Sunday, August 8, 2010

Historic London, and an airport

    Airports are everywhere the same. They're like cities, with their own power grid, water, etc., their own populations, even their own police. They are cities with only a single purpose, though, so they don't look like ordinary cities. Their central place function is different. I wonder if someone will write a comparative history of airports.

    Few people can really know what they're looking at just by looking. London feels historic in part because there are plaques and signs everywhere telling you that this was the only building in the district to survive the Great Fire of 1665, or that the Victoria Embankment was built in part of provide a modern sewage system to the City. I've been in numerous other old cities and they don't do this nearly so well.
    The other reason why London feels historic is because we know the history. This manifests itself in two ways. First, England once ruled an empire, so many different nations and peoples have reason to know something about English history. Second, English-speaking people learned at least some English history in school; moreover, we learned English art, English literature, and so on. So in a list of fifty English names as compared to fifty German or French names, more of those English names are likely to resonant with the visitor. Learning that Mr. So-So was a noted 18th century Viennese novelist just doesn't have the same impact as learning that Jonathan Swift lived here.
    This is, I suppose, one reason why travel for the historian has a different dimension than travel for one ignorant of history. We get more harmonics on our internal strings.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Traveling History

I'm back. What did I learn? Not what I thought I might.

After I returned, people naturally asked about the trip. It's not clear exactly what they wanted to know; the question was usually phrased thus: "so, how was your trip?"

This phrase had different parameters for different people. Close family, accustomed to seeing pictures and hearing fairly extended accounts, expected much the same. Co-workers, otoh, might be content with "it was really great" or brief expansions thereon. Even when people ask to see photos, the scope of the request depends on the requestor. Few want to see all 1500 pictures!

Then it struck me that I was being asked to write history. There was the event qua event: on such and such a date a cruise ship called at such and such port. There was the experience of the trip, which differed among the four individuals who went. Even among the four there were subgroups: two couples, so there were the individual experiences and the couples' experiences. Already we have a complexity that is rapidly being lost to memory as the days roll by.

Then there are the reports of these experiences (let us assume all are somehow written down). Each of the four of us have reported variously to various audiences by now. In addition, I'm writing a sort of "official" history that I'll publish as an e-book, complete with photos and perhaps video, of our trip. As the other reportings vanish, the e-book will tend to become the only surviving artifact, although it's possible that references to it might show up in someone's memoirs. And of course there will be the document trail of purchases made, passenger manifests and the like that some future historian could use.

So, what did I learn? I learned -- let us say I experienced -- how history gets made. It's a mundane sort of lesson, but it carries more impact for me personally because I stumbled upon it myself, rather like a tourist who stumbles upon some statue or cafe and is delighted with his discovery. Well, the locals would say, so what? That's been there for years!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Cruise in the Baltic

What's the relationship between studying and teaching history, and travel? I've traveled before, but I've not reflected on the question.

Whenever I travel people say something along the lines of "Oh, you're a historian, it must be so fascinating to travel to those places."  I'm polite so I say yes it is.

In truth, when I travel, I'm just a tourist. I gawk and snap and sample and spend like any other tourist. My knowledge of European history sometimes influences my choice of destinations, but in this case choice is right off the table. I'm going on a cruise on the Disney Magic, where everything is packaged and bundled and carefully concierged. While it's easy to carp and find ways to deride such a tour, I'm determined to find unexpected benefits. One such is this matter of history and travel.  Or, I should say, history and touring, since one can travel for many reasons that leave on the blinders.

So, I intend to go on this tour as a historian. Not just a medievalist, mind you, for that would cause me to miss too much and some of our excursions are decidedly non-medieval. Rather, as a historian, I want to witness what I see, be it medieval or modern or even post-modern. My organizing principle is to use this exercise as a way to capture information, impressions, sights for my students; to bring back from this trip some insight or material that I can share with my students -- or, I suppose, even with friends and family -- as something specifically historical. Something that would be missing were I not a historian.

I have no idea if there is anything to be gained by this exercise, but I'm quite sure that I won't know but by trying.  I'm reminded of the anecdote told by Marc Bloch of his mentor, Henri Pirenne. This is recounted in "The Historian's Craft" so go there to read the correct account. My recollection has it that the two were in Bruges or some such place and Pirenne was looking at this or that modern building, commenting on them. Bloch wondered why the great man wasn't admiring the medieval stuff. Pirenne said that he was a student of human activity, or words to that effect, and that he would be remiss as a historian if he only looked at one slice of what society produced. I hope to be in the same spirit, even if I cannot be in the same company.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Here is how teaching decisions get made in This Modern Age.

I had a perfectly good discussion board called WebBoard. But it was expensive. And I was the only one using it. So the university discontinued it.

So I went off-campus and started using phpBB. This was a good board, but it was off-campus and I couldn't control its reliability.

So this next semester I'm going to start using BlackBoard to handle discussion and maybe to offer quizzes. Still unsure on that second one.

Already I am seeing the effects, after only one day of use. Any sort of management system, be it Learning Management or Content Management, behaves in a Borg-like fashion. You can't just use this piece or that piece without having other consequences. So you make this adjustment and that accommodation and now you're using even more of it.

Specifically, once I had set up the forum, I had to make it clear to the students that this is the *only* part of the course to be found here in BB. So I had to post an Announcement. To cover bases, I had to post a couple other "not here but over there"-type messages.

But, of course, students will naturally want to check their grades, so now I have to use the grading system provided by BlackBorg. Which means I have to learn it, invest in it, adjust to it. Maybe even tailor assignments to it.

It's the tar-baby of software.

Fall semester is a summer away. I'll be teaching a 100- and a 300-level class, so I'll get the full experience. I'll chronicle my impressions here.

The best way not to be assimilated is to make oneself indigestible to the host.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Setting requirements for discussion

Plenty of professors teach online now.

Er, that is, plenty of professors have scanned an armload of articles into PDF and upload them to Blackboard or some other learning management system, and have students post a few times to a "discussion" board. You will note that there is no teaching involved in that exercise.

Let's assume you're after more than that, and that you want your students truly to discuss history as a part of the course requirements. How do you accomplish that? The answer is simply stated but difficult to execute: set clear requirements and stick with them, and model behavior. This post concerns the first part.

Sometimes when I tell a colleague that I require of my students three posts a week, the ol' eyebrow goes up. It's not said, but the thought is "only three"? Yep, only three. It's a matter of mathematics.

My expectation is that every student reads the posts of all the other students. If there is a class of thirty students, that means ninety messages a week (well, eighty-seven) to read. Add to this the posts from the teacher and the student is looking at 100 to 120 messages a week to read. No, I don't think they read all of them either. But they do read most!

Raise this to four messages a week and now you're at 150 or more messages a week. Cut it to two and it drops to eighty or so a week. Now, the real numbers are less because you can always count on the under-performers and those who drop the course. The point here is that the requirement is very much driven by how much it is reasonable to expect your students to read. If your class is larger, posts per week can go down; if smaller, the figure can increase. To put it another way, the requirement is driven not so much by what it is reasonable to expect the students to post, it's driven by what is reasonable to expect them to read.

Beyond this we have matters of form and content and other considerations. I'll leave those for another entry.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's a Syllabus?

Every semester I get an email from the department asking me for my syllabus. What the devil do they want from me?

A syllabus used to be easy to define: it was that piece of paper, or stapled pieces of paper, that the professor handed out the first day of class. Typically a syllabus had certain information in it, but really there was little consistency between professors and across disciplines. The one really consistent thing about the syllabus is that it was the first thing handed out in the semester. Anything that came after was just a "handout". Curious terminology.

When I began teaching virtual classes two things quickly became evident. First, that the "syllabus" took its character in part because of the synchronous nature of f2f teaching. It was the sequence, not the content, that characterized the syllabus. This was rendered irrelevant in a virtual class where *everything* was available from the first day. This forced me to re-think what a syllabus might be.

The second thing I realized was that a traditional syllabus was bounded by the medium. There were only so many pages you could hand to a student on the first day without scaring them to death, so a syllabus tended to be brief and summary. The "handouts" that followed were often elaborations on the syllabus--guides to writing, resources, research, additional reading, and so on. These could have all been handed out the first day and indeed in some disciplines I've seen a whole packet handed out and called a syllabus.

Online, though, there are no real boundaries. A "syllabus" could be as many pages as you liked. I came to understand that students do want a single-page (web page) summary of assignments. They want to know when the due dates are and what is due. My syllabus therefore tends to be very brief but highly linked. The items that are due, those need explanation, right? And due dates should be supplemented by a statement about late assignments and make-up policy. The term paper assignment needs explanation about my expectations, maybe a list of possible paper topics, and so on.

How much of that is the "syllabus"?

All of it. None of it. I've had semesters where I didn't use the word at all. There was a Schedule of Assignments, list of Required Readings, a Study Guide, etc., each as its own page.

But I'm back to a Syllabus page for one simple reason: to keep the History Department off my back. It's not their fault; it's the fault of the accreditation people. They're the ones who require a syllabus for every course, every semester, every teacher.

Here's the amusing part: they want paper. Seriously. The accreditation body wants a piece (or pieces) of paper for every course. That piece of paper needs to be titled "Syllabus". What's on it ... eh.

So our poor secretary has to dun the faculty every semester. She has to have a table where pieces of paper collect which she dutifully files into boxes. And for that jerk Knox, she has to print out a page.

It's bad enough she has to do all this, she shouldn't have to print out multiple pages. She shouldn't have to follow links and figure out what constitutes a syllabus. So I cut her a break and I have a single page with the word Syllabus at the top in nice big letters so she can print it, file it, and forget about it.

And that's what a syllabus is, around here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sounds Like...

Bloopers in history essays abound. They have been collected by teachers and have found their way on to the Internet. Once upon a time I collected some myself, but several years ago my attitude changed ... without my noticing, as attitudes will sometimes. I can't pinpoint a date but I can pinpoint the change in perception and its cause: it was when I switched decidedly from teaching live to teaching online. This may appear at first to have nothing to do with laughing at student bloopers but bear with me.

One of the striking differences between teaching live and teaching online is the chalkboard. Okay, whiteboard. Whatever you wish to call it, they all serve the same purpose: to put words up for students to see, read and record.

In a live lecture I speak names and terms that often are quite literally foreign to my students--Greek, Latin, German, French, and so on. So, like every teacher for generations, I wrote those hard-to-spell words on the chalkboard. Some teachers even make handouts. Nowadays, maybe they even make web pages. Whatever the format, the purpose was the same: students could say the words, but they could not write them.

In a virtual class, though, I never speak the words, and the problem my students face is just the opposite. They can spell the words, but they have no idea how to pronounce them. As a consequence, I have audio files embedded in my essays pronouncing various words.

Which brings me back to student bloopers in essays. First off, I just admit, some people simply have trouble spelling. Let's leave that aside. Consider that for most student essays they are required to write on a topic about which they've had no advance notice, and must write for a fixed length of time without notes (aside: this is something professional historians never have to do, so one must wonder what skill is being tested here), so there is pressure on the student, which doesn't lead to meticulous thinking.

So now look at a typical student blooper:
"In the Olympic games they ran around and tossed the java.  The victors won a coral wreath."

It's funny, no doubt, but look closer. They tossed the java. Here, the student means "javelin" but has very likely encountered that word only rarely in his or her life. In the pressure of the moment, s/he grabs for the first word that comes close in sound. The second example is even clearer. The student has rarely heard of a laurel wreath, but s/he has heard of a coral reef.

In both cases, the auditory and the written are being muddled. I don't see this as a blooper so much as I see it as a commentary on the teaching medium. Students are told history but then are asked to write history. There are bound to be gaps in the translation. I have no doubt at all that if my students, taught exclusively via the written word, were asked to take an oral examination, they would come out with similar verbal mistakes. I can picture professors editing sound files to produce compilations of muddled pronunciations.

I'm not being dour. I still smile at a line like "Jesus was punished with thirty-nine lasses". But when I'm done smiling, I see the thing for what it is: a mistake in transcription from audio to text.