Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Adjunct Question

As some of you might now, I am involved in trying to convince the local AAUP chapter to include adjuncts (not even all adjuncts, merely those who meet a minumum average teaching load over a couple year span). The process has taken all year and soon there will be a vote. It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Because it is my nature I am skeptical that the Chapter will vote in favor of the measure, but I also hold out hope that there is (dare I say it?) a "silent majority" out there who are sympathetic to the position of adjuncts.

There is a lot I could comment on (and likely will in coming days), but for now I will limit it to the conservative critique. Conservative pundits and commentators commonly point to liberal elites who have "taken over" academia. Hogwash I say. It is amazing how conservative "liberals" get when it might affect their own wallet. Trotsky in the classroom, Pinkerton in practice. Ugh. I will leave it there.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday Morning Musing

As I was looking around for some other blogs to add to our list (check out the World History Blog that now appears on the right side of this page), I encountered a couple of intriguing teaching ideas. Deploying either in the classroom poses significant problems but both also have a potential upside.

I found the first on a site called World History Blogger Network. It has a number of blogs written about contemporary events from the perspective of people from the past. There isn't much to this site and it focuses on a few great figures, mostly American and European men. I was intrigued by the idea, though. Especially in a survey course, I could envision students maintaining a blog from the perspective of, say, a 15th century weaver. At the beginning of the semester, the instructor might offer five characters for the students to choose from. Each character would come with a bit of reading (one possible might be a chapter or two of Ginzburg's, The Cheese and the Worms). The students would choose a character, do the readings, and then set up a blog describing contemporary events of their choosing from the perspective of their character. The goals of such an assignment (for a survey course) would be 1) to develop an interpretation of the worldview of a person from the past and 2) to think about the relationship (and difference) between our world and the past. The most apparent drawback to this strategy is that it would encourage too great an identification between past and present and some exceedingly sloppy thinking about historical analogies. At its best, though, such an assignment might help students see relevance in their required history course. Always a good thing.

The second is more technological and democratic and, for those reasons, a bit scarier to me. There's a short post over at World History Teachers Blog about using backchannels as part of a teaching strategy. Now, if you're like me (and you're likely not), you have no idea what backchannels are. In essence, they involve co-opting online chatting in order to develop a real-time discussion among students in class. The idea is that we should recognize that students are chatting in our classes and try to bend this chatter to our ends (did I just mix a metaphor there?). At its best, such a strategy recognizes what recent research has shown--that our students are most comfortable multitasking in a multimedia environment--and meets them on their terms. In other words, the classroom experience is more like the rest of their lives. Plus, this strategy encourages them to take an active role in the learning process rather than the passive one of simply listening to us drone on. The obvious downside, for me at least, is that I have absolutely no idea at this point how I would incorporate this into my classes.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Some thoughts on the d-word

I spent the last couple of days preparing for interviews for teaching positions in history at a number of community colleges. For those of you who have never interviewed at a two-year institution, the process is a bit different compared to the 4-year college interview. There is a standard set of questions that applicants can expect to be asked by almost any screening committee and on the top of the list is usually a question about your approach to “diversity.” I have encountered this question in different formulations. Once, for example, I was asked how I would “define” diversity in the classroom, another time, how I “adjusted” my teaching style to reach diverse types of students, and yet some other time the questions was put to me as “What is your understanding of diversity in the classroom?”

Considering the extremely diverse student population one finds at community colleges, I know of course that it is important to check whether a candidate has put some thought into this issue. But I have to admit that I find the way the question is framed perplexing. I assume that by asking me to articulate my understanding or definition of diversity, the committee wants to test the degree to which I -- a person not trained in a junior college setting – am aware of it? Or am I missing some deeper issue here (which is entirely possible and in that case please tell me)? In any case, I am not at all sure how well I am handling “diversity” in my classrooms, so bear with me, please, while I reflect on how I deal or have dealt with this issue in my actual life as a teacher.

I sincerely aim to be sensitive to, and accommodate, diversity. And here I realize that I am dealing with diversity of various kinds. On the one hand, students come from diverse backgrounds. On the other hand, they often differ widely in regards to what they expect to get out of their education and the extent to which they are prepared for college level work. As I believe that students learn best when they are able to feel a connection between the subject matter and their own lives, I try to communicate that I value the experiences they bring by virtue of their particular backgrounds to the study of history. This, I believe, is not some touchy-feely effort to bond with a class but a perfectly legitimate approach to teaching college level history. Many students from minority backgrounds, for instance, (especially those of non-traditional undergraduate student age) have had history classes that made no reference whatsoever to their communities. On the basis of this, they might approach the study of history with a certain amount of resistance. So, if I make a special effort to ask for stories they or their families can add to the historical narrative, I believe I am doing a good thing.

Well, okay, sometimes this turns out to be a good thing. Because to be perfectly honest, I have at times been overly deferential to students who argued on the basis of insights grounded in their own experiences. For instance, I once taught a class on modern U.S. women’s history that was composed mainly of traditional-age, white, female undergraduates but that also included a non-traditional-age, African American, female student, who moreover self-identified as a veteran of the women’s liberation movement. Great, I thought, this is the perfect set-up for a discussion of “feminism,” or “women’s issues” across different generations. Considering the historical marginalization of black women in the so-called second wave, I was also glad that my younger students would learn about women’s liberation from an African American woman and not just from their white/pinkish teacher. In actuality, however, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to discuss second-wave feminism in this particular classroom. The young women deferred to their older peer’s authority although from observing their behavior during breaks and after class, I knew that there was a lot that they wanted to say. They kept censoring themselves, however, and I was too slow to respond and too clueless to change the classroom climate.

What silenced students in this particular class, I believe, was the fact that culturally literate, young white, women, whose education had made them aware of their own race privileges, met upon someone who had clearly experienced racism and sexism in the past and in the present. My older student spoke not just with authority but also with an undertone of bitterness. My younger students shied away from discussions for fear of coming across as insensitive, or naïve, or even sexist or racist. And I, meanwhile, had the same intense self-consciousness about the fact of racism and my own privileged position as a white college instructor that I did not dare tell my older student that her visible emotional baggage was contributing to the shutting down of classroom discussions. So, I guess here would be a case of diversity management that failed. I wonder what I as the instructor could have done to create a classroom climate better suited for a discussion of various viewpoints?

As one result of this dynamic, I fear that we as a class never had a chance to appreciate our true diversity. I myself learned only at the end of the term how truly multifaceted the backgrounds of my students were. I was conscious of the few clearly identifiable minority students but failed to see that behind the whiteness of the majority was also an incredible diversity in terms of regional, class, family backgrounds, and personal histories. Had I been conscious of this earlier, I probably could have used it to talk about the fact that no one particular group has a monopoly on victimization, or injury, or whatnot.

Of course when a community college screening committee asks you about your approach to “diversity,” they also want to learn about your strategy to teach classes with students who not only vary greatly in the degree to which they are ready for college-level work, but also come to class for various reasons. Most of them want to get something very concrete – a grade, a degree, a piece of paper that they expect to translate directly into an economic gain. Many have no problem if the class also ends up teaching them how to think and write analytically, especially if they do not have to invest a lot of time (of which they don’t have a lot) into cultivating these skills. Especially in hard economic times like this, however, I think students are more and more interested in getting a concrete return from their investment in their education and are put off by lofty-sounding course-objective statements that sound a bit like “oh this class will so enrich your live.”

I realize that the notion of education-for-the sake-of-education is a pretty elitist concept. But I have to admit that my ideal -- imagined -- student indeed has no mundane economic motives for going to college. This Disneyland student in my head wants to learn for reasons of personal enlightenment and to become a better person. Disneyland student also leaves college not to enter the corporate world with degree in hand, but to subvert the status quo and to work for social reconstruction. (So far, I have managed to keep this Yoda part of my philosophy of teaching to myself when talking to screening committees.) So how do I reconcile realism and ideals? How do my peers do it?

I could go on and on at this point but I fear the post has already sprawled hopelessly out of focus. In any case, I am curious to hear about others’ attitudes about and experiences with diversity in the classroom.

Friday, March 27, 2009

We are probably less original than we think we are

I teach an upper level seminar in German literature this semester. The goal in this course is not just to give students an overview of modern German prose, but also to hone their skills in a foreign language. Because I expected many students to be hesitant to talk in class in a language in which they know they are not fluent, I required them to meet with me one-on-one for casual conversations. Most class members seem to enjoy this chance to meet their instructor in a more personal fashion. But as they probably don't want to share too much about their life with me, they tend to talk about their other classes. What really shocked me here, was to hear how much fashion-driven we as instructors seem to be. Almost all the students, for example, are currently taking classes in which the instructors require them to blog and/or to podcast themselves. I, too, require my students to blog. And I honestly thought I had come up with an original idea. Well, I did not. My point is, that it might be a good idea to talk to students about their "other" classes occasionally. We might gain new insights into why some of our ideas on how to make our teaching more original, inspiring, etc. are not being met with quite the enthusiasm we expected.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lesson Plan I: 2nd Great Awakening

The previous discussions about teaching got me thinking that it might be a good idea to present one of my teaching lessons, which could serve as a point of departure for a dialogue about specific methodology or approaches in general.

This week I put together a new 3-part lesson on the Second Great Awakening for my evening course which meets once a week for 3 hours and 20 minutes. Such a large chunk of time provides ample room for creative approaches, but this lesson could easily be broken up to fit 50 minute sessions. Below I primarily discuss the in-class project (third part of the lesson), which was pretty cool in my book.

Background: The class is the first half of the U.S. survey. Students have been reading sections of their textbook covering the transforming U.S. North from 1820-1860 (students multiple choice exams every 2 weeks to encourage regular and timely reading). In the previous class session, I lectured on the market revolution, the changing urban landscape, and the emergence of separate spheres ideology.

The lesson:
In the first part of the lesson students discussed a selection from Nathan Huggins' Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass (in the Guarneri, America Compared reader). We discussed race, gender, abolitionism, anti-slavery, and reformism.

In the second part, I lectured on the Second Great Awakening and various reform movements (temperance, prisons, women's rights).

In the third, students read (in class) a set of primary source documents from Chapter 4 (Religious Revivals and the Second Great Awakening) in Wilentz and Earle, eds., Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848, 2nd edition. I gave them the following prompts. The numbers with the #-sign signify which documents to read. I also wanted students to revisit related sections of the textbook.

Use evidence from primary source documents and the textbook (see the document numbers & page numbers given with the topic) to construct a short skit in which you address the following numbered issues. The skit must include at least three people and at least two must have dialogue. As long you address the issues listed with the assigned topic, you are free to be as creative as you like to convey the information. I will need a written script at the beginning of the presentation.

News report on a camp meeting (#2, #3, & American Promise, pp. 379-80)
1. Where is the camp meeting and why is it at that location?
2. What ideas were expressed at these camp meetings?
3. Express what it would have been like to participate in a camp meeting.
4. How would gender have affected the experience?
5. Include the relationships between at least two different groups of people that participated in camp revivals

Debate show: role of women in society (#7 & American Promise, pp. 376-80 [NOT “Education & Training of Youths”] & 425-26)
1. What was the role of middle-class women according to separate spheres ideology?
2. What sorts of things were women “supposed” to do?
3. Justify that role and that participation in society
4. What alternatives did some women present to that model of womanhood? (Be specific in identifying particular groups or things they did)
5. What arguments did they use to justify these alternatives?

Discussion of college students at a coffee house about religion on campus (#3 & American Promise, pp. 378-80)
1. To what degree did people participate in “awakenings” on campus?
2. What experiences did people have who participated in the “awakenings”?
3. What activities did ‘converted’ people engage in?
4. What various responses did college students have to the “awakenings”?
5. What concerns might have prompted college students to participate in these revivals?
6. How unique were college students among youths who received education (think also of who could have been a college student and who could not, or was more unlikely to become one)?

Advertisement for a Temperance Reform Chapter (#4 & American Promise, pp. 379-81)
1. Who belonged to the Temperance Reform chapter?
2. How did temperance reform fit with middle-class notions of manhood? How would it not?
3. How did temperance reform fit with middle-class notions of womanhood? How would it not?
4. Why would people who engaged in revivalist activities of the Second Great Awakening tend to support temperance reform?

Advertisement for Anti-Slavery group (#6 & American Promise, pp. 379-80 & 381-85 & 426-27 & 430)
1. Where and how did African Americans in the North participate in the Second Great Awakening?
2. To what extent did African-Americans in the North control their religious education and religious leadership?
3. What obstacles did revivalist African Americans face?
4. How were anti-slavery and abolition societies connected to the Second Great Awakening?
5. What activities did they engage in and why?

It took students 10 minutes for students to read and collect their thoughts, 30 minutes of group work to create their skits and 10 minutes to perform (because of time constraints I omitted the requirement to submit a written script). When students were ready to present, I introduced the set of skits as the evening television line-up for Channel 2 WSGA (Second Great Awakening). We began with a news report, then an ad, followed by the debate show, then an ad, and wrapped up with the evening drama (college students at the coffee shop).

The overarching goal was to have students portray and see the many different experiences of the 2nd Great Awakening--at least in the North--by placing themselves in the shoes of historical characters.

There were 5-6 students in each group and students got to work right away because they have been engaging in these sorts of in-class projects all semester. As stated in the instructions, at least 3 people needed to participate in the performance so that individuals nervous about being in front of the class would not be forced into an uncomfortable situation. Still, for most groups, all members contributed to the performance.

Students seemed to enjoy the task and the presentations, certainly no one was asleep or surfing the web. The task provided for a variety of learning types and created a memorable experience, which hopefully will be reflected in the upcoming exams.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Of Narratives and World History

We had an interesting discussion on the comments of CGB's post about the narrative and I'd like to continue that here in another post.

The criticism of grand narratives has been around as long as there have been grand narratives, but this criticism has received much more fuel in the past, say, twenty years from the post-modern moment (though it seems the only scholars using the phrase "post-modern" these days are critics of what they imagine it to be). Generally, the charge has been that grand narratives of historical change are implicated in the maintenance of structures of power. In my field, nineteenth-century British history, the most celebrated grand narrative was about the rise of class and class consciousness. Especially in the 1990s, this narrative was attacked because it imposed a rigid structure of categories on the past and rejected evidence and historical actors that didn't easily fit into these categories. Nineteenth-century activists who spoke in more universalizing languages, rather than the idiom of class, were either ignored or marginalized. When we actually look at the language of class at particular moments in the nineteenth century, it was argued, we find that it was contingent and highly adaptable. And we see that many people thought of themselves and their position in society in very different ways. The old class narrative, then, privileged a certain kind of political action and certain political actors (often men) that themselves were part of the creation of modern structures of power.

There was, of course, pushback against this species of argument, both from more conservative scholars and from those raised on the new social history of the 1960s and, at least in British historiography, a sort of equilibrium (or armistice?) seems to have been reached in the first part of the present decade. As these developments unfolded, though, something else was happening: a new emphasis on world history. This came from some of the same impulses as the best elements in post-modernism: a desire to uncover stories and pasts marginalized by dominant narratives (which was, itself, a product of the new social history of the 1960s). Interestingly, however, world history has gone in a different direction. While post-modernists generally attacked any and all grand narratives, many world historians have recently been searching for new narratives; they're interested in big explanations to crucial questions. "Why did Europe industrialize and then dominate the world in the nineteenth century?" is one. The answers are increasingly showing that Europe's period of dominance was much shorter than is often imagined (more like 1850-1945 than 1500-1945) and that other areas of the world (especially India and China) were, in fact, much more important to most people in the world for most of the past, say, 500 years. These stories decenter "Western Civilization" and often place the Indian Ocean or East Asia at the center and, in doing so, (hopefully) fatally undermine the lingering notion that the "civilization" of Europe and the United States sprung from the superior Greek and Roman civilizations and gradually came to fulfill its destiny to dominate the world.

This changing story has led to dramatic changes in the teaching of "Western Civilization" or "European history" at many institutions. Many departments are shifting to focus on global connections and, generally, trying to bring the new narrative of a multipolar and interconnected world into the classroom. Most of the "European history" jobs that I looked at this past job season wanted at least some degree of engagement with the broader world. To be sure, in many cases, this is probably no more than a perfunctory nod. But, I think it signals a broader shift that itself reflects our own moment in world history.

This is a story that I believe students need to hear and think about as they prepare to head out into the world. I do think that there is an important role for teaching students about the craft of history, but it shouldn't be entirely at the expense of helping them see this important and potentially empowering emerging narrative of world history.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

That pesky textbook issue...

As someone who has not yet had the honor/pleasure/ to teach a large lecture class, I have had the luxury of deciding quickly and without much agony to just drop the textbook. Instead I created my own coursepackages consisting of primary sources paired with articles that I like. The thinking behind it was to make students realize that history is not a presentation of facts but an ongoing argument.

Did it work? Well, nope. Most students are so wedded to the notion that they need to memorize dates and events to succeed in a history class, that they read the articles and primary sources just for the information about facts/dates/events, and miss the whole "argument" part. I have learned to devote much more time to discuss with students "how" historians actually work. This, of course, comes at the cost of content delivery. But I am honestly starting to question whether this is really such a big deal. It would be different if we taught high school. But we don't.

I mean, why are we doing what we are doing? And to clarify - I am talking about teaching undergraduates here. Most of them (even the history majors) will not, I repeat NOT become historians. So what do we want to get across? Will there be a terrible void in our students' lives if they leave college without knowing about the Encumbered Estates Act? Probably not. I think the loss would be if they left college knowing every single detail about the Encumbered Estates Act but still thought that they understand the world; different cultures; different people; if they just cram dates and names into their heads and by being able to recite "a" narrative about the way things were/are.

There have recently been more and more discussions among our colleagues about whether the sciences can offer a useful model for the teaching of history. In the natural sciences you have the lab. Students learn-by-doing. In history, learning-by-doing often comes too short, I think. We teach a narrative first. Then we raise the issue that this narrative can be contested. We start with textbook readings. We quiz students on the textbook. And only then do we give them primary sources to analyze and to discuss. Maybe this is the wrong order? Could a survey class be like a wiki? Imagine this: your students read primary sources and articles. Then they write the textbook themselves: the weekly assignment could be to go online and write a paragraph of narrative in a wiki format. Many universities provide the necessary webspace. Mine for instance (big public northeastern U) provides instructors with blog space and wiki space. If you utilize a wiki, students can edit what's already being written. Every student builds the mosaic. It will be chaotic. It will be a mess. But imagine how much fun it might be.

Actually, if truth be told, I am afraid my main teaching goal is to have fun while doing it. I am a hopelessly frivolous teacher, I fear. But back to the textbook and back to serious: I think it already helps if you teach students to refer to the textbook like they would to a monograph. Don't let them get away by writing "the book says." Make them say, "As Hewitt and Goldfield argue..." That way, it's easier for them to wrap their minds around the fact that just because something was put in print it is not truth written in stone.

These are just my five cents. And bear in mind: I have not taught the survey, yet. I am spoiled rotten. I live in Disney land.