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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Own Private Teaching Method

In response to CGB's query, I've decided to dedicate my first post on this shiny new blog to teaching method. Hopefully, T/S, CGB, and others will write posts about their own methods and we can turn this into one of those highly-esteemed "roundtables." That term always reminds me of dashing knights and damsels in distress (not this, though), but I guess that's another story.

When I think about my teaching method, I immediately wonder what the term means. What is "teaching method"? Does it simply mean what I do in the classroom? Or, does it signify something more discreet: innovative strategies that I deploy (or don't) in the classroom, a sort of asymmetrical warfare of education? For public school teachers in the U.S., this is a much simpler question. Part of their training involves a number of courses on method; a prospective teacher has to be prepared for a detailed discussion of method, with reference to the most recent scholarship, as part of the interview process. I, on the other hand, as an academic trained to serve at the university level, am not even sure of what the term means. Most (though, notably, not all) of my mentors at Large Private University, Northeast (LPUN) viewed teaching as a burden. Their "teaching method" consisted of descending from the rarified air they usually occupied to deliver the good news to the initiates, er, students. Well, since I've just inadvertently defined teaching method as "how one goes about teaching in a classroom setting," I should discuss my own method, such as it is.

I have taught, broadly speaking, in three different kinds of classrooms. First, I've taught (or, rather, preached) in a lecture hall filled with 150 or so students. This experience felt (and feels, as it is currently ongoing) far removed from any "teaching method" or from a "classroom." In fact, it is much more like giving a one-person performance. My gestures, voice, actions, and emotions are all on a much larger scale than anything I do in other settings. I raise my voice to a shout and lower it to a whisper, I get visibly angry and sad, I use props, I bang my fist on the table, I point with abandon. It can be quite intoxicating, in fact, especially if one (like this one) enjoys performing. Preaching in the lecture hall is many things, then, but it never seems much like teaching.

The second kind of environment is the 30-40 student "lecture" course. I identify this type as a lecture course, because these are the courses where it's always seemed necessary to do some manner of lecturing. By lecturing, I mean giving a pre-planned and structured talk that conveys information and makes an argument. Another distinguishing feature of this type of course is that it takes place in an actual classroom. There is a blackboard, there are desks in which students sit, and there is some kind of desk with drawers at the front of the room. Well, this semester, it's a lab table and I have a sink, which I've, unfortunately, yet to have occasion to deploy. In these courses, I've always had a reading to which between 40 and 60 minutes of class time is devoted on a weekly basis. During this time, I use discussion strategies that I'll discuss below (I don't want to give anything away, so I'll move on). I suppose I would identify the rest of the time I spend in the classroom as lecture, but I certainly don't just talk. In fact, it depends. Yesterday, I gave my British history class a lecture called "Free Trade and Famine." Most of this lecture consisted of me delivering a pre-planned talk. Even then, though, we spent about 10 minutes in the middle of class (a 75-minute class) discussing several images, which I displayed in a PowerPoint presentation and we had two or three other brief (say, 3-4 minute) discussions about issues raised in lecture. On the other extreme, I gave a lecture about the Great Exhibition of 1851 a few weeks ago in which I provided only a short (probably 10 minute) introductory talk outlining the main features of the Exhibition. Before I began, I gave the students a multi-page handout with newspaper articles, quotes, and figures that we looked at throughout the class and discussed. I also had 7 or 8 images that we talked about. Most of my lecture time falls between these two extremes, and probably tends toward the latter. I usually provide a handout with several extended quotes and/or several short newspaper articles. I try to see the lectures as providing a backdrop against which we can use primary sources to build a narrative. I'm not completely comfortable with this yet, plagued as I am with self-doubt (and the voices of my esteemed mentors in my head, who are shocked--SHOCKED--that I didn't provide the details of the Encumbered Estates Act), and I often end up talking more than I'd intended.

The final environment in which I've taught is a seminar-style course, with 8-15 students. I have the most experience with this kind of classroom, going back to my days as a Teaching Assistant, and am probably most comfortable there. Discussion is, obviously, central to the seminar-style classroom. Often, in this setting, I'll just run this in a pretty standard way: I ask questions and the students answer. There is relatively little conversation between students and everything is largely under my control. This sates the control-obsessive in me, but doesn't always work as a way to maintain student interest or even to relay material to them. I often use group work, and with some success. I've had the best results when students have to build an opinion or a perspective together. Since that's hopelessly vague, I'll elaborate. I've often used this strategy as preparation for a class debate. One of the best discussions I've had was several years ago in a debate about the slave trade. The students had read a collection of sources edited by David Northrup. The book contains a mix of secondary and primary sources. I divided the students into several groups and assigned each group one of the secondary-source readings. They then had to use the primary sources and, with their groupmates, construct a position based on the primary material that supported their assigned secondary source and that they could then defend in debate. I've also been lucky to have great TAs these past few years and they are often better in the seminar-style classroom than I am. When we discussed Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart earlier in the semester, for example, one of my TAs wrote four categories on the board and had each student go to the board and write a quote that they found interesting under one of the categories. It was actually quite effective as a way to get students moving around and thinking about the reading. And, since it's in this paragraph, it almost seems like I can take credit for it. Almost.

The broad point in all of this seems to be, then, that, like most of those in my profession, I don't really know what I'm doing, I'm fumbling around in the dark. Until universities start to take the training of graduate students as teachers seriously, it cannot be otherwise. Faculty at R1 institutions (outside the Ivies and the other top-tier schools) must realize that the vast majority of the PhDs they produce will not get jobs at R1 institutions and therefore will have to take teaching much more seriously than many R1 faculty members do (though, of course there are a great many outstanding and dedicated teachers at R1 institutions around the country, including LPUN). There are structural factors at R1 institutions that help to make this so, but that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Advice to Newly Hired Redux

I certainly do not have time to peruse lots of blogs in the course of a day, never mind a week. So I am grateful to other more diligent bloggers who let the rest of us schmucks know when there is a good thread in the blogosphere. In this case I appreciate Historiann (who has already moved on to other topics) who provides links to two posts offering "advice to the newly hired." Center of Gravitas began the discussion with advice directed to R1 hires. Reassigned Time offered alternative suggestions for people at "institutions that fall in the elsewhere."

In the spirit of these posts, I add a few nuggets of advice of my own. Disclosure: I am in the fourth year of a t-t position at an "elsewhere" institution; I also serve in the union leadership.

1. If your department has bylaws that spell out requirements for promotion and tenure, become familiar with them early. Create rough plan that identifies ways that you might fulfill the requirements over a 5-6 year period and then try to achieve those goals. In my few years I have seen that the process for obtaining P/T can be a dicey one, even at a teaching institution. It would be terrible if your file was called into question because while you participated in committee work, you did not meet a standard established by the department by serving in a "leadership" capacity.

2. Listen to peers about the P/T process, but take responsibility for it yourself. Remember that institutions change. New union contracts, bylaws, presidents, deans and provosts can alter the process or the interpretation of that process. For instance, what if a new provost arrives at a teaching institution and decides that scholarship is the name of the game and that all Asst Profs looking to obtain P/T must demonstrate a commitment to it. Despite the specificity of bylaws, there typically is enough wiggle room in them to create problems in this type of situation. The rule here is to learn the system and rules--don't assume it will be the same as 5 years ago when your colleague went through it.

3. Scholarship. While there are still many teaching institutions out there, scholarship is becoming more important each year. If you are at a state college or university that downplays the importance of scholarship and encourages the faculty to focus far more on teaching, I will wager that will change within the next decade. More and more teaching institutions--especially state schools--need to demonstrate the scholarly prowess of its faculty in order to compete with R1 institutions for their share of the educational budget. The best way for them to do so is through faculty publications or other forms of scholarship (See for instance, Earnest L. Boyer. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990)). Especially if the current economic crisis continues, presidents at smaller state institutions will need to justify their budgets, not only to maintain the status quo, but to improve their college or university so it can become even more competitive, even if it does not abandon its teaching mission.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Never too Late to Register

Check out the first Scholarship of Teaching & Learning Academy, which will take place at Eastern Michigan University, May 18-19. According to the website:
This conference seeks to bring together all members of the academy engaging in or wanting to learn about the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL). Applications are encouraged from experts and novices in this field, at all career stages. This national conference will provide a forum for presenting new SOTL work, for sharing reflections on SOTL and its role within the academy, and networking with others engaged in this enterprise.
Well, we missed the deadline to submit a panel this year, but perhaps someone would be interested in putting one together for the implicit "second" SOTL? Costs of registration might require institutional support.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Laptop Initiative

UMSU is a laptop university, meaning that all students receive a laptop, the costs of which are included in their full-time tuition. In my courses, as with so many other faculty, these devices have created some wonderful opportunities for creative lesson plans but they also tend to distract students as much as aid them. Recently I sat in on a colleague who gave a lecture to her survey course. Of the approximately 35 students using computers in class that day, only 4-5 clearly were taking notes. The rest surfed Facebook pages, played games, IM-ed each other, and at least one student visited some inappropriate sites. My colleague naturally was unaware of the scope of the problem though she had suspicions. Although I too doubt the diligent use of computers for note-taking in my courses, I have not developed a clear laptop policy because I know how useful they can be for many students. The question that I have not been unable to resolve is: How can I provide students who have different ways of learning the opportunities to access the best learning strategies for them if I deny them use of an important tool?

Over on The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh, who teaches at UCLA Law School, has posted the results of an experiment last fall when he banned the use of laptops in his Criminal Law course. At the end of the course he conducted a survey to gauge student responses to the policy. Although students felt the policy negatively affected their ability to take notes, they largely seem to feel it helped them concentrate better in class. On his post, Volokh has also provided a memo he wrote to his colleagues that breaks down the data in more detail and has student responses. It is an interesting read if you have the time. What this means for my courses, I still don't know.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Active Shooters

When I started thinking about what to write as the inaugural post for this blog, I did not imagine it would be on this subject. I figured it would be on the educational component of the stimulus package, the place of adjuncts on college campuses, the midterm grading blues, or some other timely issue. But when I arrived on campus this morning I had an email from university administrators instructing the faculty of Upper Midwest State University (UMSU) that they had to take an online "active shooter" training program to prepare us in the event a deranged student launches an attack like those at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and other educational facilities. So this is the topic that has occupied my mind today (when I haven't been grading midterms).

Honestly, I have no problem with the administration and public safety creating a plan of action in case such a terrible event were to happen. It demonstrates a responsibility to the people of the institution and an attempt to protect the university from lawsuits. In fact, I feel more confident knowing that the institution is thinking about this potential problem than if they said or did nothing.

It is in the public discussion and gravity they give the issue that bothers me. For the past year or so UMSU administrators have blown a lot of hot air over constructing these plans, arguing--as they did again in the online training program today--that "active shooters" are "considered one of the most dangerous threats on a college campus." No one has identified who "considers" it to be so--I have little doubt it is the private companies specializing in selling related services--but it seems like hyperbole to me.

To be a "most dangerous threat," frequency, immanence, and gravity seem like prerequisites. Such an event would be grave indeed. But these tragedies do not occur often, despite the vivid press coverage. Even the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, who produced the required video, likens the probability of being in such a situation to being struck by lightening (a Google search revealed various probabilities between 1:84,000-600,000). So these events are not frequent, and without specific cause, it is irrational to live with a sense a shooter is imminent.

If an active shooter scenario is a "most dangerous threat," then why does the training stop short of the most important component, according to the film: rehearsal. Through the film we are instructed to be aware of our surroundings and to prepare for potential active shooters but that only by rehearsing will we be fully ready to confront the crisis if one appears. (I particularly appreciated the strategies to use to take out the assailant.) However, other faculty and staff I talked to who went through the training largely skipped through the slide show, coming out the other end no better off than when they began the program.

Universities must acknowledge that they are pursuing a low-cost strategy for a low-probability scenario and not create a simmering sense of dread. It is far more likely that I or a student will be hit by a car walking to class (or hit someone driving to class), or have to evacuate a building because of a fire. With an office in an administrative building, I am most concerned about fire. Even more so since I learned that we are not allowed to have classes meet in my building because it does not meet the fire code. (So it is ok to have loads of faculty and administrators with only a couple exits, but not an additional 20-30 students?) Yet I have never been instructed to participate in a fire drill, either in my office building or the buildings in which I teach.

As academic institution move forward on this issue, I encourage them to do so with honesty and a sense of realism.