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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.

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Just Putting Words on “Paper”

These past few weeks have been full of “Big Emotions,” as we sometimes say around here. I am in a very privileged situation, with a steady job that isn’t going to disappear this semester, a nice house, kids who aren’t terrors, no worries about where the next meal is coming from. And yet.

Sometimes the anxiety creeps in, and sometimes it roars in, and sometimes it crashes in like a tsunami. Am I going to get sick? Are my students going to get sick? Are my family going to get sick? And those are only the questions that concern me the least. More pressing, I find myself concerned about my kids’ relationship with each other (which is actually quite strong at the moment but I still worry). I find myself concerned about whether my friends who are healthcare providers are signing their own death warrants by going to work. I find myself concerned about my students who are drowning in their own wells of anxiety about school, work, home, living.

Can I be honest, though? I don’t miss many face-to-face interactions. I’ve heard from a number of people that their main source of anxiety is not being able to go out with people. I guess I’ve just proved once and for all to myself that I’m an introvert. Far from wanting to see other people and go out, sometimes my most fervent wish is to socially distance from the people in my house right now. That’s not to say things are going badly. They aren’t. In fact, social distancing with my family has been a definite positive.

But homeschooling two kids and trying to teach my students at the same time is exhausting. I always said that I didn’t want to homeschool, and now I definitely don’t want to, ever again. But we’re muddling through. We’re taking some time to learn new things, but mostly we’re just in maintenance mode. (We did do a pretty fun science experiment today; I’m looking forward to more things like that once GMU’s semester is over.)

I really miss my students, though. I chose to do my classes asynchronously (more on that in another post, maybe), which means I haven’t seen them in weeks. The first few days I missed them a ton. Then it settled into a “this is how it is” feeling. But I did video check-ins with some of my students today and now I miss them dreadfully again.

I may write another blog post about online learning, and how I’m dealing with the pivot. To be honest, I’m not sure I have anything useful to say. Everyone’s approach is so idiosyncratic, so particular to their individual classes, that hearing how I’m doing things probably isn’t that interesting.

I do get a little upset when I hear that professors are giving their students MORE work to do right now “because they have so much more time.” That’s garbage. No one has more time right now. Not even the people who have nothing to do. We’re all living in a state of general anxiety that makes focus and productivity a Herculean struggle. On the days we succeed in focusing, we’re exhausted. On the days we don’t, we’re exhausted. But no one has “more time” for more work. If we have more time, it’s to be creative, to express how we are processing this new and terrifying world. It’s to be with our families and spend more time loving them. It’s to reach out to our friends and neighbors (from a safe social distance) to make sure they’re ok. It’s not to work.

So I guess my main goal in this weird and anxious time is to care about people more, not less. My students are probably getting tired of me asking how they’re handling things, if I can do anything to help them. But I’m going to keep asking.


I think I’m using this blog post as a coping mechanism, just to write down some of my own big emotions. I probably will write up that blog post about the pivot to online learning, later. Today felt like a good day on that front: I tried something and I think it worked really well. So maybe I do have something to say after all, if only to myself.

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Spellcast: A Podcast About Words

My daughter is really into the spelling bee at the moment (she’s in third grade and her school is doing the spelling bee). She brought home a spelling list, which we busted through in a few hours, with a respectably low number of misses. But I remember from my spelling bee days that I knew how to spell an awful lot of words that never entered my functional vocabulary because I didn’t know what they were (even if I could recite a definition).

As I may have mentioned a few times, my class is making a podcast this semester. I may have also mentioned that while I have done a lot of research into how to make a podcast, I’ve never actually made one. Apparently my children have heard me talk about podcasting enough that they wanted to try it. So my daughter and I hatched up an idea for a podcast that could benefit both of us.

Our podcast is meant to be a way to talk through the words on the list, to get familiar with them in a deeper way than just a definition (though of course we read the definition and spell the word too). My other goal for the podcast is to learn the nuts and bolts of audio-editing software and work on editing.

This could potentially take a lot of time. So we have some parameters: the recording has to take less than 10 minutes, and the total editing/mixing time has to be less than half an hour. I’m willing to stretch the time for editing a bit if I am playing around with some of Audacity’s functions.

It’s been really fun to see my daughter get so excited about creating this podcast—it’s often the first thing she asks about when she comes home from school, and so far we’ve managed to record an episode every day since we started (which is, admittedly, only 6 episodes so far). Doing this podcast is helping her learn how to speak loudly, clearly, and concisely. It’s helping me learn how to “get good tape,” as luminaries such as Jessica Abel and Alex Blumberg call it; I don’t do a lot of re-organizing, but I do a lot of deleting to make our work more concise.

We’re still developing our style, but it’s been really fun and I hope we’ll be able to keep it going for a while yet (even if she doesn’t win her class and school spelling bee). We’re also working on getting it into Apple Podcasts and other podcast distributors so it’s easier to listen to.

Take a listen to our most recent episode; if you like it, we’d be delighted for you to spend 2 minutes of your day listening to us talk about words.

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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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Podcasting in Class

I asked on Twitter yesterday if those who used podcast creation as part of their classes would share their materials or, even better, their podcasts. I got some pretty cool stuff. So here’s a roundup, possibly incomplete (the threads kind of got away from me a few times). If I’ve missed something you suggested, or if you have additions to/amendments, please let me know!

Podcast Examples

Here are some of the podcasts that were created during the course of a semester, by students.

Podcast Methods

Here are some of the rubrics/instructional materials about podcasting. (I received a few others that aren’t available on the web, so I am not posting them.)

Additional resources

Here are some additional resources that people mentioned for teaching with podcasts.

  • YouTube tutorial for Audacity
  • Programming Historian tutorial for Audacity
  • NPR guide to podcasts for students
  • Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).
  • John McMahon, “Producing Political Knowledge: Students as Podcasters in the Political Science Classroom,” Journal of Political Science Education 0, no. 0 (July 16, 2019): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2019.1640121. (unfortunately paywalled)
  • Hannah Hethmon, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits (2018). (The author has also generously offered to Skype into any class that reads this book–that’s no small offer! She’s on Twitter @hannah_rfh.)
  • Jim McGrath, Podcasts and Public History, History@Work

Resources for Use in a Podcast

This is a list of things that you might want to incorporate into your podcast, such as sound effects, etc.

Resources for Creating or Hosting a Podcast on the Web

None of these resources is outright free, but many have very limited free plans.

  • Soundtrap, for collaborative podcast creation
  • Podbean, hosting service
  • Libsyn, no free plan but the old standby host for many successful podcasts
  • Descript, an online editor and transcription creator
  • Buzzsprout, hosting service with some other bells and whistles