Last week, the Worcester Art Museum held a forum on the future of libraries. It is a lovely medium-sized urban art museum with a visionary new director who has been hiring, acquiring, and innovating ever since he arrived about a year ago. The Higgins Armory, a quirky private museum collection of arms and armor, is closing and WAM is getting a huge chunk of the Higgins collection. That will physically displace WAM’s existing research library somewhere else, and they decided to use the moment to rethink what their library is, or needs to be, or could be. So last Friday they gathered a group of thinkers and artists together to brainstorm ideas. There was a public panel in the afternoon; I was invited to be part of the morning roundtable, which was just for library and museum staff, and to talk for a few minutes about the future of the book and of libraries. Naturally, being a historian, I talked about their pasts mainly, but it was so energizing to have a different audience (curators, conservators, operations staff, architects…). The museum had a huge screen going on the wall behind us with Twitter, and a sketch artist capturing impressions and quick-study faces of the presenters, this being an art museum event after all. Thanks to my colleague Kris Waters from Philosophy across the hall, who organized and moderated the morning event and invited me to be part of it, I had a blast.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I really like WordPress. I use it for my own ePortfolio, for a variety of blogging endeavors both personal and professional, and as a research log for ongoing manuscript and article projects. People on my campus have heard me evangelize about it to no end, but apparently they’re not quite tired of me yet. There’s a cohort of us in the department who teach the majors methods course, and we’ve adopted WordPress as the default course journal/eportfolio platform, which means we’ve all needed basic facility with WP, at least enough to turn around and teach it to our students. I’ve been simply asserting that knowing WordPress is a useful skill for history majors; I think the case probably still needs to be made to the satisfaction of some of our more computer-phobic majors (and yes, they exist, even among the so-called “digital natives”). I’d love to hear, in the comments, what you feel you’ve learned from using WordPress, or from blogging in general (either reading or writing or both), or what the value might be of humanities majors knowing a bit about how to present a polished-looking internet presence*. All of the above seem rather self-evident, especially with our campus’s emerging emphasis on integrative learning and information literacy, but not everyone yet sees the light and I’m kind of stunned by how few students have tried WordPress on their own: almost none, actually.
Anyway, within the last couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to run two workshops, each one designed to get a full class of students signed on and familiar with the rudiments of setting up their own WordPress.com site for class use. By the second one, I had created a sample WordPress.com site and populated it with a couple of basic posts, a few pages, a header photo, and a list of basic tasks for the workshop. I thought I’d link to it here, in case it proves helpful for anyone else or as a model for how to run a similar workshop for beginners. Read the rest of this entry »
Starting the US history survey feels a little like poor Phil Connor’s life, since I teach it every single semester. Except I’m never quite getting it right, so I try it again a little differently each time. There’s a certain sameness to the first day of class, of course – meeting new students who all look kind of generic until I learn their names and personalities; handing out syllabi; going through basically the same opening lecture. This term I think the deja vu will be more pronounced since I am teaching two sections back to back in the same classroom. Here was what I did on Groundhog Day 1 this term. Hopefully it wasn’t like the day Phil dropped the toaster in the bathtub.
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The second half of the US survey, at least in our course catalog, goes “to the present.” How many of us actually get there in a typical semester? Be real. My last unit tends to emphasize a particular theme (this time: immigration and demographic change), but rarely gets into much detail about recent events.
I do have a final project in the class, though, that I think serves multiple purposes nicely at the end of the term. It pulls together concepts and skills in a culminating activity that I like better than a paper. Read the rest of this entry »
[cross-posted to Juvenile Instructor on 12/20/12]
I’ve just finished teaching my fall course on American religious pluralism—in fact, I was supposed to post about this yesterday but I’m still grading their final exams and submitting grades. It’s that time of year to think about what worked and what didn’t, and how I might do things differently next time. Read the rest of this entry »
I have previously written about the little SkillBuilder papers I use in my survey course. In addition to exams and quizzes, I also have students create two projects. One, a paper, falls about midterm (due next week) and the other, called “History in Our Time,” is due at the end of the term so I’ll write about it near the end of the semester.
The mid-term assignment has students select two primary sources from an edited volume, develop a question for historical investigation and use the two sources as evidence to build a historical argument in five pages. This provides some of the steps of a more sophisticated research process but removes others, like the task of finding primary sources (which I find that beginning students do very poorly with – they head straight to Wikipedia and Google and end up treating websites like primary sources, and the temptation to borrow text from the internet proves far too often irresistible). I own a stack of about twenty different books from the Bedford/St Martin’s “Brief History with Documents” series and place them all on two-hour course reserve in the library. If you’re not familiar with this series, most of them assemble a collection of thematically related documents along with an introductory essay by the volume’s editor, in a manageable slim package. I also use one whole class day for peer review of paper drafts a week ahead of the final due date; students without drafts in hand get no credit for attendance but get to go to the library to use that time to make progress on the assignment.
I’ve been using this Primary Source Project for a couple of years now, and here are some reasons it works very well at this point in my course: Read the rest of this entry »
I recently wrote about the “SkillBuilder” assignment I use in the survey class – which is a recurring, low-stakes 2-page primary source analysis exercise. Each time one is graded, I return it to the students with all their previous comments plus the new ones, so they can track progress throughout the semester.
I have found that I tend to repeat certain comments a lot, which suggests to me that these are particular bottlenecks or troublesome areas for beginning history students, at least in my classes. I don’t bring these up to ridicule students who make these errors, but in the spirit of sharing what introductory students find tough or unfamiliar, especially when they work with primary sources and try to draw historical interpretations from them.
Here are some of my most frequently-used comments:
This post is a preview of my Fall 2012 US history survey syllabus, starting with page 4, the guidelines for the “SkillBuilder” assignment (clicko on the image to download the page PDF).
Just what ARE the basic skills that a history survey is intended to teach? “Old school” history teaching tended to be designed around essential content, rather than essential skills. But new-style (Wineburg-style) historical teaching builds toward thinking historically, which is a learned skill (and hopefully, one that lasts long after the class). Many of my survey students are non-majors, and some of them are recent arrivals to the country, and for both of those groups – US history is new and a little daunting. So I start at the ground floor, so to speak.
Among the very most basic skills I want my students to gain are: distinguish primary and secondary sources; understand how to construct an evidence-based historical argument (i.e. be able to analyze/interrogate sources and EMPLOY evidence in some scholarly fashion); and care about sourcing (i.e. make a footnote). I have one recurring small, manageable assignment that has them do all three.
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I don’t like the beach in the summer, but I do read a lot. So these books aren’t “beach reads,” exactly, but they are what I’ve been devouring this summer. The stack of possibilities far exceeds the number of weeks in the summer, but sigh… isn’t that how it always is? Read the rest of this entry »
[Cross-posted to TUSH.0, the Teaching United States History blog, 7/19/12]
Following up on Ed’s recent post about balancing a book’s beauty with its gee-whiz visual aesthetics, I wanted to continue the conversation about survey textbooks and formats. I’ve also been thinking about Gail Collins’ article that appeared in the NY Review of Books (which I finally got around to reading using Pocket last week) about how Texas’s odd textbook politics affect the whole nation, and about the quirks of the US survey textbook market. In my historical methods class I’ve often used this clip to illustrate this for my students (from PBS Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly, April 2010).
On our campus, every professor makes her or his own decision about what book to use. We don’t adopt survey textbooks department-wide. Of course there are very good arguments for and against departmental adoption; that’s not really what this post is about (although I’d love to hear from people who have managed to reach departmental consensus on a survey text and why). But in the absence of being told what book to teach from, how does one go about choosing from the dizzying array of possibilities? Read the rest of this entry »