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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.

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HIST390

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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

Annotations

  • [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.

Other

  • 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.

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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.

HIST390

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.

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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.

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In Praise of Generosity

It’s been a hard eight weeks. There’s a lot to be angry or sad or anxious about. But I want to remember the joys and successes of this time as well. So here’s a few of those.

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This semester, I proposed a course that was a grand experiment on a number of levels. It was going to be a course in which our final product was a collaboratively produced podcast series. I was going to use contract grading as a way to emphasize the collaborative nature of the course. We would be learning how to be a whole podcast team, not just the writers but also the hosts, producers, editors, publicists, and all. (Not the musicians–more on that in a moment.) I purposely set myself up as less a professor and more an executive producer. I wanted this podcast to be my students’ vision, not mine.

Grand experiment turned out to be an understatement. But in the process of completing our podcast, the word “collaborative” took on a whole new meaning (listen here).

I made a podcast episode about how we made this work, which you can hear here. But I want to talk in this blog post about what this semester has meant to me personally.

Interior Collaborators

I planned two forms of collaboration for the class from the start. First of all, unlike many other classes the students had taken before (certainly in history, anyway), the goal for the class was one project that everyone contributed to. Everyone’s work was in collaboration with another student, for the whole semester. All of them were in an episode team, and I asked a few of them to volunteer to take on extra duties, like logo design, web design, and intro and credits reader.

I think this collaboration was working great before the break, when students could talk to each other during class. After the break, when we had to rely on online connections, it was a lot harder.

Our other primary collaborators were the composers of the New Sound Collective. My friend Andrew Cote is the director of this group of student composers, and he and I hatched up a plan whereby some of his students would write music for my students’ podcasts. Again, the move to online proved a little complicated, but the composers were incredibly generous and flexible. And I have to say that the music really makes these episodes shine.

One of the things I appreciated the most about both my students and the students in the NSC was their willingness to return to things and do them again or differently if needed. I asked them for a lot of changes and additions, and they not only did them, but they did them quickly and (as far as I could tell anyway) cheerfully. Rather than just doing the minimum, they were generous with their time and skills to make their work better (and to graciously take critique from me–not an easy task!).

Exterior Generosity

As we moved into online space after the break, it became clear that the students’ motivation level was very low. So I had to throw myself on the generosity of people outside our class and the university in order for us to finish our work.

The first external act of generosity happened because of a serendipitous Twitter interaction. On Twitter, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, offered to virtually visit any class that wanted him to. I jumped at that chance, but I’ll admit that I was shocked when he actually said he’d do it! I can’t really overstate how much his visit meant to me and to the class. It provided a vital boost to our class that was, if I’m honest, pretty demoralized.

Not only was Peter’s act generous, but he also pointed us toward another very generous member of the NPR family: Steve Inskeep. Steve recently wrote a book about an American explorer, John Fremont (which you should read; it’s great), and when Peter asked if he’d be willing to come talk to us as well, he said yes immediately. He talked to us about exploration, and about telling stories via audio, and was generally a real pleasure to talk to. And then HE sent us to yet another generous member of the NPR family: the hosts of Throughline.

The next week, Rund Abdelfatah from Throughline joined us. In some ways, her experience was the most relevant to our work, coming from a history podcast with two hosts that don’t record in the same space. Rund had a lot of really practical advice for us about setting up our episodes and telling them well.

I honestly still can’t believe that we ended up with three NPR hosts in our virtual classroom. I’m probably a super-nerd, but those are the only kind of celebrity I ever want to meet, and the students have expressed many times how amazing it was to talk to them.

But the generosity of external people didn’t stop there. When it became clear that the students’ time and effort needed to be focused on the main content of their episodes, I turned to people outside our class to fill out the pieces that would help polish the episodes. I asked people on Twitter and my family and friends to do voice acting for the primary sources that would ground our episodes. And they came through. I LOVE the voice work that so many people did.

Our voice actors were Andrew Garland and Doug Garland (my brother and dad), Paul Matzko (a friend I grew up with), Kellen Funk (a friend from college), Nate Sleeter (a friend from GMU), and Rick Felty and Daniel Hutchinson (friends from Twitter, more or less).

I am so, so grateful for all the work that other people did in order to make our podcast happen. None of them were in any way obligated to do so. And though I know most of them did it because they had a connection to me, the students are so appreciative. I think it’s really important for students to see how generous people can be, and they saw that in spades this semester.

Special Shout-out

I mentioned him up at the top, but the person in this story whose generosity shines above all others is Andrew Cote. Not only was he willing and eager to do our collaborative project from the beginning, he was there to prod his students when needed, enhance their work when needed, and also commiserate through a flurry of text messages and emails about all the challenges and opportunities of this project. And then he went above and beyond by agreeing to write some extra music for me so I could make the “Making of” episode. I really could not have led this project without his encouragement and generosity.

So what’s the moral here?

I don’t know. I don’t know what the moral is. I ended up doing a TON of work for this class because I was committed to actually having a product at the end. I didn’t have a plan B. In retrospect, maybe I should have. I learned a lot this semester. The students told me they learned a lot, despite everything, about how an actual job using history might work. (I think they were inspired by both our work and by our conversations with the NPR hosts.) That was encouraging.

This post feels sort of rambly. But the key takeaway I got from this class is that, insofar as they’re able, students will rise to the occasion, particularly if their grades aren’t on the line, and that people can be extremely generous. I’m grateful for both of these things.

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A Retrospective on Year 1

It occurred to me today that, despite the fact that it seems like I’ve been in the classroom forever, this is actually the last week of my first full year as a history teacher. From the first day of the first semester, the classroom is where it felt like I belonged, like I’d been waiting my whole life to be a history professor. (Probably, if you asked some of my elementary-school acquaintances, they’d say that I have been.)

It’s been quite the year. I taught my undergrad class as an adjunct in spring 2019, so it wasn’t my first time teaching that. But this fall was my first time teaching a graduate class. And I’ll be honest: I made a TON of mistakes (and the students didn’t hold back about them in the evaluations). I’m still pleased with how the students did, but I learned a lot from that experience and I’ll be changing a lot about my graduate teaching when I teach another grad class this coming fall.

This semester, of course, is a beast unto itself. I taught HIST390 again, and I made changes from the fall that I was happy with. When the covid crisis arose, I wasn’t prepared, by any means, but I wasn’t unprepared either, because I had inadvertently set up the class in a good way from the beginning.

In HIST395, my other undergraduate course this semester, things didn’t go so smoothly. I’ll write a whole other blog post about that course in a few days.

A few things stand out to me about this year:

First, I am so blessed to have a great department to teach in. This year was my first experience interacting with a lot of faculty, and it was great. The faculty in my department are unfailingly kind, generous, and gracious.

Second, my students also make teaching so great. Most of them aren’t really “into history,” as they tell me. But they tried hard, and they adapted under extraordinary circumstances, and they succeeded. Watching them succeed, taking ownership of and pleasure in their learning, is the best part of my job.

Third, teaching is hard and it stretches me in ways I didn’t imagine. I knew teaching was hard. This isn’t my first year in a classroom (just my first in a history classroom). But I didn’t know all the ways in which it was going to be hard.

I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. The emotional burdens of this semester are heavier than I could have envisioned going in. (Plus it turns out I’m not a good elementary-school teacher.) It’s been a long long semester. But in some ways, it’s been a good one. Next year will bring some of the same challenges of anxiety and uncertainty, and I’m sure I’ll find new things to challenge me as well. I need a break badly, but I’m looking forward to the fall.

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Digital Humanities Life Pedagogy

It’s Going OK

Over the past few days, I’ve been wrestling with a bizarre type of guilt: guilt that things are working. Like everyone, I moved my classes online after spring break at George Mason University. I teach two classes in the history department, one a 46-person class called “The Digital Past,” and one a 13-person topics in digital history course, where we’re learning about podcasting for history. I’m going to focus on the good in this post: “The Digital Past,” otherwise known as HIST390. I may write about the extreme challenges of the other class at a later time—it hasn’t ALL been working.

[I’m deliberately leaving out all discussions of how the rest of my life has changed because of this, though perhaps that’s not fair. It’s not like I can compartmentalize the different parts; they all bleed together. And I haven’t been dealing with any family members being sick or being homeless, or any other points of anxiety that have been overwhelming many of my students. I am immensely privileged in a lot of ways, and I acknowledge that.]

I don’t want to minimize the amount of disruption this move has caused. In the first frantic days, I couldn’t sleep at night for worrying about how I was going to make it all work. How was I going to teach a class about technology when my students had inconsistent access to technology? How was I going to do workshops about writing and editing with my podcasters when I couldn’t see them? How was I going to do activities with primary sources (particularly in a class where most students have little experience with reading historical documents and need a lot of prompting)?

After those first few days, things have settled into something of a rhythm. I wouldn’t say the transition has been “easy,” exactly (or inexactly). But there are parts of the new system that I’ve really liked. I want to highlight those.

Return to the essentials

The first time I taught HIST390, I tried to do WAY TOO MUCH. The second time I taught HIST390, I tried to do Way Too Much. This time, I tried to do way too much. Moving online has prompted me to reorient my entire course with an emphasis on the essentials. I’ve posted before about learning outcomes and how they guide my course preparation. However, that guidance doesn’t preclude my trying to do too much, as my course evaluations from my first go at a graduate class last semester made painfully clear. The kind of stripping down I had to do to make HIST390 work feels kind of like that exercise: write what you want in a page. Then write it in a paragraph. Then write it in a sentence. Then write it in a phrase. I started out three semesters ago teaching this class in a page. This semester, I started out with a sentence and I’m ending with a phrase.

In my reframing of the course, I have had to sharpen my focus on what I think really matters. What can I adjust or remove and still meet the learning goals? Much of my “assessment” work has gotten the axe. No more reading blog posts; actually, no more readings. Asking students to demonstrate minimal understanding of a digital tool instead of using its more advanced features. Changing two weeks on databases into one week on audio.

Instead of “assessment,” I’m focusing on understanding, giving them more time to work on projects with more support. I’ve tried to reframe the projects not as checking up on skills, but as an opportunity for creativity and showing off knowledge. I gave them more options for which projects they have to do, since if they struggle with them they don’t have easy access to face-to-face help from me. And it’s going fine. Students are still learning. In fact, the projects are going better than any other semester because I’ve relaxed my time expectations.

To be honest, I don’t miss most of the things I’ve removed. Sure, there are a few things that I’m sad we can’t do, and when I next teach this class face-to-face, I’ll add them back in. But I’ve realized that I’ve always been too aggressive in my course plan. So when we go back to face-to-face, this focus on the essentials is going to make a difference in how I teach this class.

Increased class participation

This one was a huge surprise to me. One of the things I read about asynchronous teaching (which is how I’m doing it) is that it exposes the learning process in a way that synchronous teaching doesn’t. That has certainly held true for me. At the beginning of the semester, I had set up a Slack group for my class. I do require them to join the group, but in the Before Time it mostly got used for tech support. In the After Time, I have used it for class discussion. And it has been GREAT.

In the Before Time, I often broke my students into groups for group discussion. But really hearing the discussions of 46 students, or giving each student a chance to contribute in those discussions, felt pretty impossible. The setup of our classroom was not well-suited to discussion, and it always felt hackneyed.

In the After Time, I broke up my class into groups of 3 or 4. I gave them each their own Slack channel. Now for every class period, they listen to me talk on a podcast episode, or listen to or watch something else. Then they answer discussion questions or do other activities within their Slack group channel. Sometimes I link to a primary source and have them discuss it. Sometimes I have them reflect on how the course materials fit into their lives. I’ve had them make things and photograph them and post to their channel.

I like this way so much better than the in-person discussions. I can “hear” all the discussions; the groups are small enough and asynchronous enough that everyone can have their say. I get to see them thinking through some of the questions in a way that I’d never get in a face-to-face discussion. I always despaired of good discussions in my classroom; I feel like this is finally fulfilling my hopes.

Not every person participates, of course. It would be irrational to expect that. But I’d say I know more about more students’ individual circumstances and personalities now than I did before the break. They’re not particularly shy about their lives, and I really like getting to see the course material come alive as they make connections to themselves. I’m already thinking about how I can use these tools to facilitate asynchronous discussion even when we go back to face-to-face.

Experimentation with form

One of the unexpected benefits of this move to online has been the chance to experiment with new and different ways of presenting materials. I’ve always been a huge proponent of using a wide variety of methods and techniques to communicate history–from one perspective, that’s the whole point of this class. But I’ve rarely had the opportunity to practice what I preach and innovate in my delivery of material.

But now innovation is upon us, whether we wish it or not. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to do synchronous class meetings; they make me extremely anxious, and I don’t find them a good teaching or learning environment (no shade on those who are doing synchronous; it’s just not for me). So that meant I got to get creative with content delivery. I’ve chosen to work mostly in audio—no surprise to those of you who know me; I’ve recently become rather enamored of audio.

I started out with just voice recordings. Over time I’ve developed my “lectures” into real podcast-sounding deliveries, with theme music, an intro, a conclusion, and other things that help good audio stand out. I’m not arguing that I’m making something good, necessarily, only that I’m concertedly trying to do so.

It’s hard to communicate with just audio when you’re used to being able to use gestures, facial expressions, and other visual cues to get your point across. I do miss being able to scribble on a white board. But I’ve found the challenge of experimenting with audio immensely rewarding. I’ve taught myself a lot about the form and the mechanics, and my students seem to appreciate the work I put in.

It is a LOT of work. I spend several hours on each 20-minute episode, editing it, selecting and placing the music, re-recording when needed. But there are a lot of moments when I find the work therapeutic: it feels good to make something every week that I’m proud of. My students have also found it therapeutic to make things, it seems. Every time I’ve asked them to do something hands-on, like draw a map of their house, they’ve thrown themselves into it with a right good will.

There’s a pretty decent chance I’ll never use these podcast episodes again. But having to write a script, edit it for clarity, and then listen to myself talk it out has been valuable to me—once again, I’m back to the essentials. What do I need to include in order to get across the point I really care about? Condensing the speaking part of my class from 50-60 minutes into 20 has made me really consider what I care about.

Am I a Jerk for Liking My Class Right Now?

Sometimes I feel like a jerk for liking my class right now. I’ve heard from many colleagues about how they’re struggling to adjust to this new reality. The rest of the semester is just about survival for them, and they believe that the students are getting an inferior product now. And maybe that’s true. And I’m sympathetic—in my other class, I feel like we’re hanging on by a thread and a giant ogre is standing over us with a huge pair of scissors.

I am likewise fully aware that my students are not feeling good about their lives right now. Many of my students are in extremely difficult situations, where classwork is the least of their concerns (rightly). All of them are living in the perpetual fog of covid-19, and I’m there too. Life is not comfortable for any of them, and it’s downright bad for some.

I also know that if we stay online for the fall, much of the work I’ve done for this online class will need to be re-done; it’s very specific to this semester’s students and work. (Plus there’s the whole first half of the class which hasn’t been online-ized.) I’m not saying that this class is better online, either, or that the university should dispense with face-to-face classes forever. Teaching online from the outset, with students whom I don’t know and can’t tailor instruction to out of the gate, is a whole different beast from this switch midstream. To be honest, that kind of online teaching scares the snot out of me. This ain’t that.

So when I say that this class is working for me, it kind of feels like I’m betraying my colleagues and my students who are just barely making it.

And yet it wouldn’t be fair to say that these last 6 weeks have been universally horrible. My students are responding really well to these new ways of teaching and learning. They’ve told me (and I think they’re being honest) that they’re enjoying the new forms, and they’re finding our Slack discussions useful. Not everything has worked, but a lot of stuff has worked. Students are making historical connections to their own lives. They’re learning in real time about how to understand the digital environment where they live and are now even more immersed in.

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned new skills, new ways of showing empathy, new ways of communicating, new ways of managing my own and my students’ expectations. And most important, what I’ve learned this semester is going to make future semesters better, online or face-to-face. I think it’s a mistake to miss the good in the midst of the bad. We all need a few successes to hang our hats on right now. This class, for the moment, is where I’m going to hang my hat.