Wednesday, August 29, 2012

First Day of School

For the vast majority of us, this week or next week will include the first day of school (Ed's already been there AND blogged about it). Already my Facebook feed and email inbox include adorable groupings of nieces, nephews and children of my friends in their first-day best, grinning (or weeping, as the case may be).

What do you do on the first day, besides the ritual public recitation of the syllabus's contents?


History 109 (first half of the US history survey) has officially begun. Huzzah and huzzah. I've met with the TAs, introduced them to the class (they were foolish enough to tell me silly things about themselves at our barbecue, which I then told the students in lurid detail ... so sorry "Mrs. Brian Boitano" ... you dreamed of marrying him, you live with the regret of telling me). (swearing in the video ... so ear muffs)

For this semester, we're using Kevin Schultz's marvelous textbook Hist. I know I've publicized it before, but it is affordable, short, and hits the main points really well. Hist also comes with "Coursemate", a tremendous resource from the publisher. Coursemate contains the e-book, flashcards, quizzes, interactive maps, glossaries, and much more. Although I did not use Coursemate when I was teaching H109 solo, I find it vital now because there are now 8 instructors for our class (7 TAx + 1 prof). Coursemate provides some uniformity where difference can be frustrating for some students. Coursemate offers our group common ways to approach the material, and allows individual TAs to tailor sections to her or his liking.

And coursemate will be extremely important to my students ... so if they have yet to sign up, now is the time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Plug for a Design-Forward Syllabus

A couple of semesters ago, I reinvented my survey course syllabus. I had been churning out a predictable-looking, text-heavy syllabus every semester. You know the type:

The redesign involved formatting into a magazine-like layout which makes an attractive PDF:

…but I also rethought my survey from the inside out since just presenting the same-old course with a cosmetic upgrade wasn’t enough. At the same time I adopted some graphic design principles (sidebars, varied font, images, and judicious use of color), I also framed the class to give students more responsibility for the learning, including punching some holes in the semester to be filled with student-chosen content later. The process allowed me to think deeper about what I was teaching, what I wanted my students to learn, and how I present that to my students.

As I have reconsidered both the form and function of a college course syllabus and extended my efforts to some of the other courses I teach, I've continued to experiment with different looks using stock newsletter templates in Pages for Mac. My aim is to reduce textual clutter, jargon, and bloat and instead give pared-down, readable, technologically savvy syllabi that suggest---at a glance---my personality and the approach of the course. Here are a few, displayed as e-magazines using (free) Flipsnack PDF to Flash converter, which makes it easy to give the links to my students:
  • US History II from last semester is no-nonsense with black-and-white images from the Library of Congress (Pages template: Design)
  • This term’s version is still serious, but uses more color and has a sharp-looking Q&A back page (Pages template: Financial)
  • US Since 1945 is more playful and colorful with a pop-culture edge (Pages template: Modern)
  • and Citizen Nation hints at the complex accretion of meanings for American citizenship with a scrapbook-like, vintage layout (Pages template: Collector)
Although prohibitively expensive to print this way, it’s free to share a full-color PDF suitable for my students' screens and tablets. I still hand out a plain-text "traditional" syllabus in class, but if my students are already accessing most of their course materials online, it makes sense for a version of the syllabus to be well adapted to digital environments. Of course, a syllabus can be reconsidered as something else entirely, such as an infographic or chart, a series of nested digital folders, a Google calendar or Google doc, as Ed mentioned in last week’s comments.

One reader who stumbled on my syllabi this week asked me if I had good ideas about how to replicate the clean look using a PC. I work in the PC environment most of the time, except when I need to craft a syllabus, where Mac has the clear design edge. I don’t have a good answer for this – does anyone have suggestions? Microsoft Office has some passable newsletter templates and you can go a long way with well-designed fonts (try Font Squirrel but just say no to Comic Sans!). Some places offer free newsletter templates for Word-to-PDF conversion. Also, there is an open-source desktop publishing program called Scribus, but it’s probably more than anyone needs or wants for a simple syllabus.

You're probably thinking what I'm thinking: does all this make the students more likely to READ the darn thing? Who knows. Is it worth it? I'd say yes. Good course design is ALWAYS worth the time we spend, and in my view, a good course deserves a professional-looking or even, I dare say, a beautiful syllabus.

Other recommended resources for syllabus season:

Friday, August 17, 2012

US History Mix Tape

Many of use music from an era to open a lecture or for discussion, but one approach I have taken the past few years is to encourage students to try and think of songs they know that fit with main themes of a period. I've developed my own (and made videos with images from the time period to present the material in a fun way). I try to incorporate the ideas from the song into my lecture (such as "why would it be so hard to lay down" in the age of colonialism? or "did it seem like Americans were insistent on burning down their own society from the 1830s through the 1850s?) So here's my playlist ... any other ideas:

  • Colonial Contact: Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain"
  • US Expansion (1803-1850): Big Country's "In a Big Country"
  • Road to Civil War: Jonezetta's "Burn it Down"
  • Civil War: The Who's "Teenage Wasteland"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The WordPress Workaround

Last week I talked about a nifty little assignment that builds basic skills of historical thinking and sourcing. Next week I'll share more about syllabus design and organization, but this week I wanted to highlight another important tool in my history survey kit: the course website.

Our campus uses Blackboard as its course management system (CMS). Not everyone uses it, of course, and not everyone who uses it likes it. I count myself in that latter category. My objections are both aesthetic and ideological, but I don't intend to turn this post into a rant against commercial systems. Suffice it to say that I eagerly anticipate the next, more user-friendly generation of CMS, and I'm a big fan of open source. In the meantime, "workaround" is my middle name.

Each term I create a minimal Blackboard presence - usually just some sidebar links, a folder with any material I don't want to put on the open web, the student roster, and the online gradebook. It's so minimal that I don't need to export or save the Blackboard material from semester to semester. Instead, the real meat of my US history survey course goes into a Wordpress blog on the open web and one of the Blackboard links points there. And there it stays.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Top 5 things to love about syllabus building

Ah, August... Time to remember that we actually have to teach in this profession.  Time to reflect on all those things we said we'd get done this summer, and are feverishly writing blog entries instead...

Ah, August....

But we also get to write syllabi.  My five favorite things about it:

  1. Choosing a font.  Garamond again?  God I love that font.
  2. Picking office hours.  All on the same day?  Before class (never) or after (always)?  How late should I stay?  Will anyone come?  Hello out there?  Anybody here?
  3. Trying hard, damn hard, to remember all those things I said I'd change last time.  Not just fixing the last lecture or two, or changing the books I wanted to assign, but figuring out which stories worked and which didn't, or if I should restructure the class completely.  Should I teach the Labor Movement or Populism first?  Or at all?  I know this analogy worked, but did it work better in Lecture 12 or Lecture 15?  Oh, for a better memory!  Also, I have to ponder (and reject) moving over to the undercoverage method.  An annual rite!
  4. Finding new ways to tell students that history is not just a list of names and places and one damned thing after another.  I say it every semester (and I once had a student say "amen" afterward), but just to stay awake, I have to come up with new language.
  5. To realize, once again, that I can make a tiny difference in these people's lives, if I bother to care.  How to do that is another question all together.  Is it by teaching them to write?  Is it through allowing them to see themselves as actors in the great historical drama that is American history?  Is it through a turn of a phrase?  We never know what will be effective, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fall Syllabus Preview: the "Skill Builder" Assignment

So I’ll be posting on Wednesdays for a while… weekly until my classes begin in Sept, then probably every other week. This post is a preview of my history survey syllabus, starting with page 4, the guidelines for the “SkillBuilder” assignment (click on the image to download the page's PDF).

Just what ARE the basic skills that a history survey is intended to teach? “Old school” history teaching tended to be designed around essential content, rather than essential skills. But new-style (Wineburg-style) historical teaching builds toward thinking historically, which is a learned skill (and hopefully, one that lasts long after the class). Many of my survey students are non-majors, and some of them are recent arrivals to the country, and for both of those groups – US history is new and a little daunting. So I start at the ground floor, so to speak.

Among the very most basic skills I want my students to gain are: distinguish primary and secondary sources; understand how to construct an evidence-based historical argument (i.e. be able to analyze/interrogate sources and EMPLOY evidence in some scholarly fashion); and care about sourcing (i.e. make a footnote). I have one recurring small, manageable assignment that has them do all three.