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another stock-taking post

14 October, 2009

Another Stock-Taking Post

Well, it’s the end of Fall Break, a weekend where I traditionally try to get caught up on everything, and usually fail. So instead I take stock and try to organize myself for the rest of the semester so that I can have a couple of days of rest at Thanksgiving and Christmas — providing I remember to get online and see if I can redeem some miles to go back to the Left Coast and see X, the Kid, and friends. It was a good break — not only did I manage to get all my marking up-to-date, but I managed to drive through three states yesterday to go and see my cousin and her kid. Sadly, they are moving back West. Happily, at least they are headed back to the same town my mom and sisters live in, so at least now most of my family is located on the same coast — or in London.

I have to say, I love living east of the Mississippi. The drive to the cousin’s was wonderful (except for the drivers on a long stretch of the road, where OMG they are frakkin’ crazy). The weather was nice and dry, and the colors of the leaves were gorgeous. There are lots of miles of country highway on the route, and sadly, lots of roadkill. Raccoons seemed pretty big on this trip. One skunk. Countless furry-tailed tree-rats. Possibly a ground-hog. And something really, really big. Deer meets semi-truck is my guess. And it was mostly still in the road… just…open. Yuck. And yet, I couldn’t help thinking about the Gary Larson cartoon with crows using spatulas. That and what a human body might look like after getting hit by a truck and a couple of cars. Ugh.

Oh — and I managed to work on getting rid of most of a nasty cold — yay me!

So, right — stock-taking.

I need to do some revamping of my classes. Or maybe take some time out to talk about why I teach the way I do. I don’t lecture. I stopped lecturing a while back, when I was teaching at Jesuit U, because my evaluations indicated that the students did not like it and expect more Active Learning. Since then, most of my classes are really discussion-based. This means that students really need to be prepared to discuss and they have to be able to put things together in different ways. Now, fortunately, my program’s outcomes are also kind of geared towards my kind of teaching — they focus mainly on teaching the skills of the historian. This is problematic in its own way, but that’s another post.

When my students show up, they really don’t know what to expect, and most are not prepared for this sort of class. But honestly, I don’t think that they would be successful in the sort of class that I took as an undergraduate. I would sometimes like to craft nice lectures and expect the students to take them, the primary source readings, and the textbook readings, integrate them, and use that information to answer solid historical questions. But that isn’t going to happen in the World History survey. My students have enough trouble keeping the information in the textbooks straight. So instead, I focus on using primary sources and discussion to highlight the most important issues. It has been pretty successful so far, but I’m finding I need to do a few new things as well.

My students are not particularly good at reading essay questions. This is true for multi-part questions that, when broken down, tell the students exactly how to structure the essay, as well as the more simple-looking questions that require students to consider the question and demonstrate that they understand all the issues at stake. Since they don’t read — or understand– the questions (and really, these are the same questions we’ve all asked and answered: I’ve even poached questions from exams I took!), they don’t answer them. I can’t stop giving essay exams and papers, so I’m going to have to spend a bit more time early on explaining how to write essays. Where I’m going to find that time, I’m not sure. Possibly group work — perhaps letting them use their computers in class to work on a wiki, and workshop the opening paragraph of an essay?

Beyond that, I probably need to add a bit more structure. Hmmm. And remind the upper-division students that they are responsible for information that I haven’t talked about in class, if it’s something that was in the reading. And I’m still behind on making the podcasts I wanted to make for this year, and on my reading. At least that last part I can do 🙂

Apart from that, I’m feeling overwhelmed this semester, and shouldn’t. Departmental administration is more difficult than I had expected. There’s a lot that needs doing in terms of curriculum and program revision, and getting buy-in is … interesting. Coming up with outcomes was pretty easy, but getting people to make the leap from outcomes to coming up with assessments that really do reflect the outcomes? Different animal. Plus there’s a job application to write, a search committee to serve on (touch wood it’s only one — there are a bunch of searches this year).

And then there’s the writing. I’ve got a book I’ve done bugger all on in months, and an article to write, whether or not it’s going into a collection a colleague is proposing. I totally botched getting in a proposal for Leeds (but if anyone finds they need a chair at the last minute, do please let me know). I have to start thinking about a panel for Big Berks. And do some background work for the professional organization I’m a member of … oh — and maybe actually read some books and professional journals.

So, pretty normal for an Associate Professor of History, I think. Guess I’d better figure out how to get going on all of that. Reading for tomorrow first, I guess.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 14 October, 2009 4:04 pm

    Your students are lucky you care so much about them. It's much easier just to let them fend for themselves than to actually teach them how to get from where they are to where they should be in their ability to demonstrate their historical understandings. And kudos for expecting them to both do and comprehend their outside reading. I wholeheartedly agree that it is part of our job to teach them to be independent learners and they should be able to leave our courses knowing how to read effectively. Keep up the great work!

  2. 15 October, 2009 2:57 pm

    Similarly, I'm really grateful for posts like this of yours where you challenge not just the students to understand but yourself to convey your courses better. It stops me from thinking that I can get away with sticking to the box when I meet these kind of dilemmas in practice. I learn a lot from your experience this way. Whether that helps, I don't know, but. it's true,

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