doomed to distraction

Tag: course design (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.



Teaching Resolutions Fall 2016

  1. Talk less, listen more – My classrooms are all discussion based, with no lectures, but you know how it is…you get really excited to talk about what you thought was cool in the readings, or you want to tell them this other contextual information that will totally blow their minds, or you end up re-teaching by lecturing rather than by dialogue. Maybe these things don’t happen to some people, but they happen to me. I’m always working to zip it. This involves letting the question hang longer than I’m comfortable with, while encouraging students to speak up if the phrasing or the level of the question is unclear.
  2. Be fairer – For me, this means sticking to the rules I set for the classroom. Or, to put it another way, have high but fair expectations for my students and hold them to it. I don’t think I’m a hard-ass, actually, and I have a fairly generous policy for missed/late work; the problem is that I am somewhat-easily persuaded to bend those rules. The rules that I have are not arbitrary, though, and they’re not to please me. They’re so everyone is prepared and ready to participate. In classrooms that are discussion based, this matters so much, and maybe I need to do a better job of explaining why. I don’t want students to have read the day’s materials for any reason other than I want them to be prepared to talk and listen to their peers. When I start bending the rules for things that really don’t deserve rule-bending, I introduce further inequities into the classroom. That’s unfair to my students. NB: I know that some of this is that I just don’t like conflict, even with my students. Some of that’s gender/age related, and some of it’s just me. But I need to figure out my way through it.
  3. Be more meta – As I mentioned earlier, I think “history at the college level has to be meta,” and I think it’s really needed right now. Students come to  my US I and US II classes, and to women’s history, with a set of ideas about what history is, whose history matters, and what history is for. So I’m going to listen more to the stories they’re telling me about the past in America and encourage them to think about where those stories came from, why they dominate, and how they’re being used. If they ask me why there’s so much “non-political” history in my classes, we’ll talk about what “politics” means and why a more expansive view of the term might help us understand the past (and present) better. If they want to talk about “Irish slaves,” we’ll talk about the history, but also about why that’s such a perennial response to discussions about black slavery. If they say “we study history because the past repeats itself” and “we study history to learn from it and not make the same mistakes,” we’ll talk about how we reconcile those two contradictory beliefs. If they say “history is just facts and I shouldn’t have to read primary sources,” well….we’ll talk about that too.

So, those are my resolutions for the semester. Sure, I want to keep on top of my grading (this is not that hard for me), and balance my research and teaching (sad trombone), but these three resolutions are ultimately not about me – they’re about my students, and about how I can better help them learn and grow into the fascinating people they’re becoming. I love the first day of the semester – my nails are done, their notebooks are blank, and no one’s behind on anything – but mostly I love thinking about how these strangers will, in such a short time, be people I know. They’ll be people with personalities and habits and lives that I might know something about. And we’ll be more than people in a room; we’ll be a community, with patterns and uncomfortable encounters and inside jokes. My resolutions are for them. I hope I can keep them. I’d love to know what your resolutions are too.

“Rules for Wives”

This list of Good Housekeeping’s 1955 “Good House Wife’s Guide” has been getting a lot of attention on ye ol’intertubes. What are those guidelines? 1.) Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you …

Source: Rules for Wives, 1955 – Lawyers, Guns & Money

A great source, and a great post about how tricky it is to use sources like this from the past. In constructing and revising my US women’s history course, I have worked hard to use a wide variety of women’s voices for my primary sources, including women telling other women what to do. I assume this Good Housekeeping guide falls into that category, though there’s no author listed. I am not opposed to prescriptive literature, but I haven’t gone out of my way to include it, especially when it was written by men.

But it can be really hard to find a good diversity of women’s voices for the earliest years of the course. There’s a lot of prescriptive literature written by men about how women can be better, and a lot of court records written/shaped by men about how women have been bad. Race, status, and a host of other things intersected to make lots of voices unrecoverable. Not everyone could write their way out of hell.

Still, these prescriptive and legal sources provide a good starting point for thinking about women’s history for the same reasons they’re problematic; having students confront, right away, that they are dealing with a society in which women’s voices largely did not matter is a useful thing. And reading against the grain of these sources is a valuable exercise in itself. Considering why people made and enforced rules helps us understand the tensions and anxieties in a given historical time and place. If the law was designed to combat something that wasn’t even really happening, it can help us learn something about what the society feared, just like similar laws being passed today reveal the anxieties over women and their bodies in American society.

There are a few male-authored primary sources on my syllabus, and I love them. Landon Carter on breast-feeding is a kick-ass source that I use in tons of classes. On the one hand, we get to see how men sought to control women’s bodies in very intimate family settings, but on the other hand, we get to see that people in the past talked about these intimate realities – perhaps more than we are comfortable doing today!

Reading this post on Good Housekeeping‘s rules made me realize, though, that I don’t have any classic male-authored prescriptive literature on my syllabus, and I wonder whether I ought to. I would be interested in hearing how other people who teach the history of women, gender, and sexuality approach prescriptive literature.

Who tells your story, or, how Hamilton is and isn’t changing my teaching

The experience of being a historian of Early America[1]This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” … Continue reading during the moment of Hamilton has been a complex one for me, and it’s brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Looking back over my summer, and the goals I had for my research and teaching, I realize that Hamilton emphasized and amplified some ideas about history that exist in popular culture and among academics. Now that I see the effects those ideas have had on me, I want to put them down explicitly, first in a post about teaching, and at some point, in a post about scholarship.

Hamilton – like every popular book about a president or a war or a “founder” – reinforces lots of ideas about hierarchies of knowledge in the study of history, even as it is subversive in other ways. In plainer language, so much popular history presents specific kinds of people and topics as the foundations of historical knowledge. The stuff you have to know, if you know anything at all. The stuff people expect you to know.

When you study Early America, and something like Hamilton happens, all of a sudden your friends (hi, Corinne!) and your students start asking you about political things in the late 18th century and you realize you don’t know the things they expect/want you to know.  You know outlines, contours, arguments, historiographical debates, and the bits and bobs you include in your survey classes. And some people respond to your lack of specific knowledge of Hamilton’s views on credit with thinly-veiled skepticism about your qualifications to teach history. And you start to think that you don’t teach enough political history, and that you don’t know enough about these people who are so important to the lay audiences you interact with.

If you look at my aspirational list of primary sources I want to be familiar with, you’ll notice Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is there. There’s a million things I haven’t done, and reading that is one of them. Nor have I read anything from The Federalist since college, though I at least own it (and a pocket Constitution, which I had before it was cool.)  Nor had I read a lot of Lincoln’s writings recently before I prepped my Civil War class last year.[2]As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a … Continue reading Even now, it feels dangerous to admit that publicly.  We have a hard time admitting that we haven’t read a classic piece of secondary lit (though maybe it would be cathartic if we all publicly admitted one), and to admit that we study Early America and haven’t really read much by “the founders” makes us feel ashamed. And it doesn’t make a difference to say, in response, “Yeah, but I’ve read a lot of Orestes Brownson…”

In teaching, the only thing I am ever challenged on by students who (as a result of my gender and age) don’t know if I’m really qualified to teach is my knowledge of political history.[3]And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars When a student who was particular skeptical of my qualifications quizzed me on some really arcane stuff about the Tyler administration, I couldn’t really say “I don’t know about that and it’s not a priority for me to know about that right now.” But I was thinking it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that students expect me to know political history and don’t even know to care whether I know lots of other things about history. Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.

My resistance to getting to know and love Hamilton stemmed partly from this knowledge. Honestly, I just thought “Great, another thing about a founder that emphasizes that the stories of these dudes are the most important things to know.” And then, as I got to know and love it, I started thinking that I was maybe not a good historian because I didn’t talk enough about politics in the US I survey. That maybe I was not a good historian…because I didn’t know enough about political history.

When I looked at my course, though, and I looked at my lessons and documents and what they cover, and I pondered what I would remove in order to insert a more detailed discussion of the Adams administration[4]Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

  1. I don’t know that lots more political history would help me make the argument I want to make in my US I survey. The argument I choose to make is an important one to me, and I don’t want to lose it.
  2.  I would only be able to devote more time to political history because it has been populated by men who had privilege and access to write like they were running out of time and, leaving aside the burning of those papers, have that writing preserved and made accessible. We get to know them as individuals in a way that we don’t with millions of other people, and that makes their voices and personalities louder. Something about that makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll leave that for my subsequent post on Hamiltoneffects on my research.
  3. I actually teach plenty of political history! You know what things I don’t teach enough about in the US I survey? The history of women and gender. Environmental history. Agricultural history. Labor history. The history of free black Americans. The history of immigration. The history of the Southwest. The history of the Midwest. The history of lots of native groups. The history of utopian communities. Latinx history. The history of Swedish colonialism. The history of French/British Canada. Sylvester Graham. The history of the Caribbean. Nicholas Biddle. The history of religions. The history of ideas. The history of sex. The history of medicine and diet. Whatever the heck happens in British North America in the first half of the 18th century (this is a joke but also maybe not?) Rarely does anyone complain that I’ve not taught enough about these things. I have even gotten complaints that I teach too much about religion and slavery, and if anything, I know I don’t teach those things in proportion to how important they were to the people we’re looking at in the past.

And so, I decided not to put any more in my class about that bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. He’s in there, just as he’s always been. So is the general, the Pride of Mount Vernon (and that time when he led his men straight into a massacre), and Thomas (you simply must meet Thomas!), and America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. And we’ll still read Bacon’s Declaration and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Declaration of Independence and a letter between Washington and Morris. And we’ll still talk about partisan fighting.

But Hamilton has changed my teaching, and will continue to do so, because it’s made it even clearer to me that teaching American history at the college level has to be meta. We have to talk with our students about the narratives of American history they know, even without knowing that they know them, talk about what work those narratives do, and talk about what work those narratives can prevent us from doing if we think they’re sufficient. I used to do this incidentally; now I’m going to do it consistently.

So, sure, we’re going to talk about why every other Founding Father’s story gets told, and whether that’s even true.

We’re going to talk about what happens when they try to tax that whisky, from the perspective of the people whose whisky was taxed.

We’re going to talk about who’s really doing the planting.

We’re going to talk about immigrants.

We’re going to talk about why Eliza has to put herself back in the narrative, and why we have to work so hard to put so many people back in the narrative.

And we’re going to put Sally back in the narrative.

And that will be enough.




1 This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck.
2 As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist.
3 And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars
4 Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language

Why we flip

We have a responsibility when evaluating our own teaching to exercise the same skepticism and critical thought we expect of our students. Ed-tech marketing may be masquerading as pedagogical philosophy, but we must not throw the pedagogical baby out with the technological bath water.Ultimately, the flipped classroom shifts the emphasis of a class from content delivery to higher-level thinking and application, from the instructor’s activity to the students’ work. That is the flip that matters. Decisions about when and where to do what are secondary, and decisions about technology are even less a priority.

Source: The flip that matters – UMW DTLT

A good piece to read as a counterpoint to yesterday’s Atlantic piece arguing that the removal of the lecture is hurting students.  Still, I often feel disconnected from discussions about flipped classrooms simply because I sort of…hate the technology aspect of it? Or at least, I hate that that is always such a big part of the discussion, because that’s not the part that’s hard, and needs talking about. How to get all students on board with a non-lecture class, which often involves changing perceptions of what learning in college is about, and efficiently and effectively  running discussion – those are the things I struggle with and that need talking about. I struggle with them even in my upper-division seminars where I’m assigning weekly journal articles and primary sources.

A seminar, for the unfamiliar, is somewhat like a flipped classroom only we’ve been doing it for ages and it’s not sexy. Perhaps that is why, then, the flipped classroom discussion always includes technology, and engenders so many “but what about the lecture!?” pieces; rather than seeing itself as drawing on the tradition of seminars, it comes out of an impulse to change the space normally reserved for the intro-level lecture course, to reverse engineer one system into resembling another.

I suspect, though, that the distance I feel between how I teach and the discussions I read about flipped classrooms comes from something deeper. As Kris Shaffer puts it in the piece cited above:

Ultimately, the flipped classroom shifts the emphasis of a class from content delivery to higher-level thinking and application, from the instructor’s activity to the students’ work. That is the flip that matters.

David Perry drew this idea out further in a post this morning, which you should read in its entirety:

By flipping a classroom, you take the content acquisition out of the class and push students to work on that on their own, then do the critical thinking and analysis in active ways within the classroom…Lectures are fine. People learn stuff from lectures. They just learn more from actively working with material. We know this.

Both Perry and Schaffer emphasize what the central question behind evaluating flipped learning (or any pedagogical approach) should be “Do my students learn better this way?” Depending on what your goals are, your pedagogy should change, but the question of student learning should be central – always. Too often, in these summertime teaching thinkpieces, the questions seem to be “How do I want to teach?” “How do I think my students should learn?” and “Why can’t everyone just learn like I did in college?”

The flipped classroom/seminar should ultimately be about meeting students where they are and helping them grow, and if technology helps you do that, great. For me, if I could find a way to do this without reliance on tech, I would, simply to make it more accessible for students who lack easy access to technology (yes, they exist, and they’re important.)

But there’s a “kids these days” crowd that seems to resent the very idea of meeting students where they are; instead, constant thinkpieces tell us what students “should be able to do” in college. We hear this a lot, but there’s a rather ominous unspoken second half to that sentence “This is what students should be able to do, and if they can’t, maybe they shouldn’t be here… [1]Perhaps those who argue this should consider their role in creating the primary/secondary ed system that has produced these students? My students will give you an earful on how poorly prepared they … Continue reading

As Perry argues:

The “flipped classroom” movement is an attempt to bring traditional liberal arts benefits of discussion and active learning into the non-elite classroom.

Certainly there’s some who’d argue active learning isn’t the “most efficient method” of teaching in non-elite institutions where efficiency matters in particular ways; I’d argue that much of what we call “teaching” isn’t doing a whole lot anyway. But I suspect that some of the pushback against deploying these methods in non-elite spaces is simply another expression of the second unspoken half of that sentence: “If students can’t learn in a lecture…should they even be here? Why should we waste time and resources and attention on these students? Why should we have to meet them where they are?” 

Perhaps this explains why lots of sub-par thinkpieces on flipped classrooms are framed as tech pieces, rather than as how to use seminar-style learning in spaces where it hasn’t traditionally been used. Do we actually think all students deserve to learn like those in elite institutions? Those students who may have the educational and social capital to learn well from lectures get the privilege of seminars, while those who need seminars the most get lectures, all against a background of our go-to refrain: “education is the path to social mobility!”

NB: I know that I am fortunate to be able to teach this way, both as a grad student at an R1 and as a VAP at a non-elite private institution. I know that many, many academics would prefer to get out of 250-person lecture halls. The role faculty play in determining class-sizes and enrollment is its own vexed question; this is directed more at those who have a philosophical objection to active learning, rather than those who are placed in positions that would make it incredibly difficult to deploy, especially contingent labor.


1 Perhaps those who argue this should consider their role in creating the primary/secondary ed system that has produced these students? My students will give you an earful on how poorly prepared they feel after years of standardized testing.

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.”


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