Last fall I taught a new colloquium, History 297, as part of a methods sequence required for all majors. As I’ve detailed in previous posts here and here, our department has recently expanded a single-semester methods course into a 2 course sequence, with one course that focuses on historiography and another that’s research centered. One of the reasons we’ve made this change is to allow for more time for curriculum focused on digital fluencies.
I’m still processing the “take-aways” from my efforts in curriculum development in the first round of this course, particularly in relation to digital projects. At the same time, I’m also looking ahead to next fall’s course and imagining its own thematic design. So a bit on the first here, then I’ll introduce the second…
The aim of the HIST297 “History Colloquium” is to help students become familiar with different sub-fields of history, to gain skills in speaking / writing / secondary research / critical reading & analysis… and, yes, digital fluencies. Main assignments: book review, literature review essay, formal speaking presentations, along with a digital project. Class size is 12-15. Students are usually sophomores or first semester juniors.
Last semester I chose a theme for the course in China’s Taiping Civil War (1850-1864), an event that devastated China, leaving 20 to 30 million dead, and its own complex legacy. For their digital project, my students worked in three groups to build content for a website – TaipingCivilWar.org – that featured an annotated Zotero bibliography & author interview (with Tobie Meyer-Fong, author of What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China), a map with charted entries from primary sources related to the conflict, and an interactive timeline with key dates and similar excerpts from the conflict’s primary sources.
I’ve shared a longer post on this project, noting broader questions and also some of what I saw as the strengths of the project, namely:
– Active learning: In having students exploring primary sources for a map and timeline along a secondary source they were reading on the topic, it led to a more active, not passive read of the scholarly monograph – they were literally, through their simultaneous work in primary sources, reading a secondary source by another historican critically, from the inside out, with engaged discussion.
– Student Authorship: Website design = its own kind of authorship, which itself seemed empowering for those involved. In other words, also another kind of more active learning.
– Collaboration: The digital project was very much collaborative work, which is itself a valuable experience to gain. Challenges exist here too, of course, see the original post linked above for more on this issue, and the others too.
LOOKING AHEAD: BOXERS
This coming fall, I’m introducing a new event as theme for the course: the Boxer Uprising of 1900 (also somewhat inaccurately known as the Boxer Rebellion.) This event occurred during the summer of 1900 when the Qing dynasty’s imperial army along with peasant “Boxer” troops opposed to Westerners and especially missionary presence in China besieged Beijing’s legation quarter. Making world-wide news for fifty-five days until an alliance of international troops stormed the capital city, looting as they went, this conflict has left a rich collection of primary sources for today’s student of global and local history.
It has also recently inspired Gene Luen Yang, author of the award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, to publish a two-volume graphic novel entitled Boxers & Saints (2013). In this work of historical fiction, Yang tells the story of two lead characters who each portray a side of the struggle, Boxer and Christian. As the book’s own summary lays it out:
In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.
But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.
A finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, this graphic novel seems a useful entry point for students who will be investigating academic studies of the Boxer Uprising as an historical event, including ones that Yang himself has cited as influential background reading for his own novel. Prominent among these studies, as it happens, is the award-winning work of my dissertation adviser, Joseph Esherick, whom I consider a leading candidate for this coming year’s scholar-interview for my students… (Sidenote: Joe, 不好意思, I’ll be in touch before long!)
So my students will start with a graphic novel, but they will be reading diverse academic studies as the focus for their literature reviews, debating different approaches, and thus becoming experts on the subject, which should also provide them with a new perspective on a work of very engaging historical fiction as well.
NEXT FALL’S DIGITAL PROJECT
Here’s where my plans get muddier.
Again, I want to have my students working with primary sources alongside the secondary sources that are the core of the colloquium.
There are rich collections of primary sources available online in English (and other languages) thanks in part to the fact that this event happened in 1900 and so many books and newspapers sit available in full-text online, freely available before copyright restrictions fall on them. There are also a fair number of photographs that can be found online in archival collections.
One disadvantage, though, is perspective: the sources my students will be using will be entirely English or European-language based (except in the rare case, my students generally do not have Chinese language capability — and certainly not classical Chinese necessary for documents from 1900.) So they’ll be working exclusively with sources from a certain perspective amid what is in many ways a colonialist conflict… On the other hand, of course, this may make for an excellent teaching point and add plenty to explore.
The more fundamental question is simply what will they be designing?
Here’s what I’m imagining for a digital creation, rough in form so far, suggestions for directions, further fine-tuning, warnings of pit-falls, etc., all welcome:
One of the main audiences for Boxers & Saints is the Young Adult (“YA”) audience. It’s a book that sits in many high school or middle school libraries. My students themselves are only a few years away from those same school libraries and classrooms. At the same time, I have a significant number of students who are also training as dual History and Education majors to return to teach in those schools. Why not embark on a digital project in which students are using their experience studying the Boxer event to create an online curricular resource of their own, openly available for K-12 students and teachers both to use?
I could see the students exploring textual and visual sources, individually having to choose one of each, then writing up their own contextualization — origins, location (again, perhaps mapping these?), authorship, any associated data, and then also composing a set of related questions for discussion to accompany those sources. They could work in groups, providing peer-feedback. Modelling and testing lesson plans? I could also have them do an analytic write-up for me, as background to those questions, as a graded assignment.
Some analytic dynamics that may come into the discussion (and perhaps, or perhaps not, the site?)
– dynamics of only having, it might seem, one side — the Western side – of the story in the dominance of Western sources?
– can one read other sides in the texts and images through missing elements, traces in the pictures? (There are some secondary readings here that may assist with this analysis, incidentally.)
– what’s the relationship between historical fiction and history as written by scholars? Graphic novels and textual scholarship?
Could this, or something related, come together as a website for students in K-12 who might be reading Yang’s graphic novel and want to learn more — and see more — of the actual history? A website with texts and images and Q’s for a class that’s reading the novel to dig into? Would it be something their teachers might find useful?
What digital elements would complement this project? Further it?
Should I be more (or less) ambitious?
Suggestions from any high school or middle school teachers or librarians? I’d love to expand the conversation…
Post-script: Meant to add these links to the original post — for more on Gene Yang’s Boxers & Saints, see his interview at The New Yorker and also Wesley Yang’s review in The New York Times. The video trailer for the work (all our works should have video trailers now, no?) can be found at First Second / Macmillan Publishing here.
Image 1, 2: From Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints (First Second Press, 2013)
Image 3: Boxers, Tianjin, China, 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-3917
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
– “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.