Tuesday, July 14, 2015
I found my first History Lab of the semester vexing but promising. The premise of the History Labs in general was to provide students with an open-ended question, a question that could be answered in various ways, a question that students were capable of answering in a 75-minute class period. This meant that I would not ask questions for which I was committed to a specific answer. Finding this sort of question, focused on the content I needed the History Lab to cover, proved fairly difficult.
The focus of the first History Lab was sixteenth-century encounters between Native Americans and Europeans. This is content I generally cover in lecture, where I reinforce the diversity of indigenous American nations and their sovereign claim to territory, and introduce European debates regarding this sovereignty. In an ideal world, the History Lab would cover all of these topics as well, but if I could set up the assignment to cover at least part, I could lecture on the rest. The open-ended and critical nature of the debate I wanted to have hampered me here, though, because I could not have students debate whether indigenous nations had sovereignty (because they did and do), I could not have them simply describe the many political systems of the American continents (because that is not a debate), I could not have them choose a side in European debates (because students would all choose one side or be required to argue for positions we now find reprehensible), and so on. I also had to find documents that were available and accessible to students.
Here is what I came up with, annotated with my critiques and additions for next time:
Friday, May 15, 2015
Inspired by my colleagues Kerry Wynn and Kim Morse, I have been trying to craft essay questions that require very specific student responses. In theory at least, this then encourages students to write more specific, argumentative thesis statements and rely on evidence in more pointed ways. So whereas I might have once simply asked students to explain the differences between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois’s approaches to helping African Americans, for my second history lab assignment I asked them which of the two men had the most effective approach and why.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
My First History Lab Assignment, or the Disappointments and Triumphs in Discussing Kansas Homesteaders and What Exactly it is that Historians Do
We are roughly halfway through the spring semester and I have now done two different “history lab” assignments with my survey classes, with another one to come on Friday. I will write about my experiences with each of these assignments in three different posts. The first history lab asked students to consider the experiences of homesteaders in Kansas in the 1870s and 1880s. I wish I could say I was very original and creative in the way I approached this history lab, but I wasn’t. I basically modeled my assignment on this one, developed by the Center for Historical Education. But I did add a few unique components.
Monday, February 2, 2015
Once again, I’ve avoided assigning a textbook this semester. I constantly wrestle with whether this is a good or bad thing. I tell my students that history is all about interpretation and debate. I feel like textbooks contradict this by providing an overly-neat, packaged narrative that elides questioning. And, as Kerry points out, they’re so expensive. Plus, I’d prefer students spend what I know is a limited amount of time they have available for reading with sources that are more interesting than a textbook. On the other hand, without a textbook, they are entirely dependent on me for the narrative I know they are all hungry for. Not to mention there are some really good textbooks out there ( I, too, like Roark, as well as Foner, and the new Hewitt & Lawson text from Bedford). This semester, I directed them to an open-access text on the web as an optional reading. One of my intentions is to have them assess this text’s coverage of certain events or periods we will have covered in particular depth using mostly primary sources, but I’m already not sure we’ll have the time for that. I’ve actually assigned zero books this semester. This is not altogether out of character of me. In my survey-level classes, I tend to favor using a variety of short, digitized sources that represent a variety of viewpoints. But I do usually assign at least one book. This semester I’ve gone for a novella available online (Abraham Cahan’s Yekel) but I worry that having students read a book online is not at all the same as having them read an ACTUAL book. Finally, if anyone is familiar with my usual syllabi, which list the topics to be covered every. single. class. period., you’ll notice that this one is far less detailed. That’s because I honestly don’t know yet what topics we're going to examine. I'm trying to be flexible and remain willing to sacrifice some content for depth and active-learning strategies.
Friday, January 30, 2015
If you peruse my syllabus for this semester (included after the jump), you'll see that I am experimenting with a few new techniques, as well as preserving some old standbys. Last semester I banned student tech devices in the classroom and I liked the results, so I am doing that again, except on History Lab days. Of course, the History Labs themselves are new, and we'll have several posts later that focus on these. I kept the policy of assigning a primary source for every class period, which I have been doing for several years.
In the future, I would like to explore a less expensive textbook. The Roark was inexpensive (at least relatively so) when I started using it, but there have been multiple editions since then, raising used prices, and I would also like a more engaging text. Suggestions are welcome.
For many historians who view this site, the structure we are proposing to undertake for the U.S. History survey may seem familiar. When we discuss the integration of a problem-based approach that uses primary sources, most historians will think, "I do that already," chalk this project up to old wine in new bottles and prepare to move on. Please don't. We hope to make History Class into a collaborative effort that allows us to teach a more rewarding survey--one that facilitates increased independent thinking, encourages greater interest in future historical study, and allows student to avoid the debt they might incur just to purchase a reader that promises to achieve the same results. (A $50 reader, bought with student loans, financed over 30 years...) We would like this site to become a collaborative effort that reaches beyond the two of us and out into the community of colleagues we no longer get to speak with about our teaching on a regular basis. This blog can become a space where we share ideas and sources. Of course, the conversations might be more fun at Murphy's or [insert your favorite watering-hole or TA office here], but at least on a blog we can hyperlink to the evidence.
Over the next several months, we will use this blog to
Over the next several months, we will use this blog to
- chronicle and assess our efforts to reinvigorate the U.S. History surveys
- explore new models for encouraging student critical thinking about history
- highlight free, open-access sources for the study of history
- provide original problem-based assignments (history labs) for use and critique
- test and elaborate upon primary-source exercises already available online
Monday, January 19, 2015
This blog is the joint endeavor of Washburn University history professors Kerry Wynn and Kelly Erby. We will be chronicling our efforts here to revamp the U.S. history survey using more primary sources and an active, problem-based approach to learning. Kerry Wynn will teach the first half of the survey, which covers the pre-contact period through the Civil War. Kelly Erby will teach the second half, which picks up with Reconstruction. This is a reversal of our typical teaching areas, since Wynn is a twentieth-century historian while Erby studies the nineteenth century. It is our intention that stepping outside of our usual comfort zones in what we teach will encourage us to take some risks. We plan to draw on each others' expertise as needed throughout the upcoming Spring 2015 semester.
We hope you enjoy following us and that you will add your own thoughts, ideas, and experiences in the comments.