A list of teaching ideas for next term

I have gathered several from the recent conference, talking to other profs, and seredipidity, so I list them here so I don’t forget:

1) Create quiz questions that ask students to analyze something instantly

Most of my quiz questions ask students to carry over something from the readings, which makes sense since I think of the purpose of quizzes is to make sure they did the reading. But today, a student wrote me that there was a quiz question about a source she said was missing from the lecture, a 1949 Ford ad:


I looked and she was right. But she and four others had already taken the quiz. So I checked all four, and added a point for any wrong answer. But then I wanted to change the quiz for the others. So I just change the wording of the question from “Which is not a factor in the 1949 Ford ad?” to “Which is not a factor in this 1949 Ford ad” and added the image of the ad to the question (very easy to do in Canvas — yes, you heard me).

Looking at it, I saw I was asking a completely different question. Instead of asking them to look at the lecture and see something (which wasn’t there anyway) and answer a question on the separate quiz page, I was asking them to analyze the source in front of them. Well, that’s the skill I want to test anyway. Now I’m thinking about all the quiz questions, in all the classes – maybe I could do more application of knowledge, and still keep the questions auto-gradable…

2) Deal with attendance for on-site classes

I tend not to emphasize attendance, since quizzes, sources, and writing are all due in an online format.  But this semester I have four students who post work online but do not attend. Since I ask each student to introduce their source as I bring it up on the screen, those students are receiving the same points, while only those attending are doing the further work of presenting what they’ve posted. That’s not fair.

I am very flexible about students who cannot attend, having them instead do work with my online lectures. But those arrangements aren’t being followed by these students, so I will now only assign half points when students post a source but aren’t in class to explain. I wrote emails to this effect half an hour before class. One student returned to class within an hour.

3) Stand fast by open textbooks

I almost abandoned the open textbook American Yawp last week. One reason was because the pdfs created when saving its web pages are too big for printing, and for on-site classes I like students to bring a text to class. The other problem is that there are no ancillaries, no test banks or quizzes. But I decided to keep it, have them read online (or print if they wish), and demand only that the primary sources be printed for in-class analysis. I’ve put in too many hours working with the text to abandon it, and when I looked at other options, they weren’t very good. So I’ve added “Book Notes” in front of my lectures, and my plan is to bring the chapter up on the screen and “annotate” it aloud to start class. As for quizzes, I’m adding a chapter summary to the homework, right before the part where they get to bring in something that interests them.

4) Consider PlayPosit

Students watching videos tend to be passive about it. Tools like PlayPosit allow the instructor to force a video to stop a video at any point, and start again only after a student answers a question or reads a note. A student watching a lecture (I have these for my early American online class) would have to stop and be “accountable” for what they’ve seen, or review it in a different way, before continuing. This mimics what I do in the classroom. I tend to stop whatever video clip I have on, to explain and ask questions.

5) Continue annotations of the text, and consider it for lecture

For the past few terms, I’ve used Hypothes.is in a limited way, because it has remained clumsy in its interface despite wonderful efforts on the part of Jeremy Dean and the team to make it work well with Canvas. This term I’m testing Perusall instead in my 8-week Western Culture online class, and it’s working better. Its connection with Canvas is almost seamless, and I’m able to adapt an auto-grading feature so I can spend time reading and responding. It occurs to me this might be even more fun with lecture.


But not all students like doing it. I did have a student, on his mid-term self-assessment, tell me that “I don’t annotate to learn, and I don’t need to do that, so I didn’t”. There’s a misconception here that I’ve offered a self-learning tool rather than a required exercise that benefits all. It’s interesting that he saw this as qualitatively different from discussion. I don’t — to me annotation is just object-based discussion. I’m going to continue working with (and articulating) that idea.

6) Totally subjective grading

I have found rubrics to be a half-way measure. If I don’t use them, I get asked why they got the grade. If I do use them, I get the same question phrased differently. Either way, despite breaking down graded factors (source use, writing, formatting, thesis quality), showing them samples of good student work, and “liking” the best assignments (all posted sources and writing assignments are visible to the whole class), my students seem resistant to learning through example.


Today’s students also, more than ever, try to negotiate their grade at the end of the class, which has caused me to do bizarre things like make their final score invisible a week before the final exam, just so they don’t argue .17% or something. What I haven’t made clear here is that I’m a professional, and that I grade their work as such. My profs used letter grades, and a few comments. They assumed their marks would be to be treated with respect. I am considering heading that direction.

7) Honors contracts

Oh, contracts – the bain of my existence as an Honors instructor. We have the ability here to take a student in a regular class, and contract with them to do Honors for that class. I have never been able to make it work to my satisfaction. Students are unprepared for the independent nature of research. This is tied to the idea of undergrad research, above, but it goes beyond into what makes something Honors. We are only allowed 5 contracts per instructor per term – too many to do individually, and too few to do collectively, with them learning from each other. I am consideirng an invitation only system, inviting good students from this semester to join me for Honors in any course next semester. Plus, he idea about teaching databases is in my head now, so I might want to use that.

Well, that’s enough for now. Back to work!

Students help with Midhurst mystery

When my friend and colleague Jenny Mackness added a comment on my recent post detailing my difficulties finding Mr Byatt’s house in Midhurst, saying it would be useful to students, it occurred to me that my students could help. And as I mentioned in my last post, I did have them help me*. So here I’m sharing the results of their work.

It’s a small group, my class – changing the name of the course from Western Civilization to Western Culture helped not a jot. We will now be changing it again to European History and Culture, but the fact of the matter is that various courses in Italian, French, and Chinese Culture have been approved by the curriculum committee. These courses, taught by my wonderful colleagues in the foreign language department, are much less rigorous (and thus more fun) than a real History class. But, the students who show up for class want to be there, and there were seven present the day I brought in my work.

I had run off copies of the Census pages, not only the one with Horace Byatt’s house (record #89) showing H.G. Wells was there, but also the pages before and after (more gifts from the mysterious public librarian). I told them I needed those documents back, as they are officially records and I’m technically not supposed to reproduce them (this may have added an aura of importance, now that I think about it). I had also brought photocopies of the maps, especially the one that showed the house buildings:


Our first issue was to determine which way the census taker was walking. Since the last house before South Street was one on West Street, we decided s/he turned right. #86 was the Spread Eagle Hotel, but that’s several buildings, and it’s changed over time. I had discovered that the building on the island, now part of the Hotel, was the Market Hall then, so it wouldn’t count. Then the students compared the map with the census rows, and we came up with some possibilities, the most likely being this:


There are, of course, some problems. The house fronting the street is small, seemingly too small for that many people (though other families are crowded too). But the big problem is the buildings off the street. Might this have been an extension of Byatt’s house? or are they different houses entirely? Storehouses?


Old photos aren’t much help. The tiny building above the courtyard appears to be a storefront of some kind, as does the one on the other side of the courtyard, which we agreed was most likely for Byatt’s house. The best photo we have is of the visit of King Edward in 1906, when the Sanitarium was opened:


There is a shop sign over the courtyard entrance, and it’s unlikely that the house showing behind the boy sitting on the chimney pots is a house large enough for the whole Byatt family. If one assumes, then, that the Byatts were in one of the houses on the courtyard, that’s unfortunate, because here’s that area now:


You’ll notice there’s nothing there now. Just backyard garden, maybe a patio. Which means the hunt is on for Byatt’s lease or property documents, likely to be found at the West Sussex Record Office. But without my students, I’d know far less than that!


* Students, and my family (who were a huge help), and anyone else who would stand still long enough for me to show them!

NACBS: The Last Session

It was last on the program page, last in the size of the room, and last on the schedule as the last session of the conference (so people kept leaving to catch planes): Teaching British History Now II (the last teaching session, of two): The Present in British History Classrooms.

Although the chair was Simon Devereaux of the U of Victoria, it was Kali Israel of the U of Michigan who wanted the session. The original idea was to discuss the issue of how we historians should bring what’s happening in Britain nowadays into the classroom. Kali was coming from an emotional place, when the lack of historical context in reportage of the Scottish referendum caused her angst. What happened in the session was a much larger, wide-ranging discussion of our current difficulties and how we can justify our discipline.

But on the original topic, one way Kali handles this is to present to students “history for revision”: things that are “hot” again because of something that happens. Allison Abra (U of Southern Mississippi) uses study abroad in London and sites in southern England to connect current events directly and on the fly.

The 16th Street Mall, Denver

But most interesting to me was Charles Upchurch of Florida State University, who has developed a pedagogical method addressing a number of needs: answering the neoliberal critique of history as a useless field, opposing administratively driven pressure to teach online with the goal of replacing teachers with filmed lectures, and resisting the downsizing of Humanities programs. His method is to have students engage in intensive undergraduate research, something that is very appealing to the administration and through which he can achieve a number of goals. Students select a topic of interest to them within the course parameters (his Brit history classes cover about 150 years only), and they use historical databases (Old Bailey, Parliamentary Papers, etc) to do their research using primary sources throughout the semester, building up to a big paper.

Mondays he lectures, Wednesdays there’s discussion (but in a larger sense, including their projects – I wasn’t too clear on this), and Fridays are database days: the first 1/3 of the semester spent demonstrating databases to students, then shifting to students taking the class through the databases they’re working in, and for the last 1/3 everyone workshopping their papers collaboratively. The sense of community is high, the academic standards are high (but with no harsh penalties), and everyone improves. Instead of grading everything, exemplary work from one student is graded live on the screen, and students somehow through self-assessment (?) use that example to improve their own work. (I put the ? because this last might not come across with community college students.)

The overlaps are considerable with what I do in my classes. Class size is 40, like mine. He ends with 30, as I often do. The focus is on their own topics and primary sources, which is the foundation of my method. The difference is I do it online (and, of course, I have first-year students). When I pointed out that his goal of making lecture capture online courses impossible could be achieved within an online environment, I became the faculty-driven online pedagogy expert in the room (which, I suppose, I was).

What’s of use to me there, though, isn’t the goal, but the method involving the databases. I have had Honors Contracts fail continually because of student problems using databases. Charles stated outright that we must teach students to use historical databases. He said that librarians pretend they can do this, but they can’t. Put so starkly, that answered a number of issues for me. Despite my deep love of librarians, they are not historians, and databases are not just databases. Historical databases are different and require particular skills. Duh. I’ve been thinking that’s not my job, teaching how to use technological things (databases, LMSs, etc) – that’s training, which I denigrate as not using my skills. He teaches this in class, on the screen. YES. Of course. Instead of just class exercises, activities, and discussions, my Wednesdays could include this. (He also made a point that we should force students to use the databases — even ones like J-STOR just to get assigned articles — to make sure the markers are there for supporting paying for the databases). In fact, if I think about this too much, I may end up engaging the same technique to make sure they find good visual primary sources and cite them properly each week…not just Honors students, but all students.


Other aspects and solutions to the “history as a discipline” issue were discussed by the group. We should justify research skills as being important in many professions. We should specifically point out the history of what’s happening now – student minds begin in the present. We must impart the diversity of our expertise.  Although there was concern that our lectures must not make contemporary events seem pre-determined (this happened, then this, then – ta dah! – terrorists attack the London bus), I was sure that pulling the threads through to current events was something we owed to our students. On the question of the decline of “expertise”, Charles pointed to Antiques Roadshow, where people bring items to experts to discover their connections to the past.  Engagement to the past should be automatic. Perhaps historians are the gatekeepers…

Another useful thing for me resulted from the discussion, through Laura E. Nym Mayhall (who presented yesterday). A couple of weeks ago, I had students work on my own research, helping me find Horace Byatt’s house in Midhurst. I was of two minds about this, but I needed the help of visually-experienced people, which many of my students are. Laura does research internships where the students work on her research. And they love it, just like the students who helped me (when I set the project of house-finding aside, they demanded to know what I had concluded). Say, that might be a good idea for Honors Contracts too!