Spring Break and Teaching

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

It’s spring break at George Mason University (GMU), and, starting tomorrow, I will have the apartment to myself during the day. Of course, there is a mountain of student work to correct and classes to prepare, but I think I will be able to resume blogging here again. For starters, I do not have to spend three hours a day in busses and trains between Northwest DC and Fairfax, VA. Excuses aside, I sure do admire those of you who are able to teach and blog at the same time, and I hope to begin doing the same again myself. And, hey, I even have a TA this semester, though I don’t really have an office, unless having a place available for office hours that three other people use counts.

I’m teaching three sections of History 100 again, that is, GMU’s one-semester survey in Western Civilization. I’m doing it differently this semester than in previous semesters. I’ve thrown out the chronological approach in favor of a thematic one. I would have done this earlier, but I never got around to planning it out. This time I did not let a minor detail like that get in my way. Better to name six major themes ahead of time and then work my way through them during the semester. The chronological alternative was simply too frustrating for both me and my students.

I’ve also dispensed with traditional exams and writing assignments. Instead they are each doing a Wikipedia project, an idea I got from Mills Kelly. They are also doing a group research project (three to four students each) that will result in electronic output, whether a wiki, a blog, an old-fashioned website, or something on GoogleDocs. Traditional writing and research skills still matter, but I thought I would give them assignments that teach other skills as well.

One thing I’ve learned in the process already: I have to spend a lot of one-on-one time with individual students who are less familiar with this media. But they’re catching on, and the course wiki I set up with Wikispaces is working well. Each page has a place for threaded discussions, and the students are talking. I’d like to think it was for the love of the subject, which in some cases it is. I am also basing a substantial chunk of their grades for the course on online and class participation.

I do not think my thematic approach will have implications for my summer session at Georgetown University, where the mandatory survey, Themes in European Civilization, lasts two semesters. Also, because each course meets daily for five weeks in the summer, there will be no need for a wiki and there will be less opportunity for a long-term project. I’ll probably work with the old format of exams and short papers, but I want to give that a little more thought.