In “History without Reading,” Jim Cullen talks about a dirty little truth: a lot of students in our courses do not read, but we teach the courses as if they had done the reading, thereby only making things worse, because the students are getting nothing out of their classroom time. He suggests that it should be possible to teach history and historical thinking in such a way that we do not assume that the reading has been done. One reason students do not read, he says, is that we teach history assuming that it is obvious why one would want to study history, instead of trying to sell the relevance of history to students in the first place. Indeed, “so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.” Cullen suggests that we not accept that and instead asks, “What would it actually mean to teach a course that presumed ignorance or indifference rather than one of preparation and engagement?”
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I have been pretty happy lately with my approach to George Mason University’s required History 100 (Western Civilization); however, chronological confusion in many exams last semester made me long to try a textbook again. I might live to regret the attempt, since the course is only one semester long, but I have decided to try the abridged version of Mark Kishlansky et. al., Civilization in the West (Penguin Academics). Trying to squeeze everything into the syllabus was much harder this way, even after skipping the first 200 pages of the text, but I am hoping the textbook will assist me in conveying a better sense of the chronological terrain. I have never been against textbooks in principal. I just have not found them to be practical for a one-semester course of this kind. Will this book fit the bill? Ideally, of course, someone would write a shorter book specifically for this kind of class. Abridged histories are usually still too long. Nonetheless, I am hoping that this halfway affordable text will prove to be an exception.
There are two other reasons I am changing things. First, doing so might help to minimize chances of plagiarism, since there will not be a similar set of assignments already in circulation on campus. Second, change keeps my teaching fresh.
p class=”commentary”>This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.
I had no plagiarism cases this fall. Maybe it is because I had an unusually ethical group of students, but it probably also had something to do with analysis they did based on short documents instead of books commonly discussed on the internet. With few exceptions, there were no answers to be found on the internet, though I took some chances with the inclusion of A Doll’s House in some questions. Even then, I did not let students focus on Ibsen’s play, but instead forced them to relate it to short documents that I made available on Blackboard. I have made similar attempts in the past, but usually by asking big synthetic questions based on two or three books instead of narrower interpretive questions based mainly on two or three specific documents.
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Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.
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I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.
This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.
I know my university history teaching and my work with adults learning to speak English is different than what Taylor Mali does with high school students, but I can still relate to his poetry about teaching. Maybe it’s because I often have teenagers in required courses. But maybe it’s because there’s something more fundamental to the craft, no matter who or what you are teaching. Here’s a piece he posted to his YouTube channel this year:
This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.
George Mason’s Hist 100 courses are supposed to cover Western Civilization in one semester. To manage this Sisyphean task, I switched from a chronological to a thematic approach. While this makes sense from an analytic point of view, covering themes seems to alienate some students, because the themes appear in the foreground, not the events and personalities. Moreover, the themes tend to bridge larger periods of time. With “Religion and Society,” for instance, I cover the Investiture Conflict, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Wars of Religion, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And “War and Society” goes from the French Revolution through the Second World War into the Cold War.
The material in my thematic courses has been organized in a more meaningful way than was possible under a broad chronological approach, but it has not held students’ attention. That is why I am thinking about covering a selection of specific episodes the next time around. I could put these up front and use the people, ideas, and issues involved as a vehicle to understand the broader themes that I want them to learn. A possible subtitle for such a course might be “Select Events and Ideas,” which might also make the history feel more manageable to the students.
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.
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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.
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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.
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