Thinking Through Course Design

On my ever-growing to-do list for this summer is thinking through the design of three new (to me) classes for next year. The most imminent—an interdisciplinary seminar on food and drink in the ancient mediterranean that I’m offering in the fall—is, ironically the one I am least worried about of the three. Its proximity means that I have already given the course a decent amount of thought, have already ordered a course reader, and have a good sense of the outcomes I am expecting the students to come away with.

I am having more trouble envisioning these same features of the upper-level survey courses on Rome and ancient Persia set to run in the spring semester—for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

By its next iteration, my Archaic and Classical Greek History course will likely reach a rough equilibrium that takes students through three interlocking units. The first one will deal with an introduction to Ancient Greece, its place in the mediterranean world, and social and political institutions down to roughly 500; the second unit engages with war, empire, and imperial culture down to roughly 404, and then the third unit takes a thematic approach to society and culture, with a focus on the fourth century (300s) down to the foundation of the Hellenistic World.

No course of this sort can take a truly catholic approach to a society, but I have made deliberate choices in this course to generally eschew a blow-by-blow recounting of events like the Peloponnesian in favor of leading students through a sequence that gives them a broad understanding of major issues in Greek history. However, what made this most possible was limiting the chronology of the course to a totally manageable 500 years.

By contrast, my Roman history course is going to cover a minimum of 1,000—and maybe more. I am also the sole ancient historian in a small department and responsible for teaching a number of other courses means that I can’t divide “Roman History” into a two or three semester sequence.

And yet, despite these issues, the Roman history course is the less troublesome of the two. I know the mandate, the broad arc, and a lot of the resources that I can use. I am also brushing up on scholarship and have several syllabus models that I think will work for what I envision.

I am facing more foundational issues in coming to my Persian history course. When I first imagined teaching such a course, I envisioned a deep-dive into Achaemenid Persia as a counterpoint to my Greek history course. It would start with the regal traditions of Western Asia, tackle dynastic and institutional issues, explore the historiographical issues of the many topics that are filtered through a Greek lens, and engage with the diverse cultures that flourished under Persia before culminating with the sticky issues of Alexander’s conquest. I even had the core textbook picked out, Maria Brosius’ A History of Ancient Persia: The Achaemenid Empire.

I absolutely course teach the course this way. There is more than enough material to fill a full semester, and I left the course description flexible for a reason.

However, I also course teach the course across three units, each covering a different ancient Persia—Achaemenid, Asakid Parthian, and Sasanian. Doing the course this way would cut into the amount of time that could be given over to the study, replacing them instead with themes of continuities, historical memory, and the diverse subject populations.

While I have a gut feeling that the latter approach would better fit in the cycle of courses that I teach, I also have some misgivings.

First, it would require significantly more preparation on my part simply by dint of my being less familiar with these empires than Achaemenid Persia. This is, of course, not a deal-breaker, and I have begun collecting resources in case this is the direction I end up going. My reading list as it currently stands can be found below, though I will need to supplement it with edited collections as well.

Second, while there are good options for books to use for Achaemenid history or Sasanian history (and, to a lesser extent Parthian history), there are to my knowledge no good options for resources that cover all three. Thus, a course of this model taught by Touraj Daryaee, whose history of the Sasanian Empire is an early leader for one that I might use, requires students to purchase four books—Ferdowsi’s Shahnehmah, histories of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, and a book of sources on Zoroastrianism—and compresses the Parthian empire into one week out of ten, just after the midterm exam.

My concern is that I am extremely sensitive to the price of my courses, almost to a fault. I can point out multiple occasions where I opted to assign an open-access version of a resource that I did not particularly like rather than ask my students to purchase yet another book and generally not assigning complete monographs in order to keep the cost of my course to roughly $50 dollars worth of materials. I was reminded by colleagues that textbooks in STEM routinely run into the hundreds of dollars, so I should not feel guilty if my courses occasionally creep north of $100 as this one is threatening to do, but I still find myself wrestling with these decisions.

I have a little bit of time, at least, and all of these are reasons to be working on course planning so far in advance. Both of these syllabuses will be ongoing projects this summer, so I welcome suggestions or recommendations.

An Ancient Persia Reading List (post Achaemenid)

  • Matthew Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth (California 2009)
  • Uwe Ellerbrock, The Parthians (Routledge 2021)
  • Parvaneh Pourshariati (ed.) Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (I.B. Tauris 2008)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran (Harvard 2012)
  • M. Rahim Sheyegan, Arsacids and Sasanians (Cambridge 2011)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Iran 224–651 CE: Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Mazda 2008)
  • Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
  • Sauer Eberhard (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes and Eurasia (University Press, 2017)
  • Marek Jan Olbrycht, Early Arsakid Parthia (Brill 2021)
  • Vesta Sakhosh Curtis, Michael Alram, Touraj Daryaee (edd.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires (Oxbow 2016)

Three Things of Spring 2022

Grades are submitted, another semester is in the books—along with my first year at Truman State.

Frankly, that end couldn’t come soon enough. A bunch of factors colluded to make the first two months of the semester one of the busiest stretches of my life. Most of that busy was good, but it also meant that I spent the back half of the semester—a period during which I organized a speaker coming to campus and prepared an hour-long talk for a student group, on top of teaching and meetings—triaging my commitments and trying to avoid burning out. I don’t recommend letting things get this busy.

With the semester just several days in the rear-view mirror and aided by an early heat wave that sent the temperatures into the 90s, I am starting to settle into a summer routine. I will have a post in the coming days that lays out some goals, but, first, I want to take a moment to survey the semester that just ended.

As you might guess from the title, I have three major thoughts.

First, I once again find myself considering burnout.

More than once in the past few months I asked myself how much of my exhaustion was particular to this semester, how much of it was residual anxiety from years spent as a part-time adjunct, and how it was the accretion of stress from teaching for two years during a global pandemic.

The answer, of course, is “all of the above.”

In my muddled thoughts from last semester, I framed this question in light of compassionate pedagogy and idly wondered whether flexible policies inadvertently prompts students to devalue a course. Despite those questions, my “flex” late policy that asked students to either submit their work by the time a checkpoint came due or fill out a form that would record their extension was easily one of the most popular course policies I have ever come up with so I naturally rolled it over to similar effect this semester. Despite my misgivings, my students reported exactly what I hoped, that this policy allowed them the flexibility to manage their schedules and do their best work. Transitioning to a specs grading system this fall will require some slight tweaks because there will no longer be points to deduct for late assignments, but the framework of this policy will be fixture of my courses going forward.

The popularity of this policy speaks to the stress that the students are facing and I came out of this semester more convinced than ever that the problems with burnout are structural. No amount of self care will resolve these issues and reminders to be mindful like the one I received last week from a textbook publisher border on the farcical.

In his recent book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues time management gurus have been focusing on exactly the wrong message. Basically, he says, we have a finite amount of time, which necessarily means that we will not be able to do everything in a single lifetime. Trying to do more by working more efficiently or cutting into time for rest will detract from the experience of all of the activities rather than lead feelings of accomplishment. His argument, then, is that we should do less so that the activities that we do do become more meaningful.

Burkeman was not writing about higher education specifically, but there is a useful lesson here. Bill Caraher on his blog has written a good bit about “slow” as an ideal and mentioned his concerns with the workload expected of both graduate and undergraduate students. I fear that I contributed a little bit to the heightened expectations such that I am going to scale back a little bit in the fall. At the same time, this is not a problem that I can solve on my own.

Second, this semester I optimistically incorporated peer review into several of my courses. My students had to bring paper drafts to class and submit a copy to Blackboard. We talked about papers and revision before the first peer review day, and I had hoped that the course material would give the reviewers the content background to critique the papers, while seeing different approaches to similar material, repeated practice at reviewing, and my feedback would make them better writers and reviewers over the course of the semester.

In short, this part of the course was a spectacular failure.

I should qualify that statement. Some of the students became pretty good reviewers and saw dramatic improvement in their work, but, for every one of those, there were at least two for whom it didn’t work. The causes varied. Some routinely brought such scant “drafts” that their peers had almost nothing to critique. Others reported only receiving grammar and spelling comments. Still others reported deep-seated anxiety over giving sharp feedback and being unwilling or unable to look at the comments. And those were substantive problems before considering that peer-review day saw by far the lowest attendance rates.

The requirement that drafts be submitted to Blackboard also allowed me to give some feedback at an early stage, but even minimal guidance magnified my workload to an unmanageable extent.

I think that peer review can work, but I need to come up with a new approach because what I did this semester ain’t it. I suspect that it would require significantly more time training students to give good feedback and reiterating the purpose of the exercise to make them more receptive to the comments. Guiding students to become better readers would also help, but there were enough different problems that I doubt this is the sole or even primary cause. I don’t want to abandon the peer-review entirely, but the question is how to make it useful.

Third, something of a PSA: when you have two assignments due close together, the one that needs timely feedback should be due first.

For reasons that defy understanding I reversed that order this semester and spent several weeks in grading purgatory as a result. I hadn’t finished grading the first set when the second arrived and required immediate attention, causing the first batch to languish for far longer than I intended. Simply changing the order in which these arrived would have made for a more satisfactory experience for everyone involved.

Hypothetically Speaking: a Greek History class reading list

This post has been updated and archived here.

One of my favorite things about my current job is that, despite being a contingent position, it has given me license to start thinking about the types of courses I might want to teach and provided a framework in which to conceive of them. As last semester wore down I started to mull over what I would assign for an 8-week summer graduate course on Greek history.

(An actual course would probably have to be “ancient history” or somesuch, more broadly construed, but indulge me here.)

The imagined audience for this course is aspiring history teachers with little or no background in the classical languages. My goal was to construct a reading list that a) gives a glimpse at some of what I see as core issues to Greek history as they emerge in recent scholarship, b) challenges traditional narratives about Greek history, and c) avoids leaning too hard on literary or linguistic analysis.

This is the reading list I came up with:

  • Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt (Harvard: 2017)
  • Naoise Mac Sweeny, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: 2013)
  • Stephen Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (Duckworth: 2000)
  • David Yates, States of Memory (Oxford: 2019)
  • Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens (Routledge: 2014)
  • Kostas Vlassopoulos, Greeks and Barbarians (Cambridge: 2013)
  • John Hyland, Persian Interventions (Johns Hopkins: 2017)
  • Paul Kosmin, The Land of the Elephant Kings (Harvard: 2014)

I particularly wanted to avoid any book that used as its focus one of the big wars in Greek history because those books abound, though I did consider Jenny Robert’s The Plague of War (Oxford: 2017), and, I was likewise leery of any book that too completely centered Athens, though Joan Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma (Penguin: 2014). Rather, I wanted to steer into persistent misunderstandings about Ancient Greece, giving the (imagined) students material that they were likely going to be unfamiliar with and that they might be able to use in how they teach the subject. This meant books that situated events they might see elsewhere in a broader context or inverted what they might have learned elsewhere.

Two issues with this list as currently constructed:

First. Kosmin’s volume feels to me like a token Hellenistic book that might be better to given over to something like Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures (University of California Press: 2020) or another book on historiography. I ultimately excluded Other Natures just because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Second. Slavery appears in these volumes as a secondary consideration rather than as the primary focus. Given the prominence of slavery in Greek society this might be a grave oversight.

Finally, a request. Tell me why any of my choices won’t work and, in the sense that I am always looking for bibliography, tell me what I missed.

Fall 2021: The Uncanny Valley of Normalcy

As I read a flood of headlines about schools going online in response to the latest COVID-19 spikes, I am finding it hard to imagine what it was like back in August when we returned for a fall semester masked, but back at full capacity and in person and all of the talk on campus was when, not if, the mask mandate would get dropped.

Now it is late December and I am sitting in my office trying to plan for a new semester that starts in less than three weeks without any sense of what it will look like and without having had a chance yet to process the semester that just ended.

Perhaps a nap would be a more productive use of my time.

More than any semester I can remember, I spent a lot of time and emotional energy trying to coach, support, and otherwise help struggling students through a very difficult term. Some of this can be traced to my new position at a new school that allowed me to invest in this sort work and a campus climate that made it more necessary. Yet, anecdotally, I also saw sentiments that this semester was harder than the ones that were more explicitly pandemic semesters. There are a variety of possible explanations—those other semesters came with more explicit planning and everyone’s mental and emotional reserves are empty after two years of a pandemic—but one that I particularly like came from Kevin Gannon on Twitter who speculated that this semester was the Uncanny Valley of Normalcy. That is, we were close to normal in a way that only highlighted that something was off.

After a lot of debate, I set up my courses so that students could use Zoom to attend remotely if they asked me for the link. I suggested they use chat to contribute to the class conversation, but also warned them that I might not be able to bring them fully into the course discussion. I am not happy with this solution, but after trying to teach language classes in a hybrid format last year I decided that this was just a battle I didn’t have the energy to fight. I still want to imagine something better but keep drawing a blank.

Other challenges I faced this semester come back to it being my first year in a new department. For instance, I came in with certain assumptions about the demographics of my upper-level course and then had to adjust on the fly to meet my students where they were. Going into next semester, I can have these adjustments built into the course from the start. Similarly, I came into the semester thinking that the my World Civ course (world history for non-majors) would be an iteration of a world history course I had taught before, but then found myself adjusting mid-stream when I saw the virtues of some of what the World History course did, before adjusting again when it became clear to me how many of my students were wearing down at a frightening rate. I suspect having a more regular assignment schedule will help this class immensely, and this is something that will be easier to accomplish now that I have a better sense of the students, campus community, and resources at my disposal.

This semester has also been causing me to reflect on three aspects of my teaching.

First, I like most of my class sessions, and, by extension, the course as a whole to have a big idea and an arc that allows each idea to reinforce what the students are learning. When I taught my monsters class, for instance, we go from primordial monsters, the interaction between monsters and humans, and finally asking whether human beings are the “real monsters.” In other classes, I often use a sort of ring composition that has the course return to the ideas we established at the outset of the semester at the very end. This method, along with a strong emphasis on reflection in the courses, allows the students to see what they have learned that semester and I have no intention of fully abandoning that model, but I am wondering if I wouldn’t be better to build in more compartmentalization.

Take this analogy. I often often have students go through drafting processes and peer review by way of scaffolding writing assignments. This semester when I tried a peer-review exercise in one of my classes, only half of the class had a draft for their peers to review. Now, I am going to change how I do these peer reviews in the future by requiring students to submit the drafts as a “graded” (complete/incomplete) assignment, but I also saw this as symptomatic of how many students were simply overwhelmed this semester. I had multiple students miss long stretches of class time where they seemed even more lost when they return, so I wonder if there might be virtue in finding ways to build in water-tight compartments so that if one ruptures the whole boat doesn’t sink, so to speak. Not that compartmentalization helps with any given writing assignment, though.

Sorry, mixed metaphor is where my head is at right now.

Second, I am once again questioning the value of tests. Not assessment, mind you, but tests. When I finished working as a TA for big US history surveys, I vowed I would never again offer a blue-book test. Basically, I think they are of negligible pedagogical value for what I hope to teach my students and I find in-class exams mind-numbing to grade. I have exclusively used open-book take-home tests in my classes where part of the assignment is learning how to synthesize and cite information from the various sources that we have used.

Some of these tests have worked better than others, and I am starting to think that a take-home test needs to do more than replicate the in-class test at home. That is, if you are doing a take-home test, it shouldn’t be a series of short answer terms followed by several essays. Some students do exceptionally well at these assignments, but others replicate many of the same issues I have with the in-class exams while the large number of individual components to the test often leads to divided focus. I have had more success with exams that ask fewer questions, expect more from each answer, and allow revision.

However, if I am going to take this approach, what is the virtue in doing one midterm and one final with two questions each rather than, say asking those same questions over three or four papers that go through a peer-review process? In this model, much learning ostensibly tested by the short answer portion of those exams would be done through weekly quizzes over factual materials and readings. Not every course needs to be writing-intensive, but this can be accounted for in the length of the assignments, while doing more frequent but shorter assignments that go through this process would likely result in deeper, more sustained engagement with the course material than the alternative.

Finally, the end of this semester has me again reflecting on compassionate pedagogy. I want to be the sort of professor who my students trust to support them. Right now this means finding ways to make my course policies flexible and respecting the demands put on their time. I don’t have access to my course evals for the semester yet, but I am particularly looking forward to seeing what they thought of my late policy that treated all major assignments as checkpoints and allowed them to get an automatic extension by filling out a Google form before that checkpoint. In particular, I wonder what messaging a policy like this gives. A lot of students wrote that they were taking my extension because they had other work due the same day. That in and of itself isn’t a problem—I understand students have other classes and this extension is on offer—but when I scaled back a number of assignments late in the semester because I saw my students becoming utterly overwhelmed, the break I gave them was immediately swallowed by work for other classes. Put the two together, and I can’t help but wonder if building flexibility and compassion into my course as a baseline gets taken for granted and sends the message that what I’m teaching them is not important.

I don’t intend to go away from a compassionate pedagogy because I don’t see rigor and rigidity as synonymous, but it does underscore for me that individual instructors cannot solve problems like the mental health crises on college campuses. We need structural solutions.

When students write down what I say…

The semester just ended, which means it is time to review course evaluations. These feedback forms are notoriously problematic, but I encourage students to give me feedback and take what they say seriously. More than just that what students write can end up in a document I use for job applications, these are formative evaluations that can help me refine my practice. That is probably why a single negative review can cause such a sharp sting.

http://deathbulge.com/comics/155

Reader: I got one of those this semester.

But I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to share something that happened this semester: a student wrote down what I said. Not note-taking during a lecture, but writing down specific things that I said and then handing me a copy of this list on the final day.

Here’s a taste:

“If a monster’s just out there fishing or something, is it a monster?”

“Moose are big and scary as opposed to brown bears who are big and stupid.”

“Remember people: only barbarians wear pants.”

“Cassandra’s curse is that she’ll never be believed. I’m sure many ladies can relate.”

[speaking of Theseus] “He prays to Big Ocean Daddy.”

Sometimes discussions turn into improv and I say things specifically to prompt a response, here in a seminar on monsters, monstrosity, and classical mythology. Given that this is the sort of thing I did in classes with my favorite professors in college, this was immensely flattering — if also momentarily terrifying.

An Ending: Spring 2021

Here are two things that are true:

  1. My problems this school year were mild when compared to most people.
  2. I felt like a zombie for much of the last month because of the grind.

The spring semester felt a little easier in some ways. I mostly adhered to my resolution to KISS, which led to a more regular schedule and had noticeable benefits, particularly in my online class. I was also doing much less course building than in the fall, which allowed to focus more on best practices and maintain flexibility without the course devolving into a haphazard mess.

At the same time, a lot of these improvements were offset by the simple fact that both I and my students came into the semester already battered by an exhausting fall. Right around the time when we would have received our usual spring break I noticed a dip in everyone’s energy levels. I prescribed several “mental health days” late in the semester to try to account for this, but they were just a drop in the bucket. We kept going because that is what we had been told had to happen, but more than one student explained to me that whatever work they were giving me was perfunctory because they just needed the semester to be over.

I had a lot of sympathy for that position.

But I also had a ton of students who kicked ass this semester. Grades are in no way a reflection of personal worth — a good friend of mine aptly describes them as a professional evaluation of performance within a narrowly circumscribed realm — but I had some students earn among the highest grades I have ever seen by embracing not merely the grade rubric, but also the spirit of a class. Some really improved their writing over the course of the semester while also thriving in the open-ended discussion boards. Some threw themselves into their unEssay projects, like the student who melded the topic of my monsters course with the scientific literature review of her own major and produced a 17-page review of representations of mental illness as monstrosity in popular media, even turning the project in early. Others did really excellent work while parenting in a pandemic. I was disappointed that some students got lost along the way, but am unspeakably proud of everyone for making it to the finish line.

In light of these challenges, I have been wrestling with what, if anything, I want to carry forward from this year. The problem I have been facing is that most of what worked well were things that I had already incorporated into my courses. I am endlessly tinkering with tools and ideas to increase engagement and reduce cost. I was already using OER platforms and distributing my materials through the learning management system. I experimented with Discord without much success, but is something I would have done under other circumstances anyway (and probably will again).

Other changes, like going to entirely paperless grading, I abhor. There are no words to express how much I hate grading online. Quick quizzes where most of the work can be automated are one thing, but I struggle to give papers I grade on screen the attention they deserve. Using an Apple Pen on the iPad was, in theory, a step closer, but my clumsy hand-writing just got messier when the platform would even save what I wrote. Then there were the times when the platform refused to load documents. I understand the accessibility issues with asking students to provide hard-copies of their work, but I see enough advantages that I am going to return to grading on paper as soon as safely possible.

I have only been able to come up with two pandemic changes that I want to make permanent.

First, Zoom options office hours. Unlike my aversion to digital submissions described above, I only see advantages to having virtual options for office hours. This is not to say that I’ll eliminate the in-person sessions, but also having virtual options opens up possibilities for students who have other demands on their time and builds in flexibility that just doesn’t exist otherwise. This one will just require some thought as to the logistics (what happens when someone gets stuck in the virtual waiting room while I’m working with someone in person?) and boundaries.

Second, flex deadlines. This one is more of a work in progress based on the approach that I developed for deadlines this year. Basically, a course needs to have specific deadlines so that work is spaced out over the course of the semester and everyone roughly stays on track without falling too far behind.

In past years, I included on my syllabus a draconian late penalty not because I wanted to enforce it but because it used fear to get students to turn work in on time. In recent years I kept that policy, but added a once-per-semester freebie three-day extension. With the pandemic this year, I didn’t feel comfortable limiting that extension to a one-off and felt obliged to accept all late work. This meant significantly more book-keeping on my end, but worked in general.

What I want to do going forward is formalize a policy that was ad hoc this semester. My rough draft:

This course uses flex-deadlines for all assignments except presentations or those due on a weekly, recurring schedule (e.g. not quizzes). All major assignments (papers, take-home exams, projects) have a checkpoint in the syllabus. This date reflects where the assignments should fall in the semester based on the material we cover in class and giving adequate space between this and other assignments. By the time of this checkpoint you must either a) turn in the assignment, or b) requested an extension of e.g. 3- or 5- days. Longer extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis.

Submitting late assignments without communication with receive the following deductions: 0–24 hours late: 0%; 25–48 hours: -5%; an additional 5% reduction for each subsequent 24-hours, to a maximum of 50% off at 11+ days late.

There are some wrinkles I need to iron out here. This policy is harder to enforce with physical assignments (in the past, I have counted it complete with an emailed copy while requesting a hard copy for grading), for instance, and I’m not in love with the percent deductions (I like the 24-hour grace period and capping how much a student can lose for late work — if I give an assignment, I think there is value in the student completing it). I also ran into a problem where students were surprised when the end of the semester introduced a hard deadline. This one may be as simple as setting an earlier due-date for the final submission so that there is a cushion before I am up against the date I have to turn in grades.

However, I see four major advantages to this policy or something like it.

  1. It gives students more agency over their schedules. If college ought to be treated as a job (an unrealistic standard, in my opinion), it is better described as students managing four, five, or six (or more) part-time jobs simultaneously. Time management skills are important to cultivate, but I could say as much for myself.
  2. These are not open-ended extensions, but function something like a contract in that the students have to look at their schedule and tell me how long it will take them to get the work done.
  3. I am not putting any burden of proof on the student. I don’t need a doctor’s note/notarized letter/obituary. You need more time, I give you more time. The only requirement is communication, which, I hope, will improve outcomes overall by making other communication more likely.
  4. It better corresponds to how I grade than insisting that student must have their work in on time. I rarely sit down to grade bit assignments assignment as soon as they come in, so short extensions still mean that everything comes in before I have finished.

The best thing I can say about the 2020–2021 school year is that it is over. I am excited to start the next chapter of my career at Truman State University in August, but a part of me is going to miss these students with whom I went through so much. Now we get to celebrate:

The fall semester feels like it is right around the corner and I predictably have a lot I’m hoping to get done this summer. But, first, let’s all get some rest. We earned it.