Teaching on the First Day of Class

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James Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, offers some good advice on how to engage students during the first day of class.  Any good teacher, he argues, will get four things accomplished on day one:

  1. Spark curiosity
  2. Cultivate community
  3. Get started with learning
  4. Set expectations

Lang develops these points in the context of different disciplinary courses.  Check out the piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is definitely worth your time.

A Gun Studies Syllabus

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The history website Bunk recently directed me to Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston‘s “Gun Studies” syllabus at Public Books.

Here is a taste:

WEEK 1

“To Keep and Bear”: An Introduction to Gun Culture in the United States

This week’s readings seek to demystify and question what is meant by “gun culture” and to introduce some popular databases by which gun ownership and gun violence have been tracked and studied in the contemporary US.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

WEEK 2

“A Well-Regulated Militia”: Legal Foundations of “Gun Rights”

The week’s readings address the nation’s unique legal foundations, particularly the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, in which a right to “have and bear arms” was articulated, while exploring some of the transitions and exclusionary frames through which “Second Amendment Rights” have taken shape over time.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

WEEK 3

“To Secure These Freedoms”: Colonization, Slave Patrols, and Early Police Forces

How has firearm ownership and use been protected—or not—via the Second Amendment? Which populations have been excluded from the right to have and bear arms, and in the interest of which power structures?

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

Read the entire syllabus here.

Doug Winiarski on Teaching the Jerks

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Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

Doug Winiarski, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian and author of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England, teaches the jerks.

He explains at the Uncommon Sense: The Blog:

Most of these texts eventually found their way into my January 2019 WMQ essay, “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” But when the project was finished, I felt as if there was more to be said, more to be researched. My students agreed. At one point while working on “Seized by the Jerks,” I taught the Great Revival in a first-year seminar at the University of Richmond. I provided the class with excerpts from Youngs’s journal andedited transcriptions of important manuscript descriptions of the jerks; they pored over Early American Newspapers, Early American Imprints, the American Periodical Series, and other print sources looking for published accounts. The results were astonishing. Students uncovered dozens of new reports of the jerks, some dating from the years of the American Civil War. Over the course of the nineteenth century, no revival phenomena elicited more commentary—positive or (mostly) negative. Today, the strange convulsive fits are remembered as a curiosity, a backwater eddy in the main current of American Protestantism, the road not taken in the development of the southern Bible belt. But a century ago, the jerks and other bodily exercises dominated conversations about the Great Revival. 

If my students’ fascination with the jerks is any indication, historians of religion in early America might benefit from spending a little more time in this peculiar world of twitching bodies, signs and wonders, and continuing revelation. Focusing on the jerks reorients our understanding of the Great Revival away from older debates over the decline of Calvinism and toward what really mattered to its participants: the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in taking direct possession of lay men and women during the process of conversion. It’s an ideal laboratory for exploring popular religion, religious practice, and the history of the body. 

Recently, I’ve been working with digital humanities colleagues at the University of Richmond to create a digital sandbox for students and scholars. “History of the Jerks: Bodily Exercises and the Great Revival (1803–1967)” contains more than 200 tagged, searchable primary texts and images. The digital archive includes excerpts from published accounts of the jerks by familiar figures, such as Peter Cartwright and Barton W. Stone, alongside rare manuscript letters and journals, newspaper articles, sermons, medical treatises, and autobiographies. Visitors can explore the items chronologically or browse by author, religious denomination, genre, type of bodily exercise, state, or territory. The site features an introductory StoryMap based on “Seized by the Jerks,” an interactive map, seminar discussion questions, and a bibliography of secondary literature. 

Read the entire post here.

Are You Using the Mueller Report in the Classroom?


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Over at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss writes about how scholars and teachers are using the Mueller Report in classrooms across the country and across disciplines.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Daniel Lynch is a history and social sciences instructor at the private Marlborough School in California, for grades seven through 12. In an Advanced Placement U.S. History course he was teaching, Lynch said he created a lesson on the Mueller report on the day it was released publicly in April.

“Since there was very little time between the release and our class (about an hour),” he wrote in an email, “I decided to make the lesson a review of impeachment and historic impeachment controversies and then transition to the current controversy.”

First, he said, they reviewed the impeachment process and looked at impeachment controversies involving presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached; the other two were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate). Then students began to look for sources on the Internet about the release of the Mueller report and later drew Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the three presidents’ experiences with impeachment.

“We talked about bias and point-of-view of various news outlets and decided as a class to focus on the BBC’s live blogging about the report as the best source for our purposes,” he said. “For homework, students had already found and read an article from what they thought was a reputable source on obstruction of justice allegations against Trump based on information already in the public record. As a class, we listed the allegations already out there and added details coming out from the Mueller report.”

The students “loved” the lesson, he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Have you used the Mueller Report in your classroom?  Do you plan to use it this Fall?

 

Teaching as Preaching

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Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz reflects on the relationship between preaching and classroom teaching.  When I first read the title of Chris’s post I thought this was going to be a defense of lecturing, but it is so much more.

Here is a taste of Chris’s post:

I do think there’s something central to the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit, but even someone as Protestant as me needs to acknowledge that the sermon is still only one part of worship. Done well, preaching reinforces or highlights themes from other elements, whether liturgy, music, prayer, sacraments, offering, or anything else. Conversely, the worst sermons I’ve heard have always been disconnected from whatever precedes and follows them.

Likewise, I think teachers are most effective when they remember that their class occupies a mere handful of minutes in the middle of any student’s day. However powerful you think your teaching is, keep in mind that the people in your “pews” are thinking about what has already happened and what’s looming before them. They’re hungry for the food they’re about to eat at lunch; they’re nervous about the test they’re going to take in some other teacher’s class. They’re reflecting on some other “sermon” from some other branch of the curriculum — or a competing vision they heard from a parent, coach, or cable news host. Or they’re just tired from lack of sleep, brokenhearted by the ending of a relationship, or overjoyed how a job interview or audition went.

If not to be distractions from your teaching, your students’ lives must be connected to it somehow.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 47: Reacting to the Past

PodcastHere on the podcast, we love pedagogy. We’ve dedicated a number of episodes to the ways different historians and instructors are innovating in the classroom. Today we’re turning our attention to one such approach: Reacting to the Past. These large-scale role-playing games allow students to fully appreciate the context and contingency of history by simulating historical events. We are joined by Nicolas Proctor, one of the architects of the Reacting to the Past (@ReactingTTPast) methodology,

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

David I. Smith on Christian Teaching

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What role does spiritual formation play in teaching at Christian colleges?  Calvin College pedagogy expert David I. Smith discusses this topic in a recent interview at Faith & Leadership.  Here is a taste:

Q: So how do Christian beliefs and values and commitments shape one’s approach to teaching?

When I started teaching, I taught German, French and Russian in secular secondary schools. Early on, I was struck that the language textbooks I’d been given were pretty much based around consumerism. We spent a lot of time practicing dialogues in French and German where we were buying food in cafes and supermarkets and buying train tickets and theater tickets and going on vacation and talking about our vacation and talking about what clothes we bought.

I gradually thought, “Wait a minute. The picture I’m giving of why you learn other people’s languages is so you can buy stuff from them.”

Then I reflected on the biblical theme of hospitality to strangers. Leviticus 19 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), and then a few verses later, “Love the foreigner as yourself” (19:34). I thought, “If, as a Christian, I think we learn other people’s languages because of the call to love our neighbor and because most of our neighbors don’t speak English, then how would that reshape the examples that I choose, the pictures that I show, the dialogues that we practice, the way I shape a language curriculum?”

When you work at it from that end and you question the underlying values that shape the curriculum you’re delivering, it starts to be possible to come up with alternatives that other people find attractive.

Q: Doesn’t any good teacher think about these kinds of questions, about how they want to shape their students?

In a perfect world, yes. But a lot of things stymie that. Teachers are under enormous time pressure. It’s a very demanding task. They’re under increasing pressure to standardize and meet various external benchmarks and tests, and in the worst cases, it can become a massive exercise in checking boxes and keeping records.

It becomes an exercise in bureaucracy more than an exercise in teaching and learning. It’s like the professionalism of the profession has been downgraded, and teachers are treated as folks who should just make sure that all the bits get covered, and not as people who should be thinking deeply about what they’re doing.

The way we think [most] effectively about our deepest values and how they shape what we do is through engaging in constructive dialogue with colleagues.

It creates more space for self-critique when you can bounce it off colleagues, but in schools, we often end up just teaching in our classrooms and maybe see other people over lunchtime briefly. It’s difficult to carve out time and space for deep collaboration.

Read the entire interview here.

“And don’t forget your flashdrive”

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Do you have an on-campus interview coming up?  Most likely you will be required to teach a class.  History teaching guru Kevin Gannon, aka @thetattooedprof, offers some tips as you prepare your demonstration.

Here is a taste:

Plan to use more than one teaching method in your demonstration, just as you would in your own classroom practice. Straight lecture for 50 minutes might demonstrate your command of the material, but it’s not going to engage the students or search-committee members in the audience. Conversely, devoting the entire session to, say, group work without providing any scaffolding or context for the material might also produce suboptimal results — you might have an engaging, interactive style, but the substance won’t necessarily be there.

If you’re not sure how to navigate this question of balance, talk to the more-experienced practitioners in your department. Their experiences might help you clarify your own thoughts about the task in front of you.

Ideally, the search committee and/or a departmental representative will share enough information and suggestions to make your planning process relatively easy. If not, though, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. An email — with wording like “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach a sample class for your department. As I plan the session, I was wondering if I could get a little more information about …” — is a perfectly acceptable step to take.

The teaching demo may be a different scenario from what you were prepared to encounter on the job market, but it’s an opportunity to make an extended and thorough case for your potential value to a department. If you’re in the fortunate position to be planning a teaching talk for a campus interview, I wish you the best of luck.

Read the entire piece here.  And check out our interview with Gannon in Episode 26 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Do Students Give Better Evaluations to Faculty Who Grade More Generously?

College-classroom

Nancy Bunge thinks so:

Research on student evaluations of teaching suggests that the gender and age bias most colleges pride themselves on avoiding contaminate those evaluations, along with other nonacademic factors — like “sexiness.” Since many institutions of higher learning use these surveys to determine whether faculty keep their jobs or get raises, their unreliability matters. But the impact these student reviews have on the quality of education raises even more troubling issues: Students give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.

Instructors who figure this out could give higher grades to secure tenure or a bigger raise. Grade inflation offers persuasive evidence that some faculty members have succumbed to this temptation. In other words, standards decline, so students learn less as the cost of their education rises. Ironically, this happens because students are now considered customers, so colleges want to keep them happy.

Read the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

The Risk of Taking Risks in the Classroom

College-classroom

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman asks “will trying new teaching techniques tank my evaluations?”  I have asked this question many times during my 20+ years in higher education.  In the following excerpt, Lederman reflects on a study suggesting that teachers who lecture get better student evaluations:

The survey asked instructors to assess their teaching styles on a continuum from “highly alternative” to “highly traditional,” and the vast majority called themselves “mostly traditional with some alternative features.” Respondents said they lectured between 40 and 80 percent of the time, using a range of other techniques for the rest — small-group and whole-class discussions, sometimes involving clickers, in-class online quizzes, etc.

Instructors were then asked whether the use of more interactive teaching techniques had affected their teaching evaluations, and the vast majority said they did — mostly positively. Forty-eight percent believed their student evaluations had improved, about a third (32 percent) said there had been no effect and one in five (20 percent) felt that their evaluations had fallen.

Digging deeper into the data, the researchers found that the instructors most likely to report lower evaluations (and to generate direct student complaints) were those who lectured the least. Those who reported lecturing between 20 percent and 60 percent of the time were likeliest to report an increase in positive student evaluations, while those who lectured less than 20 percent of the time were likelier than others to see their evaluations worsen.

Asked why they thought that was the case, instructors who saw their evaluations worsen were mostly likely to say they believed students “do not feel like they are being ‘taught’ when lecturing decreases,” while others said that they did not think students want to work actively during class time. “They want to be spoon-fed, not think,” one respondent said.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

Erin Bartram on Leaving Her Students

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If you heard our interview with Erin Bartram on Episode 37 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast you will, at times, hear the pain in her voice as she comes to the end of her career as an academic historian.  Many of us know Bartram as a gifted historian and teacher who announced she was leaving academia in her powerful essay “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind.” If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so.  Then go to the podcast and listen to our conversation about it.

In her recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bartram reflects on leaving her students behind.  Here is a taste:

 

If you decide to tell students that you’re leaving academe, you will face the inevitable questions about why, and what you plan to do next. You may have made your decision to leave months earlier, but explaining it now — even if you think you have come to terms with it — can be stressful. Your students’ reactions may well bring up emotions you thought you’d dealt with.

This is also a situation where bureaucratic slip-ups — endemic in large institutions especially — can make things worse. Say, for example, that the registrar or the bookstore uses software that automatically populates the next semester’s courses with the names of the faculty members who most recently taught them. A departing scholar can find herself forced to explain to eager students that no, she won’t be teaching here next semester, and no, she isn’t going to be a professor anymore, and yes, she wishes things were different.

When you tell them you’re leaving, students may tell you how they’d hoped to take such-and-such course with you next year, or how they always thought you’d advise their honors thesis when they were seniors. They may cry and get upset and ask you to stay or at least not give up on the career itself.

And when any of these students persist in asking why you can’t just keep trying, it’s OK to be blunt and tell them exactly why. You don’t need to give a multipoint analysis of the dismal faculty-job market, but you shouldn’t feel that you have to downplay what has happened to you.

It can be hard to bear the emotional weight of their reactions along with your own. Think about that as you approach how and when to tell your students about your departure.

Read the entire piece here.

What strikes me most about this piece is the fact that we are losing someone with a passion for teaching history and a love for students.   Believe it or not, you don’t often find this kind of passion in academia.

Rethinking the History Survey Course

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Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

Who is Teaching Your Introductory History Courses?

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I have a month or two left as chair of the Messiah College History Department. At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year I will have completed 2 four-year terms.  I am sure I will reflect more fully on this experience as my tenure winds down in May and June.  But right now I have been giving some thought to where my teaching duties will lie over the course of the next decade now that I am giving up administrative responsibilities in the department.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of articles about senior professors teaching introductory courses.  I have always believed this to be a good thing.  In fact, the 100-level U.S. survey class (to 1865) has always been my favorite course to teach.  While I was chair I taught it once a year.  In my post-chair life it looks like I may be teaching it in both semesters.

I thought about all of this when I saw Becky Supiano’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses.  Here’s Why.”

A taste:

Introductory courses can open doors for students, helping them not only discover a love for a subject area that can blossom into their major but also feel more connected to their campus.

But on many campuses, teaching introductory courses typically falls to less-experienced instructors. Sometimes the task is assigned to instructors whose very connection to the college is tenuous. A growing body of evidence suggests that this tension could have negative consequences for students.

Two papers presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday support this idea.

The first finds that community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.

The second finds negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.

The community-college paper, “Role of Adjunct Faculty in Realizing the Postsecondary Dreams of Historically Marginalized Student Populations,” is not the first to examine the link between part-time instructors and student outcomes, said Florence Xiaotao Ran, its lead author. Several previous papers have found a negative relationship between contingent faculty members and student outcomes.

 

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching the American Revolution

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Over at The Panorama, historians Andrew Shankman and Eliga Gould write about how they teach the American Revolution.

Here is a taste of Shankman’s piece:

I try to show them that the revolution was part of a conversation that began in the early modern period about how to better the conditions of each of us and strengthen the obligations we owe to one another, the duties and responsibilities we have for each other. By showing how the revolution fits within that conversation it retains its grandeur while, hopefully, not imparting a sense of the exceptional and the particular: I hope my students will see the residents of British North America engaged in a charged often acrimonious and crucial series of conversations that were larger than any one group and more significant than the creation of any single nation.

And here is Gould:

Another area where my teaching and scholarship overlap is the message that I hope students in the course will take away. As every teacher knows, one of the central challenges with any survey is negotiating the gap between how professional historians understand historical events and how those events are perceived in the media and popular press. In courses on the American Revolution, as Serena Zabin writes in last October’s joint issue, that gap has often manifested itself as a tension between “the popular narrative of democracy’s heroic birth and the scholarly account of an imperialist and racist nation’s origins” (WMQ, 755). Of late, though, I worry that even stories of democracy’s heroic birth are not as popular or familiar as we might like to think. Three years ago, in a YouTube video that has scored more than 2 million views, PoliTech, a student-run group at Texas Tech, quizzed fellow students on the basic facts of American history: Who won the Civil War?  Who did we gain our independence from? And when? With one or two exceptions, the answers were variations of “I have no idea” or “I couldn’t tell you.”

Slavery, a Carrot Clarinet, Paris Hilton, and George Washington

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This is how the Louisiana State University student newspaper described some of the things undergraduates might encounter in historian Andrew Burstein‘s classes.  Here is a taste of Aurianna Cordero’s piece:

Imagine walking into the first day of class and, on the projector, is a photo of a man making an instrument out of a carrot. Followed by that image is one of the most intellectually inspiring lectures a student may ever encounter. In only an hour and a half class, students learned how Christopher Columbus rationalized slavery, and how to make a carrot clarinet. This class is History 2055 with University professor Andrew Burstein.

In a world filled with stereotypes and common misconceptions, Burstein keeps his lectures informative and open to discussion. It isn’t uncommon to find a picture of Paris Hilton next to one of George Washington in Burstein’s class, especially when he’s discussing how important understanding the perspectives of people throughout history.

“We recognize the positive contributions of traditional historical actors that we admire,” Burstein said. “People tend to remember feel-good history and rationalize the less admirable aspects of the past, which is why I like history. It enables me to reintroduce a lost life.”

Read the rest here.  By the way, my favorite Burstein book is The Inner Jefferson.

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

“The Mechanics of Class Participation”

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Yesterday we did a post on Lendol Calder’s use of “Point Paragraphs” in the history classroom.  Calder’s piece was a part of larger Perspectives on History forum titled “How to Get Students to Think, Talk, Share, Collaborate, Learn and Come Back for More.” Here is a taste of Elizabeth Lehfeldt‘s Introduction to the forum:

We’ve all been there. Our syllabus specifies that a percentage of the course grade will be based on participation. We’ve presented riveting material or assigned a provocative reading. We show up for class, stand at the front of the room, and begin lobbing questions at the students. And the silence is deafening.

Our intentions are good, but something is missing in the execution. The four pieces offered here offer strategies and ideas for lifting our class discussions out of the doldrums and making them meaningful and efficacious for students.

Check out the forum here.

 

Is Teaching a Gift?

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I am reading Richard Wightman Fox’s excellent biography of Reinhold Niebuhr.  During the 1920s, as a young man in his early thirties, Niebuhr was the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit.  Fox describes his pulpit presence:

Niebuhr’s preaching was the chief magnet that drew people to Bethel.  By the early 1920s he was an accomplished pulpit performer, the educated Protestant’s Billy Sunday.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: one watched him lunge, gyrate, jerk, bend, and quake.  He whirled his arms, rubbed his ears and his balding scalp, stretched his hawkish nose forward.  His whole lanky frame in motion.  One did not merely listen to Niebuhr: to catch the stream-of-consciousness flow of analysis and anecdote–sometime shouted, sometime whispered, but always at the velocity of an undammed flood–demanded a concentration that few could sustain during an entire sermon.  Adelaide Buettner, who joined Bethel in 1924, remembers the dizzying experience of hearing Niebuhr for the first time.  She understood only part of what he said, and ran home to look up in her dictionary some of the words he had used.  Like the rest of the congregation she was firmly hooked by Niebuhr’s charisma; in the pulpit he was fired, inspired with the Word, yet thoroughly rational, “intellectual.”  To here and her young adult friends he was “a hero,” a “father figure,” although he was only in his thirties himself.

Niebuhr’s preaching was by no means just an act.  It was a well-crafted blend of drama and arrangement, a constant dialectic of comfort and challenge….

Niebuhr was a natural.  He had charisma.  His ability to communicate this way was a gift.  But if I read historian Erin Bartram correctly, his gift did not necessarily make him a good teacher.  (I don’t know what his classes were like at Union Theological Seminary.  I am still reading!).

In a very thoughtful piece at the Teaching United States History blog, Bartram reminds us that good teaching takes work–hard work.  It is not a gift.  I read this piece a few weeks ago, but it came back to mind today as I encountered Fox on Niebuhr.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Anyone regularly reading this site already knows how dangerous it is to think of good teaching as a gift. Often those recognized as having a gift for teaching are those who embody charisma in particular ways that our culture recognizes. They hold the attention of an audience, they have a recognizable scholarly pedigree, or they look like a Google Images search for “historian,” and so are afforded some measure of respect, attention, and even deference before they open their mouths.

All those who teach history know that it isn’t a gift, including those who are seen as naturals at it by their colleagues and students. But at this time of year, when evaluations have rolled in and we’re thinking ahead to next semester, it can be tough to remember that.

Student expectations, informed by these broader cultural ideas of what a teacher should be, often conflict with what we try to do in the classroom. We explain what we’re doing, and why, but when that doesn’t work with some students – or worse, with an entire class – we fear that it’s not the methods, it’s us. We just don’t have the gift, and there’s no fixing that.

But teaching isn’t a gift, and good pedagogy – including confronting, absorbing, and managing student expectations – is a set of skills we accumulate, experiment with, and refine. This coming semester, as I teach a historical methods class for the first time, I’m going to try to remember that my struggles don’t mean I’m lacking some gift, they just mean I’m facing a new challenge in my craft.

Just as I try to remember that my teaching is a skill, not a gift, I must also remember that my teaching is labor, not a gift.

Read the entire piece here.  This is definitely something that I tried to get through to my “Teaching History” class last Fall.

More Thoughts on the U.S. Survey

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On Saturday we ran a post titled “How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: ‘Reimagine Everything.” One of the comments on that post came from veteran U.S. survey instructor John Haas, Professor of History at Bethel College in Indiana.  It was good that I decided to publish it here as a separate post.  Enjoy:

I recall a much-heralded teacher of undergraduates–his 8 AM survey courses were famous for filling up on the first day of enrollment–commenting when he received the university’s best teacher award, “I teach an ancient discipline in an ancient way. History isn’t broken, and there’s no need to fix it.”

If we’re just speculating, I would mention several challenges or mistakes that afflict the history survey today:

1. Specific to the survey, the American past is far more terra incognita for today’s students than it has perhaps ever been. The average freshman or sophomore comes to the survey with very little background knowledge–When was the Revolution? Who were we fighting? Why? Who won? and etc. are all mystifying questions in many cases–and if in our lecturing we’re assuming basic historical or geographical knowledge of the kind high school graduates once possessed, it will make our lectures incomprehensible. One has to work very hard, actually, to assume nothing. Everything has to be explained. This also goes for current events. If we rely on analogies drawn between the past we are explaining and a present we assume they are familiar with, our explanation will fail. Not long ago I was lecturing on the Revolution and mentioned some ways in which the Americans shared the advantages that the Taliban enjoy, and the looks on their faces indicated perplexity, so I asked, “Who can tell me who the Taliban are?” No one knew. (US foreign policy over the past 50 years or so is a total blank for almost all of them.) I mentioned Jerry Falwell the other day and no one–this at an evangelical college–knew who he was (Sr. or Jr.) The mental world of our students is essentially unpopulated.

2. Similarly, I’ve found that I really need to watch my vocabulary. It is not just technical terms that lose them. Words I would have never thought the least bit arcane are unknown to them. Once I used the term “affluent,” and someone asked what that was. I put it to the class. No one knew. I had a student who was perplexed by the word “nevertheless.” I’ve come to realize that unless I watch my analogies, references, allusions and vocabulary very carefully, it is quite easy to fill my lectures with so many unfamiliar or unknown elements that the students quickly become mentally exhausted. Of course, that they are loathe to indicate when they don’t know something you are assuming makes it all the more difficult, because it means I have to guess.

3. The use of PowerPoint has many downsides especially, I think, in history. This depends, of course, on how the PowerPoint is used and how one teaches. There are many ways in which it’s great. But in other places, it’s quite destructive. If, eg, one throws up a slide with 5 or 10 bullet points, one has undermined the element of suspense that makes story-telling a compelling experience. Instead of a drama or mystery to be unfolded orally in real time, the past has become a list of sentences that the student needs to quickly copy down before the slide disappears and the next one arrives. Even with something as simple as a map, the very evident superiority of the PowerPoint slide is undermined by the disappearance of the human dimension: Watching someone draw a map (or try to) is more compelling and interesting, as a process, than someone hitting a button and putting up a slide (even though the slide is a much better representation). Much of the human dimension of teaching (the quirks and foibles) have been erased from the classroom by technology, and the space has become efficient, accurate, and sterile. After reading Patrick Allitt’s book a few years ago, I began experimenting with devoting one class a week to still pictures and discussing them (as he describes doing in his book). I thought it was a lot of fun, and assumed students would like it too (“Hey, look! Pictures!”) But there is a downside here, too, as it removes opportunities for students to employ their imaginations (Andre Gregory once explained that that’s why the movie “My Dinner with Andre” is so entertaining–it lures the watcher into activating their imaginations).

4. There are no doubt other things affecting the course that are out of our control. I have found in the last couple years that interest in US foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East (two subjects I often teach courses on) had really dried up. During the Bush II years students were cramming into these classes, but over the Obama years interest declined and now it’s at the lowest ebb I’ve seen in my teaching career (we’ve actually ceased offering the course on the Middle East and North Africa). The way the course were taught remained essentially the same, and they were very well-received, so I can only assume that external factors have changed: We are no longer as a nation pursuing the remaking of the Middle East as a national project; there are wars aplenty, but there’s no effort to enlist the support or even interest of the population; the wars for their part have no narrative arc leading to successful or satisfying conclusions; and etc. I wonder, in addition, if this sense that the plot has been lost, or that there’s not a lot to feel good about, or similar affective and emotional dimensions to the topic, hasn’t impacted the study of US history as a whole? The history of a nation that elects a Barack Obama, eg, is more attractive as a subject to investigate than one that terminates in Donald Trump (to many students that is).