Tag Archives: Student Work

I Just Want to Move Some Shit

One of the ways I clear my head on the weekends is by doing trail maintenance for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in the Prince William Forest Park. There is nothing like getting down and dirty with a chainsaw, a Pulaski, or a McLeod, to help you forget for a minute that you have so many and various job responsibilities. And, once all the committees, compliance reports, and other minutiae of higher education vaporize, I find that I get some of my best thinking done about my teaching when I’m out on the trail digging, felling, and fighting erosion.

Last month I was fortunate enough to have a crew of Marines come out to the trail I oversee to help me out. The four men and four women of that crew got more done in four hours on the trail than I could have in three weekends of work. About an hour into our morning together one of them came up to me and said, “Sir, you need to understand. I just want to move some shit.” I pointed him at a large tree stump that was in our way, and half an hour later it was history.

CulvertThis weekend I was up in Shenandoah National Park moving some very large rocks to help build a culvert out of a spring along the Appalachian Trail. While I was working, I got to thinking about that Marine’s desire to just move some shit, and it occurred to me that one of the things we don’t do very well in post-secondary history education is give our students the opportunity to do that—just move some shit. They spend far too much time sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, circled up with others in the class discussing a primary source, or reading, analyzing, and writing about sources we give them and not enough time just moving shit.

Don’t get me wrong. While I’m on the record in dozens of places opposing the continued reliance on the lecture/listen format, I’m not entirely opposed to some lecturing, so long as it is not the be all of our courses. And there is a lot to be said for discussions, learning to analyze texts, and the other things we do. But I think it’s also important that we give our students opportunities to move some shit as part of their history education.

By that, I mean, we need to give them space to create things beyond the many papers they’ll write for us, to make things such as exhibits, websites, public displays around campus, 2nd grade curricular materials, digital stories, or any number of other tangible things that historians can do beyond analyzing sources and writing about them. Employers value these sorts of tangible outputs as demonstrations of our students’ ability to get things done. Students value them because through making and creating they learn in ways that let them apply the traditional skills and knowledge we give them to real world contexts that look and feel like what they’ll be doing after they graduate.

One of the best examples I have of the value of giving students the freedom to be historians is a photographic exhibit my former student Natasha Müller created in 2009 for an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. My only contribution to the project was pointing her at the collection of photographs at the Library of Congress and then acting as her mentor along the way. Everything else was her effort—from coming up with a concept for the exhibition, to selecting the photographs, to contacting the photographer, to getting space on campus, to launching the opening.

In a world where the vast majority of American adults think that college is not worth what it costs, giving our students the opportunity to move some shit is one way we can contribute to changing that perception. The more those outside our campus can see tangible outputs from our students as opposed to being told that we’ve done an excellent job of teaching them critical thinking skills, the better off our students (and we) will be.

Consider Yourself Warned

On August 25, 2008, I wrote a post here warning readers that students in my new class, Lying About the Past, would be creating a historical hoax and turning it loose online. Little did I know then that the hoax they would create — Edward Owens, the Last American Pirate — would turn into a phenomenon in the blogosphere, attracting notice around the world (and even from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder). Who knew, for instance, that Edward Owens would end up being one of the Top 10 Wikipedia hoaxes?

When the class was over and the hoax brought to an end, the post I wrote here generated one of the most active debates I’ve had with readers. [Post 1, Post 2]

Well, consider yourself warned again.

In the spring 2012 semester a group of history students here at George Mason University will once again be creating a historical hoax and turning it loose to see what happens. Because the last cohort did a pirate hoax, you can count on the fact that this time around pirates are on the list of things they cannot use as the subject of their hoax.  Others include anything to do with medicine or health, anything that might cause someone to send us money (wire fraud), anything that violates any other criminal codes or the university’s responsible use of computing policy (no gambling, no porn, no copyright violations), and nothing to do with the American Civil War. This last exclusion is because too many people know too much about the Civil War and so fooling them would be almost impossible.

What will the students choose? At this point it’s impossible to know, but whatever they select, let’s hope it’s fun.

Edward Owens and Wikipedia

If you’ve spent any time on the Internet in the past 10 years or so — and who hasn’t — you’ll know that one of the most popular memes is the Top 10 list. I don’t think I’ve ever perpetuated on before, but when Edward Owens, the fictional pirate created by the students in my course Lying About the Past, made the Top 10 list of Wikipedia hoaxes published in PCWorld back in January, I just couldn’t resist posting a notice here. Because that article appeared in January and I’m only just now noticing it, that gives you a sense of how immersed I’ve been trying to finish up a book that is due to the publisher in a few days. That I’m posting this now is a sign I’m looking for distractions.

For those who care, I will be teaching Lying About the Past again in the spring 2012 semester. So, as I wrote in August 2008, you have been warned.

When Student Projects Take Wing

Way back in the fall 2006 semester, I taught my first version of my grad seminar Teaching History in the Digital Age. A key component of that course is that students must either create a digital learning tool/application/opportunity for students and/or teachers to use or, if they don’t yet have the digital skills, must create the wireframe of what they would have created if they did have the skills. This culminating exercise has proven to be one of the best parts of the course and in the two iterations of the course thus far, my grad students have produced some very interesting results.

Among the most successful is a timeline creator website built by our CHNM webmaster and history PhD student Ammon Shepherd. Using an open source timeline creator from MIT’s Simile project Ammon put together a simple, yet carefully thought out website where students create their own timeline of the most important events of the Second World War. The target audience was high school students and as of last week more than 750 timelines had been created by students around the country (and I assume, around the world). If use is a measure of success, then I’d say this class project has been a true success.