doomed to distraction

Tag: course design (Page 2 of 2)

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.

Thinking about teaching 4: History of Women/History of Sexuality

In addition to my U.S. survey classes, which I examined in earlier posts, I also taught 200-level courses on the history of women in the U.S. in the fall and history of sexuality in the U.S in the spring of this past academic year. I’ll be teaching history of women again this fall, which is reason enough to revisit it, but the two courses proceeded so differently as to be worth some reflection and examination.

I taught history of women as a one night, 2 hour and 20 minute class, and history of sexuality as a two day a week, 75 minute class, but the basic goals and structures of the courses were the same. Rather than lecturing, which I don’t do, I had my students students read one journal article/book chapter each week as well as 2-8 pages of primary sources I curated. The classes were entirely discussion based.

In women’s history, I had students keep commonplace books to keep them accountable for the reading, to give them a resource for paper writing, but primarily to encourage reflection and careful reading. In history of sexuality, I had them do brief reading reviews for everything they read instead, trying to answer the questions historians ask of secondary and primary sources as preparation for class. Again, this was mostly to encourage them to think about the readings rather than skim them, as a way to encourage better discussions. Both classes had two short but broad papers where they got to examine themes of their choice, and in both classes students had to pick extra articles to read and present on in class.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women’s history was broadly a successful class, and history of sexuality was…not. Women’s history made me feel like I was a great professor and history of sexuality made me feel like a Grade A failure. But I think it’s important to note that the course design was very similar, a fact which led me to ponder, all throughout spring semester, what the heck was making the difference. Things that I think impacted the success, or lack thereof, of these two courses.

  • Time of year. I don’t think we can say that fall or spring courses are inherently “better,” but I think spring courses that are primarily upperclassmen have challenges that fall courses do not. I also was able to spend more devoted time prepping women’s history in the summer.
  • Size of the class. History of women leveled off at 12 people; it was capped at 15, and filled, but some people dropped. History of sexuality had a cap of 20, which I over-enrolled because demand was so high, but by the end of the semester it had leveled off at 17.  I have obviously run hundreds of discussions with 25, 28, and 40-person classes, but perhaps the five person difference in this class made a difference.
  • Assignments: Women’s history loved the commonplace books, and I’m looking to do something digital with them this fall. History of sexuality loathed having to write down scope/argument/sources and author/audience/form/argument every week. I suspect that might have also been the case had I assigned women’s history to do the same.
  • Composition of the class I: Women’s history had five history majors in it, sexuality had two. The majors didn’t necessarily have any content knowledge, but they knew how historians thought and what their goals were, and that is helpful.
  • Composition of the class II: Women’s history had history majors and a blend of students majoring in English, sociology, psychology, and even musical theater. History of sexuality was dominated by students majoring in psychology and sociology. Many of them told me flat out that reading for an argument was unfamiliar to them – they were used to looking for terms – and they did not like having to read primary sources at all.  (I don’t buy the idea that they’d never been asked to read for argument before, but that’s how they understood their college experience and it shaped our interactions.)
  • Composition of the class III: Women’s history was all women. History of sexuality was about evenly divided. Imagine the ways that that divide might shape the dynamic in these two courses as taught by me, a 33 year old woman in her first year at this university and the only woman in the history department. Everything you are imagining is correct. I had expected some of this, especially having read Historiann’s post on her own history of sexuality class, which I read in preparation for teaching this course. While my students didn’t complain too much about the amount of rape, the class discussions of childbirth, nursing, menstruation, and tampons had a distinctly different feel to them.
  • Expectations: For women’s history, what students expected they’d learn in the class was pretty close to what they got, if a bit longer in duration. In history of sexuality, the expectations were not at all matched by my course, a fact which was clear to me immediately. But I couldn’t change it, and wouldn’t have, and here’s why.

I think the biggest difference in the classes, the thing that shaped the tone of the discussion in the long-term and confounded expectations, was the argument I was making and how students felt about that argument.

In women’s history, most students expected to start either in the mid-19th century, or more commonly, with suffrage, because “women couldn’t really do anything before then, right?” Starting, instead, with colonialism – with Kathleen Brown talking about gender and race and Nina Dayton talking about abortion in colonial Connecticut – was very disruptive, but the class seemed to like it. They were amazed and interested to find out this history that had been “hidden” from them, something that went doubly for the non-white members of the class, who were surprised to see race emphasized so much in the course.

There were still dominant narratives that we struggled against all semester – most notably the idea that there was a point at which women “started to work” – but for the most part, they were receptive to the complicated narrative I present about the experiences of being a woman in the U.S. Sure, they complained in the evaluations about the level of reading, but discussions were lively and engaged, they knew each other’s names, and in general, I think we all looked forward to class each week.

The first indication I had that expectations were mismatched in history of sexuality was when a student said, at the start of the first class, “So, this isn’t the class where we go to a strip club?” Some had clearly taken the course thinking it was human sexual behavior or the like. My activity for the first day – building a word cloud of the things we might talk about in a class on the history of sexuality – helped me see that they had a very limited sense of what the history of sexuality meant.  They expected the class to start in the mid-20th century somewhere, “when the sexual revolution happened,” and that many of them thought it would primarily focus on gay Americans. Once I realized that second part was really causing some students difficulty getting on board with the class, I was able to work in a lot of discussions about how just as men have a gender and white people have a race, straight people have a sexuality, and in fact the construction of the idea of sexual orientation was part of the story we were telling.  I think I did make some inroads there.

The larger issue, however, was this issue of when the history of sexuality “starts,” which was very much wrapped up in ideas of repression and liberation. We started the course by reading the three introductions to D’Emilio and Freedman’s Intimate Matters to get a sense of how the field had changed, and I made explicit that repression to liberation was not the argument this class was making. That really bothered some students. They thought it was wrong to study anything before some indeterminate point at which things became “liberated,” and if they were going to have to read about “backwards” views, the only appropriate form of analysis was to stand in judgment of those people. When confronted with secondary and primary sources that contradicted the previously-held narrative, a small subsection of the class was fascinated, but most of them were annoyed, and almost offended. I vastly underestimated how important it would be to some students to feel like they were of the post-60s period that “invented” liberated sexuality.  And when you already Know the Truth of the past, like many of them did, you read that Truth into everything you read.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, female students seemed to give up the “liberation” narrative much more easily, and I think that was as much a result of hearing male peers talk about sexuality in and out of the classroom as it was any specific content they learned. But I think that for many in the class, the point of looking at sexuality through a historical lens was utterly lost.  I know that I emphasized how important and central that was at the start of the class; many of them just rejected my reality and substituted their own. I had no way to respond to that.

The one common issue in both classes was that while they were both mid-level history courses, most of the students had not had any history since high school. In re-thinking women’s history for the fall, I need to think more about how to teach historical thinking skills in the course. I spend so much time on them in my intro classes, but in a situation where those aren’t pre-requisites, I have to figure out some other way of teaching them better alongside the content and argument of the course.  I think that with a greater understanding historical thinking, students in history of sexuality would feel more comfortable letting go of dominant narratives.


Thinking about teaching 3

Having outlined my basic structure for my U.S. survey courses, let’s get down to it. What do I like and not like about how my courses work? (This is long, maybe take a break for a cup of tea in the middle.)

The lessons:

  • I love that the “flipped” structure allows us the time to talk through the material together. It’s not perfect, but I think students come away with a better understanding of the complexities of the past than they did when it was lecture-based. While some students absolutely loathe it, and would prefer a lecture/memorization approach, many have noted that this format has made them not hate history, which seems like a victory.
  • I like the daily reaction journals I ask my students to do after they complete the lessons. It means I go into class every day knowing what want to discuss, and it also means that they come to class having at least thought about what was interesting and confusing to them.
  • I love that the discussions involve them talking to each other. This has happened less at UHart than at UConn, unfortunately, because the classes are smaller, so the groups are smaller, which means 3 people missing class can really throw off the whole mix. But I still like that my students know each other’s names.
  • For better or worse, having the videos disappear when we begin class each day makes students keep up more than they would if there was a textbook. Moreover, it’s very clear in discussion who has done the reading and who hasn’t, day in and day out, which helps me figure out who needs help/attention/a pointed conversation.
  • I don’t love the format, still. I never wanted to use videotaped lectures, and the format I’ve chosen was explicitly to have students read. Initially I used Prezi, but switched to PowerPoint videos when I realized that Prezi pulled the text of your presentation and provided a transcript below. I absolutely know why they do that, but it meant that students were just copying and pasting that, instead of actually taking notes. Which leads us to the second major issue…
  • Note taking. Obviously having the lessons disappear is meant to incentivize good note taking, not to be punitive, but because reading, synthesizing, and writing are part of learning. I know that students come to school with vastly different ideas about taking notes and skills at doing so, and I know that means that students are taking really different notes which aren’t always capturing the things that are important for historical thinking. Some sub-issues:
    • When I was lecturing, I would always start with a few minutes of introduction – this is the frame for the day, these are the players, and this is the argument I’m making.  My students would watch and listen. Then, as soon as I said a name or a date, they would put pen to paper. Every so often, I would point it out, and sort of try to address it humorously, but it was a problem, and it’s still a problem. But it’s not just a problem with my course design, it’s a problem with what students think history is. They all tell me they hate names and dates, but then that’s what they copy down, with none of the connecting material. I often tell them they should never know a fact without knowing why they know it; what does that fact help you understand and explain? But how can I get that to stick? Can I frame/teach notetaking in a different way to help my students understand and value the arguments of history, rather than just the facty bits?
    • Some students really don’t take notes, and many of them realize a few weeks in that this is a mistake, which means that later in the semester, anything that connects back to those first few weeks is so much harder. I didn’t even know this was an issue because the journals were great, so I figured “Hey, they’re doing the videos, that’s great!” What I didn’t realize was that they watched, did the journals right away, but never wrote anything down. How do I make it really, really clear early on that notes are vital?
    • I work hard not to hold students too accountable for minutiae (while reminding them that putting a gloss on their notes during discussion is always a great choice.) But students often tell me they want that detail later, in a way that they never did when they were listening to a lesson rather than reading it. I think they’re more aware of what they didn’t write down after we discuss it the next day because they realize they made choices about significance that they now disagree with. Is the solution just making my own e-book somehow? Is it simply putting the lessons up again later in the semester? Is it building in some kind of collaborative glossing of notes? I’m really stuck with this one.

The think-alouds:

  • I absolutely love what they have done for me as a teacher thus far, and since I know they are continuing to teach me lessons, I am sticking with them.
  • I love that they make students read closely. For many of them, this is closer than they’ve read anything in a very long time. And I love that we can read one half page of text and talk for 50 minutes and still not get to everything.
  • I like that they lead into the exams that I assign. The two exams, which are worth less than 25% of the total course grade, present students with a brief primary source they have not seen and a series of questions about content, context, and larger historical connections. The second exam then asks them to compare and contrast the new document with one of the other documents we’ve read in the course, which is attached for them to read. I want the exam to test them on the exact skills they’ve been practicing, and they haven’t been practicing essay writing and IDs, so I’m pretty happy with how the exams are framed. Now, there are serious issues with in-class exams, and I recognize them, and I’m not sure how how to reconcile what I like about this assignment with anything approaching universal design.
  • Grading think-alouds is a beast, and I try to give very explicit feedback, and I know that many students don’t read it and continue to make the same mistakes and then tell me I’m not telling them how to get better. If they’re not reading the feedback, does it even matter how much I’m giving? I try to get students to take notes on their think-alouds during discussion, and one of the benefits to that is that if they’ve already written it down, I don’t have to comment. But again, if they don’t, what can I do? All of this leads to the biggest struggle…
  • Improving at these takes effort on the part of the student in a very particular way. The reflections they do help them identify what they personally need to improve on, and I try to impress upon them the fact that I can’t just tell everyone the solution to getting better. Some students have a bigger struggle with historical empathy than others, and they need to work on that before anything else. Others need to remind themselves to slow down and not skip parts that confuse them. I use the idea of being both the gullible and skeptical reader, and some students seem to naturally find one role more comfortable than the other. But they all need to look at their thinking and work to improve it.  One thing I’ve considered: would it be helpful for them to see me do this? I am afraid that modeling is intimidating, but maybe it’s instructive?
  • The last frustration is with the fact that the doing of history that I’m aiming for is really really hard. In particular, the thing that students struggle with so much is, as my friend Casey would put it, identifying and applying relevant information. When asked to tell me stuff from lessons that helps them understand the document, students are often unable to do so even in the final weeks of the semester. Without my students being able to make these connections, historical thinking is not happening the way I want it to. Virtually every semester, about six weeks in, someone pipes up “I just realized that the lessons of the week and the document for Friday are kind of connected!” I have, of course, been making that explicit all semester, and when I hear that I’m just thinking “Of course they are! I selected the documents carefully and then crafted bespoke lessons around them!” but for some reason, the thought of using their notes to help them understand the document is consistently foreign to them, regardless of the school I’m teaching at, the grade level, or the major of the students.  As you can see on the second of my think-aloud guides, I’ve tried to incentivize this through grades, which I don’t love, but it hasn’t made a bit of difference. Clearly I need to teach this skill better but I am stumped.

So, in case any of my course design looked interesting to you, now you know what’s good and bad about it. Over the summer, I’m going to try to do some reading and thinking and float new ideas for fixing these issues, but I’m open to suggestions. Comments are love, as they say.

Thinking about teaching 1

As I mentioned earlier, I want to use this space to think about teaching, from course structure to reading selection to classroom management and approaches. This first post, and several subsequent posts, will be to establish the current structures of my courses, what I like, and what I don’t like. My classes are (if my students are to be believed) not terribly conventional – one evaluation used the term “eccentric” – so I think they need some explaining.

I have been teaching US I since Fall of 2011 and US II since Fall of 2013, beginning as a graduate student, always on a MWF schedule.* I started off lecturing two of the three days, but relatively quickly ditched that. Several things made me get rid of it, but put briefly, students were not getting out the lectures what I hoped they would, and there was no space to discuss the lecture material as a class and make sure everyone was on the same page.

I switched to a sort of flipped classroom style, using text- and image-heavy PowerPoints converted to videos.  (ETA: These PowerPoints are completely original and written by me. They make the arguments I want to make about the past.) In general, both US I and II feature two of these a week. They are 3,000 words each, give or take, and my students are expected to take notes on them before they come to class. The videos disappear when class begins so that there is some motivation for students to keep up and come to class prepared each day; if they don’t, class really doesn’t work, or the burden of discussion.falls on a small subset of the class.

In each lesson, as I call them, there are a dozen or more questions embedded throughout that form the basis for discussion in class.  For instance, students might be asked to think about questions like “What would change in the lives of people moving from farm labor into wage labor in factories?” or “How do these views of socialism compare to those of other Americans we’ve looked at earlier in the semester?” Each day we come to class and talk through the lesson, tying it back to earlier lessons, building timelines, and sometimes reading additional small sources. I also ask students to write a brief journal entry after they take notes on the lesson, reflecting on what was interesting or confusing to them, and I use those journal entries and their questions in class to guide the discussion.

One day a week, students engage deeply with one primary source, never more than two pages, often much shorter. With each source, they complete an assignment I’ve created called a think-aloud, based on some examinations of historical thinking in Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  All my friends from grad school know about think-alouds, but in my next post on teaching, I’ll explain them in case anyone other than my friends from grad school read this and are interested.

*As a grad student, I was teaching 40-person classes. My classes now are capped at 25.

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