First Day Fragments: reflections on ZoomU 2.0

The title is a little bit misleading since I actually started teaching on August 12, but my final class started this week, so, in a sense, my semester is now fully underway.

Despite cultural narratives about getting the summers off and short working hours, neither of which are actually true, teaching has a way of taking up every moment that you give to it. I often tell my students that wise teachers don’t give busy-work because that work redoubles back on the teacher when it comes time to grade. Teaching is a time-intensive job.

My experience as an adjunct instructor teaching classes at multiple institutions simultaneously over the past few years has me again reflecting on time. There are obvious constraints here: multiple commutes and teaching above what most universities count as “full” employment without full-time pay, benefits, or the advantage of teaching multiple sections of the same class.

But there are also other considerations. Monitoring three separate email accounts and course management systems takes more time than tracking just one professional email, even if the total volume of emails that need to be actively responded to is only marginally higher.

I have also started to believe that teaching on multiple different academic calendars is a hidden time cost because mismatched breaks erase most of the intended rest and recovery. COVID threw academic calendars even further into flux, and one of my calendars moved up the start date and eliminated all breaks in order to fit the entire semester in before Thanksgiving and minimize the exposure of students leaving campus.

I’m already exhausted.

Reflecting on how the start to the semester has me feeling sped up beyond my comfort level has me thinking back to a lecture Randy Pausch, better known for his “Last Lecture,” gave on time management in which he talked about creating a time budget. Easier said than done, but he was on to something.

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Part of the reason I feel sped up right now is that I did not feel prepared for the semester. In part, I spent the last set of months as a knot of anxiety. After the start of the pandemic, I watched the jobs I had applied for evaporate before my eyes. I spent most of the summer facing unemployment, excited about the possibility of time to write and terrified of what came next, all the while going into hustle mode to see if there were any places I could pick up classes for the fall.

At first the answer was no, but then I got one course, then an offer for another, and then, less than a month before the start of the semester, I was offered three more courses. The final tally is that I’m teaching five courses, three of which are entirely new to me. For two of those three I only collected the books about two weeks before the start of the semester, leaving me in scramble mode to offer my students the best experience I can under the circumstances.

I still don’t know what the future is going to bring. I am still only on one-semester contracts and while I have been fortunate thus far the constant uncertainty and last-minute contracts, to say nothing of the amount of energy that has gone into applying to full-time jobs, limits the attention I can give to the semester currently in progress.

All I know is that I am going to be exceedingly busy at least through Thanksgiving.

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There is something comfortable about being in a classroom in person, but find the emotional drain of teaching to a room full of masks exhausting. Beyond adding one more thing to police in the classroom and general muffling of voices, the masks make it hard to read facial expressions that offer real-time feedback to what is going on in class. Then add in the anxiety of face to face contact, classrooms that give more “six feet” than six feet of distance between attendees, the challenges of facilitating small group discussion at a distance, and the juggling act of teaching to a room full of people and a set of people dropping into the classroom on Zoom. We’re making it work, but it is both less effective and more exhausting than usual.

Online asynchronous classes, by contrast, keep everyone on the same level, but have always had challenges in building a community of learners. Discussion boards can be great, but are only as effective as the participants make them. Certainly, there are things the instructor can do to encourage engagement, but they put a lot on the learner. I remember this being the case too when I did one of the more popular MOOCs a few years ago, Programming for Everybody’s Python course. The professor was an effective communicator and had many office hours and meetups to go along with the various assignments. The course had an incredibly active discussion board and yet I only ever went to it when I needed help with a specific question.

Then there is ZoomU 2.0, the online, synchronous class. This keeps everyone the safest, but exposes the whole class to technological issues and internet inequality. I am teaching an intro survey course in this modality, but the prospect of delivering 80-minute lectures to my computer fills me with dread. My aim is to break up the class into smaller chunks with lectures interspersed with discussions, break out rooms and in-class writing assignments to break up the monotony.

I don’t love any of these modalities, to say the least. Right now my fear is that whatever is gained by the intimacy of online video classes and then some will be given back by making it easier for people to get lost in the wash. I think there is virtue in keeping the classes at least partly synchronous, but prefer shorter and/or more infrequent virtual meetings because the costs of staring at a webcam for hours on end are real.

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The fountain of words bubbling beneath the surface back in May trickled away once I had to go into overdrive to prepare for the semester and I’m currently being reminded of why I had to abandon writing almost altogether last fall. Preparing for class will take up every last minute that you are willing to give to it, so they tell young academics to jealously guard their writing time.

I can find time to write most days. What I lose during the semester is the time to read. Writing is, in a sense, a meditative activity where I can shut down Twitter, email, and other distractions in order to play with words for a while. But those words don’t just magically appear. They develop through reading and research, both of which I find harder to carve time out for during the semester both because it requires a different type of focus and because if I’m reading scholarship, a little voice is whispering to me that I should be reading for class.

I’m still writing, just not as swiftly as I perhaps hoped. I finished a book review over the summer, as well as an article that I’m currently shopping and have begun work on roughly eight other projects of various size and imagined outputs. Focus is not necessarily my strength.

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Despite concerns over COVID and everything else that is going on, I must say that playoff basketball in August has been quite the treat to have on while working on classes. I don’t always love watching NBA basketball stylistically, but some of the offense are simply spectacular and the games have been a lot of fun.

And yet, before I finished this post, the NBA postponed games after a wildcat strike by the Milwaukee Bucks after yet another police shooting and subsequent violence against protesters. I love basketball, but my favorite thing about the NBA is the number of prominent socially-conscious people who play and coach in the league. They aren’t perfect, to be sure, but I fully endorse prominent individuals leveraging their positions for good causes. I hope it works.

What does it mean to learn from history?

George Floyd’s murder hit me hard on a number of levels. On a personal level, Minneapolis is my favorite US city, and one where I have both friends and family. On a philosophical one, I am a humanist numb from the colossal disregard for human life in that moment and all that came before. On a political one, the instinct from some circles, including the police and some elected officials, to crush protestors with an iron fist smacks of a turn toward totalitarianism.

My training and background as a historian informs my response on each level. Although my work does not focus on this hemisphere, let alone the past century, I read and teach widely and am always struck both by the historical roots of the systemic problems that surround race-constructs in the United States. This means, among others, the racist roots of policing, the artificial, racist origins of segregated neighborhoods through policies such as redlining, and how the construct of who gets to be white evolved to conscript white-skinned immigrants into the cause of institutional white supremacy.

The first two are obvious, the third is more insidious and leads, in my opinion, to internal contradictions such as many Jews benefitting from White Supremacy and some seeking to reinforce it even while torch-lit marchers chant “Jews will not replace us.”

History is not static, consisting of statues or events frozen in amber with a clear, unambiguous meaning. For one thing, the meaning of both statues and events are contingent, and claims to the contrary are meant to delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. But my assertion that history is not static goes beyond the simple fact that history lives and gets revivified in memory. Rather, history consists of dynamic processes and developments. Named people and events offer concrete case studies that illuminate developments and dates give context, but neither are an end in their own right, whatever the caricatures of history class might suggest.

No class, and certainly no survey class, has time to exhaustively cover every civil rights incident, so teachers choose a few incidents to highlight as representative—the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Summer, Selma, the March on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe having students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi—before moving on to the next topic.

In my US History courses I also spend time looking at propaganda with students that includes a Soviet cartoon from 1930 with a black man lynched from the Statue of Liberty and a white Jesus figure depicted with what looks like a swastika in his halo, talk about the Tulsa massacre of 1921, and explore COINTELPRO, the FBI program that targeted, among others, Martin Luther King Jr.

We also spend time dealing with the history of immigration to the US, charting how immigrant food became mainstream and reading documents like a NY Times op-ed from Senator David A. Reed defending the implementation of the Johnson-Reed Act that cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the grounds that they needed to defend America for their grandchildren from those non-white people thought to be flooding into the country. Today, of course, the descendants of many of those immigrants are counted as White Americans and have been co-opted into defending that privilege.

Teaching history comes down to political choices, no matter how it is taught. Historical examples drained of their vitality and set on a pedestal can be deployed to defend all sorts of malicious programs, which is one of the insidious problems behind the trope that we need to learn from history so as to not make the mistakes of the past. Even supposedly a-political history is laden with baggage that generally supports comfort and the status quo at the expense of justice.

Take a seemingly innocuous example: The Plessy v. Ferguson supreme court case in 1896 legalized Jim Crow segregation laws and is generally considered a bad decision, but if your story then charts a trajectory of progress that includes Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Brown v Board of Education desegregating schools in 1954, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as accomplished through the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and co., never mind that King advocated confrontation and law-breaking, before drifting away until the election of an African-American president, then you offer a falsely triumphalist version of US history without dabbling in explicitly White Supremacist ideas.

Now, the example above is deliberately over-simplified and every version of this course I have seen at least punctuates the narrative with struggle (Rosa Parks), White opposition (Bull Connor; George Wallace), and murder (Emmett Till; King).

At the same time, there often seems to be reassuring triumphalism baked into how we sometimes talk about US history, as though the United States is obviously the greatest country on earth, so we should look to its earliest history for why that has always been true. The rest of its history, warts and all, simply explains how the US became even better, all the while leaving most of these terms undefined, thereby allowing for the doublethink assertion that the US now is the best country to ever exist and that it was better sometime in the past. This is a facile interpretation, but the US is hardly the only state afflicted by its circular logic. Johanna Hanink offers a really interesting discussion of how a similar process took hold in Ancient Athens in her book The Classical Debt.

I am not particularly interested in debating US greatness. In principle I’m onboard, in execution not so much. However, these triumphal versions of American history belie the processes at work such that every decade or two people can be once again shocked by a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Marquette Frye and Emmett Till, only to reach the same conclusions about what should be done before reverting to comfortable complacency and bigotry that puts the responsibility for civil rights on African Americans or blames them for conditions created by a history of racist institutions.

My courses are far from perfect and evolve as I develop as a historian, teacher, and person. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, which I hope will help me develop better vocabulary to express these different types of racism for if or when I am back in the classroom.

I hope this moment results in meaningful change, and certainly there seems like a groundswell of momentum, but when I watch institutions long steeped in both overt and covert racism resist accountability for their actions, corporations offer empty platitudes so that people will continue to buy their baubles often made and transported in exploitative conditions, and people continue to defend White Supremacy under various guises, I see the deep historical roots.

Learning history to avoid making the mistakes of the past is nice and all, but it is an empty sentiment. Hitler is bad and we shouldn’t try that experiment again, but too narrow a focus on Hitler and the death camps obscures centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, the complicity of the German population, how many Americans were outright sympathetic to the Nazi Regime, and how Adolf Hitler actively praised and emulated the Jim Crow regime . I think history is endlessly interesting and teaches skills like how to analyze sources, but, more immediately, learning to think historically means learning to think intersectionally in order to see how these interwoven threads create a larger tapestry.

Lessons from history are not the result of simple equations like [Adolf Hitler] + [wrote Mein Kampf] + [Nazi Party] = [don’t vote for him]. Rather, they force us to look at where and how White Supremacy has entrenched itself because the failure to grapple with and resolve those underlying processes creates the cycle where history appears to be repeating itself.

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I am not as well read on Civil Rights as many people, but here are a few books that have particularly informed how I think about these issues. Nancy Isenberg is the only white author on this list, but her thesis about the perpetually unresolved issue of poor and marginalized whites has had tragic consequences for minorities, so I think it is worth considering here as well.

Notes from Corona Campus

When I received the news that I had the weekend to take my classes online, I started out reading the tidal wave of well-meaning advice for teaching online and then promptly sat on my hands other than to complete step one below. I went to the grocery store to buy cheese and flour and alcohol. Then I went again to get beans and pasta. Then I baked bread and decided that I should probably stock up on more flour, so I went back, by which time the flour shelves were empty and I resigned myself to the fifteen pounds already on my shelves.

After a few days of doing nothing, I settled down and started prepping. Work with a clear purpose calms me, so I let myself get lost in the cycle of filming, emailing, teaching, and grading until getting caught up last night. Somewhere in this process I think I found a replicable routine to carry us through the rest of the semester. Research comes next.

These are not recommendations, but documentation of the steps I took for my classes at the two institutions where I work, each with slightly different mandates and instructions.

First, I contacted my students in every class, letting them know a few pieces of information: 1) that these are extraordinary circumstances and I will be as flexible as possible so that they can both take care of themselves and complete the class; 2) establishing a timeline for additional updates and expectations; 3) letting them know that I am available to talk, including about non-class things. Then I sent them a cat picture.

This is a step I have repeated frequently since, giving updates and reiterating that I am aiming to be as flexible and present as possible and that I have an unending stream of cat pictures. One of the problems with online education is that students do not feel connected to the class and lose motivation to keep up with the work, which is one reason that communication is so important. Consider this one a recommendation.

Second, I prepared my materials to go online. My classes are reasonably well set up for a digital transformation in that I already make extensive use of LMS platforms to distribute everything from assignments to handouts to readings to collecting assignments and use OER readings to reduce the cost to students. In some courses my students keep a blog. In other words, my usual workflow for the course made this part of the transition basically painless, though I have also been building up discussion boards and other functionality for asynchronous aspects of the course.

Third, I started filming. Until a few weeks ago my Twitter bio read “eagerly awaiting the pivot past video,” and while I still hold to this sentiment, I am learning to love looking at my face on the screen because any information I would provide in a lecture is being delivered by videos that the students can watch when they have time. My videos are still on the long side, usually running in the 20–25 minute range, with two videos roughly covering the material from one lecture class, and they are very much an emergency measure: aside from checking clarity I am not editing these at all and have barely modified content to allow activities in the middle of the lecture.

There are lots of tools available for making videos and I know some intrepid professors who have made Youtube channels for their classes. For my part, I am just recording a Zoom meeting with the slides shared, saving the video to my computer, and uploading it with the slide show and supplemental readings to the course site.

Fourth, I am still holding synchronous classes. I say this with some trepidation given the wisdom of the best practices pedagogy people online, but I am doing it anyway––and only in part because one of the schools where I teach asked me to do so. (I should also note that my largest class this semester is c.25.) Here is my rationale: my students didn’t sign up to take an online class and given the very real concerns about motivation to stay engaged, some of which my students brought to me, I think there is value in continuing to hold synchronous sessions for anyone able to make it. Keeping a regular routine is something that I know helps me.

However, these synchronous sessions are not the same as normal class. As noted above, I am pre-recording any and all lectures, because I cannot think of anything more boring than asking students to tune in to watch my face talk at them real-time and, as I said, my primary concern here is engagement. Instead, I am adding a couple slides to my presentations, one that has some discussion questions for the students to prepare and another with an activity with “big scavenger hunt energy” (with apologies to the person on Twitter who framed online courses that way).

In the synchronous sessions I can answer questions about the lecture, engage students with the discussion questions, and talk about what they found or created. In other classes I have been able to use a Zoom function (that is apparently not available for all accounts) of breakout rooms to let the students do activities in small groups before coming back to the main room to share what they came up with. In another instance, I was able to invite a guest speaker whose book the students read to come in and talk to them about writing, the book, and related issues, and I rather hope that I can do something like that again.

Is any of this ideal? Absolutely not, but I am hoping that for some students our time can serve as a pocket of normalcy amid the storm and allow them to feel connected to the course. Equally, if not more, important, this change to the workflow of the course gives clear pathways to alternate participation through submitting me their answers to the questions and their activities or participation on discussion boards. in the spirit of flexibility, I am aiming for a blended synchronous/asynchronous course with the purpose of maximizing engagement while not leaving anyone behind.

Fifth, and finally, although I am adding activities and supplemental material like videos, documents, and podcasts, I am not adding new assignments. (I have heard of professors doing this, presumably in a panic-move to “encourage” engagement.) Like holding the usual class sessions, my goal is to keep to syllabus while retooling the assignments to account for the changed circumstance (e.g. no access to library books). Once again, this is made easier because of the structure of my courses where I use regular, low-stakes, online, at-home quizzes where I encourage students to do retake the assessment until they are satisfied with their grades (which also means learning the material) and assign take-home rather than in-class exams. To account for the new circumstances, I am also maintaining maximum flexibility, turning due dates into suggested benchmarks rather deadlines and giving students until the end of the class to turn in any revised material.

None of this is perfect: these are emergency measures and many of the particulars are still in flux as I respond to requests and suggestions from students. That said, one week in, I am satisfied that I now have a viable workflow on my end that will help me meet my course goals and maximize student engagement under the circumstances.

Course Reflection: Fall 2019

The end of the semester always hits me as a sudden stop. I go from the constant, frenetic scramble to prepare for class and grade assignments to few imminent deadlines and fewer set schedules. Work still looms and I still have jobs to apply for, but I find the schedule change abrupt and disorienting—particularly when the first involved teaching five classes and the second includes a snow-day and an imminent winter holiday.

Still, it occurs to me that I have fewer than three weeks until the cycle starts up again, and reflecting on what just happened is the first step in preparing for what comes next.

My reflection from this semester is simple: five classes are too many. That’s it, that’s the Tweet.

For no other reason than hoping to earn something that resembled a reasonable salary, I picked up one bit of teaching after another until I was teaching distinct five classes, three of which were functionally new, grading for another, and grading for an online class. I taught five days a week at two campuses a half an hour drive apart and basically gave most of my evenings and weekends to keep up with the prep and grading and, even then, needing to cut corners and falling behind in every class. In short, I taught none of these courses to my satisfaction.

This is not to say that these courses were catastrophes. They weren’t. Each had bright spots — an exercise, a reading, a class discussion — just that I was stretched too thin to give each class the attention it deserved.

Discussion of individual classes after the jump

First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

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Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

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I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

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The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.

Teaching College

Through the heat-scorched landscape of late July, it is almost possible to feel the first winds of autumn, which means that it is time to be thinking about the courses for the fall semester. In preparation for teaching I have once again gone back to the well of teaching books and done another thread for the #PhDSkills tag on Twitter, this time reading Norman Eng’s lauded book, Teaching College.

This post follows the model I used for my previous threads, on John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write and Helen Sword’s The Writer’s Diet, as well as the posts I wrote after reading Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom, James Lang’s Small Teaching, and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire. A longer list of resources can be found here, in a post with collected suggestions for guides on how to teach in the humanities that I solicited a year or so ago. I have added to the original posts as I find new resources.

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Norman Eng’s Teaching College often comes up on lists of books for college instructors to read. It promises to be a practical guide to teaching and learning, with lessons from the worlds of marketing and K–12 teaching, fields Eng worked in before getting his ED.D.

You can find my sprawling reading notes in this Twitter thread.

Eng tries to do everything in Teaching College, and the result is a lot of useful tips. Even with the book by his own admission being less useful for humanities classes, I do not disagree with most of what Eng writes. For instance, he stresses reflective practice, both on the part of the teacher and for the students, and the importance of creating a safe learning environment. I think both of these are central to good pedagogy, as is making sure that you are finding ways to keep the class engaged through active learning exercises and discussions. This can be easier said than done, but Eng advocates a “less is more” approach in getting students to learn rather than to simply commit facts to short-term memory––which Kevin Gannon, among others, have suggested is the best way to improve even the bloated survey courses.

( I think we teach history backward, but I also teach in the system we have.)

For as useful as Teaching College was at points, though, I was often frustrated with it. This frustration came in several different forms, but they started early on with an unrelated book. One of the media groups in Columbia, MO has been running the same set of radio ads for the past few years promoting the book The Wizard of Ads with a series of tips on marketing strategies. The Wizard of Ads promises to teach the reader simple rules to ensure marketing success. Teaching College came across like an educational version of that book. This is not to say that either book is necessarily wrong, just that there is something about the tone promising quick fixes that rubbed me the wrong way.

But my issues went beyond the superficial.

First, Eng’s approach to class structure struck me as overly formulaic, even when he offered variations. In his defense, he added the caveat that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to teaching, but in the body of the text he blows right past that advice. I will be taking his advice that I need to make sure that I am being aware of how much interaction I plan because when I get overwhelmed I tend to just talk, but I am unlikely to entirely jettison things that are working in my classes.

Second, while Eng offers some additional reading (or Ted talks to watch) and some citations, it often came across like a Ted talk where one person with a particular expertise tells the audience how to improve––ironically unlike his advice for how to teach. He is persuasive, I thought, in showing how college professors could learn from marketers and K–12 teachers, though we have all had our share of poor teachers there, too, but the fact that it is generally heavy on personal stories and light on relating scholarship about best practices in teaching and learning made Teaching College seem insubstantial.

Third, Eng tries to cover too much, offering panaceas for everything from classroom management to syllabus design to readings. On the one hand, this means that he is arguing for a comprehensive overhaul with prescribed changes, but, on the other, there is also limited space dedicated to explaining the purpose of any of the changes. Compare this to James Lang’s Small Teaching, which similarly covers a lot, but with the explicit purpose of making small tweaks to improve a class rather than a full overhaul.

Fourth and finally, perhaps my biggest frustration is that other than a critique of using a single midterm to assess student performance, there was almost no discussion of assessment. My issue here is that reflection on how we are assessing students is about as important as reflecting on why students are not doing the reading. You can’t have one without the other, and I find that particularly in history and civ surveys the course aims and course assessment are wildly mismatched. Eng boils this problem down to thinking about your client profile (the students, with their big-picture goals) and aligning your course goals accordingly, but identifying these and adjusting the class procedure only does so much good if the assessment remains out of alignment with what you want the students to take from the course.

In sum, I wonder if I would have found more utility in Teaching College if I hadn’t read Small Teaching and Discussion in the College Classroom first. This is a useful little book that gave me a few ideas, but much of what it offers can be found in more detail in other resources.

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.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

Form and Content: a note on writing

“Do I have to write in paragraphs?”

I used to receive variations of this question every semester, and I’m sure that I will hear it again from students, often first years, who are deeply concerned about the expectations of an academic essay.

“Yes,” I answer, not because I’m against creative presentation, but because giving the option of using a bullet-point list undermines the hard work of stitching a series of thoughts into a single argument.

Echoes of this frantic question have come back to me in recent weeks, first while reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and then again when I saw a lament on Twitter about the encroaching tyranny of the listicle as a medium of discourse.

Every format has strengths and weaknesses.

The essay, a medium for which I have a great deal of affection, lays out an argument or tells a story by leading the reader from one point to the next. In the hands of a master the essay is a lyrical medium, but it is not only hard, but also unsuited to all tasks.

A list, for instance, conveys information simply and concisely in the face of tumult and complexity. There is comfort in lists, but they belie fluidity. An example: I have kept one of my favorite novels for years, but between the fogginess of memory and whims of a given day the novel that belongs in the ninth spot of the list changes.

An outline gives the structure of an argument, even if the actual order, at least in my experience, is liable to change in the execution.

The listicle, by contrast, is a cross between the list and the essay. It takes the argument and points of an essay and meshes it with the order and structure of a list. Meatier than a list and more easily digested than an essay, it is perfect for consumption on a mobile device, matched for a fast-paced world.

Good writing is good writing, and the same holds here, but the very efficiency of the listicle also contributes to its forgettability. Where I can rattle off a dozen or more essays that I recommend to people, there is not a single listicle I can say the same about unless I thought to do so while reading it. But I’m also busy, and therefore generally happy to skim through a listicle on any number of topics where I might decide that reading and processing an essay is too much of a commitment.

In the classroom there are any number of ways to cut corners and grade more quickly, but my objective is not speed. Outlines are a nice tool, whether to help students organize their thoughts, prepare a long written piece, or (my preference) part of the revision process, but it is not the same thing as learning how to pull together a complete piece of writing.

Hewing to John Warner’s mantra that writing is thinking, the ability to lead your reader from one point to another is a learned skill that requires repetition, feedback, and revision. In this sense, the very trepidation that my students exhibit about writing is validation for having them write fully-formed essays.