Classroom RPGs

As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises.  It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet!  In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:

Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar.  They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California.  What do they say?

For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected.  Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent.  It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.

(Live(ish))blogging the survey

First, a long digression:

I got to sit down with reps from Gale today for about five hours to talk about all of the tools they have for teaching.  Among some other fun things, we were able to test drive Artemis, which will eventually aggregate some? many? of Gale’s primary sources (or, what Gale markets as primary sources – a lot of things that aren’t sold as primary sources, like literary criticism, could still be useful in 20th century U.S. history classrooms, for instance), and what they’re calling “term clusters,” which is basically an interactive pie graph that shows the frequency of words that abut your search term.  It looks like it will be a pretty useful and robust search engine once everything is integrated, though like any archive it’s limited by what Gale’s editors acquire, how they subject index what they have, and (particular to digital archives) how well it’s been OCRed.

We were challenged to think about how we’d use Gale resources in the classroom, and there was a lot of talk about how having a not-infinite-but-still-pretty-vast universe of possible primary sources would challenge students to think more creatively about their topics, and how the analytic tools like term cluster will help students identify trends that they might not otherwise have seen.

Two thoughts:

1) Sometimes an infinite, or seemingly infinite universe can be a great thing.  When a student is working on a year-long senior thesis, having millions of pages of documents to draw from could be really productive.  But, there’s also something to be said for well curated small collections of primary sources, especially for introductory courses, where students aren’t sure how to even approach analyzing a primary source, let alone picking one about which they can make an argument that will sustain them throughout the paper writing process.

2) I’m always struck by the ways in which online databases or search engines try to replicate the functionality of a physical library.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that looking in the metadata for a book’s subject, and then looking for the subject headings that immediately follow and precede the one you’re interested in is like browsing the shelves at a library.  I’ve heard similar things about the serindip-o-matic tool, as a way to replicate the lucky happenstance of coming across an unforeseen or mis-filed document in a brick and mortar archive.  I love the serindop-o-matic, and I’ve been doing the proximity subject searches since college, so I’m not saying that these are bad tools or workflows, but I wonder about how effective it is to try to replicate the research experience of a library online.  On the other hand, we know how to research in libraries and archives, and it doesn’t seem so wise to reinvent the research wheel if we don’t have to – but browsing by proximate subject heading, or looking for high frequencies of words that cluster around any given search term will never the same as browsing the stacks.  Finding a document through serindip-o-matic (which I love, by the way – I think that it’s a fantastic tool, and I’m not sure that it’s makers would characterize it as replicating the eureka in the archive experience, I’ve just seen it described that way) will never be the same as coming across a mis-filed pouch of heroin, say – or perhaps more likely, an archivist who knows you’ve been pulling stuff on one subject getting you something related that you hadn’t thought to ask for.

At any rate, I’m not sure if, or how I’m going to be using Gale’s, or anyone else’s online databases for teaching in the future.  For this imminent semester, I’ve settled on the Major Problems in American History reader, because I really like the interpretive essays, and find the transcription and gobbeting of documents by experts in the field, of say, colonial American history, to be far superior to anything I might do on my own, even drawing from a near-infinite corpus.

But as to the point of this post, I’ve been thinking that it might be a useful exercise in my own pedagogical development, and possibly a useful contribution to the conversation started on the Junto blog last week about teaching the survey, to periodically check in about this, my first time teaching U.S. to 1877 on my own.  Consider this the first post of that project, and if I’m really systematic perhaps I’ll go the digital document reader route next semester and compare notes.

NARA does online gaming

I’m a little late to the game with this, but I was really happy to find that in 2012, the US National Archives moved into the online gaming world and into the itunes store, with apps like DocsTeach (online here). DocsTeach is, on the face of it, a fantastic idea.  It centers the idea that a considerable part of historical learning comes through the analysis of primary sources, and seems to try to build activities that would be accessible to students with different learning styles.  Many of the activities are tactile, insofar as you’re asked to move documents around, though some are more well-developed than others. For the activity on suffrage, for example the task is to arrange documents in the order in which they were produced – a fine way to teach reading skills, but not so much specific to women’s suffrage in America.

Lewis and Clark screenshot. This is featured prominently on the itunesU site for the app, and seems to be one of the better-realized activities.

The Lewis & Clark expedition activity, on the other hand, requires a little more critical thinking, as well as some sounder pedagogy.  Given a map of the United States and a bunch of documents, students are told:

“In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France.  President Jackson sent co-captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore west of the Mississippi River in 1804.  Their route west is shown in green.  Although this territory was unknown to some, to others it was very familiar.

Examine the documents related to the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Determine where different groups were involved and use the hints to place the documents on the X’s on the map.”

The documents include Lewis’s speech to the Otto Indians (August, 1804), “List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West” (1803), and the “Proclamation to the People of New Orleans” announcing the Louisiana Purchase.  Having placed the documents on the map, students are asked to make a list of all of the powers at play in the region, and come to class prepared to share with classmates.  Though some of the language in the app, especially in the instructions elides native agency (things happen to, or are given to Indians – there’s no sense that Indians were active players in this at all), and only hints at the extent to which the United States was a young, untried, and anxious nation, it’s not a bad game overall. I’m happy that the National Archives is thinking pedagogically, and that there’s an initiative to digitize documents that students might not otherwise ever be able to see.

 

Pedagogy, performance and the MOOC

Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) is a term that’s always struck me as a little tongue-in-cheek, aiming for hyperbole before we’ve even figured out the best ways to use them.  I also think that the term is useful because it’s fun to say – I’m taking a MOOC at the moment on strategies for information visualization, and simply being able to say “IVMOOC” on a daily basis has made the process that much more fun.  I suppose somewhere on the internet there’s always a flurry of discussion around things like digital pedagogy, but that flurry has been intersecting with my life quite a lot of late – most recently in Thomas Friedman’s piece today about the ways in which MOOCs produce celebrity professors.

I think that Friedman is right that MOOCs are more or less here to stay, and that while schools, professors and students are still figuring out how they can work best/better, the MOOC revolution has come.  Where I ran into trouble was this paragraph:

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach. No more. The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.

The somewhat flip suggestion that people with advanced degrees who teach in colleges haven’t been “certified to do what they do” seems a little straw-mannish to me.  At least on paper, many terminal degree programs, from DFAs to PHDs include some measure of pedagogical training – or at least the possibility of pedagogical training for those who think they might want to go into teaching.  In many places, though, this training is “hands on” – through positions as graders, TAs or course instructors.  We’re meant to learn on our feet gradually (at my institution, at least), first by figuring out how to fairly grade undergraduate essays, then in the relatively structured environment of the recitation section, and finally in classrooms of our own.  So the training is there.  Friedman is right, however, that many institutions don’t give the kind of directed pedagogical training that we get with regards to our research. (This isn’t true in all places, and I’d venture a guess that most PhD programs have some mechanism for pedagogical training, even if it’s not formally built into the curriculum).  Those of us who want more vis-a-vis pedagogy are  free to find it, but we mostly learn by watching and doing, and then go out and do, to be watched, by a whole new generation of students.

I’d also venture that what Friedman is talking about is as much about presentation as it is about good pedagogy.  Understanding how to tailor a syllabus to a class full of students with very different learning styles is, I think, a sign of a good teacher, but that probably doesn’t translate particularly well to the filmed MOOC environment.  On the other hand, people who are professional performers know that it can take an awful lot of work to learn how to project charisma, confidence and character on stage or film.  Whether we like it or not, students consuming MOOC material seem as likely to react positively to that as they do to the actual content of the course.  This isn’t to say that I think that all academics need acting lessons, but only that things are a little more complicated than what Friedman is calling for in that paragraph.

Dream course

Despite the stress, one of the perks of being on the market is that I get to spend entire days sitting around and thinking about dream classes – not dream students, or dream institutions – but the classes I’d teach if I had all the leeway and resources in the world.  It’s tremendous fun, and means that I occasionally stumble across brilliant and compelling work I’d not previously had a chance to explore.  Today, that was Jill Lepore’s piece in the JAH on biography and microhistory.  If you have institutional access, read it.  It’s great.

I came to this by way of thinking about how to design a class that centered the historical challenges of reconstructing historical actors’ experiences – and particularly those of people who aren’t likely to have left a strong mark on the historical record. (An aside: at the Against Recovery conference hosted by NYU a few weeks ago, a number of people called for scholars of race, slavery and the enslaved to move beyond the language of “recovery” for accessing the historical experiences of the enslaved, the freed, and free people of color – it was a fascinating conference all around, but I especially loved how we were pushed to think about how the very words we use to describe historical practice privilege some narratives over others)  My ideal version of this class combines Kathleen Conzen’s course at the U(C) on American immigration history, for which the final project asked us to use census records to track an immigrant family living in Chicago at some point in the past;  Martha Hodes’s class at NYU on “Reconstructing Lives” which focuses on the craft of writing a history centered on one particular person – and the craft of historical writing more broadly. (Her “Four Episodes in Re-Creating a Life” beautifully illustrates the challenges inherent in this), and Nicholas Wolfe ‘s, also at NYU, which uses the 1860 census as a common data set and teaches old-school social history statistical analysis.  I’m also captivated by the work that the folks at Zooniverse are doing in citizen science, though the New York Public did something similar in the humanities with its menu transcription project.

In an ideal world, I’d love to construct a class around a data set (say, for example, the Charleston donors I mapped yesterday) and ask each student to write a microhistory of one of them.  Some are easier than others, though the ones that are most prominent might have a larger collection of extent personal papers, which is great for research, but perhaps stressful for already taxed undergraduates.  We’d begin with tracking their donors through various censuses – probably using something like Ancestry.com – before branching out into other kinds of archival material.  Once the students had built up biographical sketches of their donors, we’d move on to the social/cultural work that microhistory can do so well – using these people to tell us more about the world of antebellum South Carolina? Reading cultures in the antebellum South? Relationships between social status and philanthropic giving?  I’d love to end the class – maybe the last third of the term – with a collaborative project, in which students come back together to write a history of their cohort, focusing on whatever has popped out for them as the important historical question that their donors’ lives help illuminate.  I imagine that several iterations of a class like this would produce an archive of its own – a series of biographies, micrhohistories and essays that describe the data more completely than I’d ever hope to do on my own, and which students would be able to cite as examples of their public work as they move on from my class.  In the most perfect of worlds, I’d be able to find a data set that is populated by people local to wherever I’m teaching, which would (hopefully) encourage students to get themselves to local archives, maybe speak to descendents, or even explore the lived environments of the people they’re researching.

As much as this would be a blast to teach (it’s archival!  it’s historical methodology! it’s local history!) I also worry about deploying students in service of what, ultimately, are research goals that could help me out quite a bit.  I like the idea of finding a population of people who share some attribute, beyond their physical location (though if the geographical confines were small enough, it might be interesting to also make this a class about community history) and I have this massive, 6,000+ data set of famine donors that I’m itching to work on, but I’m concerned about exploiting student labor in service of my own project.  On the other hand, some of the papers that have come out of the citizen science work cite everyone who helped out with the project online, and science labs do this kind of thing all the time, and give students first or second authorship on the papers that come out of the research.

Off to write a dream syllabus.

Breakfast cereal or CD-ROM?

“Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is ‘what is this?  Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?’ Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops.  Something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book.” – Douglas Adams.  The Salmon of Doubt, p. 155

I’m re-listening to the Salmon of Doubt for the first time in almost five years, and while the whole thing is brilliant this quote has really stuck with me.  In class, I’ve been struggling to convince students that form matters – that asking for polished paragraphs isn’t an arbitrary rule we’ve concocted to stymie their writing style – and that the form that a piece of writing ultimately takes should be as thoughtfully considered as the title, the citations or the content (one hopes).
This is also one of those times that what I’m doing in the classroom bleeds over into other areas of my professional life.  As I’m singing the praises of Strunk & White’s commentary on form, I’m forced to think about how the form of my own work (and particularly, this behemoth of a dissertation draft staring at me from across the room) could better conform to the aim and argument of the thing.  (There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about how, in order to write the most effective history of nineteenth-century philanthropy, and to produce a work that doesn’t fall into the historiographical pitfall of disaster/philanthropy particularism, I need to de-center the disaster that has been at the heart of this project since its inception, but I haven’t quite figured that out yet.)
I think the assignments for this class – which range from informal blog posts to a formal research proposal – provide great opportunities to talk about the power of form, and I’m gearing up this week for a long-ish discussion on what students are meant to get out of these blog posts that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of in-class writing, that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of more formal assignments.  (This week, we’re reading Typhoid Mary, and I’d forgotten how beautifully Leavitt lays out her reasons for organizing the book like she does.)
This is a long way of saying that all of this has forced me to think about what to do with this space, and of late I’ve been tending more and more to use it to think out teaching dilemmas, with moments of archival joy or frustration thrown in when the mood strikes.  For the next few months at least, I’m going to think of this as primarily a teaching blog, focusing on one junior historian’s quest to become a better teacher, and as a bit of a commonplace book for teaching-related things I come across.

Why major in history? -or- the thrill of the archive

Well, to be fair, that’s probably a more provocative title than needs be, but it was also the header on a packet distributed by my department this year.  All of the reasons were good ones – careers in journalism or policy making; development of writing, speaking and research skills and (though this wasn’t included in the departmental list) good tidbits for cocktail party conversations.  Recently though, I’ve noticed that the media – and particularly TV and movies – provide another compelling reason for undergraduates to major in history: the thrill of the archive.
From shows like Alcatraz to movies like National Treasure to books like People of the Book, it seems like every third thing I see or read has characters who spend their time leaving through boxes of old documents, discovering dog-eared diaries of long-dead molls (a recent episode of Castle) or thumbing through newspaper archives to discover the vital clue in an unsolved crime.  Most of this archival work happens in the context of detective work, but it (perhaps inadvertently) glamorizes the work that historians do in our archival comings and going.
Now, I don’t want to suggest to the students in my methods class that the chances are good that a stray or unexplained letter they might come across in an archive can plunge them into a world of glamourous spies and international intrigue, or put them on the trail of some long-lost treasure (an aside: I’ve been reading through Elizabeth Peters’s non-egyptology series featuring sassy historian Vicky Bliss, which, like The DaVinci Code, present the world of academia as one long car/foot chase with brief research interruptions) but I do think there’s something to be said for conveying the trill of archival research.  For the first time ever, I’m having students blog both responses and about progress towards their final paper, and I hope that once we get into working with actual sources that the students will begin to both express and pick up on each others’ excitement.  In the mean time, I’m playing around with the idea that research and detective work are the same kind of projects.  On the one hand, detective work is concerned with finding the answer to a problem, not necessarily understanding why the problem happened.  History is also interested in the ‘what’ questions, but (as a recent session on asking historical questions reminded) more with the hows and the whys.  Maybe, though, the work we do is more like fictional detective fiction.  In books, the plucky heroine or hero always wants to understand the criminals’ motivations – otherwise the books or shows might make for a dull read or watch.  Maybe there’s something to extending this comparison, and thinking about historical writing like Holmes explaining something to Watson.  In the meantime, though, I wonder if the quite regular appearance of archives in pop culture is another way into piquing student interest.  If the U(C) could say things like “want to be Indiana Jones?  Come study archaeology” then can’t we say things like “want to be Nicholas Cage/solve crime/find treasure?  Come study history!”

"Teaching with technology"

The NYU teaching workshop last week was all about teaching with technology, and while we talked a lot about the pros and cons of online teaching, we didn’t really move beyond blogs/blackboards as teaching tools.  I’m relatively new to teaching with online components – this semester is the first time I’m using a blog for student posts instead of blackboard – but I’ve been thinking about how to change some of my standard classroom exercises to include online components.

First, the blog.  I should say that I hate Blackboard, which is what both NYU and the U(C) used.  The message boards are clunky, threads are hard to follow, and the interface is so user unfriendly as to be non-intuitive.  This term, I’m trying a wordpress site for student responses, and so far its working pretty well.  I’m asking students to read each others’ posts before class, to link back in their own responses, and to tag each post with three or four key ideas.  I’ve also been pretty upfront with them about the pedagogical intentions of these tasks – this is all new ground for me, but so far I’m pleased with the results.  I think some of them are skeptical of something from “their” world – blogging – being used in academia, but they all seem pretty game to try.

Now, other social media.  This is a pretty unformed idea, but on Friday I was following the live tweet of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.  Now, as a murder mystery fan, I was thrilled with this project – especially how the tweeters (twitterers?) adapted the voice of Miss Marple.  I’ve seen similar approaches to history, like the now infamous (among historians, at least) Facebook news feed of the Hundred Years War.  I’m also a really big fan of this series of youtube videos explaining historial events/eras.  I know some teachers who have their students put together their own historical videos – which I think is a great way of engaging students who are interested in history, but who aren’t necessarily equipped or inclined to write research papers, but I was thinking about how these live tweeted/facebooked events might translate into a classroom setting as well.  One of the exercises I’ve been playing around with recently is something I borrowed from my exams at Trinity.  We were asked to argue for or against certain major events (the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Limerick) as turning points in Irish history.  I really like the idea of having students do something similar at the start and end of the class – identifying what they think are turning points in the history of the United States, the Atlantic World, or American immigration.  The idea is that at the start of the class, this exercise gives me a baseline for student knowledge, and by the end, they’ll be able to use the designation of turning points as a way to make arguments about their interpretation of American history.  I think it might be fun to combine that with the live tweet history/facebook news wall meme.  I’m all for encouraging students to get creative with their relationship with history, and I think it would be really interesting to see how students characterized historical actors in the parlance of the present.

“Teaching with technology”

The NYU teaching workshop last week was all about teaching with technology, and while we talked a lot about the pros and cons of online teaching, we didn’t really move beyond blogs/blackboards as teaching tools.  I’m relatively new to teaching with online components – this semester is the first time I’m using a blog for student posts instead of blackboard – but I’ve been thinking about how to change some of my standard classroom exercises to include online components.

First, the blog.  I should say that I hate Blackboard, which is what both NYU and the U(C) used.  The message boards are clunky, threads are hard to follow, and the interface is so user unfriendly as to be non-intuitive.  This term, I’m trying a wordpress site for student responses, and so far its working pretty well.  I’m asking students to read each others’ posts before class, to link back in their own responses, and to tag each post with three or four key ideas.  I’ve also been pretty upfront with them about the pedagogical intentions of these tasks – this is all new ground for me, but so far I’m pleased with the results.  I think some of them are skeptical of something from “their” world – blogging – being used in academia, but they all seem pretty game to try.

Now, other social media.  This is a pretty unformed idea, but on Friday I was following the live tweet of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.  Now, as a murder mystery fan, I was thrilled with this project – especially how the tweeters (twitterers?) adapted the voice of Miss Marple.  I’ve seen similar approaches to history, like the now infamous (among historians, at least) Facebook news feed of the Hundred Years War.  I’m also a really big fan of this series of youtube videos explaining historial events/eras.  I know some teachers who have their students put together their own historical videos – which I think is a great way of engaging students who are interested in history, but who aren’t necessarily equipped or inclined to write research papers, but I was thinking about how these live tweeted/facebooked events might translate into a classroom setting as well.  One of the exercises I’ve been playing around with recently is something I borrowed from my exams at Trinity.  We were asked to argue for or against certain major events (the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Limerick) as turning points in Irish history.  I really like the idea of having students do something similar at the start and end of the class – identifying what they think are turning points in the history of the United States, the Atlantic World, or American immigration.  The idea is that at the start of the class, this exercise gives me a baseline for student knowledge, and by the end, they’ll be able to use the designation of turning points as a way to make arguments about their interpretation of American history.  I think it might be fun to combine that with the live tweet history/facebook news wall meme.  I’m all for encouraging students to get creative with their relationship with history, and I think it would be really interesting to see how students characterized historical actors in the parlance of the present.

Bloody Bloody

I saw Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson twice last year, once at the Public Theater in NY and once on its Broadway run.  Since the first time I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach with it, because I think it could be a really valuable, and awesome window into early nineteenth-century American history.  Every time I go down this path I’m also reminded of a West Wing episode that begins with a character intoning “Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House had a big block of cheese,” and then I get sidetracked thinking about other ways to use popular culture in U.S. survey classes and never come back to BBAJ.


So, anyway,
The show was conceived by a theater company that likes to do shows that 

revisit history in contemporary terms by looking at new idioms as a fresh way to explore historical figures or canonical texts. I don’t think it’s cheap. There’s a real populist interest in theater.”  

 It was clear both times I saw the show (which changed slightly between its Public and Broadway runs) that the people involved were grounded in history.  There was quite funny (for an historian) joke about the need to footnote that was cut somewhere during the Broadway transition, and “The Corrupt Bargain” the cast sings

John Calhoun says, We need to find a scheme to keep the power in the hands of the chosen few.  John Quincy Adams says, If my dad was president, I should get to be president too. Henry Clay says, I’ll make you president if you make me Secretary of State … All you educated people, you can talk of liberty.  But do you really want the American people running their own country?  Ooh!”

The whole show felt a lot like schoolhouse rock for adults, which isn’t to say that the take on history isn’t one-dimensional and uncomplicated, but I can’t really begrudge a Broadway show that.

I’ve been thinking of putting together an assignment that asks students to listen through a recording of the show (or even better, watch a video of it, but I’m not sure that kind of thing is legally available) and write about how they think the people who wrote the show came to tell the story they did.  Another option would be to come up with another version of the Andrew Jackson story that the playwright could have told, or to pick another historical event and “pitch” a movie or musical idea based on it.  For my class this summer, I had an assignment that asked students to write a piece of historical fiction about a natural disaster, and the two people who picked that option did a really good job of footnoting and otherwise explaining the creative decisions they made.  I think that they both initially had trouble envisioning the form that these pieces were meant to take, so maybe starting with BBAJ as an example of how some people creatively re-tell history would be a good anchor for the assignment.