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.


Attitudinally Challenged said...

Very interesting ideas. Especially considering the figures from the scholarship on teaching and learning: As a number of studies have it, students remember 90% of what they do, 50% of what they see, but only 10% of what they hear.

As for your idea about having students choose an alternative identity, I wonder if you ever came across "Second Life." It allows you (for free) to create an "avatar" for yourself and to design a virtual world online where different people can interact. Sounds a bit scary, doesn't it? But depending on what my summer term looks like, I might try it for one of my online classes.

Jenny Woolf said...

When I wrote my last book (a biography, never done it before) I found the hardest thing was seeing the 19th century world from a 19th century perspective. We can deal with the stuff that resembles our own mindset, but it's far harder to explore their world when it (a) backs into areas which we find socially unacceptable - for instance, gross sexism - or when we fail to recognise something that was tremendously important at the time - such as the necessity of maintaining a certain social image which wouldn't matter to us today.

I'd like to see teaching that brings out the reality of the different mindsets of the past. Of course many old ways of thinking are completely lost to us. But that's another problem! :)aturally, ,