Monday, August 29, 2011
The buzz all around San Diego is The Hunger Games and follow-up books by Suzanne Collins. North America is now home to several districts that must have their young people battle for resources and food. I haven't read them (probably will this winter break), but they got me thinking. Could I have my first discussion (which is usually my fun way of assessing what they know, what they think, and what they don't know) into some kind of group competition where elements from the past become tools in present struggles.
In the past, I would hand out a note card and ask a set of questions like: who's your favorite president from the time period? What person was most important? What invention was most important? Where would you want to have lived and why? Then students would discuss this with a neighbor, and then share their answers. I'd find out, usually, that Ronald Reagan, JFK, and Bill Clinton were very popular. The cell phone usually comes right next to the light bulb for new technologies/inventions. And, my personal favorite was when a student-athelete explained to me that swimmer Michael Phelps was the "most important person" from the past. Sure, why not :).
For Thursday, I'm going to try and make it into an "assessment games". I won't call it that, because I don't want my students thinking I'm trying to figure them out. Perhaps I'll call it "The History Games" and devise some questions like, "if you were stuck on an island with 2 notable people from our time period, who would they be?" Then I could imagine a scenario where the separate islands join in combat over scarce resources. Or perhaps a question like, "if artificial intelligence takes over the earth and sets out to destroy all humans, or use them as an energy source, what goods would you want with you?" Sound crazy? Probably, but it also might get them thinking more creatively about the past, what they know about it, and how it impacts them today and in the future. (and I'd be tapping into their Survivor and The Matrix sentimentalities)
On Wednesday, I'll report back about the first lecture. Oh, and the picture is JFK at my favorite spot in Ann Arbor, Michigan; where he announced plans for the Peace Corps.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Ed's first day of class sounds like mine, only better executed. He actually takes a picture of the kids!
In my opening session, I do have them look around at the physical appearance of the classroom, something they have been doing for the previous ten minutes anyway. Then I show them an image of the Chicago Philosophy Club from 1896 (we're in Chicago), demonstrating how things have changed between the late 19th century and the early 21st. Then I show them pictures of the signing of the Immigration Act of 1924 and of 1965, and say that these things might sound boring, but they are one important reason why the class we're in today doesn't look like the Philosophy Club.
More of the same follows. On the nature of work, leisure, communications, and transportation. On prayer, on school, on domesticity. And on family, which allows me to say that, while lots of things have changed between now and then, kids' sex drives haven't, so in the late nineteenth century most of them would have been married with children by now.
They sometimes laugh.
The first time I did this I realized that for me to teach recent American history successfully I need to: (1) tell great stories; and (2) use it to explain the present, or at least what came next. There are all sorts of pitfalls about treating history in this way, and I'd be curious to hear them if any of you have experience in this. I'd also be curious to hear what has worked with your students.
As I was working on a syllabus one Saturday morning in August, an idea flashed across my mind: what if I had each student create and maintain their own blog? My second thought was that this is probably the caffeine talking because tracking and evaluating as many as twenty individual blogs could rapidly descend into a semester-long nightmare. Worse, what if the students didn't participate beyond the bare minimum requirements? After mulling it over for a few days and discussing the idea with colleagues, my inclination toward pedagogical experiments overcame my doubts. I should note that I have regularly used class blogs (in seminars as well as in lecture courses with 70+ students), so I am not new to the world of teaching with technology. This experiment, however, requires much more from the students than merely posting a weekly comment on a class blog. My sense is that students tend to perceive class blogs as "my space" in which they are merely temporary visitors. When required to create their own blogs, they will have to claim responsibility for design and content, and I hope this will ultimately increase their engagement with the class more generally. While I wouldn't try this for any course, I think it will work in this instance because:
First, the course in question, Religion and Humanitarianism in the 1800s, is an weekly seminar of no more than 20 students. The topic attracts students with a personal stake in humanitarian activism, and, if past experience is any guide (a tenuous assumption, I know), the course's students were highly motivated and very engaged in the seminar. In fact, since some of them have gone on to do humanitarian work (Teach for America, the Jewish Service Corps, AVODAH), I emailed them to see if they would periodically check in and comment on the class's blogs, and several enthusiastically agreed.
Second, the class includes common readings focused on nineteenth-century Anglo-American abolitionists, missionaries, and women's rights activists, but students also conduct ongoing independent research on contemporary humanitarian groups, and much of the research begins with the Internet: organizational mission statements, appeals for donations, current missionaries' blogs, newspaper and magazine articles. The blogs will allow students to link to their sources. Also, the class's themes frequently intersect with current events and the students' own activities, and I think the blogs will provide a way for students to write about these connections. For example, last semester, students regularly emailed me newspaper articles and campus events related to the class, and one student who saw The Book of Mormon prompted an ongoing discussion of the musical's representations of missionaries and race.
Logistically, each student will set up a blog on Wordpress, and I will link to her blog on the course's webpage. (http://www.religionandhumanitarianism.wordpress.com/) I recommended that the students opt to "hide" their blogs from search engines, so only those who know the exact address will be able to access them. Each week, students will write two posts, and one must be on the class's common readings. They also will comment on at least three other blogs and respond to any comments on their own blogs. In terms of evaluation, I have borrowed a colleague's idea to rate each students' blog on a scale of 1-4. While I will visit all of the blogs regularly, I will only evaluate 2-3 each week, on a rolling schedule. I also plan to send periodic emails to students to update them on their current standing and ways they might improve, if needed. The blog will count for 30% of their grade, and the rest will come from hard copies of papers (three short papers and a longer final paper).
Unlike having a common class blog or even a class wiki, the individual blogs give students a sense of ownership over their own writing. They will also learn how to create and maintain a blog. I think this will prove to be a valuable experience since so many academics, lawyers, political pundits, and humanitarians participate in online network, and those who plan to go on to graduate school will get a taste for the digital humanities. Students will also have a chance to keep a journal, of sorts, of their independent research, effectively building pre-writing and a writing process into the semester.
Because I am requiring them to comment on their classmates' blogs, they will also be members of a community. I am interested to see if the blog community will become a modern-day approximation of the nineteenth-century activist communities we study in class. After all, Garrison, Douglass, Stanton and Anthony, and all of the Protestant mission boards published newspapers in which they wrote their own articles and reprinted pieces from their friends' (and enemies') newspapers. My hope is that the students will see their blogs as a kind of newspaper, and they will use them to "narrate, curate, and share," to borrow from W. Gardner Campbell.
The questions and possible drawbacks:
Will students care enough to build a blog community? The success of the experiment depends entirely on the students' interest and willingness to participate.
Will I be able to monitor all of these blogs and contribute to them? Will the students be able to keep up with each other? (Fingers crossed!)
How will the students deal with competition if some blogs have many more visitors than others?
How will the discussions on the blogs transfer to our weekly seminar meetings? Will they say all that they want to say online?
Since I can't predict how this will work, it is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Fortunately, one of my colleagues is doing something similar in his course on Islam in the post-colonial world, so we will be able to compare notes (and possibly despair) as the semester progresses. I plan on submitting updates here throughout the semester, and I might ask for students to comment on their experiences, too. If anyone has tried something similar, I'd appreciate any suggestions!
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Time to get out your camera - the first day of school is here (for us, it's next Tuesday). Here's what I do after rolling through the syllabus and addressing any "crashers" - the name we have for students who want to add a class that is already fully enrolled; I've decided upon a firm policy - no crashers, no questions. If you're a senior and you haven't had time for this survey class by now, then tough luck. Oh, and by the way, there are other sections available; you don't want to take any of them ... sorry Charlie).
- Then, the United States had just over thirty million people (and this doesn’t include Native Americans) in 33 states; now, it has about 300,000,000 in 50 states.
- Then, about four million people were owned by other people, and that 4 million equaled the size of the nation’s largest state: New York. Now, California is the largest state with 36 million people (it had 380,000 citizens in 1861) and estimates suggest that there are 11 million individuals in the country illegally.
- In 1861, the largest city was New York with 800,000 residents; New York City’s still the largest, but it has more than 8 million residents.
- Then, fewer than 8% of American citizens lived West of the Mississippi. Now, more than 40% of the population lives West of the Mississippi River.
- Then, “whites” accounted for more than 85% of the population; blacks about 13%; and Asian Americans about 1%. Now, whites make up 65%; Hispanic Americans comprise 16% of the population, black Americans hang at 12% and Asian Americans make up 4.5% of the population.
- Then, you could expect to die in your 40s (if a southerner fighting in the Civil War – much, much, much younger); today, average life span is past the 70s.
- Then, the main occupation was farming; now, retail sales are the number one employer in the nation. Then, there were 151 actors in California; now, well … a lot more!
- Then, there were about 2.5 million Catholics (8% of the population) and at most 200,000 Jews (less than 1%). What everyone else was, including slaves, is difficult to determine, but it seems that Protestants dominated numerically. Now, Catholics make up about 20% of the population; there are slightly under 9 million Jews and Muslims and Buddhists stand at about 1.3 million.
- In 1861, there were two presidents in the land we call today the “United States” and both were committed to keeping slavery where it was. Now, the President is married to a descendant of slaves and is considered black (here, a picture of Obama as Lincoln is shown; I expect someone, anyone, to laugh; no one does; I make a goofy comment about it hoping that someone laughs … again, silence).
- In 1861, the nation had 33,000 railroad miles; by 2010, the nation had more than 4,000,000 miles of road and rail.
- Then, most American rarely traveled more than fifty miles from home in 1860; now, many have accomplished this before 6 months old (my son Elijah is the example with cute picture here)
- Then, agricultural products dominated exports: about 75% of all of them – led by cotton and wheat. Now, according to dollar value, the main exports are civilian aircrafts, semiconductors, cars, and medical goods. For imports, we take in fuel sources and chemicals. Not counted monetarily, but transformative of the entire world, are new social media technologies like Facebook, Google, and twitter. Most Americans then made goods at home, owned only a few sets of pants, or dresses. Now, one poll has shown that the average American woman owns 19 sets of shoes.
- Then, main forms of entertainment were minstrelsy and baseball. Reading and church attendance were fun too, as was playing pranks and river travel.
- Now, television, movies, and computer games (of various iterations) dominate, and football is the most popular sport.
- I end this segment with a photograph of my young son … sporting a cute onesee. I have the class work through where his clothes came from, how they were purchased, how they are cleaned, who took the picture and with what kind of technology. Then I have them account for how the image is displayed, how they are viewing it (through glasses, contacts, and/or sunglasses) so they can think about how the entire material world has changed.
- For this, I show images – drawings and black-and-white photographs from the 1860s and then images from the twenty-first century, including those taken from outer space and those taken with digital cameras. At this point, I take a picture of the class, upload it, and put it on the screen. The point here isn’t just how much bigger the buildings are or the stores, how racially diverse the people are, but also the speed, colors, and distances from which they’re taken. The United States looks profoundly different and how it looks at itself has changed.
- The last slide is of the class itself under the title “Now and Future” and I use it to demonstrate how technologically things have changed so radically that in the course of seconds I can incorporate the image of them into the slideshow. I ask them to consider just how much life might change 20-30 years from now when they’re children may be sitting in a United States history survey class.
Monday, August 22, 2011
2. Exams (30%). This is where I hit my students hard about reading the textbook and attending lecture. I want my students to learn the material that they are to debate and discuss. The first half of the exam is straightforward multiple choice questions and True-False assessments. These questions often ask for direct answers about who authored which documents from Major Problems or when events occurred. The second half comes directly from Hist. Each chapter of Schultz’s textbook has a section titled “the causes why.” Students are asked directly to address one of those sections and to provide evidence for each “cause”. I find the A students clearly differentiate themselves here from the B, C, and D students (the E students rarely show up). Sure, my exams encourage rote memorization. And sure, that’s boring and probably they’ll forget much it the following weekend at a frat party. But I still think it helps to know for oneself (without having to “google it”) that there were black Congressmen during Reconstruction, that Woodrow Wilson was president during WWI, and that Native Americans, feminists, white college students, and a host of others pursued civil rights during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s too.
3. Participation (10%): This is where my grading has often fallen apart. My students have told me they know if participation is really a surrogate for attendance or just the ultra-subjective feeling of the professor. In the past, I tried to assess it based on attendance, how many times a student spoke in class, what they said, and if they worked in small groups.
To be blunt, this turned out to be all bunk. I hated taking attendance, because then I had to deal with absences. I have too many students to worry about who’s grandmother died this time. Also, I could hardly ever remember who participated well and who did not. Furthermore, shouldn’t active listening be a part of participation? But how could I assess that? Participation usually turned out to be who I felt positively about and who irritated the hell out of me.
4. Finally we’ll have website creation (10%). I saw the Social Network movie and thought it was hilarious. All this drama about “friends” and “pokes.” I think Facebook pages are a total waste of time. Unless a friend is posting pictures of her or his baby, I don’t really care who went to see Harry Potter or why no one wants to date you (probably because you are complaining online about no one wanting to date you). But Facebook is awesome for easy website creation, and my assignment asks students to use it to create a page of historical background for a contemporary political figure, film, event, law, or television show (such as Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Inception, Glee, or California's Proposition 8).
This assignment lets me get students thinking about the present in terms of what we’ve done in class, and that’s how I hope they’ll live their lives after we’re done. More on this later.
On Wednesday, I'll post the notes for my first day/week of class - how I lecture on the United States then (1860s) and now (2010s ... as if you weren't aware of when 'now' was :).
Saturday, August 20, 2011
(next time, on exams, participation, and website creations)
Friday, August 19, 2011
I've always wondered about the best way to find out what our students know. How do I know what I know they know they know?
Over the course of this blog I hope we'll talk a lot about assessment. But as I'm putting up my syllabus I've decided on a strategy to make sure they do the weekly reading: homework. On the one hand, I treat my students like complete adults--I don't take roll, I call the cops not their parents if I have trouble with them, etc. But at a school where I lecture on Monday and Wednesday, the send the students to sections taught by TAs on Friday, I think it's only fair to everyone involved to make sure they do the reading.
What I've done, then, is this: give them a few bye weeks, but have as a rule that every week they are to do some of the online primary source reading found in the textbook. Usually these are followed up by a few basic questions--at least they are with the textbook I use (ahem...). Then I have the students email those responses to my TAs. The first year this was a disaster--the poor TAs got hundreds of unwanted emails a week. So now I've created an email address that students send their responses to. Using filters, the TAs can check who has done what, what discussion will be like, and, perhaps most usefully, have a way to say to that complaining student, "well, I see here you handed in your homework only twice, so you completely deserve the grade you earned..."
So far so good, but how do you assess?
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Monday, August 15, 2011
--(I honestly meant to get this posted before Ed posted his second installment, and now I see I am too late. The lesson: never try to be as productive as Ed--it's too tall a task.)--
I'd like to thank Ed for setting up such a useful site, on how we teach the survey. Because I too am teaching second half of the US survey this semester, Ed and I are going to play a game of back and forth, on what works and what doesn't. We hope you'll join us.
I was just going over my syllabus again and I have what we all have in the first section: what are we/you doing here? In dept of ed language, it's called a "learning objective" or more broadly a "course description." For me, this is always the most fun part of the course, and the most challenging. What I have now is this:
The study of American history is more than an exercise in self-congratulation and nostalgia. It is more than politics and diplomacy. It is more than a passive absorption of facts, dates, and names. This course — the survey of American history since the conclusion of the Civil War (which happened, you should know, in 1865) — focuses on the human consequences of the politics, policies, ideologies, and wars (declared and undeclared) that comprise our history.
The lectures and readings will introduce you to a wide range of historical actors, examining in particular: (1) economic development, (2) race relations, (3) the laboring classes, (4) reform movements, (5) the interior of everyday lives, (6) the changing conditions for success and survival in the culture that Americans shaped, and (7) the emerging role of the United States as a world power. The idea is to have you feel like you are standing in the shoes of those who came before you. We hope you will come close to understanding the past from the perspective of the men and women who experienced it, to gaining some insight into the daily lives of Americans, to understanding a bit better their work and their leisure, their cultures, and their ideologies, their relations with one another and with the political and economic system under which they lived, and which they passed on to you and me, for better or for worse.
No matter where we trace our ancestry, the fact that you are sitting here means you live in the world they created. It is better to know about it and understand it than not.