Building a Rickety Bridge: Part II

After taking my first stab at retooling the history survey course, I decided to spend this week further exploring how the section component of my proposed plan would operate. In particular, I wanted to think about how my previous exploration of digital archives – and the vast amount of primary sources that they offer free of charge – could be brought into the sections and used to the advantage of both teacher and student.  Most readily, digital archives seem to offer flexibility and choice in essay topics, especially if the time is taken to gain an understanding of how to most effectively harness their researching power.

With that said, one of the first meetings of the thematic sections would need to include an introduction to major digital archives like the DPLA, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives and Records Administration, plus an awareness of other smaller projects and ways to locate them (like this handy list of digital archives organized by state). In order to ensure student engagement from the outset, this first meeting would include a lesson on how to search digital archives accompanied by an activity, such as a primary source scavenger hunt, that would immerse students in the researching process and have them locating documents immediately. Each section meeting after could then include a low-stakes activity that focused on finding primary sources in small groups related to the theme, critically reading them, and then explaining them to class. Ideally, if organized in this fashion, the sections would provide students with a base of knowledge that they could then draw on when it came time to produce the larger written assignments. James Gee might say that this set of low-stakes activities makes use of his “‘Psychosocial Moratorium’” Principle, Ongoing Learning Principle, and Bottom-Up Basic Skills Principle, to name a few.

The more heavily weighted assignments would include two take-home essays (perhaps 750-1000 words) and a larger final written project (1500-2000 words). The two take-home essays would be contained by the section’s theme and students would be provided a prompt. To support their essays, the students could use secondary readings plus the primary sources contained in the digital archives that they’ve explored in section and now understand how to navigate. Ideally, lecture would also provide some broader context that the students could draw on to expand the scope and depth of their essays. These take-home essays would begin to teach students how to bring in primary and secondary sources to make a historical argument, and both would be worth less than the final. The final project would be a longer paper that further develops a topic of the student’s choice and utilizes the primary sources and secondary material that they have been exposed to over the course of the semester. At this point, hopefully the student would have the skills to locate primary source material online, analyze it, and bring it into an essay. Towards the end of the semester, sections could be devoted to searching out sources for the papers and brainstorming how to locate topics and organize the final essay.

As I outlined in my last post, it would be absolutely necessary that the professors and TAs meet at least once every other week, if not once every week. At the most basic level, these meetings could serve as a space to collaboratively craft essays/projects and discuss grading rubrics. Furthermore, these meetings would allow all teaching parties to touch base on how the course is developing, revisit pedagogical goals, determine where the course is going next, and share practical lessons about what has worked and what hasn’t in the various sections. In other words, these conversations between the professor and the TAs could offer a valuable opportunity for graduate students to gain insight and ask questions about the teaching/lecturing process from an experienced educator. Ideally, the professor would benefit from these meetings as he/she gains a better understanding of where the class stands as a collective whole,  a set of knowledge that he/she could use to improve the content and purpose of the lectures.

Though I can still foresee multiple holes in my plan, the one that seems most problematic – or that one I keep circling back to, at least – is the time cost issue. Professor and graduate students alike are always pressed for time, and the amount of time that we have often varies based on the stage that we have reached in our careers (i.e dissertation writers might have more time than coursework students, though I know this certainly isn’t always the case; and tenured professor might have a bit more time than those racing against the tenure clock). All of these factors and more seem to mean that both the professor and the TAs would have to be dedicated to spending more time on the undergraduate classroom than we do in our current lecture model. With that said, I can certainly see why some graduate students might object to being pulled further away from their own research. This dilemma leads me back to Cronon’s call to view teaching as equal in importance to our research. I fully agree with Cronon, but we must ask, at what cost do we make these kinds of choices? Can we walk the fine line between research goals and professional development and remain as equally dedicated to the classroom? The current tenure system seems to privilege one experience over the other, making it an even more troubled and fraught decision.

While I think it is absolutely necessary that we consider these dilemmas, I don’t mean to suggest that it precludes us from making these changes. If we consciously make the decision to prioritize teaching – and we’re aware of what that means for our research and are open to developing strategies to overcome that issue  – then these changes seem a bit less scary.  There’s certainly a deeper conversation about this waiting to happen, and I can only hope that this post might shed some light on some of the issues and possibilities.

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