What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

As someone who has been a Teaching Assistant for a while, and a student for even longer, syllabi are nothing new to me. Almost every semester I would look forward to getting the syllabi in the first week of class (and color-code everything – much to the ridicule of some of my fellow students who attributed this to my German organization). To my delight, this past semester I took a graduate course called teaching practicum in which one of our final assignments was to design a syllabus for a class that we would hopefully teach one day. I choose to write a syllabus for the 1865 to modern day U.S. history survey course offered here at Central Michigan University. Throughout this assignment I learned a great deal about how to put together a syllabus – a challenge that was much more difficult than anticipated. 

The first task in the process was to come up with learning objectives. What was the purpose of this class? What did I want my students to learn? What kind of skills would they acquire? One of my learning objectives, for example, was for students to develop public speaking and presentation skills. I still had to learn how to present effectively myself (something that I still sometimes struggle with), and it is my belief that universities need to do more in this regard to prepare students. Presenting is a skill, just like writing. With this in mind, one of the assignments that I come up for my students was to in groups prepare presentations on the changing landscape of New York City in the early 20th century. 

Aside from the topics covered in the class, any good syllabus also must include thoughtful course policies. Some of my polices are pretty standard and required by the university. Others I could customize: the use of electronics (absolutely not), the policy for late assignments (loss of 1/3 of a letter grade for each day late), or proper e-mail proceedures. What helped me most in coming up with course policies was my extensive experience as a teaching assistant. Over the years I have seen a variety of course policies, and I selected my favorite policies from all the professors with whom I have worked.

In addition, I had to come up with means to evaluate students; I chose a variety of different means to accommodate different student learners: participation, written papers, journaling, and class presentations. In doing so I had to ask myself questions like: Does this assignment make sense for my learning objectives and the content of the course? Does the assignment work? (something that most likely I will figure out once, and when, I teach this particular class) Am I including a diversity of methods to accommodate different learning types? 

Teaching survey courses is by no means an easy endeavor. Depending on the scope of the course, the professor must cover a wide range of topics.  This is especially true for world history courses, for example, since they cover a large geographical area and time span. Thankfully the post-1865 U.S. history survey course “only” needs to cover about 126 years. It was, however, not easy for me to pack everything into around 15 weeks of actual class time. Modern United States history has, after all, seen quite a bit of turmoil: from Reconstruction to two world wars, isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s, the New Deal, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movements. My own research interests lie in diplomatic history, and in particular the Gerald Ford Presidency. In a perfect world I would have told my students everything about my dissertation. But when teaching a survey course that is simply not possible. While obviously students should know about Gerald Ford (he was a Michigander after all), the main reason for taking this survey course is not to learn everything about my particular research topic. Balancing my own interests and passions while keeping in mind what students needed from that particular course was sometimes challenging.  I was able to use some diplomatic history in designing their final paper though – the so-called cable assignment. 

Overall designing a syllabus has been interesting and worthwhile. There is much more that goes into it than students usually think: What kind of material do I as a teacher want to cover? What should my students learn? What kind of previous knowledge can I assume they have? And finally the most important question (at least in my opinion): What kind of teacher do I want to be? Hopefully one day I get to teach the course that I designed, and maybe I can even inspire my students to color-code their syllabus. 

Teaching in Bochum, Germany

By Dr. Carrie Euler

On June 2, 2018, I kissed my husband and two children (ages 9 and 13) goodbye in Lansing and flew to Germany for a month to teach a seminar at Ruhr University Bochum in northwest Germany.  I was excited for the adventure, but I was also nervous.  Though I have traveled in Europe extensively, and I can even speak some German, I had never taught a course at a university outside of the U.S. before.  Even though I was going to be teaching in English, I was nervous about being a guest in a department (would I have access to a copy machine?), the students (would they find my teaching methods unusual or have trouble understanding me?), and generally about being an American in Europe at this time of political upheaval and tension (would I get non-stop questions about Donald Trump?).  

Why was I headed to Ruhr University Bochum?  The short answer is that the history departments at RUB (the abbreviation for the university) and CMU had been awarded an Erasmus Grant for an exchange of faculty and graduate students over a two-year period.  Erasmus grants are funded by the European Commission in order to support student and faculty exchanges across countries.  Until recently, these grants were only for exchanges within Europe, but a few years ago, the Commission started offering a few grants between Europe and non-European countries like the U.S.  I was the first faculty member to take part officially in our exchange.  When I arrived, three M.A. students from our department were already in Bochum and had been there since February.  

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Bochum is in the Ruhr river valley.  It is one of a cluster of medium-to-large cities in that valley that make up a large metropolitan area; among the others are Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg.  It is an area of Germany that was very industrial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; consequently, it was bombed very heavily during World War II, and it has a reputation for being, well, heavily industrial.  The reality is, however, that the cities are quite cosmopolitan—with lots of amazing cultural opportunities like museums and concerts and great food—and the countryside around the cities and alongside the river itself is beautiful.  The university campus itself is not beautiful, at least not in a traditional American college campus way.  As you can see in the first photo, which features the building in which the history department is located, it boasts a lot of concrete and a definite 1960s look (the university was indeed founded in the 1960s).  The second photo, however, is taken from the same spot, just after making a slight turn to look out over the river valley and a lovely little town dating from the Middle Ages called Stiepel. 

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In the end, my experience at Bochum was very positive. None of the things I had been nervous about ahead of my departure came to fruition.  Happily, no one I met was particularly interested in discussing President Trump.  I was given a lovely, newly-renovated apartment with a view of the university and the river valley; it was within walking distance to the university, shops, restaurants, and the commuter train into the center of Bochum (the university campus is located just outside of the main city).  I was granted office space and a graduate assistant to do copying for me. I did not have a printer, however, so I was happy that I had loaded up my suitcase with paper copies of the various readings I wanted to assign my students. 

The course I was teaching was a graduate-level seminar. Bochum’s spring semester runs from April to July, so compressing the course into four weeks in June was not easy, and I only ended up with five students.  It was a nice group, however; they seemed very interested in what I had to teach and gave very well-prepared presentations.  My topic was “Printing and Print Culture in Early Modern England,” which I had just taught as a seminar in the spring semester 2018 at CMU. The history department at RUB was happy to have an English history topic, because they do not have anyone who teaches British history.  I would say that the biggest difference between our system and that at RUB was that, in the end, only one student registered to take the course for full credit, meaning she had to write a long research paper.  The others took it for half credit, where all they had to do was a presentation in class.  This is something that is not an option for students at CMU, and it took some getting used to.

Nevertheless, I was happy to be a guinea pig and get this exchange going, and I believe the three MA students who went to Bochum on behalf of CMU felt the same.  In addition to the teaching experience, I had a lot of time to work on my own research and writing—I even took a quick trip to England to do some archival research on my latest project.  Furthermore, the exchange is thriving—this fall CMU has hosted Dr. Andrzej Michalczyk from RUB, and next fall Dr. Budrass will be visiting.  Hopefully another CMU professor will go in the summer of 2019 or 2020.  I will certainly recommend the experience, and I even hope to go back one day myself. These types of exchanges are vital for our graduate program and they certainly benefit both students and faculty enormously.

Spooked by Comps?

By Chiara Ziletti

Boo! Is this a ghost? Nah…it is just a past editor paying a quick visit! Did I scare you? Halloween is around the corner, but one of the things that probably scares graduate students the most are their comprehensive examinations. And indeed, it is quite understandable: lists of books that seem never-ending for each minor/major fields, hours and hours of reading and studying, written and/or oral components to pass… probably even the most confident of us would have at least one or two moments of insecurity, hesitation, anxiety, or even just frustration. I know it is a truism, but if you get in a graduate program, it is because you really like what you study, and that is why you are so scared of failing. There is a huge emotional investment lying behind comps, and as a consequence, sometimes it is hard to think rationally and objectively about the whole picture.

I passed my comprehensive examinations last summer. I am really glad I did it, not just because it was an important milestone for my academic career, but also because it was a significant experience from which I learned a lot as a person. And now that I see some of my colleagues getting closer to the date of their exam, I would like to share a couple of thoughts and suggestions to encourage them:

1.    Do your best; in this way will have no regrets and you will feel less anxious. Your best changes from day to day. One day you will feel at 120%, the other you might be tired and maybe sick. I had a moment when I was preparing for my exam in which I was not feeling well at all, and this really concerned me at first: how am I supposed to pass the exam if I feel so sick that I have almost zero energy and can barely study? What I decided to do at that moment was to simply approach one day at a time, doing the best I could with the little energy I had. Would that be sufficient to pass the exam? I could not be 100% sure, but in this way, I was sure that I would not have any regrets. Every day I put forward my honest work.  This might have not been much sometimes, but it was reassuring, and it really helped me to have a calmer and more objective mindset when the day of the exam approached. In fact, I was able to think that no matter the situation, I had always been working hard. This really reduced my levels of anxiety. Since I am sure you are already doing your best, you just need to realize this and see it in a more objective light.

2.    You know more than what you think. One of the most common feelings right before taking an exam, written or oral, is that you do not remember anything. I know this feeling very well, but after taking so many exams, I learned that it is just an apparent sensation. Your knowledge is all there with you, lurking in a corner of your brain just waiting for you to summon it. As soon as you will hear or read a question, everything will come back to you and you will just need to organize it to give your best answer. 

3.    Experiment and find your own method to prepare for the exam. When I started preparing, I spoke with other graduate students that had already passed it to hear how they managed their long lists of books. It was interesting to learn how they did it, and I experimented for a while until I found the best way for me. All this involved a lot of compromising, which was a huge learning lesson for me, since I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. After trying to take notes on the computer, making notecards, getting stuck reading books for too long, and so on, I saw that the best thing for me was to take hand notes for each book. This forced me to summarize, and in general I remember better the things that I write by hand. Additionally, once the date of the exam drew closer, I did mind maps for each major topic I focused on. This truly helped me to further summarize and visualize what I absolutely needed to remember. We are all different, so keep trying until you find the best method for you.

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4.    Let’s be objective: your professors will not let you take the exam unless they think you are ready. Trust them; they might be intimidating sometimes, but they are not sadistic individuals throwing you into a kamikaze mission while secretly hoping that you will blow up. They care about you and have a lot of experience. This will help you reduce your anxiety and stress when thinking about the exam. In addition to this, each professor will privilege certain aspects over others; talk with them and see what they want you to focus on the most when preparing for your exam: this will significantly help you when going through your huge lists of books. 

I know it is not easy, but the more you try to think objectively about the exam, your knowledge, and the work you put forward to it, the less anxious you will be. This was a lifesaver for me. Probably the day of the exam you will still be a little bit scared, but do not let the anxiety freeze you. Take that jump, and as soon as you land, you will realize how dangerous it was to stay still.

Language Learning for Academics Part. 1 : Choosing your Teacher

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold            

Learning a foreign language while pursuing a Master’s or PhD can be a difficult challenge. The amount of work and commitment it takes to truly master even just the basics of a foreign tongue seems especially overwhelming when you are busy with coursework, comps, teaching, or research. However, language learning can be of great benefit beyond just fulfilling your program’s requirements, since it not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself into a different culture and become more aware of the meaning making capacities of language but might also help you to receive research fellowships abroad and enhance your research abilities. This two-part post will thus try to offer some assistance for academics that seek to learn a foreign language, may it be for the purpose of research or simply to broaden your personal and professional horizon as a scholar.

As graduate students enrolled in a German PhD program, we – the authors of this post – not only have a good grasp of typical graduate students needs and interests when it comes to language learning, we also would like to share with you our experience as instructors of German who often have PhD and Master’s students in their classes. Since one of us is a native speaker of German and the other a native speaker of English, in this part we would like to discuss the differences between taking a course with a native or non-native speaker of the target language and the pros and cons of each, in order for you to be able to assess what you want or expect out of a language course and help you choose the right one. 

If you are in the luxurious situation to be able to choose between a native and non-native speaker as your teacher when you pick a language class, your first intuition might tell you to go with the native speaker. Who would know a language better than someone who grew up speaking it every day in the country in which it is actually used? Knowing teaching practices and styles of native and non-native speakers, however, makes this choice a less obvious one. In fact, native and non-native teachers bring in very different perspectives and qualification when it comes to teaching and these differences can become both advantages and disadvantages for your language learning experience, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Let’s start with the native speaker as usually most people’s first choice. The advantages are quite obvious, as the native-speaker usually not only has a good command of the language in all its varieties, but, as a member of the foreign discourse community, will also be able to shed light on the various cultural contexts in which the language is used in specific ways. The native speaker will teach you colloquialisms that the textbook does not know, enrich your learning experience with real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the use of language in context, and provide you with a sheer endless vocabulary knowledge that allows you to gain an understanding of not only one but multiple ways to achieve communicative purposes in the target language. This high degree of linguistic flexibility comes with a high degree of accuracy regarding assessment and error correction. The native speaker sees and hears every mistake. It is an old saying that one learns by making mistakes, so this accuracy will raise your awareness of areas in which you still need to improve and thus will have a positive effect on your language acquisition process. 

The high attentiveness to mistakes, however, might also very quickly turn into nitpicking, which brings us to some of the disadvantages of the native speaker and areas in which the non-native speaker can shine. While the latter might be lacking some of the abilities that we have just outlined as features that distinguish the native speaker, the non-native speaker in contrast will be better able to give you feedback on your performance in the foreign language that prioritizes aspects that are most essential for meaning making. In other words, this means that while the native speaker might see more mistakes and easily gets hung up on them, the non-native speaker knows which mistakes need to be pointed out at that particular moment in your learning process and which will stop occurring by themselves once you master the most essential literacy skills. Not limited to instances like this, it is precisely the personal experience as a learnerof the foreign language that the non-native speaker is able to draw on in order to scaffold your language acquisition productively. Native speakers often lack essential theoretical knowledge about the grammar of their own mother tongue, simply because they never had to study it consciously. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, went through the same learning process as his students at one point in his life and should thus have a comprehensive command not only of grammar rules but also of how to convey and instruct them most effectively. 

When just starting a language, it thus may be to your advantage to take a course with a non-native speaker. While the complex language used by the native speaker can be a great source of inspiration, some students might prefer the non-native speaker’s pragmatic language use that allows him to single out the most essential words and phrases without overwhelming students with an unmanageable sea of choices. Furthermore, what the non-native speaker might lack in comparison to the native speaker’s comprehensive knowledge of the language is often impressively compensated by their precise knowledge of grammar choices. Yes – your non-native speaker might make mistakes that the native speaker would not, but if you want to know how to avoid mistakes, the non-native speaker will more likely be able to advise, whereas the native speaker will say “no, we just don’t do that.”

We hope that this post has given you a new perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of both native and non-native language instructors. In the next post, we’ll discuss some strategies for language learning to help you once you’re already in the classroom.

5 Tips for every PhD student's Partner

By Sara Papendorf

Many of the posts on this blog come from the point of view of those in the academic world. I thought it might be interesting (and helpful) for some readers to describe several experiences of a PhD student from a completely different point of view – the view of a partner. My name is Sara Papendorf, and I am the partner of Dave Papendorf, your favorite blog editor.  I am not an academic, but I’ve lived through the process and, therefore, have some tips to share.

To provide some context, my life as the partner of a PhD student started back in 2014. After much discussion about our future, Dave and I decided that he should pursue a PhD in history. Thus began the long hours of filling out applications. Dave applied to a number of different programs in the Midwest. I still remember how exciting it was getting letters in the mail from the different universities he applied to – honestly, I think I was more excited than Dave was! I have always been the mail checker in the family, so Dave had to kindly ask me to not open any letters without him. I obliged his request......well......basically. There were several times when I held a letter up to the light to try and see what it said. In fact, this was how we discovered that Dave was accepted into the program at CMU. It was a very exciting time for us!

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Fast forward four years later to July 2018, and Dave is currently in the writing stage of the program. As for me, over these past four years, I would say that I have learned much about being the partner of a PhD student.  If I were to provide you with any advice, here are some tips that I have found helpful: 

Tip 1: Expect challenges

Anyone who is currently working on or has completed a PhD program knows that the life of a PhD student is not for the faint-hearted. There are huge milestones in any program – being accepted, passing comps, completing one’s dissertation, defending one’s dissertation, and securing a job – not to mention that each milestone is filled with its own set of tasks to complete.  It has been important for Dave and me to recognize that this stage in our life is not permanent, just temporary and to expect that there will be difficult times throughout each major milestone.  Keeping this outlook has allowed us to pace ourselves, take one day at a time, and enjoy ourselves along the way.  

Tip 2: Show interest in your partner’s work

Frankly, I never had much interest in history during my academic years.  I much more enjoyed math and English.  It’s quite comical that my partner has such a great interest in history.  Even though I am not a huge history fan and it takes some focus to learn about history, I have discovered over the past several years that Dave appreciates when I take an interest in what he is working on.  My interest in his work doesn’t have to be a big ordeal; questions as simple as, “What are you reading about now?” or “What did you discuss in your colloquium today?” can go a long way.  I actually find great joy in hearing Dave describe what he is learning because I can tell that he truly enjoys doing what he does.  Last year, Dave taught his first course, which was medieval history.  At the beginning of the semester he asked me if I was going to attend any of his lectures. Looking back, I think he was half joking and half serious.  However, I was able to attend two lectures, and I know taking the time to attend really meant a lot to Dave.    

Tip 3: Be spontaneous. 

There are times when your partner will need to do something to take their mind off of the grind academia - studying for comps, reading primary sources in sixteenth century Latin (I might be speaking from personal experience here ;-)), or editing the same chapter of their dissertation for the fifty-second time.  From January to June of this year, Dave and I lived at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) located in Mainz, Germany.  The IEG has dormitory-like living – single rooms equipped with a sink, shared kitchen space, and shared bathrooms. Over the six-month span, Dave and I both worked in our room every day.  I am sure you can imagine how easy it would be to go stir crazy working in a small space. To help keep us sane, we often took spontaneous walks along the Rhine River.  There were a handful of Saturdays where Dave and I intended to tackle several items on our checklist; however, instead of working, we decided it would be better for our quality of life to set aside our mile-long to-do-lists and spend some time enjoying each other’s company and enjoying our German surroundings. Sometimes an unplanned trip to get gelato or to the market was just what we needed.  And you don’t have to live in Germany to follow this tip – find some spontaneous fun that works in your locale!

Tip 4: Be supportive

Throughout the past four years, consciously attempting to be a supportive partner has been an important component of my role as Dave’s partner.  Supporting Dave has taken on many forms, and I have learned that sometimes being supportive is more about listening to Dave describe his concerns and struggles rather than offering my best solution to a difficult problem.  Honestly, this is one thing that has been the most difficult for me to do but has meant the most to Dave.  Lending a listening ear has often provided Dave with the support he needs to keep plugging along.  

Tip 5: If you get to travel, take advantage!

During the second year of Dave’s program, we spent the academic year living in Newcastle, England.  Knowing we would be in the UK for quite some time, we decided to book several trips to various locations across Europe – Belfast, Rome, Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Edinburgh.  While these trips could get prices, I would say that our experiences (seeing the spectacular views of Giant’s Causeway, walking the streets of ancient Rome, taking a ferry ride down the Amsterdam canals, and touring the catacombs in Paris……just to mention a few) were worth every penny.  I can honestly say that we made the most of our time in the UK and have no regrets.  Throughout all of our travels, we have discovered some simple ways to save money:  choosing to stay in an AirBnb rather than a hotel, packing a lunch (and dinner…and breakfast), and searching for deals on cheap European airlines (EasyJet and RyanAir). Traveling with Dave has been such a great privilege as he is often able to explain some of the history behind many of the things we have been able to see when traveling abroad.  As someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, I would say it’s often easy to get wrapped up in visiting places in the US. Don’t get me wrong, the US has much to offer, but the world is quite a big place.        

These tips are by no means scientifically proven. They are just the things that have worked for me and Dave over the past 4 years. I expect (and hope) that some, if not all, might be encouraging to you as well!

Artificial Intelligence: Is There Any Possible Application to History?

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by Tommaso Costanzo, PhD candidate in Science of Advanced Materials.

Two of the most thought-provoking things of being married with someone studying a different discipline are the discovery of unexpected similarities and the possibility to learn from each other. For example, I am a chemist, and it was only while chatting with my wife, who studies history, that I came to realize that there are interesting similarities in our research methods, and that artificial intelligence (AI) could find useful applications not only in sciences, but also in the humanities.

My work as a material chemist is to search new materials with better properties compared to the ones already known. In theory this task can be easily accomplished by simply mixing numerous substances at different concentrations. However, since the combinations are infinite, this brute force approach is very inefficient (and potentially dangerous, you do not want to blow up by mistake!). In general, scientists rely on the existing knowledge (for example, the periodic table) to predict what will be a good candidate material, which is then synthesized and characterized to see if it is better or worse than the previous one.

This entire research process can also be accomplished by “machines,” a.k.a. computers. In fact, what is most commonly known as AI can do this exact process for us: the computer is trained with an already known set of data (e.g. many materials and their properties), and when the training is completed, the machine can recognize patterns in the given dataset, classify them in smaller groups, and also predict new materials.

Of course, when I understood how AI works and what it can do for my research, I was like a child receiving a new gift. However, even if I was aware of the potential of AI, I did not immediately realize that it can be something useful in other fields like, for example, history. This understanding came only while discussing with my wife about her research and work as an historian. Hearing her problems and reflections on the historical research and method made me notice the similarity between what historians and AI do. Indeed, historians generally search documents, traces, and any other sort of proof about the past. From this set of “data,” which is not necessarily ordered nor complete, they have to classify, order, and try to find pattern(s) in order to interpret and understand what happened in the past. So, it is possible to notice that the AI I use in my chemistry research accomplishes similar tasks to those that an historian has to do on his/her own.

Even though this is a very general discussion, which just aims at stimulating reflections, I suppose that historians will be able to benefit from the application of AI to their research. For example, AI has the potential to help deciphering and translating ancient texts. In fact, at the University of Alberta, a computing science professor used AI to advance the deciphering of the 15th century Voynich manuscript. Another possible application could involve the recognition and categorization of images. Also, AI could, for example, potentially help ancient historians filling in the missing parts of fragmentary documents with the most statistically probable text.

Notwithstanding these intriguing potential applications, there are indeed several hurdles to overcome. For example, for AI to function, it needs digital data. Archives and libraries have been digitalizing more and more documents (which ironically is already a process requiring an AI!), but it is not possible to digitalize everything. Furthermore, even though specific kinds of AI can offer predictions and interpretations, they cannot substitute the interpretation done by a professional historian.

Sciences and humanities have more in common than one would usually think. For this reason, we should discuss more and learn from each other.

Podcasts: Listen, Create, Engage

By Jennifer Vannette

Podcasts are getting quite a bit of attention lately, but they really aren't new. In 2008, the American Historical Association (AHA)'s blog featured podcasts as an alternative teaching method. The article suggested that podcasts provided a great way to listen to lectures outside of a classroom setting. This is indeed one type of history podcast.

Over the last decade, many more podcasters have offered a whole host of new material. Some are still based on presenting a stand alone lecture while others deeply explore long arcs of historical events, such as The Fall of Rome. Still others explore the quirky side of history by highlighting stories you may not have heard in history classes such as the dark history of Hollywood on You Must Remember This or the travails of the high seas on The History of Pirates. There are so many interesting facets of history that podcasters tackle to the delight of public audiences. Seriously, just google history podcasts and you be offered many different lists of the "best."

Then there are also podcasts that appeal to those of us in the profession. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has its own podcast to compliment their journal. Each month last year Ed Linenthal, the executive editor of the Journal of American History interviewed a guest about the article he or she had recently contributed to the journal. Another approach by some of our own grad students at CMU (two current and one alum) discusses all the things we talk about with other grad students -- navigating school, teaching, professional networking, and more. I Was Told There'd Be Food is a great introduction to grad school life or a place to go for ideas and commiseration.

History departments are also finding ways to involve faculty and students in creating podcasts. A highly regarded offering that has been active for awhile, 15 Minute History, comes from the University of Texas at Austin faculty and grad students. It is what it sounds like -- brief episodes that cover a wide range of history. The faculty of University of Oxford also have a similar podcasts, and they have some general history and a few more specific podcasts such as Stories, Spaces, and Societies -- Globalising and Localising the Great War. These can be an excellent method of public engagement for faculty and grad students alike. The very specific topics are a great place to engage with the research of your specialization.

There is also the possibility of incorporating podcasts in the classroom. Not only can students gain deeper understanding of material if we assign specific podcast episodes in addition to (or instead of) a reading assignment but we can also consider having students produce a podcast episode as an alternative to a paper or other project. Free recording software is available to download from the internet and then all it takes is a pair of earbuds with built in microphone (standard with most phones now) and our students have what they need.

Podcasts can be listened to while driving, while exercising, or doing chores. When you search for podcasts, you will find wide enough variety to suit all tastes. While we listen, we can brainstorm methods for incorporating as an alternative teaching method. So, go explore the wide world of history podcasts.

Maps as History

 1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

1988 Road Atlas, Rand McNally

By Jennifer Vannette

I love maps. I've always been drawn to them. I spent many hours as a child happily entertaining myself by studying the road atlas on long car trips. Maps tell stories and offer all sorts of interesting little rabbit holes down which to get lost. They can also help teach history in a visual, dynamic way.

With so many new digital archives available, we now have access to maps of nearly everything we might want to teach. The David Rumsey Collection, the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, the Newberry Library Map and Cartography Collections, and Stanford University Spatial History Project are excellent resources available for historians.

John Pickles, a geographer with interests in social power and maps, suggests:

maps have the character of being textual in that they have words associated with them, that they employ a system of symbols within their own syntax, that they function as a form of writing (inscription), and that they are discursively embedded within broader contexts of social action and power.

Teaching with maps not only can help students visualize the trade routes of the British empire, the westward expansion of the US, or the ways religions spread, maps can also be used to teach primary source analysis. Students can learn to interrogate what the map depicts, who made the map, why they made the map. Other questions suggested by the National Archives lesson plans include: "What did you find out from this map that you might not learn anywhere else?" and "What other documents or historical evidence are you going to use to help you undertand this event or topic?"

Maps help us orient history in time and place. Visualizing space can be very powerful.

In Defense of History: A New Blog Feature

 Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

Paul Revere sounding the call. Boston.

The blog is changing. Even historians can stride purposefully towards progress!  If you go up to the Newsworthy tab, you will notice a drop down menu with two options: News & Happenings, which has all the announcements you are familiar with finding under Newsworthy, and the new In Defense of History.

In Defense of History is where you will find links to different resources that discuss the importance of studying history and the usefulness of a history degree (or more broadly liberal arts/humanities). The collection of articles features people such as entrepreneur Mark Cuban stating that liberal arts is the future or The Harvard Business Review echoing the sentiment and arguing that innovative thinkers come from the humanities. David Kalt, the founder of Reverb.com penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal saying that he was wrong to believe he need computer science people exclusively to build his business. He wrote, “A well-­rounded liberal arts degree establishes a foundation of critical thinking. Critical thinkers can accomplish anything.”

While we need to apply our critical thinking skills to our own field and question whether or not we are effectively communicating the importance of historical studies to our universities and the broader public, we should also remember that it’s not all doom and gloom. There are many people who understand our abilities and want to have us on their team.

So, when you need a dose of inspiration, an injection of optimism, or resources to boost your argument, you will find a growing archive under In Defense of History. Feel free to pass along suggestions for the page. Send links to cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com

The Future of the Past

By Sandy Planisek

Technology and teaching history don’t often cohabit the same paragraph but twice this month they made a joint appearance in history news.

AHA’s Perspectives on History magazine introduced a series of online digital textbooks being created by West Point Academy that feature hyperlinks and moving battle maps.  These amazingly rich books, designed specifically to teach West Point students war strategic and tactical thinking, make it possible to actually follow troop movements during battle.  When accompanied with extracts from leader thinking, it is possible to follow the goals, implementation, and outcomes of classic historical battles.  University faculty can test drive one of these books by going to West Point History of Warfare

PBS Digital Studios has just released a new virtual-reality movie shot in 360-degrees about the famous Battle of Antietam.  Focusing on two brothers on opposing sides and dying simultaneously during the battle, this cutting-edge, short movie emphasizes the emotional strain of war.  The entire movie entitled My Brother’s Keeper is only 10 minutes long. (Watch it using Google Chrome or Firefox and use the 360-degree arrows at the top to look around.)

While cultural history may dominate in our classrooms, it is war history that can attract the funding for cutting edge technology.