Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Look of the Book

I only caught George Marsden's interest once. As an undergraduate hoping to get accepted into Notre Dame's graduate program in history, I met with Professor Marsden to discuss my research on Dwight Moody's revivals. As I explained my love of studying history, I told him of how I put my hands directly on the microfilm spool and did not use the levers. I loved "the feel of the reel," I said. He perked up. It was the only time during our conversation. I didn't get into Notre Dame.

Now as I put my grubby little hands on more books than microfilm reels, I've been fascinated with the look of the book. I was thrilled to see Stephen Prothero's new The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. This is truly a beautiful book. It doesn't have pictures or prints in it. It doesn't have snazzy graphs or google ngrams that are so complex beyond their simplicity that we should hold off on using them. The American Bible just has words ... but they are beautifully presented words. Prothero takes various passages (like "remember the ladies") or iconic speeches (like Reagan's 1964 address) and positions them with sets of commentary. He displays how others have interpreted, used, or abused the passages and then gives his own historical and political commentary. The pages are just delicious to relish. Because of the layout and look, it's a book I'm proud to own.

Sometimes publishers do not give us the looks we want. Anthony Pinn told me a story of how he wanted an entire chapter just of images for his book Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (2010). "That would have been cool," I said. "I know," he replied. But his publisher didn't think the audience would "get it," although I think we would have.

And most recently, Paul Harvey and I have our book on images of Jesus in American history coming out, and we discuss literally hundreds of images that could not go in the book. Our decision - build a website with all the texts, images, and tools needed to teach the book (coming soon in September at The book is gorgeous, and to have all the images within it would have made it look terrible. But the look of the book matters, I think.

And this brings me to teaching. Does the look of the textbook matter? Do you or your students read the timelines or boxed material? Do you or they look at the images? A certain press (Cengage, cough, cough) just sent me a list of covers for a certain US history textbook (Hist, cough, cough) to help select new covers. I wondered how much that mattered and to whom.

So any textbooks or books work really well for their aesthetic look? Anything publishers do that you cringe at?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Happy Juneteenth!

by Nina McCune

This summer has been a whirlwind – one rife with new ideas for various parts of the survey.  Most recently, I’ve returned from Savannah, GA where I took part in a one-week National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks Workshop at the Georgia Historical Society.  Throughout the week, we revisited themes of race and slavery and visited sites where this racial and social history lives on.  Strong scholarship and supportive camaraderie gave rise to an attendant question in this investigation:  how do we meaningfully engage our students in the study of race and slavery since many feel the issue is resolved?

The idea of any history being “resolved” or somehow neatly tied together in the textbook’s narrative is something we all struggle with.  American history is so expansive and recent – we sprint every year to “cover” all aspects of the survey.  In that haste, we might drop threads and discussions.  As historians, however, we are charged to investigate, re-open, and re-examine even the most remote phenomena and events.  Moreover, we are ethically bound to tell the stories of those who lived those phenomena and events:  in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, colonial/post-colonial American slavery, and the Emancipation of 1865, historians have just begun to tell those stories.  It’s only been in the past 20 years or so that the discipline of African American History has exploded with treatments of individuals, plantations, and states actively engaged in pre-Civil War enslavement and forms of post-Civil War freedom.

Yet, many students see the issue of slavery as irrelevant to their generation.  After all, series of legal instruments have been repealed and established, apologies made, reparations offered.  There is a seeming incongruity between the younger survey student’s willingness to study American slavery and the profound literature evolving on the subject.

Thus, I return to the framing question:  how do we meaningfully engage our students in this study?  Clearly, if southern states (especially Texas) still celebrate Juneteenth, this history is not resolved.  In the workshop, we visited two Georgia sea islands (Sapelo and Ossabaw – please click on the links to see my photos) where the history of slavery and freedom predominates the landscape.  We saw how enslavement was different and unique to the Georgia coast, we learned how urban and rural slavery in these places provided relative autonomy to some slaves, and we met descendants of families who remain on the land to retell the stories.  And, although the two islands are now differently used (Sapelo, despite encroachments by the state of Georgia, continues to be the home of descendants of slavery in the geographically small and economically dwindling community of Hog Hammock; Ossabaw, purchased in 1924 by a wealthy Michigan family, struggles to accurately portray the history of enslavement despite the attempts at preserving a few slave cabins, continuously inhabited until the 1980s)  – there are fundamental issues of land and land ownership – that extend onto the mainland as well.  In other words, place matters in the study of history.  Where something happened, it is likely to continue happening.  It’s perhaps easy to study something that happened in a particular place because one has proximity to the land and the people.

However, if place matters in the study of history – so must place-lessness.  Universal themes of rights, liberties, land – or at least “universal” to the study of the American state – are as important as remembering.  How can we make this part of history come alive to students in California, Idaho, or Maine?  Such places have no proximity to the Georgia sea islands, to Texas, or to active engagements in American slavery.  Are the universal ideas borne out of this experience enough? 

I offer you some techniques I learned from this workshop.  Please feel free to comment on other ideas you have!


  •  God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man by Cornelia Walker Bailey.  Ms. Bailey still lives on Sapelo Island, and is a sophisticated advocate for the living preservation of her community.  This book is a narrative of her life – students should easily engage in her humor and insights.
  • For primary sources, have students read the March 9, 1859 undercover report on the largest slave sale in the United States in Savannah, GA.  This is referred to as the Weeping Time, and although the physical structure where the sale took place no longer exists, Georgia Historical Society has erected a marker.
  • Other post-Emancipation primary sources are available at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.


  • Have students listen to “Bid ‘em in” from Oscar Brown, Jr. (this is a freely available YouTube video, however the song is purchasable from iTunes and may be more effective than having visual accompaniment.) We did this several times during our time with Alexander X. Byrd (Assistant Professor, Rice University and author of Captives and Voyagers).  Dr. Byrd asked us to keep two columns as we listened to this song:  one tracking signs of subjugation, the other tracking signs of agency. 


  • Also an idea from Dr. Byrd:  examine the background, middle ground, and foreground of Olfert Dapper’s 1686 woodcut “Description of Africa” (or any image from that volume) using non-interpretive language.  Describe where figures and shapes are located, their relative perspective and scale, and so on.  From there, one could begin an analysis – why would one figure be pouring something for another?  Is this breaking trade?  If so, how did that practically work in the slave trade?  How could this story play out? 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Syllabus By Consent?

Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in AmericaToday's entry comes from guest blogger Tona Hangen of Worcester State University. Professor Hangen is the author of Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America. She also blogs over at Juvenile Instructor - one of our favorite blogs. Tush.0 has offered her a lucrative contract to join the editorial team here, and we'll see if the 80% share of the gross we offered will be enticing enough.

We used to split our US survey three ways: to 1865, 1865-1945, and 1945-present. To reduce our dependence on 100-level requirements and to squeeze in a history methods course without adding credits to the major, and for parity with transfer courses elsewhere, in 2010 we started teaching a 2-part survey that divides at Reconstruction. Some of us in the department made substantial efforts to try to bring the new US II course up to the present, while others decided to teach it pretty much the same as they always had, figuring that it was more important to teach deeply than to race through in a mad dash to the Obama administration. I can see the value of both perspectives, although it must annoy the heck out of students that there’s not consistency in our collective approach.

I taught the “new” survey for a couple of semesters and it felt (to me) shallow and frantic, trying to cram everything in with a lot less time for reflection or review. I decided something had to give.

For one semester I tried varying the pace throughout the course, alternating between “sprinting” and “digging down” but honestly, I think my students wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference--it probably felt equally speedy to them. The next time around, I decided to give my students more say in what we “dug down” into. I split the course into broad temporal units and wrote a syllabus that left some gaps in what the specific reading assignments would be for each unit. I then came up with 5 themes or topics I’d be willing to teach for each unit, and presented them to the students in the first week of class for a vote.

Once they’d voted, I updated the syllabus with the textbook sections appropriate for those topics. The unchosen topics became reading for students to do on their own, assessed with (open book) online quizzes. We seldom discussed those topics in class, focusing instead on the ones that students preferred to learn about.

In Fall 2011, here are the topics that got the top votes: Native American Homelands and the American West (late 19th century), World War II at Home and Around the World (Modern America 1900-1945), Atomic Age and Culture of the Cold War (1945-1989), The Vietnam War (the 1960s), America Since 9/11 (America Today).

There was definitely a military history emphasis to that class... in fact, it felt a little History-Channelish, with all those wars. Very thin on social history.

This past semester’s ballot looked like this (I had periodized it a little differently) - click to enlarge:

The voting results: Rise of the City (late 19th century), Why the Twenties Roared (Progressive Era), Great Depression (1930-1950), TV and Culture of the ‘50s (Cold War Era), Vietnam Hawks and Doves (the 1960s), America Since 9/11 (History in Our Time) - so this one definitely had a cultural studies/pop culture emphasis.

You may already be able to see that there are pros and cons to this approach. For one thing, this only really works if you’re teaching one section of the survey. I wouldn’t be able to maintain all that variety over multiple sections. We sacrifice breadth and skip a lot. We learn some things well, and other things only lightly or not at all. I do find that students tend to test well and retain what they learn more deeply. And based on their comments, they seem to like having some control and stake in the course content. It keeps the survey really fresh for me, since I am essentially teaching a different course each time based on the combination of choices.

However, there are some topics I think will never get chosen, no matter how attractive my titles for them might be or how important I think they are to understanding the 19th and 20th centuries. And some students, in their course comments, really miss not talking about huge chunks of the book. On the other hand, this probably ends up being a more realistic approach to digesting textbook material - few students will want to read the entire thing with equal fervor.

For fall term this year, I’m reinventing the course again. I’ll still have students vote, but this time on thematic “lenses” with which to look at the time periods. Each time period will get one lens, out of the five choices in column 1. One afternoon just after classes ended, I sat down and composed a matrix so I’d have a plan in case any lens was chosen for any period. It looks like this:

Each unit will contain a primary source “workshop day,” a writing assignment, and a 2-part exam: an online at-home quiz using the textbook on the material not covered in class, and an in-class written exam on the material and concepts we dealt with in class.

What do you think of having students select some of the course material or giving some control over the syllabus design to a vote? Have you organized a survey course around student inquiry or curiosity (i.e. “what do you want to know”) instead of a more traditional canon-based “here’s what you need to know”? Would this model work in larger classes or across multiple sections? How do you strike the balance between “getting through the textbook” and focusing on real learning in an intro course?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Student Evaluations

What do you think of student evaluations? And, perhaps more importantly, what do you do with them. I've heard of a number of responses to student evaluations, including:
  • ignoring them: they're not a good measure of teaching effectiveness
  • reading them for trends in what students like and dislike
  • mocking the students for not "getting" what the class was about
  • taking comments like "assigns too much reading" as a badge of honor
can we learn teaching strategies from the Bachelor?
probably more than we can learn dating strategies
I find evaluations extraordinarily useful and I usually conduct an informal one midway throughout the semester. What I get most from the evaluations is 1) what I am doing right. Over and over students comment on how they appreciate the relaxing opening (I usually spend the first 5 minutes easing them into the topic with some humor) and how I layer the lectures (always with a few minutes of where we were last time at the beginning and where we are going at the ending ... I learned this strategy by enduring "The Bachelor" and seeing how this inculcation approach worked wonders).

Criticisms range, depending on the class and temperament, but I find that if there are similar complaints, then something needs to be addressed. This past term, the #1 complaint was that I did not grade their essays. It was an extremely large class (170) and the university allots grading money for these sorts of classes. I explained this to the class, but some were still miffed. Any suggestions for how to address this or appease students? What do you do with evaluations?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Graduate Students and Teaching

When I ran into Daniel Tosh's marketing crew in New York City (none of us is sure which came first tosh.0 or tush.0; that chicken and egg debate will probably never be answered) and left with 400 "Tosh.5.29" wrist bands for my gigantic course in the fall, I started thinking seriously about how I want to structure the class. The biggest difference between this one and my others is that it has graduate student teaching associates (TAs!!!). When I was a TA, faculty members let us run the 50 minute discussion any way we saw fit. If we wanted to convene study sessions, we could, but the only part that really seemed to matter was consistent grading.

What has worked for you - either as a TA or as a faculty member:
  • did the professor provide guidelines for each discussion?
  • did the TA create reading quizzes?
  • what's the worst part of TAing? (beyond grading)
  • what's the best part?
If anyone can provide answers, maybe I'll know how to best use my 8 in the fall. Here's a guide from USC. Until then, I'll be planning the epic barbecue we'll have in August.