Tona Hangen

Notes: Roundtable on the Methods Course

So, this is partially a plug for one of the best little under-attended regional history conferences out there, the New England Historical Association. What? You don’t know of it? It’s affordable (nay, even cheap) to join. It loves new faces and it’s very grad-student-friendly, giving out an annual grad student paper prize. It’s easy to get on the program. It meets twice a year somewhere in New England (this coming October, at Emmanuel College in Boston). It doesn’t just do history OF New England; it’s a regional of the AHA so it does all kinds of history from all periods (it also awards an annual book prize). It is an eclectic mix of museum/public history and academic historians.

Interested? Website here. I was a member even before coming to Worcester State & now that I’m here, since our department has a long tradition of involvement in the organization’s leadership I have been helping out here and there, including building its new website and running its Twitter feed. Our university hosted the Spring 2011 conference last month so I helped propose a roundtable on teaching the methods course – NEHA had a similar panel a couple of years ago on teaching the survey which was really helpful to me when I was newly hired, and I thought we could generate some good conversation around pedagogy of the methods course.

It turned out to be a panel with very small attendance, for whatever reason (something upstairs was a big draw, I guess), so we literally sat around one table with only the participants and a few audience members. That made it an opportunity for informal discussion more than formal presentation. I really benefited from the greater experience of my colleagues on the panel, who are much farther along the path than we are – our new methods course is still in the pilot/experimentation stage and we haven’t quite settled on or figured out what it needs to be to meet our students’ needs yet.

The other participants were: Brad Austin, history professor and secondary education coordinator at Salem State, also an investigator on various TAH grants who has served on the AHA’s Teaching Prize Committee; Nicholas Aieta, history professor with past experience in HS teaching, from Westfield State; and Christine Baron, Director of the Center for History Education at Boston University. Collectively our courses included my “Historian’s Craft” which is more about research methods and overview/intro to the profession of history broadly defined, Nick’s “The History Teacher” and “Methods of Teaching History,” Brad’s “Techniques and Strategies for Teaching History and the Social Sciences” and “Historiography,” and Christine’s award-winning collaborative public history programming for the Old North Church in Boston which includes K-12 educators, public historians, and academic History and Education departments.

Some of my takeaway notes/ thoughts:

(Austin) “The operative verb in history should not be ‘memorize’.”

(Baron) If you ask, what is History? Students will say: dates & names. Teachers will say: the truest version of the past. Practitioners/ Historians will say: a problem-solving discipline. How do we move students and future teachers to thinking like practitioners? Teachers think this way because they know they are in a vast river and they are just trying to navigate a wide river in a small boat. Students are not even aware they’re in a boat.

(Baron) Look for ways to get students involved in local history, immersive experiences like archival research or conducting oral histories or documenting their immediate surroundings. This builds community engagement; that kind of partnership building takes time and trust but will be a key skillset for our grads.

Recommended readings:
Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction
Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
Lindamen and Ward, History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray US History
Mandell and Malone, Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction
Pink, A Whole New Mind
Ward, History in the Making
Teaching with Historic Places (National Register of Historic Places)

Assignment Ideas:

Source Assignment – provide a collection of sources on a particular event (in this case, Austin uses Little Rock 1957) with a workshop on source analysis using a chart rubric. Also some visual mapping/ concept mapping. Sources: accounts of this event in a survey textbook, memoir, diplomatic history, biography, documentary film, and a Skype oral interview with someone who was an Arkansas high schooler in this era. This happens early in the term so it can be used as a touchstone throughout the rest of the course.

Story Writing Exercise: write a 50-word mini-saga of something you know well. Goal: teach concision, selectivity, narrative strategy on a micro-scale.

“Speed Dating” lesson plan descriptions. Have students describe their lesson plans to each other in short speed-dating-like rounds of 5 minutes or less. Gives them practice telling what the main idea & tools are, several times in a row, to be able to articulate what they plan to accomplish & how. Also works for a research thesis as part of a peer-review/writing workshop.

Regarding the assignment to assemble a portfolio, or ePortfolio: Have a clear sense of purpose. It will need to be built differently depending on whether it will be used for students going out on the job market, internally within the department just for majors, as a program or university assessment tool, etc.

Teaching with Places: use your campus’s buildings – each was built at a particular time & you are likely to have records of their construction, use. Main point: to reinforce that history happened HERE, not “THERE” in set-aside “Historic Places.” Everywhere is a historic site.

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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