doomed to distraction

Tag: assignments (Page 1 of 2)

Civics 101 in History 130 & 131

My friend Virginia introduced me to the New Hampshire Public Radio-produced podcast Civics 101 earlier this year.  She was on the board of NHPR and rightly-proud of their new venture. I’ve enjoyed listening to host Virginia Prescott (a different Virginia) interview a different guest each week – including many professors – on topics like “Party Whips,” “Emoluments,” and “The IRS.” In some cases, I’ve listened more than once in order to take notes. Yes, I’m talking about you, “Federal Courts.”

As soon as I started listening, I started thinking about how to integrate the podcast into my classes, and I’ll be doing so this fall. This isn’t wholly a response to the political turmoil, though. Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.

I’ve gone through and selected episodes that pair up well with different days on the syllabi of both my US I and US II classes, and I’m offering students the chance for some extra credit if they listen to the podcast and give a short presentation on it on the relevant day. They then have to write a brief thinkpiece on how the contents of their podcast help us understand what we’re talking about in class, and how the content of the class might counter or reshape the podcast’s interpretation of the issue.  For now, I decided to keep this as an extra credit assignment, partially because the longer-term project in US I is also podcast-based, so stay tuned for a description of that here or over at TUSH.

I’ll admit that it was harder to pair up episodes of the podcast in US I, mainly because the podcast is aimed at contemporary concerns and takes its inspiration from listener questions. It’s remarkably responsive in that sense, which makes it such great listening, but I couldn’t really slot in any episodes for the first six weeks of US I. In US II I had the opposite problem: not only is every episode relevant, but there are several episodes relevant for certain clusters of the semester, notably the dawn of the nuclear age and the Watergate controversy. In this case, I had to make some sacrifices.

Some episodes appear in both classes. Episode 27, “How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court,” is paired with the lesson on Indian removal in US I and with the lesson featuring the Warren Court decisions in US II. Episode 42, “U.S. Territories,” which focuses on Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is paired with the lesson featuring Hawaiian annexation, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War in US II, and with a lesson discussing Manifest Destiny and the political and social ramifications of creating territories and states between the 1820s and 1850s in US I.

This last pairing speaks to one of the things I hope my students will do with these episodes: critique them. The guest on the U.S. territories episode repeatedly speaks of the Spanish-American War as the “beginning” of U.S. imperialism. Given the way I’ve paired the episode in both classes, the students who end up listening and presenting should be able to think and talk about why that framework is problematic and why it’s also unsurprising to hear it in the episode, even in 2017.

The episodes are short, fifteen minutes or so, and the host speaks with one guest, so the podcast isn’t complete, nor is it perfect. There are episodes, like the U.S. territories episode, that have moments or even entire interpretive frameworks I find frustrating. And this isn’t just because not all of the guests are historians; nothing Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh say in the “Church and State” episode is wrong, per se, but their choices about what to talk about and how to talk about them aren’t precisely the ones I would have made. But I think that’s good. The exercise would be a waste of time if it replicated my own teaching, and my hope is that my students will see the differences between my interpretations and those in some of the episodes, which might lead to some productive conversations on interpretation itself.

I’m also hoping the podcast, in attending primarily to the structure and mechanics of the government, might leave space for and lead students to be more confident in talking about ideas. That’s the stuff that I struggle with the most in my teaching, and my hope is that by seeing differences in how the government has worked over time, my students will be able to consider why those changes took place and what the different ideas behind a given body or policy or interpretation of the Constitution meant to the people who held them.

Even though I’ve left this as an extra-credit option, I have no doubt most of my students will take me up on the offer. If it works well, I’ll think about rolling it into both courses as a permanent assignment. Who knows, maybe some students will want to listen to the podcast all on their own, and will bring up things that they learned whether there are points attached to it or not. Mostly, though, I hope the exercise helps my students understand how meaningful the past is to our present experience and gives them a little more confidence in engaging with that present experience.

can’t leave well enough alone

Last summer I wrote that I was going to try to come up with new projects for my US I and US II survey courses. I did, and they were…fine. But they weren’t spectacular. So I’m trying something new again, while trying to rejigger one of the things I did last semester for use this semester

In my Fall 2016 US I class, I had them read Sean Wilentz’s 2015 NYT piece “Lincoln and Douglass Had It Right,” Peter Sagal’s letter of response to the Times, and then two more responses drawn from periodicals and history websites, and try to figure out A) which argument they bought, and B) whether everyone was even arguing the same point. Put bluntly, B was so slippery and challenging for students that the answers to A weren’t as well-considered as I wanted them to be. But given that historians are still arguing (and often arguing past each other) on this point, maybe my hopes were misplaced.

In my US II class, I had my students watch the first half hour of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, and read about a dozen articles on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, all drawn from major newspapers and magazines. Since we had explored 1980s culture through the lens of Daniel Marcus’ Happy Days and Wonder Years, they were tasked with thinking about the memorial in the context of nostalgia and remembrance. It worked well, but not as well as I hoped. I’m revamping it to use as the project in my one day a week US II survey this semester.

For my other two surveys, a US I and US II that are both MWF classes, I’m going with something new, still in the planning stages. Given that much of the work my students do with primary sources is a weird form of annotation, and given that the public writing my women’s history students did last semester was, on the whole, very successful, I’m looking to combine those two things.

What I’m going to have my students do is annotate one primary source each, using, for the public.  I had a great experience using it in my Civil War class last spring semester, and I’m excited to use it again. Things I’m thinking about:

  • I don’t want them having to search for primary sources available online, mostly because I want the sources to be comparable in difficulty/length. My goal is, therefore, to give them a curated set of sources to pick from.
  • To that end, I have to figure out how to host the documents themselves. The easiest way seems to be to create a blog, make each source excerpt a post, and let the students annotate there. I am open to thoughts on how to do this better.[1]I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.
  • Unlike the women’s history blogs, where the draft process was public, I want these students to draft their annotations with my help and the input of their peers offline, before publishing them.

I’ll be getting them started on source selection and initial analysis soon, and I have a bit of time before I need to have the mechanics worked out. I’ll update on the progress of the project; given that I’ll be contributing to Teaching United States History as well, there’ll probably be a post about it over there at some point.



1 I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.

Women’s history commonplace blog drafts

As I mentioned last week, my women’s history students are creating blogs inspired by commonplace books. This project not only requires them to produce public writing, but to make the draft stage public. To that end, they have had to put up draft versions of all the contextualized quotes they want to examine, and they are now accepting comments from their classmates, from me, and from the general public.  In a sense, they have selected sources, written a rough outline, and now have come to office hours to discuss the project and think about how to focus and refine their arguments. Except the office hours, the discussion, and the final project are public.

My request to you, dear readers, is that you look at a couple projects and maybe make a few comments. Ask them more about the sources they’ve chosen. Ask them how they compare. Ask them whether including other perspectives would be valuable.  Ask them where they see change. Even just ask them to explain things more deeply. You don’t have to do an exhaustive job, but my hope is that knowing that other eyes are on their projects will be invigorating and helpful to my students. What they have done here is risky – it’s not just public writing, it’s public drafting – and so I hope their bravery is rewarded.

Angela and John both discuss labor in women’s history.

Several students are discussing aspects of family: Jillian on the role of “wife,” and Heidi on childbirth and motherhood. Marissa talks about the history of women and sexuality.

Michael and Christine are both working on women’s voices and their calls for rights.  Relatedly, Caroline is thinking about women’s objectification and exploitation, and Clarissa is thinking about the emotional and spiritual labor of women.

Another cluster of students is examining race, ethnicity, and immigration: Julia on immigration, Nina on women and education, and Holly on women and the struggle for racial justice.

Commonplacing women’s history

I wrote earlier this summer about my use of commonplace books in my women’s history class, and about how I hoped to turn that practice into a project for the class. Well…


My students have each chosen a theme to explore, and are busy selecting and contextualizing passages from primary and secondary sources. By the end of the week, there’ll be lots of blogs to read. But those blogs won’t be complete, and hopefully they can get some help from you, dear reader (readers? if I’m optimistic?)

One of the things this project is meant to do is to open up the drafting process. To that end. the posts that my students put up at the end of the week are intended to be drafts. Then, with the help of comments from me, their classmates, and any of you who’d like to chime in, they will revise their posts and write an introductory essay for the blog, all of which will be due by the end of the semester.

I’m asking them to be really brave; they’re not just creating a project for the public, they’re explicitly presenting unfinished work and opening themselves up to critique from the public. I know they’re a bit scared. I have high hopes, though.

I know it’ll be the weekend before Thanksgiving and we’ll all have a lot on our plates, but when I post the blog list later this week, if you could take a moment and look at one or two and offer some thoughts, I’d appreciate it greatly.



When did America stop being great? Another darn good question.

“We have been overlooked, with all these special-interest groups getting their way.”

Source: We asked Trump voters, “When did America stop being great?” Their answers were amazing.

A fascinating counterpoint to this earlier video produced by The Atlantic that I mentioned last week. I think these things matter to us as historians because, as John Fea and lots of other historians have pointed out, the election is being framed as a referendum on the current state of the nation as opposed to a forgotten/decaying/dying America of the past.

As historians, one thing we can do is interrogate claims people are making about the past, but the question has been raised: should we do this for current events, particularly for this election? I mentioned earlier that I was looking to have my students in the U.S. surveys this fall read public writing by historians and think about the role historians play in the public sphere; Stanley Fish’s recent condemnation of Historians Against Trump, and Ken Burns’ Historians On Trump videos seem to have made this assignment even more important. I think I will assign the Fish article as part of the larger assignment.

But I wanted to reshare a story from an earlier post about how much my students wanted context, and how history helped them think about a fundamental question in American history:

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?”

We didn’t spend time answering that last question, because that wasn’t the point. The point was that something my students had viewed as black and white now seemed more complex. We should watch videos like the one above in historical context, with the help of historians, because they don’t just tell us about today, they also tell us about how we imagine the past that led to today.

And yes, that’ll probably make black and white arguments more complex and thorny. That’s what history does.

How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload — Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

“How much should I assign?” is one of the most basic questions teachers ask when designing and revising their courses. Yet it is also one of the most difficult to answer. To help instructors better calibrate their expectations, we’ve created a course workload estimator that incorporates the most important insights from the literature on how students learn.

Source: How Much Should We Assign? Estimating Out of Class Workload — Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence

Like all of us, I think, I have received complaints that I assign too much reading. This happens no matter what class it is. Betsy Barre’s new tool for estimating how long it takes students to read and write given what kind of reading and writing you want is a very cool thing, and the surrounding essay is absolutely worth a read.

I’ve done some public annotating on the article with which you can certainly read and engage with; I’d love to hear what people think about the charts, and particularly how primary sources figure into this for those of us in history. What I think we really need to talk about with our students is different styles of reading. Skimming is very useful, but many of my students have told me it’s not a way they learned to read, it was the reading strategy they were taught to use. With think-alouds, I try to encourage them to slow down, because if you skim primary sources, they don’t take long but they probably also seems like a confusing waste of time.

In discussing the kinds of reading, I think it’s okay to say that deep, engaged reading is hard. It’s not a thing you can do while you watch The Walking DeadI suspect sometimes my students think I’ve assigned more reading than I have because it takes them a long time to read it – not because it’s a lot, but because they’re doing 3 other things at the time. I know I want to be able to “multitask” too, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s only when I got a nice new notebook last month and made myself start reading secondary lit at a desk with no computer that I started getting actual work done on the article I’m writing. Encouraging students to find a place that’s quiet so they can just focus and read should be top priority.


Teaching Students to Be Public Intellectuals – The Chronicle of Higher Education

On the one hand, it can make scholarly work seem inconsequential. To our students, an op-ed essay has “real world” value; a college essay doesn’t appear to. On the other hand, these public-oriented assignments sometimes oversimplify public discourse, aiming for a “general reader” who is less sophisticated than a scholar. It’s not unusual to have undergraduates write for nonexperts in building up to a more complex scholarly essay. But the kind of public reader we encourage our students to try to reach (and, along the way, to become) expects rigor — even if it looks different from the kind of rigor that students are learning to recognize in a peer-reviewed scholarly article.

Source: Teaching Students to Be Public Intellectuals – The Chronicle of Higher Education

This piece in the Chronicle gave me more food for thought as I plan my new assignment for U.S. women’s history. The issue quoted above is at the center. I think perhaps if we think of this public writing as “translating” – much like we as scholars do when we write lectures or lessons – it might seem like a more worthwhile skill. Having students figure out how to explain meaning of a text to an unfamiliar audience, especially through feedback, seems like an important process.  I think I’ll need to make sure that my students get a mix of peer comments and comments from “nonexperts.”


Thinking about teaching 5b: new project for Women’s History

In addition to coming up with a new term project for my survey classes, I wanted to find something new to do in U.S. Women’s history as well.  In that class last fall, I had students write two short papers, neither of which required outside research. Broadly speaking, they asked students to take the material we’d worked with and make arguments about intersectionality and change over time. Both papers worked, in a sense, but the change over time stuff was still a bit of a struggle; for many students, that conceptual framework was still rather foreign at the end of the semester, which led to the flattening of time in their papers, so to speak.*

I also think that the familiar structure of a paper can provide too much opportunity for vamping and fluffing and avoiding telling me what a given source is actually saying. This line of thought has  shaped the new assignment I’m thinking of: a small digital project that will integrate another assignment from the class that worked well and that we all liked – keeping commonplace books.

I gave all of my students notebooks at the start of the semester that they used for copying over and commenting on passages from our primary and secondary readings. In addition to helping students think about what constituted a “meaningful” quote, they also were a great way to think-pair-share and start discussion in general.  Many of my students liked the process, and most of them said they noticed themselves getting better at picking out the good stuff. They loved it when they discovered that a bunch of other students picked the same quote.

I had considered digital commonplacing using Tumblr, but ended up going with the hard copy, and I will stick with that, but given the good things I’ve heard about public writing, I want to do something with that in the digital realm. My thought is that students could each use WordPress to curate (ugh, that word) a set of excerpts drawn from the class materials, with accompanying analysis/contextualization, beginning around the midpoint of the semester. They would then have to comment on each other’s posts, and as the final “paper,” produce a sort of introductory essay post that would guide the reader through the selections. It’s not much of a deconstruction of form, but it might work? I think I need to ponder a bit more.

I know there’s a strain of thought that says things like blogging take away from formal writing (i.e. essays) and that we can’t “let students off the hook.” I don’t think I’d be doing that. I don’t know that the stakes are very high for an essay, no matter how “formal” it is, that students know will only ever be read by me. Moreover, in our webinar on annotations, we discussed the merits of public versus private annotation, and Jeff McClurken argued that he finds that student writing is more careful and considered when it’s public.

Is writing for the public a thing they’re going to have to do in their adult lives? Absolutely! If it is, we should be teaching it and having students do it. Frankly, if not doing it right can get you fired someday, it’s as least as important as the five paragraph essay. I suspect some of them will find it challenging to write for the public like this – after all, when they write for me, they’re writing for an “expert.” It’s challenging to write about a complicated thing for a non-expert audience. I also suspect this form, with appropriate guidance and comments from peers, might also help strip away so much of the extraneous material we find in papers. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. In need of more thinking? Certainly! I’d love thoughts

*Side note: Teachers of history need to talk about this and think about this more. Chronology and causality are so important to us and function as second nature, and we assume they function the same way for students, but I can’t be the only one who has to explicitly say that history papers showing change over time should, for the most part, be in chronological order. I don’t think students turn in papers that go all over the map chronologically because they’re lazy, I think that chronology just isn’t as  innate as we hope it is. I talked about this so much in one class they bough me a Tardis travel mug.


Thinking about teaching 5a: new project for the surveys

As I mentioned yesterday, I want to revise the projects my students do in both of my U.S. survey classes and my U.S. women’s history class, all of which I’ll be teaching in the fall.

For my U.S. surveys, I’ve done two major  projects over time. I’ve most often taught U.S. I, and in it, I often had students do some sort of examination of historical newspapers. The one I really settled on was having students each pick a newspaper on their birthdate in 1848 (lots of good stuff to discover in that year), and explore it over the course of the semester. This past year, without Early American Newspapers, I used Chronicling America. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

Last spring I tried out an experiment with my students in U.S. II using Timeline JS and thinking about categorization and periodization. It was not a success, and exposed to me how foreign historical thinking can remain at the end of a semester. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about it if they were interested.

In both surveys, I’ve also done a project across both surveys examining Wikipedia articles and their construction, as a way for students to understand something about historiography and the stakes of writing about history. It has worked well, though quite differently in U.S. I vs. II, but I think I’m ready for a change.

Like many historians, I feel like there’s a particular urgency in getting my students to be cognizant of the resonances between our contemporary moment and the recent and distant historical past. As I joked to my grad school friends as we talked about Brexit, my I think my training allows me to feel a level of existential anxiety that people in other fields might lack. But even our long term discussion of Hamilton, its use in the classroom, and how it shapes our students’ views of the past is part of thinking about the intellectual work history can do in making sense of the word.

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?” It was an incredibly productive discussion, and I’d love to find an assignment that pushes them to really think about what it can do to see things through a historical lens.

To that end, I am thinking of collecting up a big list of some of the best public historical writing out there – articles and perhaps blog posts – and having students pick articles to read and present to the class across the semester. I’m not sure what sort of cap I want for it,  but maybe something where they have to find two other articles that are thematically related and write about how they relate?  I know people who’ve done more “current events” type assignments, having students pick out stories in the news that they think resonate, but I’d love to have them read historians and journalists explicitly talking about the past and making arguments.  I also see it as a way to expose students to topics that we might not cover in class, and to allow them to read new ideas.  If you have thoughts on such a project, especially if you’ve done it before, or have suggestions for articles I might use, I’d love to hear about them.

Thinking about teaching 5: priorities, people

So, it’s almost the end of June, the point where academics (at least those on a semester system) go “OMG school starts two months from now what have I been doing with my life?!” I had big dreams about fixing/changing my courses for the fall, and now’s the point where we get real about what’s possible. I decided it might be good to set one or two big goals for each course and work towards those, leaving other things for later.

In the U.S. survey courses, my two goals are

1A) Figure out if there is a different way to present my flipped lessons that ameliorates the problems my students have, the frustrations with accessibility that I have, all while keeping the things that I like about the setup. Essentially, can I build some sort of e-book that my students can use, take notes on, but can’t just cut and paste? Currently, the lessons disappear when class begins, and my students readily admit that without that pressure, they wouldn’t keep up. I used to do quizzes in class to check, but I hate that and think it’s a waste of time. Yet I’m unwilling to abandon some external motivation to “keep up,” because without it, a flipped classroom simply doesn’t work, as we know from teaching a hundred discussion sections where students didn’t read. Lots of higher-ed activists would argue that if I can’t motivate students to keep up without this external motivations, I’m not doing my job. I would point out to them that if internal motivation to do what we know we should worked, society would be different and we wouldn’t all do Grafton Challenges all the time. N.B. No, I do not want to have my students buy an existing eBook, because that’s a ripoff, nor am I comfortable shifting them over the the American Yawp, which I love. My lessons make the argument I want to make about American history. I hope it’s not wrong to want that kind of control and structure in my teaching. 

1B) Come up with a new project. The ones I’ve done before – on Wikipedia, on 19th c. newspapers – aren’t working as well at UHart as they did at UConn (different culture, no access to Early American Newspapers, smaller classes). I have some ideas I might float out there soon for consideration.

In women’s history, my two goals are:

2A) Reconfigure the first few weeks of the semester. I had an introductory day with a little Joan Scott, a little Judith Bennet, an excerpt from Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist (a must-read), before moving into articles and book chapters. The first article we read was actually a chapter from Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. That sequence didn’t work, for one major reason: understanding women’s history is much easier than understanding gender as Scott explains it, and it was unnecessarily confusing without providing the foundation for understanding Brown that I had intended.

2B) Rethink the papers, and by “rethink” I mean “replace.” I don’t mean that I’m giving up on the concept of paper writing, but I do think we need to be realistic about the fact that writing papers in history is a distinctly different skill, and since almost none of my students are history majors and have no training in that kind of work, I am thinking of different ways for them to explore and express what they’ve learned about change over time.

Three pieces of writing I’m chewing on as I think about these goals: Michael Evans’ consideration of active learning fails, (though I manage to fail with way less technology to blame), Kevin Gannon’s discussion of student blogging, and Debra Schleef’s piece on public student writing and identity, along with Jeff McClurken’s encouragement of public writing from our discussion.

« Older posts

© 2022 Erin Bartram

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑