Course Reflection: Spring 2019

Grades are in for the semester, so I am taking a moment to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

I taught two courses on two different academic calendars this semester. First to start and first to finish was a section of World History Since 1500, a general ed course with 27 students and few history majors; the second was an upper-level survey course, The Hellenistic World, with 34 students, about half of these were history majors and a third had previously taken classes with me.

My World History course got off to a rough start, with a number of interruptions in January so that three weeks into a thrice-a-week class, we had only met five times. Once I went home to record a lecture that students could listen to as a make-up because I worried we were falling behind. These first weeks are critical for building routine, so this was an inauspicious start to the semester.

My goal in these big survey courses is to help students see the big picture of world history, emphasizing two big points: 1) global connections and exchange, and 2) artifice and propaganda in historical presentation (including, among other things, scientific racism). For World History Since 1500, I added a third theme, social organization and centralization.

I designed this course roughly in two halves. The first half set up and paid off the first wave of European colonialism, looking at the underlying factors that underpinned “the age of exploration” and how the Europeans interacted with the places they visited, usually from the perspective of the other people. The second half of the course looked at how European colonialism changed, particularly in the late-18th and 19th centuries, with an emphasis on how the industrial revolution and new scientific notions shaped the world, whether in terms of genocide or establishing a line between the developed world and the global south.

I liked this course arc, and it worked hand in hand with my chosen textbook, von Sivers, et al. Patterns of World History 3e (Oxford), but it also led me straight into the survey trap: trying to cover too much #content. World history since 1500 is an enormous topic. I said this the first day of class, but for as much as I left out, I still tried to cover too much.

Partly because in a bid for coverage and partly because I didn’t have a deep repository of sources and activities for this course, I ended up lecturing more than I would have liked. Usually I intersperse lectures with pictures or written accounts and have students talk about what they see, but was continually thwarted. In frustration I went away from this too much as the semester wore on. I did my best to model good habits for the students by, for instance, presenting a thesis at the outset of every class that I would proceed to offer evidence for, but this was a small consolation compared to backing off and giving my students the agency and tools to learn.

Obviously, this will be a point of emphasis next time I teach this class. The question is whether I would be better off scaling back the amount of content overall in favor of student directed exploration or converting a number of the “lectures” to audio or video presentations. The latter would effectively flip the classroom and dedicate the time to discussion and other activities. There is a lot of virtue in this, but I worry about asking for too much time outside of the classroom for content delivery and thereby either leaving students behind or making class seem superfluous. In class, at least, I can both ask and field questions.

Despite having more students, I was on firmer footing with The Hellenistic World. It was my first time teaching this course, too, using Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium (California) and Michael Austin’s The Hellenistic World (Cambridge) sourcebook.

I subtitled this course “Hellenism from the Mediterranean to the Margins” and let our guiding questions be “what exactly is the Hellenistic period?” and “what makes something Hellenistic?” The first half of the course was fairly traditional, focusing on the funeral games for Alexander the Great and the political development of the big three Hellenistic dynasties, the Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Antigonids, as well as Pergamum and the hellenistic polis. The second half of the course opened up questions about hellenism and hellenistic cultures, with a broad exploration of issues ranging from philosophical schools, Hellenism in central Asia, the supposed rejection of hellenism by the Maccabees, and finally how the appearance of Rome changed the Hellenistic period.

The two courses shared a basic structure, with weekly quizzes, source analyses, and two take-home exams, with an opportunity to revise the first one.

The quizzes serve as a way to touch base once a week, giving students a chance to practice recall (they are allowed to retake the quizzes up until the due date) and to practice thesis-writing skills with one or more written answers, each of which is three to four sentences long. I introduced this system for my survey classes last fall and I’m pleased with the results, except that I will move the due date from Sunday to Friday, based on popular demand. (I wrote about this system here.)

I am on the record loathing bluebook-style exams because I think that they are comically poor tools for assessing what students have learned in a course, and so offer take-home exams instead, adjusting the structure based on course level. In my intro surveys, this meant one essay from a choice of three, one short source analysis, and a prompted reflection.

In The Hellenistic World, an upper level survey, students had to write two essays for each exam, one mandatory about what defines the Hellenistic world, and one from a choice of three. For this course, I repeated a variation of the mandatory question on the final, allowing them to approach it again having gone through the entire course.

My essay questions on these exams are big topics of the sort that a graduate student might see on a comprehensive exam. Obviously I don’t expect comprehensiveness on the exams, but I am looking to see how they craft an argument based on the tools and resources at their disposal. Despite some dud prompts, these questions do a pretty good job of showing what the students have learned, particularly when coupled with an opportunity to rewrite.

Not for the first time, though, I am less satisfied with the results on the source analysis, and, based on the comments on my evaluations this semester, the students are equally frustrated. I would simply drop the assignment, except that, ultimately, this is the thing that matters for historians of any level––and for the time that the students are in the course, this is what they are.

A good source analysis takes an object or text, puts it in its historical context, and analyzes the reciprocal relationship between what it reveals about that context and what the context reveals about it. Almost every object, text, or picture can be historicized this way. Some students take to this project like a fish to water, writing really thoughtful and incisive critiques, but, more often, their responses are all over the map, from so broad as to lack significance to being unable to place the source in a historical context, and everything in between. The broader the topic of the course, the more difficulty students have with this because the more familiar they are with the historical backdrop. Part of the solution will be to dedicate more class time to source analysis tutorials, but I don’t know yet exactly what this will look like.

Finally, I create* [read: adapted from the internet] an assignment for my World History students where they had to read a historical fiction novel set during the period of our course and write about how the author presents and adapts issues of global history in the book. This assignment had mixed success, with some really, really good responses to books like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, while other students got caught up writing literary, as opposed to historical, analyses. I’m not sure I will keep this assignment the next time around until I also restructure the course around primary sources that more closely map onto the topics of the novels, but I stand by the assignment as a way to help students think about historical and historicizing memory.

This was a grueling semester for me, mostly above and beyond the fact that I was teaching two courses for the first time, and the fact that I had two very good groups of students helped immensely because I almost always looked forward to going to class. And yet, now that I have taught both courses all the way through I finally feel about ready to teach them. Here’s hoping for a next time.

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