Tag Archives: undergraduate teaching

Maps, Walls, and Digital Public History

This coming fall I’m teaching a new course: History of the Appalachian Trail. As envisioned, the class is going to be many things at once (which is likely a structural problem). It is a conventional history of one of America’s longest national parks, it is a chance to introduce students to the basics of digital public history, and it is a chance for me to connect my avocation (long distance backpacking) with my vocation (educator, historian).

Today I want to focus on just one part of the course — the part that in some ways I’m the most excited about. Across the hallway from my office is a long, blank, pale blue wall. When I say long, I mean 82 feet long with not one thing on it except a thermostat sort of a small plastic box. This blank wall has bugged me for years, because we’re a university for goodness sake, and such a wall should be covered with student art, or history student research posters, or SOMEthing besides pale blue paint. Now I’m glad no one ever thought to do any of that stuff with what I now think of as “my wall,” because it is going to become the canvas for my students.

For their final projects, students in the class are going to create an Omeka exhibit for the website I’m developing (no formatting yet, so don’t judge) on the history of the Appalachian Trail. But they are also going to paint the Trail onto my wall. And yes, before you ask, I have permission from the powers that be in facilities to do that. Given that the wall is 82 feet long and the Trail is 2,190 miles long (this year), that works out to a scale of around 27 miles: 1 foot. That seems like a reasonable scale to me. Right now. Today.

Once we get the Trail painted on my wall, students will then attach connection points to their own work — images of people, or places, or texts, or whatever, along with QR codes that let passersby dive into the online exhibits themselves.

That’s the plan anyway. From a technological standpoint, it’s not a complicated plan. From a pedagogical standpoint, I have a fair amount of work to do this summer to make sure mys students have all the tools they need to succeed.

And yes, we’ll be doing some hiking…


Back to the Future

It’s all but impossible for me to believe it, but 10 years ago this week I wrote my first post in this blog. And, oddly enough, this post is #500. If I were a numerologist I’m sure I could make something of that symmetry.

Way back in 2005, that first post was about my attempts to teach students to be more critical consumers of historical content they found online–and in 2015, I’m still at it. While I’ve tried many different approaches to teaching this skill and habit of mind to my students (some controversial, some not), the biggest change between 2005 and 2015 is that in 2005 I asked them to review historical websites using a rubric of my own devising, in 2015 I ask them to build websites using a rubric of their own devising.

Between then and now, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned as a history teacher is that students learn best by doing digital history rather than by learning about digital history. I should have known this, of course, because my first true digital history courses were “doing” courses — the first was a seminar at Grinnell College in which my students built a database of historical sources and the second, at Texas Tech, was a seminar in which my students took one of my colleagues online (creating his website for him). And along the way, I’ve taught lots of other digital history courses that involve really doing digital history.

What’s different now–really since 2007–is that I’ve found ways to combine the creation of digital history (which involves a lot of teaching of technical skills) with careful consideration of the underlying principles of digital information and the underlying principles of historical thinking. Once I found that sweet spot, my students’ results improved substantially.

The tools available to do this work are so much more accessible and user friendly than they were in 2005, and I suspect that by 2025 they will be even more conducive to the kinds of deeper learning about the past that I’m after.

When I started writing this blog, Google and YouTube were still very new, and Twitter, data phones, and 3D printing didn’t exist, at least in the commercial space. No one, or almost no one, was talking about “big data” or data visualizations in the humanities. Zotero and Omeka, which I use all the time in my teaching, weren’t available, and the big thing everyone seemed to want to talk about was how to use Facebook to teach about the past (not so much a topic these days).

I’ll also be very interested to see what new challenges the tech innovators of the world can throw at us. No matter what they throw, however, I strongly suspect that in 2025 we’ll still be talking about how to teach students to be critical consumers of online historical content.

Does Playfulness Crowd Out Rigor?

If you’ve been a reader of what I’ve been writing about teaching and learning the past several years you’ll know that I’ve been arguing that historians should make room for a more playful approach to the past in the undergraduate history curriculum.

I’ve never argued that playful teaching and learning should be the only way we pursue our goals in history education. But I do think we need to lighten up a bit and make room for courses that are not so dependent on the classic style of history teaching: the lecture or seminar that has as its primary goal the writing of one or several analytical essays and, perhaps, a final presentation to the class, with a mid-term and a final examination.

The fact is that the vast majority of undergraduate history courses taught in the United States are taught in pretty similar ways.  Students have every right to be bored with the sameness of it all and, I suspect, this sameness is one of many causes of the continuing slide in history majors around the country.

Way back in 2008, I started to experiment with more playful approaches to teaching and learning. My forays into teaching students to create online historical hoaxes generated more than their fair share of commentary and controversy around the world. That course, and my more playful version of the historical methods seminar [syllabus], also generated some blow back within my own department.

When I came up for promotion to full professor in 2012-13, my departmental tenure and promotion committee (which ultimately voted against my promotion), wrote the following in their letter to the dean:

Nevertheless, members of the department are concerned that the playfulness of Kelly’s courses can crowd out rigor. Some faculty are concerned that Dead in Virginia [my methods course] was offered as a section of the required historical research methods course yet did not require students to do as much analytical writing as do other sections of that course, which is designated as writing intensive.

Because no one on the committee ever spoke to me about the course, I don’t know, but I suspect, that the concern about the supposed paucity of analytical writing in my version of the methods course arose from the fact that instead of a 10-15 page essay, I required my students to write a series of database entries and the first two pages of a long essay (which I then iterated with them). My students wrote a lot — just not in the format historians are more used to — the 3, 5, 10, or longer essay.

The bigger and more interesting issue here is whether, by having my students write in chunks rather than in long form, I was adequately preparing them for the rigors of our capstone seminar, in which they must write a 20-plus page essay built on primary sources they acquire through their own research.

The promotion and tenure committee also criticized me, quite correctly, for not testing the claims I made in my most recent book [relevant chapter] about the success of the more playful methods course “by comparing the outcomes of Kelly’s section with those of other sections.”

Ever since reading their critique I’ve been a little worried that, in fact, I had not adequately prepared my students for the rigors of the capstone seminar. So, I decided to do what I should have done all along — compare my students’ outcomes with those of other sections of our methods seminar.

To get at that information, I asked the registrar’s office to pull student data from all the sections  of our methods course offered in the semesters when I used my more playful syllabus (spring 2011, spring 2013). I compared student grades in the methods seminar (HIST 300 here at George Mason) to the grades those same students received in their capstone seminar (HIST 499). I did not teach the capstone seminar to any of these students.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. My students outperformed the students who enrolled in other sections. Of the students who took my section of the methods course in 2011, their average GPA in the capstone seminar was an 88.47. Four of my colleagues taught methods that same semester. Their students’ average grade in the capstone seminar was 88.28. In the spring 2013 semester, 64 students took methods (22 of them in my section). The average capstone seminar GPA of the students who took the course from someone else was 88.06, while the average GPA of the students who took the course from me was 90.15.
  2. More of my students have completed the capstone seminar. Only 80% of the students in the other 2011 sections ever went on to take the capstone seminar, while 100% of mine have done so. Given the slow pace of some of our students, it’s likely that more students from the 2013 sections will take the capstone in the coming year. As of now, though, 69% of the students who took the methods course from someone else in spring 2013 have taken the capstone seminar, while 80% of my students have done so.

I will admit to being much relieved that the students who took the methods course from me did not suffer from having taken a more playful version of historical methods in which they wrote database entries rather than a long essay. In fact, quite the opposite happened. They did just fine.

While I’m relieved, I’m also a little peeved with myself for letting the criticism I got during my promotion year convince me to go back to teaching methods the more traditional way. I’m teaching the course again this fall and can’t ditch that more traditional syllabus entirely for the more playful one. I will certainly ditch the 10-15 page paper in favor of more shorter and iterative writing assignments.

And, like a zombie, Dead in Virginia will rise again…

History Out of Tune

If you are a regular reader of this blog, it’s not news to you that I’ve offered up some critique of the AHA’s Tuning Project. After conversing with some “Tuners” at the recent annual meeting of the AHA in New York, I remain skeptical of the “History Discipline Core” that is the key source document of the effort.

Before offering further critique, I want to stipulate what I really like about the Tuning Project, because I like a lot of it. First and foremost, I like the fact that the proposed core will give history departments around the country a basis for solid, on-going assessment of the work they are doing in the classroom and the outcomes their students are achieving. Tuning gives us the chance to set the assessment agenda within our institutions rather than having it imposed on us.

Tuning also gives history departments a foundation upon which they might redesign their majors to make that major a curriculum, not just a basket of courses (as is so often the case).

I also like the way that the document encapsulates the core values of the historical educators, or at least the core values of the historical educators of the past 100 years or so. For reasons I cited in that earlier blog post (linked above), I remain critical of the almost complete exclusion of the digital humanities from the core being promoted by Tuners. I think we have to admit that the History Discipline Core is a statement of the past, not of the future–it promotes a version of history education that prepares our students very well for 1995, not 2015. Thus, I don’t have any quibbles with what is in the Core. My quibbles are with what is not there.

Finally, I really like the many obvious points of intersection between the work of those involved in Tuning and the work of those of us who have been engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history over the past 15 years or so. I would love to see several sessions at the next AHA conference that explored this common ground in much more detail, because I think we have so much to share with and learn from one another.

Despite all these positives, I’m still unhappy with the goals of Tuning for this reason — I think that all the very laudable focus on core competencies of history students has obscured one of the larger goals of the effort, namely preparing students for success after college. I watched David McInerney’s keynote address at the AHA Tuning workshop in January [available here] and he didn’t get to the importance of student success in the workforce until near the end when he offered up a suggested elevator speech about Tuning.

Student success after college should be at the top of our list, not as an afterthought in an elevator speech.

I love the liberal arts as much or more than anyone I know, and I will (and do) defend the value of a liberal arts education to any and all comers. But the simple fact of the matter is this: America is a very different country than it was 20 or 40 years ago, and the students we have now and will be educating for the rest of our lifetimes are very different. Here are just a couple of data points that as history educators we must keep at the forefront of our work:

  • The majority of American public school students live in poverty.
  • In 1990, 28% of children in America were born to single mothers. In 2008 that number was just under 41%. [data here]
  • Americans are carrying more than $1 trillion dollars of student debt. Almost 70% of college graduates have debts just under $30,000 per year, and those are the graduates.
  • Only 59% of college students at BA granting institutions graduate in six years.
  • According to Jeff Selingo, in his College Unbound, if your family’s household income is in excess of $90,000, your odds of obtaining a bachelors degree by age 24 are 1:2. If your family’s household income is $35,000 or less, those odds drop to 1:17.

Given these facts, any revision of the history curriculum or of the ways we assess our success as educators must take into account the ways that we are responding to what can only be called an educational crisis.

Anything less would be shameful.

Thus, I urge the AHA and those involved in the Tuning project to be very explicit about the need to craft learning opportunities and curricula that prepare our students for success in very clear and explicit ways. That means, for instance, demonstrating again and again throughout the courses we teach how this or that element of historical thinking will help them when they are teachers, attorneys, advertising executives, museum educators, archivists, social workers, or whatever they end up doing.

But it also means writing experiential learning into our curricula in very explicit ways, not just as a single bullet point at the end of a list of “sample tasks.” Given the data I just cited above, and the fact that college is going to continue to get more expensive rather than less, we must, must redesign the history major so that it is both a liberal arts discipline and a degree that prepares students for success in the workforce. So, for instance, why not require internships of all our students (thereby committing ourselves to make that happen)? Why not devote one week in every class we teach to how something you learned in this class will help you in your future career(s)?

We have to do our part to address the challenges our students are and increasingly will face, and the Tuning Project offers historians an invaluable opportunity to do just that.

If we are unwilling to engage with our students real and pressing challenges, then I think we should fold up our tents and call it a day.