First Day Exercise

I think of the first day of class as 1/3 user manual and 2/3 sales pitch—why should these students stay in this class? So making the first class interesting but also informative is critical.

The goal for the first day is threefold:

(1) Introduce the class’s content and responsibilities.

(2) Give the students a feel for how I teach.

(3) Get the students doing history.

In my big class, with 48 students who by and large aren’t interested in the subject and are afraid of the methods, I still haven’t quite struck on the right way to achieve these goals. But in my 15-person class, I adapted an exercise by Cate Denial for getting students into the sources early, and I was really happy with the results.

The course is about American explorers, and I’ve broken up the course material into 7 types of explorations. For the first day, I found a newspaper article about one example of each of these types of explorations. I purposely didn’t use the “banner” expeditions for each category; for instance, I found an article about Zebulon Pike’s 1806 expedition for the type I’m calling “continental exploration,” and an article about a satellite launch for space exploration.

A map created on the expedition written about in the article the students read. Zebulon Pike, A Sketch of the Vice Royalty Exhibiting the several Provinces and its Aproximation (sic) to the Internal Provinces of New Spain, 1810. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

For each of these articles, I selected a few key paragraphs, stripped out the date of the article (but left all the other metadata), and transcribed them all (so the typeface/printing style wouldn’t give away the date). I printed two copies of each article (for a total of 14), labeled A and B. In class, I gave each student one article and asked them to find these things:

  • When do you think this document is from?
  • Where is the exploration happening?
  • What is the purpose of the exploration?
  • What are the challenges of the exploration?
  • What else can you infer about exploration from this newspaper article?

The exercise I adapted this from doesn’t ask specific questions about the documents, but I wanted the students to think about specific things because these documents are all text, rather than images, so there are explicit pieces of information they can figure out from reading the words, but also some elements they have to read between the lines to figure out.

The students worked in teams of 2, with the other person who had the same article as they had, to answer these questions. I gave them about 10 minutes, which isn’t very long, and I told them they could write on, underline, do whatever they needed to help them understand the source.

The Cecil Whig, Elkton, MD, December 8, 1871: The article illustrating deep-sea exploration.

I then asked all the As to get together, and all the Bs, and try to put their documents in the right order. Despite the fact that each team had separately made a determination about dates for their documents with their partners, in the face of a larger team with documents from different contexts, the two teams did NOT arrive at the same conclusion about the order of the documents.

The process of ordering the documents proved to be immensely challenging (several of the documents are pretty close to each other in date), but it also got the students talking about the contextual clues in each document. It was actually quite hard to get them to come to a decision. And even though neither team got the order exactly right, they both had compelling reasons for their argument.

In fact, this was exactly the outcome I was hoping for. I was hoping that the students would grasp that exploration is more widely dispersed chronologically, and more complicated politically and strategically, than they may have learned. And that’s exactly what they came away with.

It gave the students an introduction to how strange and wonderful this slice of history can be. An added benefit has been that we can now refer to those articles that we all talked about, and we have. It’s a specific point of community that I imagine will follow us through the rest of the course.

This kind of exercise won’t work in every class, but I’m pretty pleased with how it went in this one.

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