Reworking the Methods Course

Well, okay, the typewriters are a bit of an old-fashioned juxtaposition here (and yes, no cigs), but this image is one of many that echo this past semester’s workshop methods course, Hist 297: History Colloquium. Chaos, collaboration, some good communication, an occasional mess, and some real productivity.

Preface…

It was also a first run of a revised methods course for our department. As I’ve previously noted, we’ve just taken a one semester course, required of all History majors, and made it a two-semester sequence.  The one-semester course was ambitious, as most of them are. And we’d decided that it would be more productive to allow the students to work through this curriculum at a more balanced pace. At the same time, having two semesters would also provide us the room for further development of that curriculum and its implementation. A win for all.

The idea has been to leave the the focus for the fall to historiography and literature reviews–a “history colloquium”–with faculty choosing a broad theme for their own courses, while still emphasizing the same fundamental skills in the process. The spring semester course is then be turned over to student research on self-designed projects in primary sources, still in a seminar setting.

One piece of the story…  TaipingCivilWar.org

My colloquium this past fall focused thematically on China’s devastating 19th century Taiping Civil War (1851-1864). One aim of the course was to help students acquire a “digital literacy,” a departmental goal. I incorporated multiple components in this regard, including exercises re: digital identity and digital portfolios (particularly in relation to UMW’s own path-breaking Domain of One’s Own project — “one of the very best things in ed-tech right now” as Audrey Watters has noted.) And simpler, self-intro assignments utilizing digital tools.

The mainstay, however, was my students’ own collaboration in creating an online resource on the Taiping Civil War itself — namely a website entitled TaipingCivilWar.org.

Taiping Civil War  A Record of the Civil War through Primary Sources - Google Chrome 12282013 35730 PM

While I’ve had students create their own blogs, compose for course discussion sites, even edit gifs and tweet for courses before, this is the first time I’ve worked with a class that has created its very own website as a public resource. The process has highlighted some interesting issues:

“Digital Literacy”… I’ve left this one in quotes because it’s often a term associated with an “outcome” to be met, and with a definition that’s not always clear–and sometimes it’s indeed better left that way for the sake of flexibility. Still, we might ask, what are our ambitions in this category? In what ways can or should we incorporate the so-called “digital” to best serve our curriculum? Our students?

A devil’s advocate might say that we’re pouring old wine into new bottles or playing with widgets (figuratively as well as literally.) So, we might ask: what’s pedagogically innovative that’s being added amid instruction in methods and the introduction of digital resources? What’s fermenting here?

How might we constructively, amid the development of a digitally inflected curriculum, change the way we approach a methods course?

Critical Thinking… Ever a challenge, always the aim? How does this ambition relate to our use of digital resources in a history course? The website assignment here offers a case study. In many ways, the project invited students to take an inside-out view of a work of secondary scholarship, in this case, that of Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (1996)Reading this book as the first assigned text for the class, students then worked extensively with Franz Michael’s epic 3-volume collection of translated Chinese primary sources, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents (1971), cited frequently in Spence’s work.

Sifting through the primary sources, and working with excerpts they chose, students worked together in small groups to compose an online map and timeline of the civil war. Another group also composed an annotated bibliography of secondary works utilizing Zotero and interviewed another scholar on the Taiping topic (more below.)

All students also composed blog posts in which they examined Spence’s own use of primary sources from Franz Michael’s collection in his composition of prose for his study. In doing so, they were gaining their own perspective on historical research. Dissecting the way a scholar uses primary sources in all their intricacies and ambiguities, in constructing his own argument from the ground up, students gained a critical understanding of the steps–and occasional educated leaps–a historian makes.

As the students composed their own narratives in timelines and maps, too, they also avoided what can often seem a passive consumption of a secondary text.  Not only did they read Jonathan Spence’s book, but also almost literally took it apart and reconfigured it. They read it from the inside out as they were simultaneously engaged in their own forms of composition–plotting a selection of sources in space and time–from the same primary texts. Online.

Authorship… 

Indeed, in composing their timelines and maps from an overlapping collection of primary sources, students also engaged in a parallel authorship. And, while admittedly less ambitious an undertaking, it was still a very real one. For in fact their website is a text that is openly available and penned with the students’ names, offered for a public audience of other students of the subject.

A nice touch was that students also had the simultaneous opportunity to interview an author of another work on the Taiping conflict, Dr. Tobie Meyer-Fong (Department of History, The Johns Hopkins University), whose recent work What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (2013), was another monograph we read for the course. A third group of students worked with UMW’s Speaking Center to prepare for their interview with Dr. Meyer-Fong, then conducted the interview and transcribed it for the website. It now accompanies the annotated bibliography on the topic of the Taiping Civil War that students created and have shared via a Zotero group they also created.

The students’ conversation with Tobie Meyer-Fong was wonderfully productive as it offered an account not only of the joys but also the practical challenges of research shared by a scholar fresh from finishing her own excellent study. Next semester, the same students who engaged in this conversation will move to the second half of our methods seminar. They’ll be jumping into the challenges of defining their own research projects and exploring primary sources, of pulling meaning and analysis out of a complex mix in the archive. Hopefully this interview will make a for a good springboard as they head that way…

Collaboration…

Finally, if there’s one thing the website project brought to the curriculum beyond a prescribed digital infusion it’s the creative engagement that comes through collaborative work. For me, this aspect was one of the joys of the course.

Our greatest co-author in this respect was none other than Ryan Brazell, Instructional Technology Specialist at UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, who not only shared his expertise in the design and management of the digital frames for our website this past fall, but also shared his great talent for instruction in the classroom itself. Many people can do tech, many people can communicate, both not many people can truly communicate tech. Ryan can do both, teaching undergrads brilliantly, and do it with a sense of humor & timing that rivals the classic comedians.

Ryan has also composed an excellent post on the design of the website for the course. I highly recommend it. A tweet Ryan shares at the end, a student quote from one of his workshop visits, made my day… I’d point any instructor there amid fears, early in a course, that digital elements are turning into their own jungle gym for students to climb over, or get stuck on permanently. Once the students have made it through the early learning curve (steep though it may seem), the payoff often arrives.

The website project also invited, well, yes, demanded a significant level of student collaboration, as all group projects do. And, as often the case with group work, the results were slightly mixed as there were some who didn’t quite pull their weight (for diverse reasons… )

The incorporation of collaborative assignments seems nevertheless valuable, particularly when one considers a future after the degree is earned. Part of the value of the web project, then, lay in helping students build experience in working in groups, in defining project goals and strategies through shared communication, and in negotiating divisions of labor.

It’s a skill that many professionals (cough, professors?) could probably work on too. And a piece of the pedagogy I’m going to keep developing for next time around. I tried to balance the inevitable challenges of mixed student commitment with differentiated systems of evaluation — i.e., a separate group grade and individual grade, with each reflecting effort toward the website assignment and online work. I’m still looking for better ways to evaluate, guide, and encourage students to build their own skills in group work, however.

Do you have a good strategy or lesson plan for helping students improve their approaches to collaboration or group work? Suggestions, thoughts, and feedback very much welcome on this score, as for any and all of the above…

 

Image credits:

– “Young men and women working on writing for publications at Camp Well-Met, 1948″
National Jewish Welfare Board Records; Photographer: Heinz H. Weissenstein
Center for Jewish History NYC // Flickr Commons – LINK 

– Fu Xinian, ed., Zhongguo meishu quanji, Huihua bian 4: Liang Song huihua, xia (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1988), pl. 150, p. 204.  Collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. Via link.