doomed to distraction

Tag: DH

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.

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.

America’s Public Bible

Lincoln Mullen has come out with another great digital project of interest not only to historians of American religion but to all historians of U.S. history more generally (Yep, if you think religion isn’t relevant to your work on the 18whatevers, you’re wrong). Go play with America’s Public Bible right now!

Mullen’s site allows you to explore how individual Bible verses were used and understood in the U.S. between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using the Library of Congress’ amazing Chronicling America database of newspapers.

For instance, in this Hamilton-ian moment, let’s look at Micah 4:4. It brings us to an article on peace in the Vermont Telegraph in 1836, a plea for the temperance movement in an 1856 newspaper from Abbeville, S.C., and a piece on viniculture in Illinois in 1857.  It also, however, brings us to an account of a speech by Isaac Mayer Wise, who uses the verse to discuss “the progress of religious freedom in the world.”

As I’m getting ready to work through my subject’s religious commonplace books in preparation for writing some new material for the manuscript, I am so excited to be able to compare her thoughts on individual passages to public interpretations of the same passages.

In addition to the explicit, directed uses we’ll all have for the site, playing around with it reminds me of the way I experience the Texas Runaways feed on Twitter – the verses serve as an entry point for exploring a moment in time as much as they stand on their own importance. I mean, I didn’t even know people in Illinois were interested in viniculture in the 19th century!

A few notes on sources:  As someone who studies Catholicism in the U.S., the use of the King James Bible is understandable but might leave some of us hanging, which is why it’s good that Mullen already said the next version of the website will address that issue. For the Unitarian mother of my Catholic convert, the Book of Sirach is a constant source of inspiration, so I look forward to seeing how her contemporaries read it.

Using Chronicling America also leaves us with some gaps which are important to be aware of for anyone using the site. A quick look at the list of newspapers available in digital form reveals that some parts of the country are woefully under-represented in the collection. That being said, maybe Connecticut and Massachusetts can stand to be marginalized for once and let Arizona and Florida shine!

This site is exactly the kind of digital project I like to see as a scholar, and I’m also interested to see how we might put it to use in the classroom. I already give my students a couple of Mullen’s other small digital projects in the U.S. surveys and look forward to integrating this into my research and teaching.

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