The Halfway Point

If we take literally the Bible’s accounting of our days as “threescore and ten,” then today is the halfway point for me: 35. Happy birthday to me. 2020 hasn’t shaken out quite like I expected, but it hasn’t been without its joys and comforts. So here are a few professional-ish things I’m grateful for today.

I accomplished some stuff this year.

Despite everything, I did do some stuff this year. And some of it is, if I may say so, pretty darn good. I’m really proud of it.

  • I signed a contract with Johns Hopkins University Press for my book about the First Barbary War. I still feel a tremendous amount of impostor syndrome about my dissertation work, but one thing that has helped me as I’ve revised it into a book is the advice and mentorship of a senior scholar of naval history (and, in fact, the person who wrote the book that really truly sealed my interest in naval history). He has read all my chapter revisions so far and has given me gracious and incisive comments. I didn’t make my original deadline for delivering the book to the press because of covid, but I will deliver it in 2021.
  • I started a podcast about the history of US consuls. This podcast came out of my work on the Barbary consuls of the First Barbary War, but it has honestly been the most interesting and generative scholarly work I’ve done in a while. Plus, working with the Consolation Prize team has been a tremendous privilege and learning experience.
  • I survived and even learned a lot from teaching online. The emergency shift caused me to overhaul my entire strategy for teaching, and it was really productive for me. A ton of work, uncompensated for the most part, but my teaching is better for it. (Nonetheless I’m ready to be back in the classroom, maybe for fall 2021.)

I learned from a lot of people.

I got the chance to be involved in some pretty fun stuff this year, some of it only possible because of the virtualization of everything due to covid. A few stand out.

  • The podcasting sessions from the VCU+ICA Community Media Center were fantastic for learning more about podcasting and hearing from experts in the field. (I hope there will be more in the spring!)
  • I got to talk about Star Trek and the First Barbary War at NavyCon 2020-A, which was great fun. But I learned much more than I imparted, I’m sure—specifically, I learned the term FICINT, and I look forward to delving more into that in 2021.

It feels like I should have done, or maybe did do, more. But I can’t remember any more things. Hello pandemic year.

I started some things.

These are more personal, I suppose. Though it feels like work has been all-consuming this year, because the amount of time it takes to teach online, shepherd a kid through online school, and do good DH work from home turns out to be astronomical, I’ve also tried to do some things for myself.

  • I started exercising for real. I got an Apple Watch, which has really kept me on track, but I started before that. I’m probably in better shape than I’ve been in ten years (which is a VERY VERY low bar). Mostly I’ve been doing strength and cardio in my bedroom. I started running, but I have had persistent feet problems (some of which predate the running) that have prevented me from getting into a routine. I’m hoping we can get those fully resolved in 2021 so I can get serious about training; I really want to do an adventure race in fall 2021. Have I been watching too much World’s Toughest Race? Yes. I also got a stationary bike for Christmas, so I’ve already been doing some work on that.
  • I started developing a podcast with my daughter. She insists that she loves online school, but it hasn’t been awesome for her. So she and I came up with this podcast idea. Its external goal is to learn about cool stuff out in the world; its internal goal to help her feel enthusiastic about learning in general after a hard year. I’m pretty excited about it. (OH, by the way, we’re launching it today, so please please please go listen and share with your friends!)
  • I listened to a lot of podcasts. I listen to them partially as professional development (both for content and for structure and style), but mostly I just listen because I love learning new things. I feel like I’d lost some of my own joy in learning over the past few years, and podcasts have really brought that joy back for me this year.

Looking at these lists, it seems like a poor accounting for an entire year. But we’ve survived this year. We didn’t get sick; we didn’t have any severe mental health issues; we went to church on YouTube; we went to school on Zoom; we spent a LOT of time together as a family; and we survived. I don’t take any of that for granted. I’m extraordinarily blessed to have had such a boring year, where the only major events were good ones, not terrifying or heart-crushing ones.

So, as I enter the back half, or, as my running app says, “it’s time to turn around and go home,” I’m looking forward to what 2021 will bring. I have hope that, though it will be a long slog out of the turmoil and sorrow of 2020, the arc is bending in the right direction.

Top Ten Podcasts of the Year

Yeah, I talk about podcasts a lot. One might say I’ve become mildly obsessed with them. But I’ve learned so much from listening to podcasts, and I’ve learned SO MUCH from making them, that I have opinions–a lot of them–about what makes a good podcast and about my favorites.

Spotify told me that my top listened-to podcast for the year was Throughline, from NPR. What Spotify doesn’t account for is that I listen to a lot more podcasts on the Overcast app on my phone than I do on Spotify (though more on Spotify now that I’m not commuting anywhere, since March anyway). And the number of listens doesn’t necessarily line up with the way I feel about podcasts. So I decided I’d make my Top 10 list for the year, just for fun, going from 10 to 1.

10. HowSound. This one is on my list because it’s been incredibly helpful for me as I’ve learned about podcasting myself. I’d actually give it a tie with Gimlet Academy, which is where I first got my start in thinking about what an episode should sound like.

9. The Incomparable Game Show. It’s not all serious over here in Abby’s Podcast Land. I don’t listen to all of the game shows, but I listen to many of them, especially Inconceivable and Random Pursuit. (Honorable mention for silly game shows: Go Fact Yourself.)

8. Preble Hall. The only naval history podcast I know, so how can I not love it? I also assign this in classes.

7. Believed. This one is a short-ish series, and full disclosure, I haven’t actually listened to all the episodes yet–but it’s because they’re so heavy and hard to listen to. It’s about Larry Nassar and the sex abuse tragedy in USA Gymnastics. Phenomenally well-produced.

6. The Heist. A similarly short series, but I learned more about Steve Mnuchin than I ever wanted to.

5. Twenty Thousand Hertz. Between being an audio producer now and a lifelong amateur musician, I love this show. It ticks all the boxes. My kids are big fans of the Jurassic Park episode.

4. 99% Invisible. I’ve actually only just started listening to this one, but I listened to like 5 episodes in a row recently, which I think is a pretty good indication that I like it. Someday I’d like to get a story on 99% Invisible—still looking for the right pitch.

3. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. This is actually the one show that I listen to within mere hours of its release almost every single week. It just makes me happy. It’s my life aspiration to be famous enough to be a guest for “Not My Job.” A ways to go before we get to that point, though (unless they’re looking for a person who produces a very low-volume niche podcast).

2. Throughline. Throughline is ONE of my favorite podcasts—Spotify wasn’t misrepresenting things. I have learned a lot through listening to this podcast, both about history and about podcast production.

1. Reply All. If you know me at all, you knew what this was going to be. Reply All is my favorite podcast and it’s not close. My favorite episode ever is still #116, Trust the Process (the Sports-Sports-Sports section), but I can’t think of a single episode I don’t like. Special shout-out to new host Emmanuel Dzotsi, who produced my favorite newer episode, #167, America’s Hottest Talkline.

Now, I listen to a LOT of podcasts. So narrowing down to just 10 was very challenging. Some honorable mentions include DIG: A History Podcast, Code Switch, Conversations at the Washington Library, and others that I’ve surely forgotten.

What are your top 10?

Why Assign Podcasts

I’m not a fully disinterested observer here; as you know, I am the host and executive producer of a podcast, so of course I want more people to listen to my podcast. But I think there’s a lot of value in assigning podcasts for students of history, of any age or schooling status. Here are a few reasons I think that.

Microphone in front of a waveform in an audio editor on a computer

Reason #1: Audio literacy

I wrote a whole blog post about this. Students receive a lot of news and information in audio format, and they need to be able to understand what they’re listening to. Listening is a skill—and one that transfers for listening to live events as well.

Reason #2: Difference

Listening to things can be fun, and podcasts often take a more approachable, conversational tone than the typical monograph. I’m not advocating that we remove all readings in favor of podcasts, but sometimes it’s nice to have a change of pace.

My students have said repeatedly this semester that, especially now, it’s really nice to have something that they don’t feel bad about not looking at. It’s not a video. It’s not a screen. They can fold the laundry or cook dinner while they listen.

Reason #3: Entrance into the historical discipline

You might think that podcasts are a lesser introduction to the historical discipline than a monograph or journal article. But many of my students need a ramp to get into the discipline, rather than a staircase. I don’t teach a lot of history majors; I do teach a lot of students who are just trying to escape other classes. I want the historical discipline to feel not-so-scary. And listening to a historian talk—even in historian-speak, as some historians do when they’re being interviewed—can be more approachable than reading that same historian’s written work. Best-case scenario is, of course, that the student then becomes interested in the book and goes and reads it (or you assign it! and talk about the differences).

And in our current moment of the collapse of humanities in higher education, it’s worth using our assignments to demonstrate that a book or article isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of historical achievement. There are other ways to be a historian; other ways to tell historical stories; other ways to teach.

Podcasts can also be a tool to introduce the craft of history without being explicitly “historical,” which is great for helping students see the connections between disciplines, and between past and present. I have a few podcasts that are go-tos for some topics like that (like Reply All, which I LOVE and I assign every semester when we talk about sources and proper attribution), but I keep an eye out for new podcasts all the time. I listen to a lot of podcasts.

But not all podcasts are created equal. I have a few parameters for the kinds of podcasts I tend to assign, though no hard and fast rules. Here are a few things that I consider before I put a podcast on my syllabus.

#1: Accessibility

This is the number one concern for me. Some students appreciate having something to listen to instead of watch or read, but some students aren’t able to listen to things, whether it’s because they have auditory processing issues, or, more likely, a loud and chaotic environment where concentrated listening is impossible. So I almost never assign a podcast that doesn’t have a transcript (and we model this at Consolation Prize).

#2: Interest

Some podcasts are boring. I almost never assign podcasts that I didn’t find personally interesting, because if I didn’t find it interesting (and I’m a historian), then I can’t really expect my students to maintain interest. I’m also one of those people who ditches podcasts very quickly if they’re not interesting, so if I don’t make it to the end of an episode, I don’t assign it.

#3: Challenge

I really like assigning podcasts that challenge a narrative or introduce something that will make students think about their ingrained beliefs. This doesn’t have to be extreme, but I want the students to have more questions when they finish the episode. This is why I tend more toward narrative podcasts than historian-interview shows, where it can sometimes feel like the historian has already said all there is to say about the topic at hand. We know that they haven’t, but generally they literally wrote the book on it, so it can feel very authoritative.

That’s it. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons to assign podcasts, and a lot of other considerations when picking which ones to assign. I’m still working on how I get feedback and responses from students when I assign podcasts, but overall, between this semester and last semester, the response to podcasts has been overwhelmingly favorable. And the nice thing about podcasts is that new ones come out with much more rapidity than books or articles, so your syllabus can become quite dynamic as new stuff is released!

I’d love to hear how you’ve incorporated podcasts into your classroom!

Not-Monograph History

(Yes, I’m avoiding doing work on my actual monograph right now, along with a hundred other things.)

I’m deeply invested in the idea of creating (and learning) history through not-monographs. And in the past several months and years, I’ve been trying to put my money where my mouth is about this. I’ve been teaching not-monograph history for a while now, but this past year I’ve had a lot of opportunities to create my own history work that isn’t a monograph (though, full disclosure, I’m also writing a monograph).

I want to highlight just two things I’ve been involved in recently that highlight the really fun ways history can be done in a not-monograph. For one I’m the principal driver, but still part of a great team; for the other, I’m only the incidental consultant for another person’s great brainchild.

Consolation Prize

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has recently given me the go-ahead to start a podcast! If you read this blog at all, you know I’m really into audio as a medium, but the time hasn’t been right to do more than just dabble. But the opportunity presented itself this summer to develop a podcast on a topic that I am interested in, and when I polled a few networks of historians, I found out that there’s quite a bit of interest out in the world too.

So Consolation Prize is a narrative podcast that investigates the lives and work of nineteenth-century American consuls. Diplomatic history might seem dry and boring (and to be honest, some parts of it kind of are), but consuls were the front line of diplomatic action. They engaged with the common Americans of all races that spread across the globe. We’ll be telling stories about murderers, cheats, liars, traitors, lovers, writers, naturalists, politicians, and so much more (and that’s only in the first few episodes!). Even if you think diplomatic history isn’t for you, I’d love it if you checked it out here.

The Shores of Tripoli

A while ago (I can’t even remember how long now), I was approached by a board game designer named Kevin Bertram. He was developing a new board game about the First Barbary War, and he was wondering if I’d play-test it for him.

Well…how often do you get to see a board game that’s about the exact historical event that you study? Unless you study World War II, probably not that often, if ever. So of course I said yes. And after play-testing it, I became a sort of unofficial adviser/consultant on the project. I ended up writing a very brief history of the war, which will be shipped with the game, and I offered advice about small things here and there.

This isn’t my game in any sense of the word, but I’m irrationally proud of it. It’s so fun to see a board game of the First Barbary War! You can watch the unboxing video here.

How to Listen to a Podcast for Class

Welcome to a college history class! You’ve probably learned strategies for reading books, articles, even blog posts (maybe). But in this class you’re going to listen to podcasts as a way to learn. So how do you do it?

Before we begin, there are some things you need to know.

Podcasts are not books

Podcasts are like books in a few important ways.

  1. Podcasts come in all shapes, sizes, and formats. No two podcasts are exactly alike in their form, just like no two books are written exactly the same way. Some podcasts are more like magazines, with lots of smaller segments that may or may not be related to each other. Others are more like monographs, where the whole podcast is one person talking about one thing. Both of these formats can be valuable, but they require different ways of listening.
  2. Some podcasts are boring. Just like some books are boring.

Podcasts are NOT like books in a few important ways.

  1. You can’t skip around in a podcast. You can’t flip to the index and then return back to the place you were. Now, this is mostly an important thing for podcasters to know–they need to do a good job of explaining themselves. But if they don’t, you’ll need a strategy for figuring things out before you get lost as the audio keeps barreling along.
  2. It’s hard to include references in the body of a podcast. There are no footnotes in audio. Again, this is mostly something you should note if you’re making a podcast. But it’s important for you to know as you listen, too. How is the podcast citing its sources, or is it citing them at all?

How to listen to podcasts

Just like reading books, there are several steps to actively listening to a podcast.

Before you begin

  1. Read the show notes (if they exist). This is kind of like reading the book jacket. Get a sense of what you’re going to be hearing. Try to figure out the premise of the whole podcast series, as well as the specific episode you’re listening to.
  2. Look at how long the episode is. Is this something you’re going to be able to listen to all at one go? Do you need to plan for a few sessions to get through it all? There is absolutely no rule that says you have to listen to a podcast in its entirety in one sitting. Take breaks if you need them!
  3. Find out whether your podcast has a transcript. If it does, that makes your job a lot easier. If not, then you’ll need to be a much more active listener.
  4. Get yourself some things to take notes on. You don’t need to take extensive notes, but you can’t write in the margins of a podcast, so you’ll need a pencil and paper or your computer.

While you’re listening

These things don’t necessarily occur in this order. You may find out some of these things at the outset, but you may also have to keep listening for the whole episode.

  1. Take notes on who’s talking. Is it one person (who are they? what is their deal?)? Are they talking to other people?
  2. If they’re talking to other people, why? What do the other people bring to the conversation? (This question is kind of like reading the footnotes.)
  3. Ask yourself: What is the thesis of the show? Why does this episode exist?
  4. As you listen, write down the key points of the narrative. How is the show proving its case?
  5. If you hear a word or phrase you’re not familiar with, pause the show, write down the word, and look it up.
  6. If you’re having a hard time following the story because you feel like you don’t have enough information, keep going for a few minutes–maybe they’ll explain more. If you’re still confused, pause the show and go do a little bit of background research. You probably don’t need to do more than ten or fifteen minutes of research on Wikipedia to get yourself up to speed. Then come back, back up the show to get yourself into the story again, and forge ahead.
  7. If something is confusing or unclear, but not enough for you to stop the show, write down your question. That question is a great thing to include in your listening response.

When the show is over

You’re not QUITE done when the show is over. Now it’s time to think about what you’ve heard.

  1. Ask yourself, did the show make its point? Was its thesis proved?
  2. Ask yourself, what was missing from this story? Are there things that still don’t add up or don’t make sense? Whose perspective was prioritized?
  3. Think about what specific parts of the show you remember. Why do you think those parts stick in your mind?
  4. Write (or record) your response. How can you connect what you heard to other parts of the course, or other parts of our world?

When to listen to a podcast

We all know that podcasts are great for listening to while driving in the car, cooking dinner, or running on the treadmill. If you like podcasts, you probably like them for the stories, the humor, the narrative.

Can you listen to a podcast for class while on the treadmill? Absolutely. You don’t necessarily need to have 100% of your attention on the podcast at all times. The podcasts that are best for listening to while doing other things are the ones that have great stories that you remember.

How do you know whether you’ve got a good podcast for distracted listening? Well, you don’t, until you start. Here’s a good rule: If you find that you’ve missed at least 30 seconds to a minute of the podcast because you zoned out, then right now isn’t the time to listen to it. Stop the podcast and listen to it another time.

If you’re missing chunks of the podcast because of interruptions, now might also not be the time to listen. BUT you can also just pause it while your kid asks for his hundredth snack of the day, or while you clean up the dog vomit in the corner, or while you throw your mask on when you see other people coming toward you on your run. Then resume once the crisis has passed.

If you can’t take notes while you’re listening, make sure you jot down some notes as soon as you can. And sometimes you might need to take another pass at a podcast that you listened to with distractions. Just like there’s nothing preventing you from reading a book multiple times, there’s no law that says you can’t listen to a podcast more than one time.

For this class, hopefully I’ve made podcasts that are interesting, and I’ve assigned other podcasts that are interesting. But you might not be that interested in some of them. That’s ok. All I ask is that you give them a listening ear for at least one full listen.

So that’s it! Enjoy! People have been learning with their ears since before there was writing, so by learning how to listen actively, you’ll be joining good company that spans the globe and the history of humanity.

Tell me in the comments the strategies you have for active listening to podcasts and other audio forms!

Resources for Innovation in Graduate Classes

I have very little experience in teaching graduate classes. Maybe my inexperience breeds anxiety about teaching them. When I teach my undergrad classes, I feel very little anxiety, even when I’m less prepared than I intend. Grad classes are the exact opposite. I could prepare for hundreds of hours for a grad class and I’m still terrified when I walk in the door, every single class period.

This coming fall, I’m teaching my second graduate class. This one has a topical theme (antebellum military history) but also has a methods flair (digital methods, but of course). I have never been good at leading discussion, so I was planning to really work on that skill this semester. But I think the discussion model is also partially the root of my anxiety, because not only am I not good at it, I’m not fully convinced that it’s the right approach.

The efficacy of discussion seems even more relevant now that this is an online class. I’ve talked to a number of graduate students about what worked for them in the pivot to online, as well as a number of faculty, and I got mixed responses. In my department, anyway, all the graduate instructors I talked to did synchronous class meetings; none tried any asynchronous elements. The faculty seemed to think the synchronous meetings went well and they thought the students liked them; the students I talked to had less rosy feedback, though none absolutely hated them.

This online opportunity strikes me as a moment ripe for some innovation in the way we teach (or, I should say, I teach) graduate classes. Our default is to try to duplicate the in-person approach on Zoom, but what if this were not the best approach even in person?

In all the graduate syllabi I surveyed to glean wisdom from, discussion was prioritized, and in some cases there was no evidence that any other method was used at all. And I’m not here to denigrate discussion. I do think it’s important to have an exchange of ideas and to evaluate a work in a free-flowing spontaneous way. But to be honest, I’ve taken a lot of grad classes, and I can count on one hand the number of times I had a discussion in a class that was so meaningful that I acted on it later.

Moreover, I think discussion can often silence or minimize voices that should be heard. There was one guy in several of my grad classes who had done a lot of theoretical reading before he came to the program, and he needed to let everyone know that he had. So even if he was not speaking (though he spoke A LOT), it was very intimidating to speak after him, and almost impossible to actually talk to him about what he had said because either (a) I had no idea what he was talking about, or (b) HE had no idea what he was talking about, or (c) both. In particular, female students have been conditioned to take a back seat to someone like that, when it’s almost certain that our perspectives would have been more interesting and generative than his.

So, how do we (and again, as they say in the churches I grew up in, I’m really preaching to myself here) achieve the goals we’re aiming for if discussion is stagnant or ineffective? Or, perhaps, how do we supplement discussion with other activities that can enhance the times when we do use traditional discussion?

As is my custom, I asked about this on Twitter, and here are some of the responses I got. Some of them deal with how to make discussion more effective; others offer alternatives to the discussion model. Pretty much all of these ideas came from more than one person so I haven’t credited anyone individually. I’ve tried to roughly categorize them, but it’s an inexact science.

You’ll also notice there aren’t a lot of ideas here. I got some great ideas for assignments but very few about in-class activities that aren’t discussion. These are also pretty humanities-centric, and even more specifically history-centric. Sorry. I follow historians on Twitter. 🙂

Framing discussion differently
  • Assign shorter readings to be read in concert with each other instead of the “book a week” model. Then the discussion centers on connections between historians’ work, and students may have more varied opinions about how the works coalesce or diverge.
  • Mind mapping. I’ll confess that the one time I tried mind mapping it was a train wreck of epic proportions. I’d love to hear examples of how it can work well.
  • Do a think-pair-share or a modified think-pair-share. Your discussion doesn’t have to be the full class all the time. Have small groups discuss and then report back to the main class. (This would be possible with Zoom breakout rooms, etc. for a virtual session.)
  • More meta-level: I read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book Generous Thinking recently, and one of the things that struck me from the book is her discussion of how students aren’t good at discussion because they’ve been trained to think adversarially about the readings. They jump straight to critique without actually understanding or engaging the argument of the reading, and as a result they underplay the ways in which scholarship builds on and enhances other scholarship. So I think laying some ground rules for discussion that starts with summary is a good way to reframe discussion as an actual exchange of ideas rather than a roast or takedown. Also, as my old orchestra teacher used to say, “Throw roses first, and then onions,” which seems like a pretty good principle for discussion and feedback of any kind.
  • Y’all already know I’m an aficionado of Slack, which is excellent for async discussion. Interestingly, no one mentioned any other forms of async discussion.
Alternative assignments
  • Ask students to develop (and deliver to their colleagues?) a mini-lecture for undergraduates based on the reading. This type of presentation helps them distill the main principles instead of jumping straight to critique or jargon-filled diatribes.
  • Ask students to evaluate and annotate a primary-source text for a critical edition or something similar. I think this is cool; I’m not sure how it works in class, exactly, and I also don’t remember a single instance of working in class on a primary source from my graduate-school career. This isn’t to say that you can’t do that, only that this seems to be another area where there’s been a failure of imagination, perhaps?

The moral of the story

There’s not much here. That’s the moral. We can do better. I can do better. The “class discussion leads to historiographical essay or research paper” model is dated, and it leads students down a very narrow skills path that almost definitely won’t align with the skills they need to have as a professional non-academic historian. So we need to change.

Perhaps we start by asking, what are we trying to teach our graduate students? are we doing job training? are we teaching them a richer mode of understanding? what do we want them to be able to do not just the day after they leave the class, but in a year, or a decade?

Are we also missing some opportunities by hitching our wagons to the synchronous model? Seminar classes do seem to lend themselves to synchronous interaction, but what if that was only a piece of what we did? My class is listed as synchronous, and part of it will be, but I’m planning to incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous pieces. How can we use this online moment to make changes to our approach that will benefit not just the online courses we’re teaching now but also the in-person courses we will, we hope, return to someday?

I am wrestling with these questions as I design my course for the fall. Stay tuned for my own plans, once I’ve figured them out.

What do you think? Do you have other in-class activities that work well for a graduate seminar? How do you make discussion more equitable or effective?

Flexibility in Asynchronicity

[Like my new word?]

I’ve decided to stop posting Twitter threads and instead use the tool God intended: blog posts.

I’m starting to knuckle down on course prep for the fall. You all know I’m 100% into asynchronous teaching, and I really don’t think there’s anything anyone could say to dissuade me. (This is, by the by, what I tell my students “bias” is: a belief that you hold, no matter what, even in the presence of countervailing evidence, though I don’t believe there is much countervailing evidence in this case.) But there’s one part of asynchronous teaching that I’m struggling to find a solution for: flexibility.

Flexibility within the semester

One of the great joys of teaching F2F is in pivoting your class time to discuss a topic that’s come up, or going off on a tangent based on a student question, or reframing your next lecture on the fly in response to current events. But in async teaching, you need a bit of lead time to get your materials prepared; you post them as completed pieces.

I’ve just been reading Joshua Eyler’s book How Humans Learn, and the first part of the book talks about using curiosity as a driving force for good teaching. The book has been tremendously thought-provoking and I’ve already thought of ways I’m going to increase the presence of curiosity in my courses. But in some ways, async teaching feels like it limits curiosity because of its nature.

Async teaching feels a little bit like the First Barbary War. In the war, the commodore was given instructions by the Secretary of the Navy to go do some stuff, and he was expected to do it. But by the time the commodore got to the Mediterranean, things looked very different. The commodore then had two choices: (1) try to follow his outdated orders, or (2) make his own plan, which may or may not be what the federal government wanted. Both of these options could be disastrous. If he followed his outdated orders, he might stumble into serious diplomatic crises. If he made his own way, then when the next set of orders arrived, he might be so far off the original track that it was impossible to obey the new ones.

This is kind of like async teaching. I spend a day or two recording my podcast lecture, developing the ways I want students to respond, and then I post it on the course website. But I try not to be recording and editing my talks at midnight the night before class, so sometimes–really, often–I have to record my next materials before I’ve seen my students’ responses to the previous chunk of material. Thus, I am writing my students’ new “orders” before I’ve received much feedback from them telling me what things I need to respond to. So I have to plow ahead with my original plan, and they have to either plow ahead with me, despite having turned in a different direction intellectually, or they have to go off on their own.

In this analogy, I’d prefer that the students took option 2, where they made their own choices and went down the paths that seemed right to them. But without knowing what they’re doing in real time, it’s hard to then craft the next set of “orders.” In 1802-1803, when multiple captains did what was right in their own eyes, they ended up going completely opposite and contradictory directions and made a lot of big errors. I, as the professor/SecNav, can’t possibly reel in ALL the threads.

Then there’s the time lag. If I’m not having these discussions in class, but as a discussion later on a board or in a chat room, that doesn’t leave much time for me to change tack for the next time I give them materials, sometimes no time at all. If a student responds in a thought-provoking way, but to materials we’ve already moved on from, how do I address it?

This problem is exacerbated because the students who do respond quickly are usually the ones who need the least direction from me. They’ve figured things out on their own. It’s the ones who don’t respond till the last minute–till it’s too late–that show me they need more help; they need me to revisit things or come at them from a different angle. But by the time I know that, we’ve already moved on.

So…how do you give students the opportunity to do their own inquiry while still maintaining at least nominal control on the class’s mission? (The class I’m especially concerned about has 45 students at present; the smaller the class, the easier to reel in all the threads, I’d imagine.)

Flexibility semester to semester

This problem is related to the idea of recyclability. Even though I’m pretty proud of most of the podcast episodes I made last semester, I don’t think I’m going to reuse any of them wholesale, because it’s a different time now. Things are really different for the students; they’re different for the world; they’re different for me.

So I bridle at the idea that online teaching is thus infinitely recyclable, which is how some higher ed pundits have been characterizing it. It’s infinitely recyclable only if you fully intend for your course to not speak to anything your students are dealing with, or any way in which your course materials speak to the present. If you don’t want your students to find your course memorable, or relevant, then sure, you can keep using exactly the same thing semester after semester. (I took a correspondence course in college that fits this description exactly; it probably hadn’t been changed in 10 years when I took it.) But I DO want my students to feel like I’m teaching to them, not to a nameless and faceless mass.

That said, developing an online course is a huge amount of work. I definitely don’t want to reinvent the wheel every single semester. So how do I maximize the use value of what I create this semester for subsequent semesters, without letting go of the flexibility I feel is needed to create a compelling course that speaks to students’ needs?

I don’t know if I’ve done a good job of explaining myself here, but I hope my point is clear: I want to be responsive to my students’ curiosity and needs. I’m struggling with how to do that effectively in an asynchronous environment. I would welcome any suggestions you have.

Tools for Asynchronous Discussion

In the fall, I’m teaching both my undergrad and grad class online (thankfully, GMU and the history department made this an easy and non-controversial choice, despite GMU’s plans to offer in-person classes). So I’m on the hunt for ways to enhance my asynchronous discussions. This post isn’t about what I’ve decided to do, but rather about all the options I’ve found. I’d love feedback on any of them, whether they’ve worked for you or not worked, or more options I haven’t yet listed.

One of the things I wrestle with every semester is asking students to register for or create logins for web platforms. I do it, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable about it and the students occasionally express discomfort as well. So perhaps with any of these tools, picking one or at most two to use in any given class is better than opening up the discussion to a very wide range of different types of discussion for the sake of more varied learning experiences.

Discussion Boards

  • Most LMSes have some sort of discussion board built in. GMU uses Blackboard, and there’s a discussion forum option there. I’ve used these before, but never as an actual discussion forum. I’m sure Canvas or what-have-you also has this.
  • Basecamp: I used Basecamp last semester to help keep myself and students organized in a large class project. It wasn’t a resounding success, but Basecamp does have a discussion board and chat-room function that could be useful if you wanted to build your whole class in Basecamp. (I’d imagine Trello, or any project management software like this, also has those features.)

Blogs with Comments

  • Blackboard also has a “blog” feature, which allows for internal blogging within the LMS. I’ve never used it and I never will, but it’s there.
  • WordPress course sites:
    • You could have one WordPress site for your whole class, where everyone writes blog posts and then others comment on them. (Examples of students blogging all on one site here and here; I know that I have been in classes where I was supposed to comment on other students’ work but at the moment I can’t find any examples.)
    • You could have individual WordPress sites for each member of your class, which is how I do things in HIST390; however, I’ve never made it a requirement for students to comment on other students’ work. This seems like a good idea except that I have no idea how I’d keep track of it.
    • [edit to add] A combo pack! Individual student blogs that aggregate to the main course blog, using the FeedWordPress plugin (thanks for the tip, Anelise Hanson Shrout!)
  • Tumblr: I’ve never used Tumblr at all, but I could see it having some value in the blog space.

Chat-like Discussion

  • Slack: I’ve used Slack a lot in classes and I like it. A downside to Slack is that it’s better for quick discussions; once you’ve moved on from a discussion, it’s hard to go back.
  • Discord: I’ve never personally used Discord, but for some purposes, it might be useful. I’ve heard people say it’s better than Slack but I don’t know if I believe them. 🙂 Discord is likely to be more familiar to some students than, say, Slack, because it is used by gamers. It looks and feels very similar.
  • Twitter: Many people say they use Twitter for chat or discussion. This has to be done with a lot of care, as it’s very public, but it could be done well if students are willing to engage on Twitter.


  • [edit to add] Hypothesis: A tool to annotate web texts; you can use it with a web extension or possibly in your LMS, if your institution has that capability. Students can respond to others’ annotations. (h/t Daniel Hutchinson)
  • Google Docs: I used Google Docs last year, providing the students with a transcript of my podcast lecture and then they had to add comments with sources or documents they found that addressed points in the lecture.


  • Flipgrid: This is a more personal way of doing discussion, with incorporation of video and graphics. I don’t know anyone who has already used it, but I know someone who is thinking about trying it.
  • TikTok: I’ve seen some pretty hilarious TikToks on historical themes that really show some historical understanding. It seems like a fun and approachable way of letting students reflect, and students tend to respond to these sorts of things.
  • Instagram: Do people use Instagram? I don’t know. But I could envision, in the right class, some interesting discussion being able to take place using Instagram.

Thoughts about all these

One of the other things I wrestle with constantly, particularly in the space that I teach is this: is my goal to teach students using new (to them) technology that’s well-suited for our questions and aims, or is it to show them how they can adapt and expand their use of technologies they already use? In other words, is it better for them to use WordPress, which they might need later in a job, or for them to use TikTok, which they already use, more effectively? This holds true for discussion as well. Do I want them to learn a new tool that is very well-suited for discussion (though tbh I don’t know if any of the ones listed above qualify for that), or do I want them to learn how to deform the tools they already know as a way of expanding their horizons that way?

I don’t know.

Revisiting Contract Grading

This past semester I tried contract grading for the first time. The class was a collaborative project, and I wanted grades to be less important than getting the collaboration done. I followed the lead of Ryan Cordell and designed parameters for grade contracts that the students could revisit halfway through the semester if they wanted to change their contracted grade.

I made a few changes from the other contract grading systems I’ve seen. Most prominently, I asked the students to add things to their contracts at the midpoint. I did this because the first part of the class was the “history” part and the second half was the collaborative podcast project. So I wanted them to write into their contracts the things they were going to do for the podcast.

I would not call this experiment in contract grading an unqualified success. I had a hard time keeping track of things (which is 75% on me because I’m not that great at keeping up with small things in classes), but more importantly I didn’t give the students options for meaningful penalties for breaking their contract terms. In the first half of the semester, I asked them to attend a certain number of classes in order to meet the terms of a grade. (I have changed my mind about this particular tenet of the grade contract anyway and it won’t be appearing in future iterations.) They each wrote in a penalty for missing classes, but it was impossible for me to know whether they assessed themselves the penalties or not. I know some didn’t. I need some way to know that students who don’t fulfill the things they’re supposed to actually do assess their own penalties, and that those penalties help them learn rather than just arbitrarily punish or humiliate.

But the main issue with contract grading in this class is that the entire class dynamic radically changed after the pivot to online. I stripped out the attendance policy. The students had a very hard time getting motivated, and I couldn’t bring myself to use a grade as a cudgel to get them to do what they were “supposed” to do. Instead, I resorted to pestering them and taking on a lot of work myself in order to get our project finished. Again, as I’ve said in a hundred places, I’m so proud of the work we did accomplish. But it could have been so much better.

That said, I’m not sad that grades were completely on the back burner for the semester. I firmly believe that the students produced better work than they would have if they had been motivated by point-based grades instead of a simple desire to do well.


Where contract grading absolutely succeeded turned out to be in my large class, HIST390, which had 46 students. I didn’t start out doing contract grading in that class, because it’s really big for that kind of thing. Contract grading feels very individualized, and I just couldn’t see how it would work in a bigger class.

But during the two weeks we were planning for the move to online, I realized that contract grading was going to give the class the flexibility it so desperately needed. One of the things I’ve always hated about 390 was the grading. It always felt awful to take points off of assignments and then just move on. But I couldn’t think of a better way.

While we were out for our extended spring break, I decided that maximum flexibility and maximum compassion were my new mantras. What that looked like in my syllabus is multiple chances for each assignment, and the ability to drop assignments as a student needed to. Enter contract grading. I set up a system whereby students contracted to do several small projects and the final project for an A, one small project and the final project for a B, and just the final project for a C (with a few other minor stipulations).

I also scrapped the points system and instituted a completion system. A student got credit for having done an assignment once I (or my TAs) was happy with it; if it didn’t meet the standard, I sent the student feedback and they resubmitted. Because no students had to do ALL the projects in order to get an A, students were given the opportunity to skip projects that they might struggle with, which I think cut down on the number of redos we asked for.

We even did this on the final project. Maybe 10 out of 46 students had to do one resubmission; none had to do more than one. Only one student didn’t turn in a final project.

The general quality of the projects was much better this year than in semesters past. I attribute this to two things: I gave clearer instructions and tutorials this semester than in semesters past (thanks, online learning), and the reduced grade pressure gave students freedom to be more adventurous and more creative. Some students really, really shined.

In the students’ reflections about the semester, the grade contract system came up frequently. Students wrote that this system felt compassionate and flexible, and many students wrote that they really enjoyed doing the projects because of the low point stakes.

From my point of view, I felt much less pressure to be constantly hounding students or worrying about when they were going to turn stuff in. I gave them deadlines but made it clear that those deadlines were soft because, without points, the system wouldn’t break if the grades didn’t get “recorded” in a timely fashion. Grading was also a LOT more fun when I just had to give feedback without figuring out how many points a mistake or misunderstanding was going to cost a student.

So, will I do grade contracts again in HIST390? Absolutely yes. My system will be slightly more rigorous in the fall when we are online from the beginning, but the basic tenets of flexibility and compassion will be the same. The students learned better, I felt better, what’s not to like? I’ll be incorporating more discussion and analysis-based requirements, but I’ll again give students the option to make the grade that works for them.

Uncharted: American Expeditions

This semester my students made a podcast. I just realized that though I’ve talked a lot about the podcast, I haven’t actually linked to the podcast here. So here it is, for all three of you who read my blog.

I’m super proud of how the students did on this assignment despite the many, many barriers to their success. So here’s my request: if you listen to one or more of the episodes (and you should!), would you please leave a comment for the students on their episode’s post on their blog here?

One of the things that’s cool about a podcast like this is that the students can keep interacting with it after the class is done, and I hope they will, if people listen and have questions.