2008s

    Is College Worth It?

    In "America's Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor's Degree," Marty Nemko argues, "College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it." Looking at my plagiarism rate from last semester and considering the number of students at George Mason University who fail the mandatory History 100 survey simply because they do not show up or turn in their work, I have to admit that he has a point. He argues that high school students in the bottom half of their class should think twice before entering a four-year college. A two-year college or non-degree program might be more appropriate. He bases this advice on the following disheartening finding: "Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later." And they were piling up debt.

    Part of the problem, he says, relates to the quality of teaching. Class size, for example, is a problem. How much attention can I give each student in a fifty-person lecture course that sometimes meets for "small" group discussions of twenty-five students? My classroom experience, however, suggests that something else is also at work. There seems to be some kind of cultural or educational gap that has not prepared some of my students for the university classroom and university assignments. There are always a handful of students who expect every lecture to be both entertaining and amusing to every student in the classroom. Whatever happened to students just putting up with something that doesn't interest them personally and learning about it anyway? What about basic curiosity and giving something a chance? This past semester two young men surreptitiously texted each other during a forty-five-minute excerpt from Chaplin's hilarious "Modern Times." Is there any hope that such students will ever be interested in anything in the classroom?

    And what about those students who feel that reading assignments are an imposition, as if everything worth knowing were available on Wikipedia or a comparable website? True story: I had a student this semester who preferred to read email and texts on her smart phone instead of listening to the lecture. Usually when students do this, they try to be discrete about it, even if their facial expressions give them away. This student, however, held the phone up in front of her face so there could be no mistaking where her attention was. When I spoke to her about it another time, she said she was using the phone for the internet so she could bring something to the discussion. I told her I knew the little bit that was on the internet for our subject and that I was more interested in her own thoughts on the assigned book. She was flabbergasted.

    These complaints of mine can lead to a slippery slope. I can't forget all the hard-working, disciplined, and curious students I know. I don't want to succumb to the cynicism that pervades Rate Your Students, a blog where some academics vent about their students and colleagues. It really is up to me to make the best I can out of a situation, even for the Sisyphean task of teaching the required one-semester survey in Western Civilization. Indeed, I think I've become a better teacher for these experiences. Still, Marty Nemko has a point, even if the fault does not just lie with institutions selling the dream of a four-year degree. There is clearly a gulf separating the expectations of a portion of the student body from the expectations that they encounter in the classroom. While many colleges and universities need to be more student-centered, prospective students need to consider whether a four-year college is the right choice for them. It is for many people, but not for everyone.

    This post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date. I have changed the link to Nemko's piece from the Chronicle (paywall) to his blog.

    A Christmas Short Film from 1898

    The British Film Institute has a YouTube channel that offers a lot of historic films. Here is “Santa Claus' by G. A. Smith in 1898. Apparently the special effects were quite a feat 110 years ago.

    For something longer and more in tune with this blog’s recurring theme of war and society, see “Christmas Under Fire” (1941), which looks at Britain at war on Christmas Eve. This film from the Ministry of Information has an American narrator for an American audience. It was made before Pearl Harbor, when the American public had no stomach for going to war in Europe.

    Atrocities in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870–71

    Three civilian French men in a village. They are holding rifles pointed at a group of soldiers on foot in the background. A woman with them is loading or reloading a muzzleloader.
    Illustration of peasants in the Vosges shooting at German soldiers, titled "Paysans des Vosges faisant le coup de feu." Source: L'Illustration Européenne 1870, p. xvii, via Wikimedia Commons.

    An essay on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) that I wrote last year appeared in print this fall in a book about war atrocities from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.1 The essay focuses on German soldiers and French civilians using the example of the Bavarians. It examines why soldiers sometimes departed from generally accepted standards in Europe about sparing civilians the effects of war as much as possible.

    The war began as a "cabinet war" that the German leadership hoped to win quickly through a series of decisive battles of annihilation. In this way the state, led by the king and his cabinet, would maintain control over the war effort and not face any undue influence from civilians, whether its own or those of the enemy. After destroying the Second Empire's army at Sedan, however, France refused to capitulate. Its people toppled the empire and vowed to fight on. The German leadership had a "people's war" on its hands that it took five more months to win. While the French and Germans fought most of this war with conventional means between armed forces organized by the state, the war also saw substantial civilian involvement that had the potential to lead to an ever deepening spiral of violence.

    The most extensive contact between soldiers and civilians occurred as a result of the German military policy of living off the land, which made German forces more mobile. To maintain discipline, officers were supposed to take small details of soldiers to requisition what animals, fodder, and food their units required. Requisitioning resembled theft in that those whose property the German officers took had no choice in the matter, but it differed insofar as the German officers issued receipts for what they took. These would be paid off by whichever side lost. German forces were also quartered on civilian households. These circumstances enabled soldiers to pursue their own private initiatives. If their "hosts" would not give them what they needed, the soldiers often took it.

    More famous, however, were reports of armed French civilians called francs-tireurs. While their number was not great enough to present a strategic threat, the German forces did have to devote some 120,000 soldiers to their lines of communication. Armed incidents led the invading soldiers to shoot suspected partisans summarily, burn down houses and even villages where such incidents occurred, and use hostages, most famously on locomotives. While some reactions had an ad hoc quality to them, the common thread was the notion of "military necessity." The German forces found the actions regrettable but necessary, in order to prevent the war from lasting longer than necessary. The idea was to counter French "terror" with measures so harsh that the French would see the error of their ways and refrain from any further resistance.

    References for these incidents and the historiography of the Franco-Prussian War are available in this new essay as well as the following related one, in which I devote a lot of space to the events in Bazailles, which the Bavarians infamously burned down during the Battle of Sedan: "The Bavarian Army and French Civilians in the War of 1870–1871: A Cultural Interpretation," War in History 8.3 (2001): 271–93.

    My source base for this research was published personal narratives, that is, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Most of them came from Bavarian soldiers and officers, though I drew on other German narratives by way of comparison. It is in some ways surprising how freely the fighting men wrote about these events, but what they were describing was either acceptable in their minds or told in relation to what lines they believed the French had crossed.

    One phenomenon I found little mention of was the hostage-taking. This might be because the Bavarian veterans felt they had crossed a line, although it is also worth noting that their units were not as heavily involved in maintaining lines of communication in the rear, which is where the hostage-taking occurred. Recently I learned more about this subject from Heidi Mehrkens' new book, which includes a section on the German military using hostages on locomotives. Mehrkens' book is also helpful, because it uses archival sources that confirm the impressions I gained about relations between soldiers and civilians from the published primary sources.


    1. Mark R. Stoneman, "Die deutschen Greueltaten im Krieg 1870/71 am Beispiel der Bayern"; in Sönke Neitzel and Daniel Hohrath, eds., Kriegsgreuel: Die Entgrenzung der Gewalt in kriegerischen Konflikten vom Mittelalter bis ins 20. Jahrhundert (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2008), 223–39. 

    This post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

    A New Personal Record in Plagiarism Cases

    I had a new personal record in plagiarism cases this semester: eight. With ninety-seven students total on my rolls at the end of the semester, that makes a little over 8%. To be absolutely clear, I am talking about open-and-shut cases. The burden of proof is on the professor, as it should be, so I never report any honor system violations based merely on my suspicions, no matter how strong they might be.

    Some of the cases stem from this semester's new bibliography project. In the past I had tried to craft integrative essay assignments that made plagiarism impossible or very difficult, but I had wanted to move beyond text analysis and writing to also cover research skills, which have proven to be a major deficit among many of my students. I had thought a bibliography project would invite less plagiarism than a straight research paper, since I have not seen bibliography essays for sale on the internet. I was right about buying a finished product, but not about preventing plagiarism. Feeling overwhelmed, a few students panicked and opted to copy and paste material they found on the internet. These examples were the clumsiest. I also saw some examples where students worked harder to integrate internet material than they would have had to work, had they simply opened some books and summarized their contents. I saw both types of behavior on the other essay assignments too.

    What happens to these students depends on whether it is their first or second offense. The first offenses that I have seen have led to a zero for the assignment in question. Since these are often worth 25% of the course grade, students found guilty of their first honor system violation have to work hard just to earn a "D" in the course. Second offenses have led to failure of the course. Perhaps there were also other sanctions for second-time offenders that I do not know about.

    The high number of plagiarism cases has made me wonder what I could change about assignments and assessment in future. Since I am not slated to teach this spring, I have some time to mull this over. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts and experiences?

    This post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

    Language Study Tip: Daily Practice

    The following post originally appeared on Language for You (now closed) on on this date under a slightly different title.

    When learning a foreign language, it is important to practice daily or even more frequently than that. Many readers will say, "But I don't have time for that!" Sure you do! Really. You just have to let go of the habit of doing a lot of homework and studying all in one long weekly session. Do many short sessions instead. If you only have two hours a week to devote to learning a new language, you could break part of that time up into shorter chunks. You could, for example, take one hour for a long study session. And then you could divide the other hour into four 15-minute sessions. That would give you a total of five sessions in a week. Add to that the class you are probably taking, and you are up to six sessions per week. That will give you the repetition you need to make new words, grammar, and habits of thought sink in. This little amount of time is not ideal. More studying is desirable, but it will bring you a better return on your investment than one long session per week.

    Of course, once you get into the habit of these short study sessions, you will find that you can schedule more. What about the five or ten minutes you spend waiting for a bus or train? What about the time you spend on the train? What about when you're walking? You can't look at your books then, but you could look at flash cards with idioms, confusing words, or irregular verbs. You could also simply try thinking in the language you are learning. In this way, the two hours you spend learning the language will grow substantially without actually costing you extra time. And because you are studying frequently and regularly, your brain and mouth and ears will grow accustomed to the language more quickly.

    And you know what? It can be fun. It takes your mind off your daily troubles and lets you accomplish something in a short period of time. Pretty soon you will notice that you can feel good about this activity, which gives you one more reason to feel good about yourself. These positive feelings will spark you to keep up and even expand this new study habit.

    Online Forums: Blackboard and Wikispaces

    My Western Civ courses last winter and spring had some mandatory discussion components. Students had to visit the Holocaust Museum and talk about their experience online. I had them do the same with two old movies as well. (They chose from a list I had given them.) Both assignments went pretty well, except for a couple students who thought they only needed to copy and paste someone's words from an online movie review. The other downside to the assignment was assessment. Blackboard gives precise statistics for each user, so it is possible to combine one's impression of the students' quality of effort with numbers. Wikispaces, which I like, did not offer these statistics. (It might for its Private Label version, but my school doesn't have that. I had to set up my own Wikispaces account.)

    What was really interesting about the Wikispaces experience, however, was that students started using the discussion feature in other parts of the course. It wasn't mandatory, though I had told students I'd keep it in mind when doing their class participation grade. I've said the same thing to classes where I have used Blackboard, but without such positive results. The difference was related both to Wikispaces and the number of students involved.

    Wikispaces lets people stay logged in on their laptops or desktop computers. That makes it really easy to check on a regular basis. Wikispaces also makes it easy to create course content that is easy to navigate. Blackboard makes creating course content much more difficult, at least that's been my experience with their folders. I put course content in them and then got all kinds of emails asking where the stuff was. I never had that happen on Wikispaces. Obviously, I could learn to use Blackboard more effectively, but that will cost me more time than I've had, and the process of building pages will continue to be clumsy and slow. Wikispaces is so much easier, especially with one learns it's easy markup, though that is not necessary.

    My experience with Wikispaces forums was different for another reason, however. Last spring I put together all three courses on one Wiki. That gave me about 110 people. Since the course is required and not everyone is as interested in online participation, or even familiar with online forums, these numbers gave me the critical mass I needed to get self-sustaining discussions that did not require too much shepherding on my part.

    By way of comparison, this fall I am using Blackboard again, because I did not feel like paying Wikispaces any money or dealing with student usernames. (Neither of these things would be an issue if the university bought the service for the whole campus.) The result has been mixed. I have not required online participation because of the bibliography project, but I was hoping to see a little discussion about the content of the course like I saw last spring. That has not been happening much. The problem, I think, is that while I have 95 students, they are split into two courses and therefore two places on Blackboard. (I should have asked for consolidation of the two.) This means I lost my critical mass. Also, logging into Blackboard is a pain in the neck. Not only can it not leave one signed in, but it insists on checking browser compatibility every single time. Why can't it just drop a cookie? And Firefox asks me every single time whether I trust the security certificate or not. (Using Safari is not even an option.) These minor things really get in the way, because logging in distracts the user from whatever she might have wanted to say. Adding insult to injury, Blackboard automatically logs one out after a certain amount of time has elapsed, which limits the utility of its note-taking and calendar functions. (I'm not sure how much time has to pass, but the automatic logout has happened to me a lot this semester.)

    One other thing I've noticed is layout. Many students need teaching about threaded discussions, no matter what platform, it seems, but Blackboard's are just plain clunky next to Wikispaces'.

    One important point to note about Wikispaces: The free version does not shield students' comments from the public, and it includes ads via Google AdSense in the right-hand bar. The instructor can gain privacy and get rid of the ads by paying $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year. That is good if one plans to recycle the same site. If not, the number of sites could grow. Sooner or later one will have to release the comments to the public and allow the ads. I knew this was going to happen, so I told students ahead of time that I would be opening the wiki at the end of the semester. I also offered to delete their names, though only one person took me up on that. Of course, none of this is an issue for universities with an enterprise edition. Also, teachers in primary and secondary education can obtain free wikis for their classes.

    Bottom line? I wish more universities would buy Wikispaces Private Label, which is between $1000 and $8000 per year, depending on levels of storage and service. I don't know what Blackboard costs, but I suspect this is a pretty cheap price that would make an invaluable tool available for student collaborative projects as well. And instructors would have control over their course websites and forums in a way that Blackboard users can only dream of. Of course, some instructors might be using Blackboard's testing features, which Wikispaces doesn't have, but I'm not.

    Update (1/7/2010): I have deleted the wiki initially linked to at the beginning of this post. As interesting as the experience was, I would like to maintain the privacy of the students, and I cannot afford the annual dues to password protect the thing. I do wish that the universities I teach for as an adjunct wer subscribed to the enterprise version of Wikispaces.

    This post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

    Professor Wikipedia

    Here’s a satirical video about Wikipedia as a person by CollegeHumor on YouTube

    Lessons from the Classroom

    Last winter and spring I had my students write Wikipedia articles and then monitor those articles to see what edits other people made. The point was to give them a firmer appreciation of how this online resource works, so that they would understand its strengths and limitations. The Wikipedia projects were of varying quality, but I wasn't unhappy with them. The student feedback at the end of the semester also showed that most of them learned the lesson, though a few were excited to be exposed to this resource for the first time. To be sure, the latter kind of comment made me feel dirty, though I'm sure the students would have found Wikipedia sometime, at the very latest through Google searches, which is how I discovered it some years ago.

    As much as I liked the Wikipedia experiment, I have decided not to repeat it this semester. For one thing, the process of helping 100 or more students find a suitable topic that has not already been done in Wikipedia is enormously time-consuming. So is teaching students how to use Wikipedia's relatively uncomplicated markup. Contrary to the stereotype about the youngest generation of university students being internet savvy, many of them only know how to use the internet in highly specific ways. (If you can read German, see Jan Hodel's comments on this issue here and here.) I did not have much time for technical details in class, so I had a lot of one-on-one student meetings in the computer lab. This circumstance does not mean that Wikipedia projects are not worth doing, but it is a significant factor to consider for the kind of large survey course that I have been teaching.

    More to the point, however, the Wikipedia project and especially the group electronic scrapbook project I had students do revealed a more traditional weakness: too many students did not know how to do basic research using the library's catalog, reference desk, and databases. Indeed, they did not know how to use Google very well either. Furthermore, most students did not know how to evaluate the potential usefulness of books they found. They seem to have just assumed that a book was a book. The idea of examining the bibliography, for example, never occurred to many of them, even though I discussed the issue in the directions as well as in class. I thought that this kind of need was supposed to be filled in required English classes, but if that is happening, it is inadequate, because most of my students last semester were not freshman.

    Hence, this semester I have decided to incorporate research skills into my course. A research paper is out of the question with so many students involved. Moreover, a research paper can become a distraction, since students are often most concerned simply with producing enough text. At the same time, I want to do something that gives students some choice, as most students really appreciated that aspect of the course last semester. Hence, I have decided to have students choose a research topic, develop a bibliography and write a short bibliographical essay to go with it. If you are interested in learning more, see the current version of my directions for the bibliography project on one of my course websites.

    I plan to devote some time to research issues in class and on a forum on Blackboard, to which George Mason recently switched from WebCT. Finally, I expect to talk to some students during office hours. Instead of giving technical lessons for Wikipedia markup, however, we will be able to talk research methods and history. Students also need to improve their electronic literacy, but I have to pick my battles.

    Finally, some notes about plagiarism: An unusually high number of students thought they could get away with copying and pasting text for their online scrapbook projects. I instructed them about the university's honor system, but it seems much additional work is necessary in this area, should I ever do electronic assignments again. Interestingly, though, I did not find such copying in the Wikipedia projects. Perhaps students understood that others would be reading that work? Some students actually commented to me on how good it felt to do a homework assignment that they knew others would be reading. Be that as it may, it is possible that this semester's bibliography project will reduce plagiarism opportunities and temptations, since it will not be as readily available on the open market.

    First published on this date on the now closed Clio and Me. I have removed dead links to teaching materials no longer accessible online, and I crossed out text in the post that explicitly referred to one of these resources. —November 24, 2014.

    “Conflict” (USSR 1983)

    A stop-motion short by Garri Yakovlevich Bardin (born 1941) about the dangers of possessing, then using, a doomsday weapon.

    The Vocabulary of Grammar

    Looking back, I am surprised at how easy it was for me to get through high school and many college courses without knowing a lot of basic vocabulary related to English grammar. I knew English grammar intuitively, and I could write, but I could not talk about grammar. I am lucky I knew enough intuitively, for this weakness could have become a real handicap for me in my studies.

    Continue reading →

    The Most Famous Closed Trial with Secret Evidence

    Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

    "We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion."

    The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus' guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote "J'accuse." The point wasn't about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus' innocence reminded observers why.

    Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair's legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

    Blogging and Myth-Busting

    Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates "the real fight must take place on the web."

    In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: "Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?" In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have "a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse." Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

    I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.

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