Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our very own in the Grey Lady

Seeing as conversation has already begun in the comments section below "Little Boxes," thought I'd alert our readers that our very own Ed Blum is featured as the lead Op-Ed in today's New York Times.  The link is here.

Oh, and if you hadn't heard yet, Ed published a book recently...what's it called again?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Friday Funny: Little Boxes

Because Ed asked what music we use in class, and because this is the catchiest song this side of "Call Me Maybe," and because this guy does a great job representing our profession, I thought I'd give you this "Friday Funny" on Wednesday.

And for those of us who teach on Mondays and Wednesday, and have graduate students manage sections on the days afterward, Happy Friday!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Music in the Classroom

Here is a link to a blog piece in US religious history on using music in the classroom. This gets me thinking, what songs do folks use for the pre-Civil War era? I use Star-Spangled Banner, Yellow Rose of Texas, and slave spirituals. Any good ideas?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Salem Re-Possessed

I'm not a witch at all -- witches are old and ugly

Caitlin Wion is a graduate student at San Diego State University writing a thesis on Louisa May Alcott.

I do not think I could have been more excited when I saw The Salem Witch Trials in Hist; I had to plan a discussion around it. The day before section, I e-mailed my students with the following message:

                We are going on a "witch hunt" in discussion to further explore the Salem Witch Trials! More details will emerge in class- but simply we will have a educational, fun, and even ridiculous discussion!
                Your Role: Townsperson
                DO NOT TELL ANYONE! Seriously don't it will ruin the fun!

The day of section: We discussed the readings and then moved on to how the Salem Witch Trials started. I explained to the class that everyone got an e-mail that said "townsperson" or "witch." Then I chose students to be afflicted by witchcraft and let those students choose who were the witches in the class. I even made cardboard stocks for the "witches" to be placed in. It worked perfectly; the students were accusing each other of witchcraft because- "You have curly hair" "you are wearing red-the color of the devil" "you have on a Toronto hat" and my favorite "you are a witch because of your high-low skirt." One student even tried to accuse me of witchcraft!!  After half of the class was accused, I let the afflicted sit down and I asked the accused if they were indeed witches. Everyone said no (although one student claimed she was "sometimes" a witch). I condemned them to be hung and let them sit down.

After the activity we discussed the realities of the Salem Witch Trials. Referring back to my e-mail I asked them who was told their role was "witch." No one raised their hand and I explained that no one got a witch e-mail because there were no real witches in Salem; there were only innocent people who were killed. 

The Positives:
  • It seemed to me (and please, no one correct me) that the students had fun wearing the stocks and accusing each other of being in league with the devil.
  • The students seemed to be able to empathize with both the victims and the accusers.
  • The activity helped students relax and will facilitate better class discussions (fingers crossed)

Things to consider:
  • The activity did not take up much time. If I were to do it again, I would assign some sort of group work and hope that they would accuse people on their own.
  • I would have made more stocks. I only had one, so I don't think the witches spent enough time in them. (just kidding... kind of)
  • Also, I really wanted to go outside for this activity. But San Diego weather gods decided that it would be hot and humid.

Now, I have to give credit where credit is due. I got the idea for this activity from an episode of  Sabrina the Teenage Witch:

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

And the Winner is...

You may remember that (given my luxury of small classes and this term just one section) I have my survey course students vote in the first week on topics to explore in greater depth. Most of them have never been asked this question by a professor: what do YOU want to learn about in this course?

This year I added a slight twist (mainly to avoid having the focus of every unit become "the war that happened during this time period" - which has happened to me before) and I gave them not only a variety of topics but grouped them according to interpretive "lenses," each of which could only be used for one time period. The matrix was made up of topics I think would be engaging for survey students, or which I've run units on before. It looked like this: (click to enlarge)

So, how did the voting turn out?

Monday, September 17, 2012

My Broken Record: Frequent Paper Comments

Tona J. Hangen

I recently wrote about the “SkillBuilder” assignment I use in the survey class – which is a recurring, low-stakes 2-page primary source analysis exercise. Each time one is graded, I return it to the students with all their previous comments plus the new ones, so they can track progress throughout the semester.

I have found that I tend to repeat certain comments a lot, which suggests to me that these are particular bottlenecks or troublesome areas for beginning history students, at least in my classes. I don't bring these up to ridicule students who make these errors, but in the spirit of sharing what introductory students find tough or unfamiliar, especially when they work with primary sources and try to draw historical interpretations from them.

 Here are some of my most frequently-used comments:

Sunday, September 16, 2012

From the TA Corner: Analyzing Primary Source Documents

“It’s not as scary as I thought”

Amber Tiffany

For both of my sections this week we took on the fun adventure of analyzing primary source documents from Major Problems in American History Volume 1: to 1877.  The class broke up into two groups, one reading “Christopher Columbus Recounts His First Encounters with Native People, 1493” and the other group reading “Fray Bernardino de Sahagun Relates an Aztec Chronicler’s Account of the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs, 1519.” The students reread the document (it was the assigned reading and of course they did their homework) and discussed the document within the group. The questions they thought about while reading were:
1.   What was this document about?
2.   Who was the document written to? Why?
3.   When was this document actually written? (added background information)

Students immediately caught on to the persuasive use of language and imagery in both documents. In Wednesday section, the classroom walls have large chalkboards. Each student wrote (some drew) an interesting point from their document on the chalkboard. We went through each point written on the board so the students could visually see lists of ideas and quotes from the other groups text. In Friday’s section there is only one board so we shared them out loud. Some of the topics that students found interesting were:
1.   The description of the Indians clothing and appearance.
2.   The behavior of the Indians upon contact.
3.   Comparing gender roles between the Europeans and the Indians.
4.   The description of the Aztecs fighting the Spanish.

The next step
Next week we will examine the essays at the end of the chapter to see how primary sources are used in writing essays. Ramiro Frausto (another awesome TA who unfortunately never makes our group photos, except his shoulder) gave me the idea to read the essays at the end of the chapter with the students for this exercise. The learning objective for next week will be to identify the argument in the essay. The second objective will be to find the primary sources used to support the argument.

On their own
My hope is that by analyzing the primary source documents, identifying the argument in an essay, and examining how the documents are used in essays, students will feel better prepared to write their first essay. They will need to use a primary source document from Major Problems and one source from CourseMate to support their argument. I actually feel very confident these exercises will help guide them. As we were leaving one section I asked how they felt about analyzing primary source documents? “Well it’s not as scary as I thought” a reply that was either:
1.   An attempt at brownie points
2.   Just being nice because it was my birthday (and thank you Ed, but for the record, I am NOT 42!).
3.   Sincere and hopefully excited about writing their essay.
I am going to full heartedly believe in number 3.

P.S. I happen to be terrible at pronouncing some of these names. I Google searched the names looking for a phonetic transcription that could help me learn how to pronounce the names and found the above jewel on youtube.
But this is my favorite

Friday, September 14, 2012

You Know the Graduate Students are Back When...

Today's Friday funny hit me when I entered our department kitchen the other day and was overwhelmed by the sweet nostalgic aroma of Ramen noodles (chicken flavored, I believe). It got me thinking about the funniest parts of being a graduate student and how we know when they're back for good:

  • office doors suddenly have lots of cartoons on them and you have to study 16th century Spain to understand them (or other historical niche)
  • conversations of "oh my god, and no one talked ... at all" can be heard after sections let out
  • live bodies actually come by my office and talk to me as I matter somehow
  • no food remains from any event
  • popcorn smell hits floor and exclamations of "popcorn, that's such a good idea" are heard cascading down the hall
  • Foucault mentioned at least 1x per day, usually not positively
Any others to add???

My Broken Record: Frequent Paper Comments

I recently wrote about the “SkillBuilder” assignment I use in the survey class – which is a recurring, low-stakes 2-page primary source analysis exercise. Each time one is graded, I return it to the students with all their previous comments plus the new ones, so they can track progress throughout the semester.

I have found that I tend to repeat certain comments a lot, which suggests to me that these are particular bottlenecks or troublesome areas for beginning history students, at least in my classes. I don't bring these up to ridicule students who make these errors, but in the spirit of sharing what introductory students find tough or unfamiliar, especially when they work with primary sources and try to draw historical interpretations from them.

 Here are some of my most frequently-used comments:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Teaching the Chicago Teachers' Strike

Being a teacher in Chicago (at a public school no less!) is an interesting task these days.  I sit in my office at the University of Illinois at Chicago and look down (literally, not figuratively) at all the teachers on the street, dressed in red, demanding a new contract.  I'm struck by their perseverance, the hard work they've done in the past for the kids of Chicago, and, like it or not, the power of a union.

Like almost all of our students, I was raised in an anti-union environment, although that's too strong a phrase.  Our times are not necessarily anti-union, but our categories of difference have been colored strongly by factors other than class, and most especially by race and religion.  Class hasn't been much a talking point for 40 years (Jefferson Cowie and others have tried to explain why).  And the only blip in that truth was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which petered out last year and has remained off the charts ever since.  Elizabeth Warren is out there, and Obama has occasionally talked about the maldistribution of wealth, but it's not untrue that class distinctions have not been the predominant recognized divisions in American life since the 1970s.

That has left unions in a lurch.  They have been colored as money-grubbing lobbyist institutions.  They have been dissected (by me, no less!) for not living up to barometers of racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s.  And they've been put on the defensive, having to justify their existence in the face of folks like Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and now Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  They've lost the battle of rhetoric and they are struggling now, in the streets, to get it back.  Who knows if they'll succeed.

When I give my lecture on late 19th-century labor activities, then, I remind myself that my students might not understand what it is that unions do (perhaps I underestimate my students?), and also why unions came into existence in the first place.  The context, of course, was the Industrial Revolution, but I always begin my lecture with a simple question: "Who here has heard of the weekend?"  And then: "Anyone know where it comes from, and why?"  Ah, the power of a union.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Teaching Contemporary America With Race, Religion, and Comedy

Here's an interview with me about using comedy to teach race and religion in contemporary America. Material based upon new book (which Kevin Schultz describes as "a book, yes indeed, a book."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Leading Discussion: The Ups and Downs

The Graduate Students' Corner

Jenna Asbury

(note to History 109 students, material from this post is quiz-able for the week of September 10-15)

After completing Week 1, (a.k.a. “syllabus week” – which as a student, this was my favorite day because professors typically let students out early) I had my first content session with my students. Preparing for Wednesday’s lecture, I created a PowerPoint which covered all of the major points from Hist: Chapter 1. I began with slides that explained the three different eras before contact in the Americas: The Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Pre-Columbian Eras.

Through the advancement of these eras, civilizations became more established and advanced; complex societies formed among the native people, and societies became more sedentary as their caloric intake increased through the simple discovery of harvesting corn. To show examples of complex societies, I displayed images of Mesoamerican chinampas (floating gardens that the Aztecs used in their capital city, Tenochtitlan), the Incan ruins in the Andes Mountains of Peru, and the brilliant way the Incas farmed in the mountainous  terrain of the Andes through terraced farming. Furthermore, I reviewed the types of social structures that existed in North America prior to European contact. All of this information was a prelude for what historians currently still debate – should the Americas be considered “The New World? One of the major problems with early history is that many primary documents were written through a European perspective. Europeans believed they were superior to all other civilizations, and through the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, these “barren,” “uncivilized,” and “barbaric” lands were deemed “new.” However, carbon dating challenges this concept of a New World because civilizations already existed thousands of years before the Europeans. As Professor Blum reiterated in lecture, there were three distinct old worlds that collided, each with their own established civilizations. Sure, the indigenous people were not as technologically advanced as the Europeans, but that plays in part due to the Ice Age of the Paleolithic Era that resulted in a sense of worldly isolation. 

If I started lecture with the question “Should the Americas be considered ‘The New World,” I would not have gotten much of a response. However, by showing examples of complex societies that evolved over time, this triggered an “ah-ha” moment for the students. Just by the order of how I presented the question and material, the students were able to see a historical debate in the process.

My next plan of reviewing the textbook was to explain European feudalism and what events prompted the decline of this exploitative system. And “shockingly,” my PowerPoint presentation stopped working and the slides were not projecting on the screen; thus ending the remaining information from Chapter 1. Therefore, I worked with the students on how to properly format bibliographical and footnote citations.

Change of Plans
Coming up to my Friday discussion section, I decided I needed to revise how I structured my lecture; due in part because I wanted more participation in class. I spoke with Professor Blum about some ideas of how to conduct my section on Friday, and my revision worked wonders! I began class with three discussion questions, which each incorporated information from Hist and Wednesday’s lecture. Professor Blum suggested I come up with open-ended questions and the students could work on them collectively in pairs. I observed 100% student participation and was thoroughly pleased. When I asked them what they came up with, everyone was raising their hands, and I had them explain the terms, historical figures, or events – a way to reiterate everything they learned. When applicable, I mentioned additional information to solidify their understanding. We covered material ranging from the events that prompted the decline of feudalism, the factors that contributed to European overseas expansion, and how West Africa was exploited. This material incorporated combined understanding of Hist and Professor Blum’s large lecture.

By asking open-ended questions, I had more thorough and opinionated answers. Rather than asking them questions that just required them to search for answers, I asked them their opinions, or how they viewed specific events, or what they would do in certain situations, with the incorporation of course material.

From Friday’s section on pre-Contact and Contact in the Americas, I learned new techniques of how to get 100% out of my students, and will apply them to my other section. Although I support the use of PowerPoint, I learned that partner/group activities work better in break-out-style sections, as it encourages more involvement with the course material.

Jenna Asbury is a graduate student in the history department at San Diego State University

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Father's Lament from a History Teacher's Perspective

The Power of Our Profession
On the Anniversary of My Son’s Passing

(please excuse the personal nature of this post, but it is the 'teaching addendum' to an essay I just had published on the death of my firstborn son and how it shaped my scholarship. This is one way - of many - Elijah's saga has also influenced my teaching imagination)

When Elijah got sick, he needed doctors – lots of them. I wasn’t the right kind of doctor, but I tried the arts he knew. As a scholar of religion in history, we prayed for healing. If Jesus could heal all those people in Israel two thousand years ago, why not now in San Diego. Of course, it hadn’t dawned on me that most of the ancient crowd were not made well. Those healed were the exception, not the rule. I tried the power of positive thinking (I teach the mid twentieth century; I’ve read Norman Vincent Peale). In our case, it was the power of positive breathing. We laid beside Elijah, hooked up to all those machines, and took full breaths. “This is how we breath, Elijah; easy in, easy out.” Maybe the spirit would come in the wind as it did for the biblical Elijah (of course, I forgot that not long after God came in the whisper of the wind, as the story goes, Elijah was taken away).

Monday, September 3, 2012

From the TA Corner ... Matthew Cromwell on CourseMate

Why TA’s Hate Cengage’s CourseMate but We’ll Use it Anyway

Being a Teaching Assistant for Edward J. Blum’s HIST109 class is really great. He’s really giving us a lot of freedom to customize our sections how we like. This means we get to fill in the details of our syllabi, we get to structure our discussion sessions how we think is most beneficial, we design our essay prompts and rubrics. But… it’s a lot of work! Once we were oriented to the idea that we would craft our sections into our own glorious images, we then found out that besides the textbooks and the online learning behemoth known as “Blackboard”, we’d also have at our disposal another online learning tool called CourseMate by Cengage. I’ll just say that generally speaking, the immediate general response from us TA’s was less than tepid.

I approached CourseMate with a pretty open mind. Besides TA-ing, I also am a web developer and graphic designer. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with Blackboard, and a free open-source Course Management System called Moodle. I’m actually a big fan of online learning and, what some educators call the hybrid model of learning – incorporating online tools into the “brick and mortar” education environment. With that background I’ve been looking for the most effective way to incorporate CourseMate into the learning process. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy, primarily for three reasons: (1) lack of customizability; (2) lack of leveraging the online environment; and (3) it encourages a “hand-holding” approach to learning.


In an era of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, the last thing a young learner wants to do is go online and point and click their way through a static environment. CourseMate seems to be hell-bent on making it’s environment as anonymous as possible. Even though it knows your name and email address, when a person logs in, there’s not even so much of a “Hi Matt! Welcome back!” For the teacher it gives a static message listing how great it is and giving you the option to “Create a Course”, which does not seem to be the most important function after my first and only course is created. Students are met with the same generic page. But instead of the option to create a new course, the first action button available for students is “Change your Enrollment”. Really? Are the most important things for teachers or students in this program to edit their enrollment or to start a new class?

Further, as the TA, I want to help guide students to the material that is most important for our syllabus. With CourseMate I have zero customizability options. I create a code, email it to the students, then sit back and check their “engagement” with the Engagement Tracker. I personally find tools like crossword puzzles and flashcards a bit juvenile and irrelevant because I am not making quizzes that require rote memorization. I do however find their “Internet Exercises”, “Web Links”, and “Primary Source Assignments” useful. I’d prefer to be able to disable less important functions in order to highlight the more useful ones so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.


The online environment is unique and requires a different kind of engagement than lectures or text. Unfortunately, CourseMate didn’t seem to get the memo that the internet is a social tool, not just an online textbook. Any website owner or blogger or web developer knows that the key to getting your website visitors to come back again and again is to have fresh and new content provided. The best way to day that is to encourage students to become content providers. In order to register for CourseMate students provide all kinds of useful information; information that could be used to populate a public profile. This profile could publish their “flashcard stats”, or “quiz scores”. Think of Facebook, and game notifications. Instead of “Jack needs a new cow!”, students could see “Jack just scored 28/30 on the Chapter 1 quiz, can you do better?” A little healthy competition between students might spur further learning.

One point of contrast is the excellent online curriculum Their site is also primarily static, and has little to no social interaction as well. Nevertheless, the difference between the two is vast. Hippocampus’ focus on providing a visually striking online textbook course is excellently executed. It’s US History course ( integrates presentations with audio and text in an intuitive and striking way. They provide online presentations with striking images and audio voiceovers that walk you through their texts beautifully and engagingly. If you want to get students engaged with course material in a static environment, Hippocampus does really well. CourseMate should take note.


The really useful aspects of CourseMate also have a downside. It’s really great that they provide targeted web articles for each chapter of the textbook. These are resources that I plan to encourage my students to use in their essays. But, I believe part of higher education is to encourage students to become “lifelong learners”. The biggest part of becoming a lifelong learner is the ability to troubleshoot, problem solve, dig and research whatever problem or issue that you’re faced with. On one hand, I really don’t want students using just any random website to inform themselves on historical issues, (God forbid they start taking David Barton seriously!). But narrowing their options to a few hand-picked sources also pulls their rug out of their personal research confidence. CourseMate has a section called “Web Field Trips” which gives the students external links relevant secondary sources to a specific topic within each chapter. Rather than simply providing one source of information, CourseMate could leverage the online environment by asking students to do some online research on the “Paleo-Indians”, and post an annotated bibliography that other students could see and use as well.


Regardless, we’re all racking our brains on the most effective way to incorporate this tool into our syllabi – and we should. It’s not a bad tool, it’s just rudimentary. If it were a hammer you couldn’t build a house with it, but maybe a picture frame, or step stool. Students who are highly motivated will use it to their advantage, I’m sure. Those who are not, and are not required to use it, won’t login past the first week of classes. I hope Cengage analyzes it’s own “Engagement Tracker” and learns from that data. I hope Cengage takes some cues from Moodle, Facebook, and other modern and successful online tools and adapts. When they do, I hope I am able to be a professor who would proudly sponsor its use in my classroom. Until then, it’s a tool I’m using now and probably won’t pick up again for quite some time.

Matt Cromwell has a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is pursuing his MA at San Diego State University in History. His thesis is “Religious Patriotism During World War I (1914-1918): A Tri-Faith Perspective”. He also blogs on the intersection of politics and religion at