriented Montana institutions have collaborated on the website While suffrage is certainly a part of the story, the site seeks to be inclusive and all-encompassing, providing information about all kinds of women throughout the state's history.

I strongly encourage you to go and visit. The site is jam-packed with useful tools for educators from middle school to college. It includes links to articles on women's history from Montana: The Magazine of Western History, oral history recordings and information about conducting oral history projects, mini-biographies of Montana women, suggested lesson plans, research bibliographies, links to online exhibits at the University of Montana, and even—wait for it—a list of projects that need further research.

Even if you don't think you'll ever need material on women's suffrage in Montana, there is so much on this site that can be adapted for other needs. The information on how to do oral history is valuable for any project. The best part of this site is that it has a clean design that is very usable, resources appear cross-listed in multiple places across the site for ease of access. This is digital history done right!

So go forth, enjoy the website. I am going to finish drinking my coffee from this "Votes for Women" coffee cup as I recall all the amazing women, past and present, who inspire me.

Friday, February 28, 2014


In the fall, I will most likely be teaching the survey online.  One of the difficult parts of teaching a a large lecture course online or onsite, when both time constraints and classroom size discourage discussion, is ensuring that students are doing and understanding the reading.  While some instructors prefer to simply wait for paper assignments and exams to check up on their students, I’m a bit too obsessive for that approach.  One solution is to offer brief quizzes, possibly in a multiple-choice or word identification format.  In the physical classroom, it’s easy enough to pass out and collect the occasional quiz, and with technology-assisted courses, both on-site and online, there are usually tools built in to whatever technological platform one is using, such as Blackboard or Angel.  However, I find the latter difficult to work with.  Furthermore, I’m not aware of any such platform that takes advantage of the collaborative capabilities of Web 2.0 in the way that, say, wikis do.   It’s nice to be able to work with other instructors to refine and improve our diagnostic tools, but I don’t know of many good online tools for that purpose.

So I was pleased to learn of a tool that Google has recently and quietly announced, called Oppia.  At its most basic, Oppia allows one to create web-based testing tools and learning modules quickly and easily, so long as those tools can be graded according to an easy set of rules (e.g. multiple-choice questions, ID questions, the ordering of events along a timeline, but not essays).  However, one can also add more layers of interactivity.  I see this as useful in a couple of different scenarios.  If a student answers a multiple-choice question correctly, in other words, that can prompt a second and more difficult question that provides a better sense of how much the student knows, or which can be used to offer extra-credit unavailable to students who failed to answer the first question correctly.   (Many computer-based assessment tests, such as the GRE, operate on this principle, of course, which boosts their accuracy.)  Furthermore, if a student inputs a partial sense of the answer, the instructor-programmed learning module can prompt the student to be more specific; this potentially resolves one of students’ most frequent complaints, i.e. expecting full credit for an incomplete answer.

The second advantage of Oppia is that it allows educators to collaborate in designing testing and learning modules.  I’m a big believer in online collaboration, and I think it’s particularly helpful for teachers confronted with the challenge of covering a huge amount of course material.  I always find myself realizing after the fact that I hadn’t covered a particular important topic, at least not in the depth I’d wanted.  Being able to share and build off existing testing tools allows us as educators to avoid such oversights, and to overcome the biases inherent to our own training and research interests.  It also allows us to individualize our courses in ways that are discouraged by the online tests provided by textbook publisher websites.  In effect, Oppia allows us to do for certain formats of tests what collaborative projects such as The American Yawp are doing for textbooks.

I haven’t yet designed any Oppia modules, but I plan to incorporate the platform into my teaching in the near future, and will be sure to provide an update when I do.  In the meantime, I’m curious to know what others think of Oppia and other web-based collaborative tools out there for designing learning and testing materials.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Flipped Classroom: What's the Big Deal?

Recently, I noticed a blog post on the flipped classroom that frustrated me. (For those who need a refresher on flipped classrooms, click here). The author is an academic whose comments I normally agree with; I'm guessing we share many of the same political, social, and even pedagogical values. But I have a really hard time understanding why innovations like this one draw such fiery opposition. I have an even harder time seeing the connection between flipped classrooms and "privilege," given that our most under-served students benefit most from innovative teaching and are least served by the traditional lecture model.

I'll be candid here: My college is primarily a teaching college, and my colleagues and I tend to embrace non-traditional approaches. If you've taught at a community college (or, really, if you've taught any students anywhere), you probably know that delivering old-school lectures isn't a guarantee that students are actually learning. You also probably know that student learning and student participation go hand in hand. If students aren't saying much in class, they probably aren't engaging the material.

I've never taught a course through a completely "flipped" approach, though I probably will do so soon. But I am truly baffled by the impulse to dismiss it out-of-hand, and I am hoping some of our readers can enlighten me. My questions are:

1) Have you used this method, and was it effective?

2) What is the root of resistance to such an approach?

3) Is the lecture-focused approach to teaching history still common in academia? (I'm guilty of assuming we'd moved on, but judging from the post I cited above, it may be more common than I realized)

I'll hang up and listen.