Building a Rickety Bridge: My First Shot at a Revamped History Classroom

Last week, I tried to get a handle on the vast holdings of the DPLA. This week, I wanted to explore how those easily accessible, downloadable, and at times, even transcribed sources could make their way into the classroom. Moreover, as the semester moves past the midway point, I decided that it was time for me to start talking about solutions in terms of the immediate problem that we face: or, how to increase student engagement in 300+ student lectures with one professor and (most likely) four TAs. If we’re buying the value of the set of historical thinking skills that Sam Wineburg articulates (and I clearly am), how can we start thinking about using primary sources – particularly the mass available online – to give students even a cursory familiarity with the questions that historians ask and the way that we go about answering them? If our end goal is to teach students those sorts of skills – skills that allow the student to read primary documents, interrogate them, and put them in conversation with secondary material and/or other documents – how can we achieve that in a 300-person lecture with only fifty minutes to spare? We’ve been saying it all along, these are huge questions, and they’re not getting any smaller.

From downloadable lesson plans with downloadable documents, to instructional videos on how to teach with primary sources, to sites that organize digital archives by specific subject, there is certainly no shortage of advice on how to find and implement primary sources in the classroom. If that key information is widely available – if we can locate digital archives, learn how to navigate them, and find advice on the logistics of bringing them into the classroom – then why is it still so difficult to do? And how are those issues exacerbated by the reality of three-hundred students sitting in a required course intended to cover an impossible swath of time? After eight weeks of reading, research, and hashing these problems out in class, here’s my first shot at a solution. My pedagogical backing for these drafty ideas pulls from Calder’s notion of “uncoverage,” Wineburg’s insistence that we teach students how to enter into conversations about the past like historians do, Davidson’s (and others) emphasis on collaboration, and the myriad issues that we’ve raised in class discussions.

What if, at the beginning of the semester, the teaching assistants and the professor met and agreed on a set of themes that the course would focus on (think here of Calder). Each teaching assistant and the professor would then choose to become “experts” in one of the themes. After electing a theme, the TAs and the professor would spend some time compiling primary sources from digital or local archives and draft essays question (or collaborative projects) related to their chosen theme. Lectures would occur twice a week and touch on each of the themes in some depth, working to tie them together into a more coherent narrative, and the third class period would be devoted to sections led by the TAs and possibly one by the professor. The once weekly sections would focus on primary source reading and understanding the specific theme more closely. I’m also tossing around the idea of only holding sections every other week in order to allow more time to be spent in the classroom for breadth, and also to avoid overburdening the TAs. If possible, this could be a discussion between the TAs and the professor before the class began. Quite obviously, the TAs who elected to serve as teaching assistants for this particular class would need to know in advance that they were signing up for an increased workload.

Since that’s not an entirely new model for the undergraduate survey, here is where my plan diverges from the standard lecture-section layout: in the ideal classroom, at least in my opinion, students would be able to chose the theme that they wanted to learn more about, meaning they would pick their own discussion sections. I foresee how this could create a whole host of logistical problems (what if one section is more popular, conflicts of schedule, etc.), but I think it offers a way for students to express their interests and engage more deeply within that field. To get around this issue, perhaps students could rank their choices so that, in the end, they at least ended up with something that they were vaguely interested in. Each section leader, too, would craft the essays (or projects) and they would obviously be related to the theme of the section that the particular TA had chosen to lead.  Ideally, students would draw on the twice-weekly lecture to bring in more depth to the essays and show a broader engagement with the rest of the class content as it was articulated by the professor.

For this to stand even the slightest chance of working, I think that the TAs and the professor would have to meet weekly to talk about teaching, help each other craft questions and rubrics, and deal with the logistical problems that would surely result from so many students working on divergent (though related) topics.  It would require quite a bit of upfront planning, a more equal workload between TA and professor, and probably some substantial missteps as the system worked out its glitches and the TAs learned how to lead sections.

I’m absolutely positive that there’s a whole host of issues in my plan that I can’t see. Perhaps the purpose of this post, then, was to create a space for me to start really thinking about and articulating solutions to the immediate problems that we face in the undergraduate history survey at UT. The best that I can hope for is that this post makes my colleagues minds turn and, where the inevitable holes become apparent, perhaps we can collectively find ways to fill them.

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One Response to Building a Rickety Bridge: My First Shot at a Revamped History Classroom

  1. Pingback: Designing History's Future | Building a Rickety Bridge: Part II

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