Friday, August 5, 2022

The Last Assignment I Gave My Survey Students This Summer (And Why)



In my last post, I wrote about the first assignment that I gave to my US history survey students this summer.  I also explained how my philosophy of education (especially when it comes to the surveys) has changed drastically in the past few years.  

So today I wanted to share the last assignment I gave them, which was a self-assessment final exam.  I've been experimenting with exam formats for a while, but never tried something quite like this.  Here are the ten questions they had to answer for their final exam:

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

The First Assignment I Gave My Survey Students This Summer (and Why)



My approach to teaching the US history survey courses has changed drastically in the past few semesters.  I've talked about the reasons for these changes at various times on the blog, but here they are all in one place:

1) I've spent the past few years working on a Masters of Teaching, as well as completing a Graduate Certificate in Teaching College.  This has revitalized my teaching, even after a decade in higher ed.  PhD's are research-focused, not pedagogy-focused.  That means that most college professors and instructors spent graduate school becoming content experts, but not necessarily effective teachers (though my program emphasized good teaching more than most).  I consider myself to have been a "good" teacher for the past ten years, mostly because I was able to observe and pick the brains of colleagues who are excellent classroom instructors.  But the MAT and Graduate Certificate have given me an opportunity to study best practices and turn a critical eye towards my own courses.  

2) I have moved away from disciplinary content to disciplinary skills as the focus of my surveys.  I am more convinced than ever that historical thinking is a necessary skill for citizens of a democracy.  Sure, content, is important, but I would rather spend my sixteen weeks with students preparing them for a life time of independent historical thinking, rather than making sure we cover a few more bits of history they can always google later.  (My apologies if that sounds a bit glib; I'm still on my first cup of coffee!)  If you're interested, my friend Dr. Lindsay Stallones Marshall and I wrote a brief article articulating this philosophy for the Journal of American History this Spring.  The article also includes an excellent example of how to put this philosophy into practice taken from Lindsay's classroom.  

3) Covid has been a disaster for student learning and retention.  Many of my students now enter college without the academic (or social) training they would have received in the last few years of high schools. -- or, at least without a college-ready version of it.  So that means I have to adjust my own assessments and general expectations in order to be the "next step" in their education process -- not because my students now are "worse" than previous students, but because many of them simply don't come in with the same level of preparation.  That's not their fault, but it is going to be our higher ed reality for a while.

What does applying all of this look like in practice? Well, here is a new five question assignment I gave my summer survey students during the first week ...

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

A New Edition of a Classic Helps Address Board Gaming's Colonialism Issue



The only collection in our home that rivals our book collection is our board game collection.  Like many other people, my true deep dive into gaming coincided with the first Covid lockdown in the Spring of 2020.  Knowing I would be spending most of my time at home with my wife and kiddos, I saw board games as a great way to invest in family time.  Modern games are more expensive than their "traditional" counterparts (e.g. Monopoly), but they're still cheaper than taking my family of four to an amusement park or the zoo.  And you can play them for more than one day.

Because I am also a historian, some of my favorite board games on our shelves are the ones that let me travel to interesting historical periods or moments.  I can visit medieval Ireland or France through multiple games we own; the ancient Mediterranean world has its fair share of representatives, as well.  Other games, let me carve out a kingdom along the Ganges River or navigate the bustling bazaar of historic Istanbul.  I can help construct the famous fortress of Alhambra or rebuild London Bridge after The Great Fire.  Wanna help build some of the first skyscrapers in early twentieth-century New York or participate in a traditional Chinese lantern festival? My collection has you covered there, too.  You get the idea.

While the modern board game trend began in Europe, there are now many publishers active around the globe.  In addition, the market for these games has now extended around the globe, as well.  A much richer diversity of both producers and consumers has brought controversy to the industry's handling of historical themes at times.  One of the best examples of this at the moment is debates around how board games portray the theme of colonialism.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Celebrating 18 Months of Telegrams (And How to Catch Up on Older Posts!)



Eighteen months ago, I published the first post on this blog.  Since then, Telegrams has gotten more than 7000 views and produced more than 170 posts.  Even with a brief hiatus earlies this year, that's an average of almost 10 posts a month.  For a contingent faculty member doing this as an unpaid side hustle, that level of consistency feels pretty good!

I continue to believe that historians have a civil obligation to serve as public intellectuals -- to make their expertise available, but especially to work hard to make it accessible in how they communicate it.  "Accessible expertise" continues to be the mantra over here at Telegrams.  Are there historical experts with more impressive CVs out there? Sure.  Are there more compelling voices trying to do historical thinking (with varying levels of success) out there? Again, sure.  But I feel good about my efforts here at the intersection of quality scholarship and accessible writing. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

What Makes You Think Primary Sources Are Telling the Truth?


I often hear people concerned that "revisionist" historians are "changing the past."  (I wrote here about changing the past vs reinterpreting the past, if you're interested.)  The proposed solution is often that students should just read primary sources to get the "facts" about the past, bypassing those pesky revisionist historians altogether.  For example, consider this except from the initial report of the 1776 Commission:

"Civics and government classes should rely almost exclusively on primary sources.  Primary sources link students with the real events and persons they are studying.  The writings, speeches, first-hand accounts, and documents of those who were acting out the drama of history open a genuine communication, mediated by the written word, between historical figures and students that can bring the past to life.  Primary sources without selective editing also allow students to study principles and arguments unfiltered by present-day historians' biases and agendas."

Similar sentiments appear in various pieces of anti-CRT legislation produced in various states.  Students should focus on reading primary documents (though sometimes a selective required list) and just learn the facts for themselves.

As a historian, I am alllllll about students digging into primary sources.  That is the stuff of history! However, historians do not simply accept primary sources “as is.”  We understand that both primary source creators and primary source readers (that’s us!) have significant limitations as we work together to try to understand the past.  Primary source creators have the same limitations as any other human beings in trying to understand their own times.  Their attempts to do so are very valuable to historians because they are the only witnesses to the past that we possess.  But, they’re not perfect witnesses.

Sometimes people have this strange idea that because they’re interacting with a primary source, they’re getting the “unbiased” version of a historical period or event.  This is nonsense.  People in the past are no more objective or omniscient than you or me.  Like a good detective, you must “interrogate” your sources.  Does the creator of the primary source have any obvious personal loyalties or ideological commitments that might influence the source? In addition, does the creator of the primary source have any limitations that might affect how they understand what they are talking about? 

To say that a source is biased or limited in some way is not to say it is completely unreliable or useless! It just means that you need to read with a critical eye.  Below are four reasons that primary sources might not be telling you "the truth" about the past, even if they are trying to do so.

Friday, July 8, 2022

We Don't Live in A Nation Envisioned by Many of the Founding Generation (And That's Not All Bad)


"The Founders."  Along with the Jesus and the Hitler cards, it's one of the most played cards when people are trying to win a political argument.  Of course, it's not usually clear who exactly we think we're invoking when we use the phrase.  Do we mean the colonial elites who made up the Second Continental Congress that declared independence? Do we mean the colonial elites who made up the Constitutional Convention (plus a few absent folks like Jefferson)? Does that mean that anti-federalists like Patrick Henry aren't founders? What about women, free blacks, non-elite white males, and others who weren't behind those closed doors, but who contributed to the success of the Revolution, nonetheless? It turns out that the "The Founders" is a pretty sloppy category.

But the sloppiness doesn't affect our political debates as much as you might think because most of us really mean an interpretation of the Constitution and/or early American history rather than a specific group of people when we say "The Founders."  

People in every era have feared that we are moving way from the nation that their "Founders" envisioned.  And they're not wrong.  the United States has changed drastically from the nation founded in 1776 (or 1789, if you prefer).  But is that good or bad? Below are three major reasons why the United States of 2022 would be somewhat unrecognizable to the Americans of 1776.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

This Day in History: Why the Great War Matters



On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian nationalist of Serbian descent, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austria-Hungarian empire.  The empire blamed Serbia.  Within a month, a maelstrom of imperial rivalries, nationalist movements, and treaty alliances had dragged almost all of Europe into war.  Other parts of the world followed in the next few years.

We know this war as World War I, but of course they didn't call it that.  That would have required a rather pessimistic (though prescient) outlook on the twentieth century.  And most people weren't prepared to embrace such pessimism about either humanity's future or possible outcomes of the war.  In fact, author HG Well called it "the war to end all wars."  Most people called it The Great War.

World War I, or the Great War, can be really hard to teach to students.  First, it can be difficult to explain exactly how the war started.  Even after you hear a good explanation ... it's still pretty confusing.  When I go over the beginning of the war with my students, the white board ends up looking like this:   

[Pictured: Breath-Taking Pedagogy]

Second, the war's not a particularly inspiring story.  Trench warfare and the advent of new weapons of war (including mustard gas) meant that millions died for literally inches of forward momentum at times.  Yes, several empires toppled, but people weren't really any freer when the war ended.  Communism replaced the Russia monarchy.  Portions of other former empires mainly became European colonies or "protectorates."  A new republic did emerge in Germany, but couldn't survive the crushing weight of the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.  The League of Nations, a new international organization that was the brainchild of US President Woodrow Wilson's vision of a world "safe for democracy" had a short and pitiful life -- in large part because the US never joined.  

So if it's confusing and uninspiring, why spend time on the Great War at all in a US survey course already stuffed to the gill with historical content? Well, that's a question I hope to answer in this post.  Here are some reasons why the Great War matters:

The Last Assignment I Gave My Survey Students This Summer (And Why)

  [ source ] In my last post , I wrote about the first assignment that I gave to my US history survey students this summer.  I also explaine...