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.

The First Year

 Image courtesy of Getty Images

Image courtesy of Getty Images

By Dr. Timothy Orr

Hey all, it is an honor to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection! My special thanks to David for this opportunity. 

My name is Timothy Orr, and I am an Assistant Professor of History at Simpson University in Redding, California (Redding has been in the news recently as the location of the very devastating Carr Fire, but thankfully my family, home, and university are all safe). In May I completed my first full year of employment as an Assistant Professor, and it is this period I want to reflect upon in this entry.  As an overarching disclaimer, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have full-time employment in my field, and I am aware of the privilege and rarity of my situation. My below thoughts speak only to my situation and are not meant to imply a universal understanding of each individual’s graduate and professional experiences. 

Before discussing my first year of full-time work, I want to say a very quick word about the job hunt. The job market is the worst.  If you are an academic, then you are very familiar with this fact. There is so much literature on the realities of the job market that I do not feel I can add much to that discussion, but I wanted to mention it because it has continued to affect me as I move into my career, as I will discuss below. 

My first year of teaching has been a strange combination of fulfilled dreams and continued challenges. Every professor I spoke to told me that finishing a dissertation, even while maintaining a steady teaching load, is still significantly less work than the first several years of a full-time position. They were, unsurprisingly, correct. Writing lectures preps, continuing to work on research projects, and beginning to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript competed with meetings, committee work, and extra-curricular activities with students (not to mention suddenly living an area with beautiful mountains and a wife who wants to explore a new one every day she can). It has absolutely been the most work I have ever done in my life and I have loved almost every minute of it. I can remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach as the sole instructor for that period. I was already well into graduate school and two thoughts plagued me as I did: 1. What if I am no good at this? 2. What if I hate teaching? At the least, I definitely do not hate what I do, and the opportunity to engage students every day in the classroom continues to shape me as a professor. I love teaching, and while there is less time to devote to research, I have discovered the context of being fully immersed in the life of a university provides a framework that helps me better orient why research is such a significant part of our field. Even committee work, which is undoubtedly the least glamorous part of our profession (aside, perhaps, from administrative paperwork), has helped me better understand the functioning of the university and the diverse backgrounds from which my colleagues have arrived at academia. 

There are also new challenges I have faced during my first year of full-time work. I Skyped with a friend who had also just completed her first year as a full-time professor, and we shared very similar experiences—even though she is at a large state university and I am at very small liberal arts university. We have both struggled to find a sense of community like what we enjoyed during our doctoral programs. During my Ph.D. program, I spent five years delving deeply into a subject that I love and, while doing this, I was surrounded by people who love what I love. It is an incredibly rare thing and it created friendships I will enjoy the rest of my life. But full-time work is more isolating. You inevitably spend more time with students than with peers, and colleagues, for a variety of reasons, are less engaged with your work. My friend and I also both experienced periods of existential doubt regarding the humanities and higher education during our first year as full-time faculty. These doubts certainly are not new, but they took new shape as we wrestled with these questions not just in our lives but in the lives of our students. How are we preparing and shaping them and what support, financial and otherwise, will be available to them as they continue on their journeys? 

These new struggles and doubts have been a critical part of this first year. However, I anticipated new problems as I moved into full-time work and their emergence has not surprised me. Rather, it is has been the continuation of old doubts and fears that have affected me most during this past year. The Ph.D. behind my name and the Assistant Professor tag underneath it on badges at conferences has done little to assuage the sense of self-doubt I still experience encountering senior colleagues, or even just colleagues, at conferences. Every line I write and every article I submit still seems woefully inadequate and my imposter syndrome is apparently not impressed with the degrees hanging in my office. But even this is, in some ways, unexpected. The absolute greatest fear in my professional life was, is, and will remain the job market. 

I thought that when I landed a full-time position my constant fear (terror, really) of the job market would be gone, but the terrible reality of it continues to hang over me. With so many academic institutions in very difficult financial straits, new positions are nowhere near as secure as they need to be—and even whole universities are threatened. The tenure deadline also looms ahead and I spend just as much time worrying that I will have to go back on the job market as I did worrying about landing a job when I was on it. Again, I recognize that this unfair as I am incredibly lucky to have a position when so many do not. But it would have been helpful to hear more about the ways things do not change as you transition from graduate school into the academy. It gets harder in all the ways that I expected, but it does not get easier in any of the ways that I hoped. 

However, it does seem to say something that my greatest dissatisfaction with my profession is the threat that I might not get to do it. There are a lot of layers to my fear of being forced back onto the job market. I have concerns about finances, failure, and relocating, but the primary fear is that I will not be able to continue to do the work that I love—and I think that is a rare and fortunate thing.

Elementary Social Studies: Missing Historical Context

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By Jennifer Vannette

Over dinner one night, my son, who is in fourth grade, informed me that he had learned all about the Underground Railroad. I encouraged him to talk to me about what he knew, and his knowledge of the system of escape from slavery was quite good. Just when I thought I might be impressed with his education thus far, he stumbled when I asked him what life was like for a slave. Why did some try to run away? He told me all about what crops were grown on plantations. That was all he knew about a slave’s life.

The unfortunate reality of the American educational system is that we tend to avoid difficult topics. Talking to students about the horrors of forced labor and being sold away from your family is hard, and so it’s glossed over. When that happens, we are left with an unclear understanding of why slaves ran away and why something like the Underground Railroad existed. It allows space for racists to claim that people of African descent just didn’t want to work or someone with as much wealth and access to education as Kanye West to suggest that slavery was “a choice.”

Soon after that conversation, I was deeply curious to look at his social studies textbook when it came home so he could study for a test. The book, Michigan: Adventures in Time and Place, published by McGraw-Hill in 2001* had a feature section about how the Fugitive Slave Act affected a Michigan town that was home to an escaped slave family. In a narrative style, the book described how a man discovered the African-American family’s status and sought to turn them over to the authorities. The town rallied behind the family and eventually helped them to flee into Canada.

The book calls the section “Two Different Viewpoints” and layouts of the argument like a debate.  On one side of the page the headline reads: Michiganians Should Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law; and on the other side the headline reads: Michiganians Should Not Have Obeyed the Fugitive Slave Law. Details of the Fugitive Slave Act are given, and also part of speech by the mayor in which he argues that slavery is immoral.

While none of the provided questions are particularly good at helping students better understand the dilemma faced by Michiganders, even more problematic is the last of the follow-up questions: “Which side do you think made the stronger argument? Why?” Slavery is and was objectively wrong. One cannot craft an argument that makes slavery okay, so to set this up as a debate between different viewpoints for contemporary students is disturbing. I commend the commitment by McGraw-Hill to teach the difference between opinions and facts, but I cannot fathom why they would scaffold a child to take up the argument that following the Fugitive Slave Act was the right choice.

Obviously, Americans rationalized and justified the inhumane enslavement of another group of people, but just because they found ways to convince themselves their position had merit does not mean that school children in the 21st century should be contemplating the question in the same manner. There is no argument here. The Fugitive Slave Act expanded slavery beyond the boundaries of slave states and forced people who did not agree with the “peculiar institution” to uphold the rights of slaveowners even within the borders of free states – a point the book does not clearly make.

Elementary school students are also taught about law and order. So, to present to them the choice between following a law and breaking a law without fully presenting the context of slavery and the reality that the Fugitive Slave Act essentially expanded slavery to free states against the wishes of those citizens, sets the students up to potentially think the moral choice was to follow the law. It should never, under any circumstances, be suggested to students that any law upholding slavery was moral or just.

These fourth graders have not learned that the United States has had to overturn unjust laws in our history. The process doesn’t seem very dynamic when one scans their reading materials. No wonder most Americans have a poor understanding of the systemic injustices of our nation, which have existed since the beginning and still do today.

I can have these conversations with my son, and I can help him to confront the darker part of our history so that he can have a fuller understanding of how he got to where we are today. But what of the other students? Attempts at neutral language only serve to confuse the issues and leave students uncertain about our history. 

 

*That this book is so incredibly out-of-date, having been published before 9/11, is another problem for another blog post. I will mention, though, that our district does not have funding issues, and still they don’t purchase new materials.


Jennifer Vannette once served as editor of [Re]collection before graduating from Central Michigan University with a PhD in History in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @jenvannette.

Fragments of the Forgotten Past

By Chiara Ziletti

On a quiet and pleasant evening of last summer, I was very busy saving the world from my comfortable couch, when I unexpectedly stumbled across an astonishing example of historical negationism.[1] This event has since prompted in my mind a long sequence of reflections on important history-related topics, such as: historiography and revisionism, methodology, ethic, preservation issues, and pedagogy. 

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To be true, it was not the present world that I was saving, but the one of “Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past.” Let me summarize the story. In the game, you – the hero! – and your party have the power to travel in the past in order to rescue several islands that have been cancelled from your present because of the evil Demon Lord’s schemes. After rescuing them in the past, the islands become available again in the present, so that you can visit them. (And isn’t the historian’s work a hero’s one? Indeed rescuing the past is part of our daily quest!)

In one of your travels to rescue the past of the game, you end up visiting the imaginary village of Vogograd. Here is where the specific example of historical negationism takes place. Long story short, in order to protect the village, the priest had done a pact with the monsters: he would lose his human form, thus looking like a monster from that moment onward, but as long as he lived, the monsters would have not attacked the village. However, unaware of this fact and frightened by the way the priest now looked like, the villagers want to lynch him. After you defeat the bad monsters and save both priest and village with the help of a young boy, the villagers realize what big mistake they were going to commit and decide to erect a monument for you and the priest at the center of the village so that “the terrible truth and their debt would never be forgotten.” All’s well that ends well, right? Not in this case. When you come back to the present and visit the village again, you find out that the monument has been altered. With the exception of one single family, the entire village now proudly believes that they were the ones that in the past saved the priest and the village from both the monsters and a group of bad adventurers (i.e. you and your party). How could that be? After visiting a little bit more the village, you finally find the original inscription of the monument with the help of the village’s children. And even though the adults of the village end up destroying the evidence and continue to deny the truth about the past, the children now know the truth and vow to do their best to spread it. Luckily, not all hope for the future is lost!

You can well imagine my surprise after all this. Indeed, after spending my entire day at the library on history books, the last thing I expected was to experience a firsthand history lesson in the videogame I was playing to relax. Both the historian and the gamer inside me were thrilled! The events of the game shared several similarities, for example, with those described in the 1990 Michael Verhoeven’s film The Nasty Girl and the book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross, which was published for the first time in English in 2001.[2] By touching the crucial and hotly debated issues of collective memory and identity, both these works establish the need of a conscious and continuous thoughtful engagement with the past, even at the cost of having to grapple with uncomfortable historical truths. This is exactly what I experienced in the game!

Even though they are fictional, the Vogograd’s events in the game provide indeed a clear firsthand experience of historical negationism, which – I believe – is more immediate that any book or movie. This made me immediately wish that I could have the students play it before discussing about several aspects of the historians’ job. Indeed, a game-based learning experience with this story would actively prompt several reflections on, for example, what is the proper historical method; why forgery is inadmissible; what are the ethical issues that historians have to deal with; what is the relationship between history and heritage; why historical preservation matters, especially in relation to difficult places and social justice; and why do we need to actively and continuously engage with the past.[3]

The Vogograd experience reminded me once more of how learning can come from anywhere, even when one is not even remotely thinking about it. In the end, games are still one of the most effective ways in which we – sometimes unexpectedly – learn.


[1] With ‘historical negationism’ I intend here a specific kind of illegitimate historical revisionism in which the historical record is improperly distorted to deny specific events that took place in the past.

[2] Recently the case of Jedwabne has come to the international attention once more after Poland passed a highly controversial new “Holocaust Law.”

[3] There is an incredible number of readings that one could use in class in addition to the game-based experience. For example, when discussing about the historian’s job and method, Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History is an excellent primer, but I can also think of Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft. When talking about forgery, Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine comes to the mind first. On the relationship between history, heritage and fabrication, Lowenthal’s article “Fabricating Heritage” would be a great starter for discussion. Also, chapter 6 of Max Page’s Why Preservation Matters would be a good starting point for reflecting on why do we need to preserve and interpret difficult places. Of course, these are just few suggestions, and the list could go on and on almost endlessly. (And for my dear gamers out there, if you are a fan of RPG and haven’t played DQVII, I highly recommend it! Be ready for a 100+ hours gaming experience.)

The End is Nigh

It's the most wonderful time of the year ... finals and grading! Woo! .... no?

Okay, so maybe not the most wonderful time, but there is a light at the end of the academic tunnel. You are almost to that glorious freedom where you will (convince yourself) you have all kinds of time to get all the things done. So, to help you reach the end of the semester I will, in the words of blogger Kylie Soanes, "give unsolicited advice to other academics. Preferably in blog form. Don’t say anything helpful."*

  • Hydrate. This is your marathon. Prep like it's one. You know, what? Carbo-load too. Just in case. It might not help with grading, but pasta is delicious.
  • Psyche yourself up by stacking all the exams and papers so you can visualize the completely reasonable amount of work to do. Then weep quietly. Regroup. Take at least half your stack and hide it in your desk so you feel like you have already made progress.
  • Be elated when you reach the end of your pile of grading. Weep quietly again when you open that desk drawer and find the other stack.
  • Netflix. Search for historical anomalies in Stranger Things and call it work. You are a historian after all, and television show accuracy is important. Plus it will give you something to talk about at the next holiday party.
  • Only check your email once a day so you don't get bogged down. Okay, maybe once in the morning and once in the evening. Or, perhaps just once each time you need a break. You know what? Just stay logged in.
  • Avoid social media. Except to post about your progress and tiredness and your ruminations on why society expects grades as a metric. What does it all mean anyway!?
  • Write a blog post for your favorite blog. *ahem. (This won't help your progress, but it will help mine, so...)
  • If all else fails just remember that the reality is most students aren't coming back to pick up the final anyway, so limit your notations and get it done.

You are almost to the finish line (to keep our marathon analogy going) and you're doing great! In the immortal words of Dory, "Just keep swimming..." Aw, man. There went the marathon analogy.

* I mean it's probably not helpful, but you never know.

Shouldn't Academics Respect Empirical Evidence?: The Tech Debate

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by Jennifer Vannette

Read any report or op-ed in which the author suggests that use of tech in the classroom may not be as helpful as one would like and immediately the comments section roars to life with a loud, angry protest. Recently I read a brief piece about why a professor chooses to rewrite things on a white board as opposed to using PowerPoint. Cue the angry defensiveness in the comments section telling this professor that she must be terrible at her job; there is always an assumption of incompetence if a person values a low-tech method over high-tech. Tech is associated strongly with progress, and so those who offer a contrarian view are often told to step aside. Here's one thing that is fascinating in light of academic emphasis on evidence: study after study has shown note-taking by hand leads to greater understanding and retention and yet many academics (and students) still insist that the evidence is wrong and laptops are best. Deeply troubling, it seems academics are particularly guilty of ignoring empirical evidence in favor of their own anecdotal belief that that tech is better, and that disregard of evidence runs contrary to our values as academics. Case in point, recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the most contentious and perpetual debates regarding tech is the use of laptops or tablets for note-taking. From students, most of the anecdotal evidence comes from those who insist that they cannot later read their own handwriting or those that have a learning disability that impairs their ability to keep up with notes during a lecture. I'm certain those are real concerns. Yet the evidence suggests that the majority of students benefit from turning off the laptops, and since there are structural supports in place for students with disabilities, I'd like to suggest we turn our focus to the majority for a moment -- most of our students can take notes by hand. Their real barrier is simply lack of practice.

The most recent and most cited study was conducted by Pat Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer and released in 2016.  Consistently they found the same results. They wanted to discover whether or not students processed and retained information better with or without a laptop. What is not in dispute is that students who take notes on a laptop tend to type verbatim notes. This means that they collect much more of what was said during lecture. Students who write notes by hand cannot keep up with verbatim notes and tend to have to process and be selective. This indicates more mental processing, but it also means less collected information. Mueller and Oppenheimer acknowledged that studying comes in two parts: the encoding hypothesis says that when we are involved in the act of taking notes we are engaged in mental processing that helps us learn and retain information, and the external-storage hypothesis that suggests notes are important for a student to look back on and study again.

The Mueller/Oppenheimer study had multiple parts so they could try to address these different components. Hundreds of students from UCLA and Princeton were asked to watch TED talks on a wide variety of topics and take notes. Some did so by hand and some by laptop. Students who used laptops took significantly more notes than students with pen and paper, so the question is whether or not that helped. The students then were tested on how well they remembered information. When it came to basic facts, both groups did well, but when it came to conceptual questions, the students who used a laptop did significantly worse. 

Okay, so verbatim notes might not help. So, in part two of the study, Mueller and Oppenheimer coached the laptop note-takers to not take verbatim notes. Use the laptop, but don't just type everything you hear. It turns out that it is difficult to control the impulse to take verbatim notes when the tool is at your fingertips. The results of the tests were the same.

But there is the external-storage hypothesis, so to make sure no stone was left unturned, the students in a third study were given the chance to study from their notes before taking the test. The idea being that because they had more collected information, with enough time to review it, they might perform better than hand note-takers who had less material to review. But, still, the hand note-takers out performed their laptop note-taking peers.

Scientific American reported that another key point in this study was that all the laptops were disconnected from the internet so as to eliminate that potential factor in the results, but in most classrooms students who use laptops can be distracted by the internet. The journal reported one study that determined 40% of all students with laptops are distracted and another law school study that showed a 90% distraction rate. The obvious implication is that those on a laptop were already disadvantaged in their ability to remember material based on their note-taking strategy so when you add in the distractions posed by easy internet accessibility, it's hard to see this as a formula for success.

Even though we need to acknowledge that students have different needs when they enter our classrooms, the evidence is clear that technology has drawbacks. No matter the fancy PR and futuristic appeal, it turns out that taking notes by hand leads to better education outcomes. And isn't that the business we are in?

Mueller admitted that it's a hard sell to get students to put down their tech devices, but she suggests that maybe with improving technologies like LiveScribe with stylus and tablet applications, perhaps the gap can be bridged. For myself, I've taken to presenting students with the evidence on day one and then I let them make their choice. In my last class of about 25 students, only three chose a laptop. 

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.

Expanding into Public Scholarship

 Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

Unessays by Ashley Woodworth (left) and McKayla Sundberg (right)

By Jordan X. Evans

How can we as scholars, educators, and historians engage with students and the public in the age of “alternative facts” and constant funding cuts? This is of utmost importance to us at CMU because in April the University decided to cut nearly ten percent of the financial operating budget for the College of Humanities, Social & Behavioral Sciences. A recent article in The Chronicle by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” attempts to answer some of those questions. One of their suggestions was to become public historians: pull ourselves out of the archives, conferences, libraries, labs, and the historical jargon. Our history department has already started to engage in this through activities like Reacting to the Past. where students gain an appreciation for how complicated history is by placing themselves within a historical moment. Through the use of RTTP students also learn to critically think about historical events in a fun way. Teaching critical thinking skills in a game brings value to the students and our own classrooms.

However, this is one step; what are some other methods and activities we can do to reengage and fight against the world of alternative facts? Instead of engaging in a highly specialized field that is nearly inaccessible for the public, we as historians must become the defenders of truth, critical thinking, and history. If we take seriously Blain and Kendi's call to become public scholars, what might that look like?. Public scholars engage with people in unique ways, for example; giving public lectures, editing and creating blogs, and inventing interesting and different ways to publish scholarship. The focus is on accessibility, not demonstrating your impressive vocabulary. Can we as historians capitalize on alternative methods to combat alternative facts inside of and outside of the hallowed walls of our university?

On April 21, CMU hosted Dr. Ari Kelman as a speaker for our Blackburn Lecture series. During his time on campus he spoke about his new project with co-author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm the creation of a graphic novel called Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. The book tells the real history of the American Civil War in a graphic novel-style format – , full of pictures and simple language, it would be highly accessible to the public. Kelman’s project is following in the footsteps of the award winning graphic book series March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell,  which traces the history of John Lewis during his struggle in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. March exemplifies a singular narrative that traces one story, captured in a fun, easy, and insightful way. Following Kelman’s visit, the use of graphic novel style to bridge the academic and public worlds lingered on my mind. If we could incorporate them then how do we start creating work like that in our own classrooms?

Dr. Christopher Jones, a visiting assistant professor at Brigham Young University, answered that question by sharing a series of photographs on Twitter documenting his students unessays. An unessay is meant “to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity” (emphasis added). One picture is a collection of four paintings that depict “the near-erasure of all but white men from American history + efforts to correct that record”. A Landscape Management major “drew up ‘landscape blueprints’ to depict clash of cultures b[y] Powhatans and English in 17c Virginia”. Scholars should keep in mind that students working on their undergraduate degrees come to learn carrying their own unique talents and interests. Using unessays could be one way to keep them engaged in a class they may otherwise lose interest in. In addition, assigning work like this can challenge us as historians beyond the classroom to be more creative and make work like graphic histories.

As the country becomes ever more entrenched in a battle of facts and alternative facts it falls on us to remember our duty to engage and teach in ways that the public and undergraduates will value, understand, and share. Are we doing that effectively? If we cannot easily say yes, then what more can we do before this ten percent funding cut becomes twenty percent next year? Scholars must defend truth, critical thinking, and history, not just in our academic sphere but with the public as well, by using methods previously scoffed at before historians become a matter of history ourselves.

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.

History through Students' Eyes

By Katie Krawetzke

US History through Michigan Eyes is like many survey courses in that it features a large lecture hall, multiple TAs, and many of the enrolled students are required to take it, either as a University Program or Writing Intensive course. Unlike many survey courses, though, it draws an exceptional number of Education Majors and Minors. HST 210 fulfills a requirement for CMU’s future teachers, which means I was teaching the next generation of educators. Running discussion sections for teachers raises my expectations for class participation because educators in both primary and secondary schools are going to be in front of (increasingly) large classes and are constantly kept on their toes by their students. In my semester of TAing for this class, I was lucky enough to see some highly engaged students, who I am sure will make wonderful teachers when they graduate from CMU. Featured here are two of those students who I have no doubt will make great teachers because of their own inquisitiveness and passion for learning.


By Keturah Ashford

This course has affected my understanding of American and Michigan history by giving me a clearer and deeper understanding of what truly transpired within our state and nation. I feel as though the education system does not make a large enough emphasis on history at the primary and secondary level. The information in lower grades is also biased to what the author’s views are and what they deem important. Through the activities, essays, and discussion in HST 210, I have gained more knowledge and new found perspective on the history previously learned.

One of the most important skills I acquired is finding and analyzing primary sources in order to gain my own deeper understanding. Without this skill I would still be under the impression that Lincoln freed all slaves, Henry Ford was a good man who cared about all employees and their families, the civil rights was the only movement in the 1960s, the Boston Massacre was a horrible tragedy because of Britain, and how much Michigan actually relied on slavery. I know know that Michigan played a huge role in national history including through industry, agriculture, mining, forts, mining, timber, and race rallies.

The knowledge and skills accumulated will help me educate the future generations on historical facts, how to find the most accurate information, and how to actively read, analyze, and form opinions and connections from the past, present, and future.


By Krystal Headley

In the course United States History through Michigan Eyes, the emphasis on perspective most affected my understanding of history. The more I learn about history in general, from any point in time, I see that there are many ways to view each event. I feel like this class did a great job showing us how to separate the account of events from emotional responses in many documents. We used and analyzed primary source documents accounts from events like the Boston Massacre or the Civil War or WWII, and we were able to get down to the bare bones to study events and learn about bias.

As an education major, I spend a lot of time considering how to best to teach future students. These historical thinking activities changed my perspective about how history should be taught. Rather than memorize a set of facts, dates, or series of events, it should be about uncovering clues form the past through a multi sensory experience. Then, critical thinking and comparison should be applied; for example, how does a series of events apply to our current political climate?

I appreciate how this class forced us to do more than just know what happened, but to put it into real context.

Navigating the Crisis: Set a New Course

By Jennifer Vannette

The crisis of the humanities has been a long lamented point in the academy. As we well know at CMU, budget shortfalls are balanced on the backs of history programs, which then have to cut courses and new hires. As other programs send us fewer students due to their own restructuring and society deems the study of history less important, universities have begun to require fewer credits in history. Additionally, many people view history as less useful to their futures. It’s easy to get discouraged.

The latest issue of Perspectives on History (May 2017) offers two articles addressing the challenges of and failures regarding teaching history. David Pace, in his piece “The History of the Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed,” begins with the clarion call that “in a ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news,’ historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles,” and he argues that we have a moral obligation to defend the institutions of democracy. Pace promotes a change in how we teach history, being sure to move away from memorization and towards reasoning and critical analysis. This is not a new idea, and many historians have already made that shift at the college level. But, Pace, notes that we have a tendency to blame students lack of preparation for college rather than reshaping courses to address the needs of the student body we have.

 The numbers are startling when it comes to fail rates. The companion article in Perspectives, “Many Thousands Failed: A Wakeup Call to History Educators” by Andrew Koch, complied data on 28,000 students from 32 different institutions over the course of three academic years spanning 2012-2015 who were enrolled in a US history survey course. The data showed that about two-thirds of the students earned a grade of a C or higher. But, looking at the demographic variables, the research team saw that race, family income level, gender, and status as a first-generation college student were indicators that predicted the success rate of students in a history class: “…the likelihood of earning a D, F, W, or I grade is lower for Asian Americans, white, and female students who are not first generation, and do not receive a Pell Grant. It is higher, and sometimes significantly higher, for every other demographic group.” And, the failure in one introductory course, like a US survey, increases the likelihood of dropping out of school.

 Koch also criticizes past methods of teaching history. He sees promise in active-learning strategies. But, additionally, he implores historians to take an active role in preventing the negative outcomes for disadvantaged students. Inequality in society predicts inequality in learning outcomes, and we have an obligation to intercede.

Both articles also express worry that part of the fail rates are due to a lack of diversity in the narratives communicated to students. Even though historians have produced a great body of literature that addresses class, race, gender, ethnic studies, religion, and many more interesting facets of humanity, many minority students are not finding themselves represented in the survey courses. We’ve adjusted how we talk to each other as academics, but we are faltering in communication of the rich body of history to students and the public.

Pace and Koch acknowledge the lack of willpower at institutions to make changes, particularly when the results are unknown. We need to try something new, but a university rarely wants to be the first to use an untested method. The work that goes into changing course offerings can be daunting, but there are resources available and a network of historians working on educational research. Change can happen – Yale recently announced that through their efforts of revamping their history major courses and requirements, history is once again the top major at the university.

Both authors offer good starting points for the conversation, and they indicate that we need more creativity. We perhaps need the political determination to challenge the norm (should I say sacred cow?) of historical survey courses. Even when historians have tested new methods, we still cling to the survey lecture structure. Consider the example of how the game-based pedagogy Reacting to the Past has been typically used. The game focuses on one particular historical experience during a discussion section while the chronological survey continues with lectures during two of their three meeting times.

Some historians have begun to approach courses, even university required surveys, with a thematic approach. This can be difficult to do; it’s hard to relinquish the chronology. I know when I taught US Since 1945, although I organized the lectures by themes, I made sure to also balance that with a chronological structure. I’m not sure I went far enough. We have the ability to cover a broad sweep of history while focusing entirely on a single theme. Course examples from the American Studies program at Canterbury in the UK are quite exciting, for example, The Invention of America: Texts and Contexts from 1670 to the Present; Rise of the American Colossus: US Foreign Policy, 1898 to the Present; or, Banned Books: A Literary History of the US. Can we pique student interest better by focusing on a particular theme rather than trying to cover everything that happened over hundreds of years?

As historians, we know that we are relevant to the conversations that consume society today, and as Pace pointed out, we perhaps even have a moral obligation to do all we can to defend our institutions. With the fail-rate data and the layers of bureaucracy that must be navigated to make changes, it's easy to want to just stay the course. But there are positive signs. Even with STEM promotion, many technology business leaders have said that they seek people with the skills historians have and can teach. (Here. Here. And here.) The work of a course change is daunting, and there are no guarantees. And, still, we should engage in new ideas and try new methods for engaging our students – even if it means killing the sacred cow.        

It’s a TA Life for Me: Living in Greenwich Village

 Art Work and Items for game points.

Art Work and Items for game points.

By Gillian Macdonald

“To start with I thought it was terrible, then we got to the game, and oh my god, I had no idea that I knew that much about American history just immersing myself in one person.”

This is the statement that makes being a Teaching Assistant worth it. TA’s are forever talking about teaching assignments and class work –  it’s all part of the experience – and what you tend to find is that either the funny or the heartwarming stories stick out. There are so many great stories when using the game-based learning pedagogy, Reacting to the Past or RTTP. It may seem strange to use game based learning in a history class, but when the documents alone can’t quite get the idea across or grab students attention, it’s a fabulous way to learn. In a wide-ranging survey course designed to teach students American history from Reconstruction to present, “experiencing” a moment often is the best way to explain historical events and help students deepen their understanding of their very unique heritage.

Reacting to the Past: Greenwich Village 1913 is one of those moments. Don’t be fooled by the game aspect –  it is a lot of work; students must take on a historical role and remain in that character for 4 or 5 weeks while trying to achieve their game objectives. Because it is a game, they mostly focus on the winning, but in the end, they have a much better understanding of how historical forces actually work in real life. To play the game, there is a period of set up. However, this is the point where you can lose students. Prepping for the game is work, but once the game gets going it feels much smoother and pretty much runs itself. However, this type of leg work is often something students are not accustomed to and complaints are to be expected. Those who stay end up really enjoying it, especially if they win ;-).

The hardest part for the TA is deciding on the cast. Greenwich Village has the luxury of so many great characters like Emma Goldman, John “Jack” Reed, and Margaret Sanger, to name just a few. Students must know their character inside out. Taking on the role of a historical person requires a multitude of skills – skills they often didn’t know that they had. In order to make their character believable the student must know: who was this person? How did their life experiences shape them? How did the events of the day influence their political views? What did they want and why? The TA on the other hand, has to know all of the characters—everything about them—including how they would react in a multitude of situations. It’s crazy, although now I could tell you all about “Big Bill” Haywood’s trial for murder and how students used this in the game, and more importantly, how and why it was used to make arguments for and against him and the labor faction’s objectives....

This year, the class did unbelievably well. Students went above and beyond – in costume every day, created buttons, posters, paintings – and it showed. The fun part, at least for me, was watching them learn, react, and evolve. For instance, there are a number of surprises in the game (which I won’t spoil) and seeing their faces and how they felt afterward was just fantastic. Students grow confident, learn how to speak out, and express historical opinions in meaningful ways, all while they gain transferable skills. Their journals and reflection papers, which help to try and ground the experience, are where the lightbulb moments happen, and that makes them so fun to read. Students often make connections between what they have learned playing the game and the lecture material. That reflection often creates a deeper understanding of historical forces at work.

This is where RTTP can do things that reading a document just doesn’t do. Students are reading and researching without even really thinking about it because they are immersing themselves in a situation because they want to win! It’s a game after all, experience matters. One faculty member, Dr. Kathleen Donohue told me that students feel RTTP has a lasting impact, particularly when they have played a person who was fundamentally different from themselves. It can be a powerful experience. One student expressed afterwards that it was an eye-opening experience and reinforced his opinions on gender-equality.

Overall, RTTP is definitely a worthwhile experience, but it’s not for the faint-hearted ;-).

Reflective Teaching

By David Papendorf

As most of us know, the way that graduate students in history survive is by teaching—or at least that’s what our stipends pay us to do.  It can be both incredibly frustrating and rewarding to teach undergraduate students. However, I think too often in a moment of frustration or the busyness of our schedules, we can get caught up in a false dichotomy of crediting a bad class experience to “bad” students. It becomes so easy to chalk up classroom disappointments and poorly-written papers to disinterested, under-equipped, underachieving, and lazy students that we can easily mistake student performance as the ultimate judge of classroom success.  Alternatively, we can just as easily chalk up great classes to brilliant students and not attempt to understand exactly why things went well.

While I think it important to focus on the students’ experience, we must also not let our highs and lows of teaching be dependent on student response and energy in the classroom as the only metric. By examining each class through the prism of our teaching with some reflective method of evaluating our teaching, we can more readily find what works and doesn’t work and adjust our teaching plans accordingly.

Troubleshooting and diagnostics are incredibly important in reflecting on why the classroom experience went poorly. It can be difficult to think through why things went the way they did.  But I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to take a few minutes and reflect on each class.  I have learned from a former mentor and professor of mine one tip that I have tried to implement.  He suggested I write four sentences after every class/section/seminar summarizing the overall effectiveness of the class time.  This summary should include not just an evaluation of the class time, but at least one success and one area for improvement.  Each summary, he suggested, should be class specific and could even use the names of students directly.  He then suggested that, when preparing for the next week, I should consult these short summaries in order to be more reflective in my preparation.  When I have done this, I have found it extremely helpful. 

Think of it this way: we sometimes have our students write journals following class time to synthesize and summarize their experience.  New methods of pedagogy have taught us how helpful this is for long-term retention and synthesis of new information.  Let’s turn the pedagogy back on us to make us better teachers. This is one way, I believe, that we can begin to grow as instructors.

The Pedagogy of Hope: Continuing the Conversation

Brittany B. Fremion

Editor's Note: This is a follow-up post to last week's The Pedagogy of Hope.

The roundtable I participated in at the American Society for Environmental History conference at the end of March focused on ways instructors find hope in environmental history narratives in their courses. And I certainly work to incorporate research I present and learn about at conferences into my classes. In an effort to bring what I learned at this particular gathering to a wider audience, I offer this follow-up post.

My roundtable, “The Pedagogy of Hope: Teaching Hope in the Environmental Classroom,” featured instructors in environmental studies and history programs. Each presenter brought a unique perspective and strategy for finding hope to the roundtable. Jim Feldman from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh frequently checks in with his students after discussing particularly taxing topics in his environmental studies course. He works hard to engage current events and demonstrate to students that sustainability is “not a narrative of decline, it’s a narrative of hope.” Sarah Hamilton, now at Auburn University, talked about a course she taught at the University of Michigan in 2014, wherein students developed an environmental history of Detroit. By working directly with community leaders and members, her students recognized the significance of community action groups and the power of individuals to bring about change locally. The collaborative endeavor increased student empathy and demonstrated that “change is ongoing and they can be a part of it” (check out the course website: https://detroitenvironment.lsa.umich.edu). Amy Kohout uses post-apocalyptic fiction in her American environmental history course at Colorado College. Her use of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, for example, creates opportunities for the discussion of hopeful narratives and what fiction may do for the study of history: it presents “the wide range of possible futures.” Finally, George Vrtis from Carleton College assessed the state of the field and its historiography, pointing out that while “hope is a feeling, not an intellectual enterprise,” it is important to kindle hope to help students understand the environmental challenges we face. He contended that there are hopeful narratives in environmental history and that instructors can identify them by designing discussions that encourage students to find themes that inspire them. 

Finding hope in environmental history—or any field, really—is important. Hope drives interest and cultivates passion, which in turn provokes a response. I took my first environmental history course as an undergraduate at the University of Saint Francis, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The instructor, also my advisor, assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and William Ashworth’s The Late, Great Lakes. The class, and these books in particular, made a profound impression on me. I learned about the transformation of the American landscape both before and after European settlement, and the “death” of Lake Erie in the 1960s. I was astonished that the field rose out of the environmental movement in the 1970s (in fact, these activist roots are what first drew me to environmental history). I became interested in environmental issues, joined the Sierra Club, and helped establish a nature preserve on campus for Earth Day. I went to graduate school, first for a MA in history and then a doctorate. Now I teach my own environmental history class. The point is, I channeled any anger and despair I felt about the environmental present in 2003 and translated it into action. In turn, I have found hope (see previous post).

Following the short presentations by roundtable participants, audience members contributed to the conversation by bringing insight from their own experiences. Some of the questions they raised include the following, which I leave to you:

1)    How can one find hope in global environmental histories or histories typified by more tragic narratives? (I’m thinking of histories like Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts.)

2)    Is there danger in overemphasizing hope? (This question was prefaced by the revelation that a prominent historian once told a student that “environmental history is depressing, so it should be.”)

3)    What other strategies enable instructors to teach empathy and hope?

The Pedagogy of Hope

By Brittany B. Fremion

Part of my job (and joy) as a professor and historian is to be actively engaged with the community of scholars in my field and to contribute to its growth outside of the immediate university setting. One of the primary means of doing so is by participating in academic conferences. The major organization for environmental historians hosted its annual conference at the end of March in Chicago. I had the good fortune of being part of one of two roundtables dedicated to finding hope in environmental history. The title of my panel, which focused on hope in teaching, was entitled “The Pedagogy of Hope,” whereas the other revolved around scholarship, “Hope in Environmental History” (check out the conference program here: http://aseh.net/conference-workshops/2017-conference-chicago-1/conference-program).

In his 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, the two roundtables will consider how effectively environmental historians have answered this call. My particular roundtable will feature instructors who have worked to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into their environmentally-themed courses (taken from roundtable abstract).

In my upper-level comparative environmental history course (HST 302) at CMU I have worked to identify ways that reinforce the positive components of my field, despite the persistence of narratives of decline that seem to characterize it (i.e. the looming theme of ecological collapse at the hand of humanity). In order to do so, I often stress that knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. Knowledge of history in particular enables us to make better, more informed decisions in the future, to understand how we got to be where we are, and why multiple perspectives matter. This is particularly important when it comes to environmental issues. We must understand how and why ecosystems have changed in order to develop creative responses to address those changes. The environmental historian plays an especially significant role in helping us recognize our power to dramatically alter the world we inhabit.

The vehicle that carries conversations about the power of individuals to incite change in my classroom is, perhaps oddly, Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (1992). Quinn’s philosophical novel is the first book students read for my course and often their favorite. This work of fiction reorients readers’ perspectives so that they recognize their place within nature, not as separate, through (spoiler alert!) a series of telepathic conversations between a gorilla and student—purposely unnamed or assigned a gender, an effective writing strategy that enables the reader to identify as the student. The conversations are largely driven by questions raised by Ishmael, the gorilla, who is the teacher in this story. One of the first questions he asks the student is about his/her culture’s “creation myth,” to which the student responds with certainty that it is no myth. But Ishmael proves him/her wrong by juxtaposing the human story of creation with that of a jellyfish (you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to better understand why). The moral to this story, and others, is that the Earth exists for no one species in particular; that we, as humans, may not be the pinnacle of creation. Ishmael also points out that we are subject to the laws of nature, challenging the human assumption of control over the environment. As a result, he is able to emphasize that humans, as powerful members of ecosystems, must be better stewards. In the end, he teaches the reader “how to save the planet—from ourselves. With this knowledge, we have the power to change our lives and save the world.”  

The discussion sparked by this book leads students to recognize the significant roles they play as members of campus, regional, national, and global communities—that the knowledge and skills they have acquired in my class (and others) should extend into their daily lives. They have the power to bring about change, whether it’s doing something seemingly nominal (like buying organic fair trade products, recycling, or using public transportation) or recognizably significant (supporting environmental initiatives, engaging in social activism, and/or writing policymakers). This self-awareness is in itself transformative and empowering. And it certainly gives me hope.