New Season, New Editor

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Author Visiting the Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Just as the seasons change, so must the tenure of editors of the blog. We bid farewell to one editor-in-chief and welcome another. As summer gets under way in 2019 (last of the teens…) I hope that everyone is enjoying some well-earned time off and the glorious weather. While you are taking it easy and hopefully writing, I will be meticulously looking after [Re]collection until the New Year. As such, I am excited to bring you some new content, organize, assemble, and most importantly, showcase these wonderful posts for the remainder of the year.

I would like to thank my most recent predecessor Marcel Haas for his help and navigational guidance. Moreover, I would like to thank his predecessors for maintaining such excellent work, their work ethic and contributions make this a hard standard to live up to, but I shall endeavour to maintain the excellence you are used to.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Gillian Macdonald and coming in the Fall I will be a fourth year PhD candidate in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program at CMU. Since it is my fourth year, I am hoping to complete a good chunk—if not all—of my research and writing in the coming year. Before coming to CMU, I was a student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow that is one of the history department’s partner institutions. I completed both my Bachelors Honors Degree and my Master in Research at Strathclyde there. During my MRes year I was approached about attending CMU through the partnership exchange and four years later here I am completing my PhD.

After a year of completing requirements, my historical interests primarily lie in Early Modern Europe, the Medieval World, and the History of the United States with a sprinkling of inter-war Europe. Having read at least a few books in each field I can honestly say I am fascinated. However, my primary area of research lies in seventeenth-century Great Britain. The seventeenth-century is when all the fun stuff happens, there’s two revolutions, they lob off some king’s heads, start an empire, go to war with the Netherlands, France, and countless other places, the fallout from the Reformation takes hold, you name it and it’s happening. My personal interests and research lie in the tail end of the century during the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-90—very contested name in the historiography—particularly in Scotland. This includes spies, refugees, pirates, and parliamentary legislation dealing with it all.

Over the course of the next few months I am looking forward to sharing experiences and updates as I travel to my archives and burrow into my sources. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my exciting finds and struggles along the way as I travel around the little British island that I call home and maybe to some more exotic places. As well as reviewing, sharing, and publishing any and all relevant contributions by our readers! I welcome and encourage all submissions please do not hesitate to drop an email at cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com.

Happy Holidays!

A Dispatch from Bochum

The author on the steps of the Münster.

The author on the steps of the Münster.

As the academic year in the US draws to a close, uncertainty, stress, and fatigue are each a familiar presence. However, here in Germany – where the semester has just begun, and where the workload is arguably less intense – I too am faced with certain perils. What exactly is this food that I have ordered? Why am I being reprimanded by this old woman in the street? (Apparently, it is not socially acceptable to cross the street before the light turns green – lesson learned.) How much bread is too much bread? (German bread – and German beer, for that matter – is truly marvelous. Another lesson learned.)

I am currently on exchange at the Ruhr-Universität (RUB) in Bochum. This is my second time studying abroad, and the third country that I have been fortunate enough to study in. From January until mid-March I took part in an intensive language class, wherein I developed basic language skills and worked closely with other incoming students who faced the same challenges I did. The class was often difficult though enjoyable, and friendships were forged over our mutual struggle to comprehend the mysteries of German grammar. Much of my first months here were also spent making use of my Semesterticket, a train pass that allows students to travel throughout the region for a very affordable one-off fee. My state – Nordrhein-Westfalen – is the largest in Germany, and with my Semesterticket I have been fortunate to explore the cities of Köln, Dortmund, Bonn, Düsseldorf, and more. This ticket has offered plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to develop my language skills and gain some understanding of everyday life in Germany. The benefits of this pass are many; in fact, one can probably learn as much from traveling around the state than from work in the classroom.

That being said, all of the homework in the world could not have prepared me for Karneval, a time during which the citizens of Düsseldorf, Köln, and more take to the streets and are gripped by a sort of collective insanity, souped up on copious amounts of alcohol and high-quality German sausages. I’m told that the festivities have a connection to the Catholic celebration of Lent, though it is unclear exactly where Jägermeister fits within the liturgical calendar. Garish costumes are worn as the revelers celebrate their civic pride; the cities resemble a Game of Thrones battlefield, soundtracked by Kölsch lager and pounding techno music from the 1990s. It is an incredible amount of fun. Of course, this being Germany, all festive debris is cleaned away in an orderly fashion, and everyone returns to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.

Thankfully, Karneval comes but once a year, and, after all, there is serious work to be done. My academic experiences so far have admittedly been very challenging. Class discussion is held in German, and though there is not much expected of me in terms of contribution, even trying to keep up is very difficult. Class formats are also different than in the US, and great importance is placed on your ability to independently conduct and present original research. The campus at RUB is labyrinthine, and with its brutalist architecture from the 1960s and dour winter weather, even finding your way around can initially be intimidating. However, rising to these challenges is a privilege, not to mention a great opportunity. Living and working abroad forces you out of comfort zones and demands that you adapt to new experiences; moreover, the opportunity to cultivate connections and network with like-minded academics is also a bonus. The faculty here have been welcoming and are extremely helpful in providing guidance and advice.

I have been fortunate enough to study abroad before and believe that being able to study in an atmosphere which demands hard work truly offers an opportunity to thrive. And if it all becomes too much, there is always the option to chill out and eat a pretzel. Lesson learned.

New to being a TA: Where to start?

by Sam Malby

You’ve just got the news. You’ve been given funding by the History department at CMU, and you’re going to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant. For fifteen seconds you’re ecstatic. Then you come to the realization… you’re going to be a Teaching Assistant. And you have no idea how to teach, how to talk to students, or how to grade. You suddenly realize that you know nothing about anything, and that they will immediately realize that you must be an impostor and will hunt you down with torches, pitchforks, and (this being America) probably some guns. 

But fear not! There is no need to panic, simply take a deep breath and try to calm down.

Let me suggest a few places you can start.

First of all, there are some things to remember before you even enter the classroom.

1.     Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re a cheerful, joke-laden person who always has a smile on his or her face, don’t put on a stern, scary face because you think it’ll give you more authority in the classroom. It won’t. (Don’t be the Grinch, unless you’re naturally a mean, green, grumpy machine). Be natural and do your best to make others feel comfortable around you.

2.     Remember that the aim of a discussion section is getting the students to talk. You are there to guide the discussion; you certainly shouldn’t be talking for 50 minutes straight. You will most likely end up putting yourself and your students to sleep.

3.     It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” Just follow it up with “I’ll look that up for our next class” or “can someone check that on their phone or laptop?”

4.     At first, it is better to be overprepared than underprepared. Eventually, you’ll know how much preparation an hour of discussion section requires.

 

Now a few tips on how to improve your teaching skills.

1.     You might think that the go-to person is the professor you are teaching for, but while the professor is high up on the list, the first people most of us turn to are other TAs. These could be those you are working with as well as other TAs in the History Department. A quick discussion with one of them will often help you find a solution to your problem, an idea for your next class, and suggestions on finding resources.

2.     You can of course also discuss your dreams, doubts, and questions with the professor you work for, and usually they are also a great resource for dealing with any difficulties you may have.

3.     If by chance you are an International student arriving during the summer, there is an International Teaching Assistant Workshop. This is a nice place to start and will help you become aware of some of the cultural differences between your country and the United States.

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4.     During the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) provide bi-weekly GTA workshops where they discuss topics such as ‘Starting on the Right Foot,’ ‘Dealing with Issues in the Classroom,’ and ‘Tackling the Demands of Professional and Personal Responsibilities’. Many of these sessions have been a great resource this semester and provide feedback and discussion points throughout the year that will help you reassess your own teaching.

5.     The HST 700 Practicum in College Teaching is a great place to discuss classroom issues and might make you re-consider many of the pre-conceived ideas you may have about teaching.

6.     The professor for the Teaching Practicum in the Fall 2018 semester, Dr. Brittany Fremion, introduced us to a number of books on teaching. For example, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do can be a great place to start if you’re in need for some ideas.

7.     If you need a quick refresher on a topic or need some information on something you haven’t studied yet, a great place to start is the Crash Course YouTube channel. Their videos on World History and US History are full of information, presented in a fun and easy to understand way.

 

Ultimately, experience is the best teacher. All you need to do is walk into the classroom, stand in front of the class and begin to talk. Not everything will always go to plan, but that is absolutely fine. Over time you will learn to adapt, improvise, and survive. Just remember what Winnie the Pooh says: “You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”

A New Year – A New Editor

The new editor somewhere beautiful in Mexico (and definitely working!)

The new editor somewhere beautiful in Mexico (and definitely working!)

While the new year 2019 promises to be an eventful ride – academically, politically, and socially – it is also the begin of my tenure as the new editor of [Re]collection. I am equally humbled and excited to start working on our great blog and online presence, giving you all the amazing content you are used to from my predecessors. Before I introduce myself further, however, I would like to take this moment to thank Dave Papendorf, Jen Vannette, and Chiara Ziletti for their help and guidance, since their respective tenures as editors have put the bar very high for me. I promise to give my best not to disappoint them.

Before landing this job, I was (and still am) a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the History Department for the better part of the last four years, culminating in a great last semester (at least for myself, the evaluations aren’t in yet, of course) in which I taught my own course on modern American history. My teaching interests have taken me back and forth between Michigan, Indigenous, and US history, while my research focuses on Global Indigenous and African History – with a special emphasis on the colonial experience. All of these fields have instilled in me a keen interest in the political and social development of America and Africa. I think that future blog entries by yours truly will reflect that emphasis. This semester in particular, I am looking forward to several trips to the colonial and state archives in Germany and Great Britain. Watch this space for updates on how to navigate foreign archives, find material in languages I don’t even speak, and manage to book the cheapest (and worst) hostels in Europe.

The Anna Amalia Library in Weimar - Too pretty to be real (I wish the actual German archives would all look like this one…)

The Anna Amalia Library in Weimar - Too pretty to be real (I wish the actual German archives would all look like this one…)

Beyond the archive and classroom, I am a traditional geek (before it all became chic, I’m afraid), and I might delve into some game-based learning ideas and experiences later in this semester. Especially Reacting to the Past has developed into a staple of teaching in our department, and provides us with a fascinating window into teaching and learning methods, student-led classroom interactions and historical imagination. Besides historical role-playing games I also love movies and TV shows, especially those that have influenced how people think about the world. Who didn’t get their ideas of politics from West Wing and House of Cards, their imagination of the Wild West from John Wayne classics such as The Searchers and Stagecoach, and their perception of the Mafia in America from Goodfellas and The Godfather? Consequently, we will have some experts talk about exactly these influences on popular culture and historical thinking.

Of course, I am more than happy to review and publish any and all relevant contributions by our readers, a.k.a. you! Be it your experiences as students, teachers, parents, or avid consumers of knowledge, don’t hesitate to write a piece and send it to our email address (cmichhistoryblog@gmail.com). Serious pieces on work in the archive, fluff pieces on academic holidays (yes, they do exist!), as well as reflections on your research interests are welcome.

In addition to the blog, I am also excited to bring you all the usual department-related news and updates via some of your favorite social media platforms: Gesichtsbuch (https://www.facebook.com/CmichHistory/) and Zwitscherer (https://twitter.com/cmuhistory)! After all, what is the use of a German editor if he can’t have some fun with ridiculous English company names.

I am looking forward to a surely great semester in the world of academia and university education. Together, I am certain that we will keep this blog amazing!

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. 

Wrapping it up with Thomas Aquinas

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As the semester and year come to a close sadly so does my time as the editor of [Re]collection.  Though there are still a few weeks before the end of the year, this is the last time that I will write a personal post on this blog.  Therefore thought I ought to give a few words of salutations before passing the torch to the more-than-capable Marcel Haas.  I have learned a lot in my six months as editor and have greatly appreciated all of the authors and readers that make this blog a point of interest. I could spend the rest of this post describing the mechanics that go into editing and managing a blog:  copy editing, working with peers and senior colleagues, managing deadlines, keeping an eye out for tone of writing, scrambling to get the final touches on a post, and much more.  But I am sure that many of you are familiar with this process already; in fact, I can imagine a great deal of our readers are academics themselves and are therefore all too familiar with these processes (and more).  So rather than spend any more time on these matters, I have decided I am going to share a parting story from my own research and teaching interests.  My hope is that this story will be interesting and serve properly as parting words for my time as editor.

In May of 1244, Thomas Aquinas decided to leave his cushy life assured of future ecclesiastical appointments and to join the Dominican order.  Perhaps this change of heart is all too close to some of our own lives – leaving a life of potential financial and professional success for headier pursuits (i.e. signing up to spend half a decade of your life getting a PhD).  As he left, Thomas utterly stunned his family who worked so hard to set him off on the right track.  Regardless, Thomas followed his calling and trudged on.  In fact, he did not trudge at all – he became one of the most prolific writers in medieval European history.  Historians estimate that, during his prime, he was producing two to three novel-length volumes per month.  Most readers will likely recognize Thomas’s name from his life’s work, Summa theologiae– a tome that addresses over 4,500 theological questions and was meant to replace the outdated Sentencesof Peter Lombard. Curiously, though, Thomas never finished his magnum opus.  This fact is curious because Thomas simply decided to stop writing seemingly out of the blue.

On December 6, 1273 (not that long from today’s date, albeit 745 years later), Aquinas is reported to have said, “After what I have seen today, I can write no more, for all that I have written is straw”. Historians are not sure exactly what it was that Thomas saw and why exactly he had such a dramatic change in perspective.  Dying three short months later in March 1274, some speculate whether it was some sort of medical diagnosis.  Nevertheless, Thomas stepped away from his enormously productive career at the height of his powers.  More critically though, he did not finish what seemed to be his life’s work. Thomas’s halt in writing has fascinated historians and theologians for years, and it remains puzzling to this day.

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I share this story not to draw any parallels between the theological giant Thomas Aquinas and my own time at [Re]collection. Nor do I plan to offer any new answers as to Thomas’s sudden stoppage of writing.  What I find most fascinating about this whole story is how Thomas continually displays what he thinks is a realistic perspective on his own legacy.  He is reflective and even self-deprecating as he halts his projects to engage in more contemplative pursuits.  This is especially true if he did not know that he would soon pass away just a few months after ceasing writing.  A general point of application that I draw from this story, and, by extension, offer to you as readers is to have the proper perspective as you reach the end of the year.  Whether it is with professional goals, writing projects, grading, or end-of-year holiday hustle, be sure to not overestimate how critical every detail is. Remember that you will always experience a mix of failure and success – perfectly embodied, I believe, in my time here as the editor.  If even Thomas Aquinas gives himself a thoughtful critique and reflection, so can you too.  So, as I wrap things up in the next few weeks, I hope that the posts over the past few months have been a little more than “straw”.  At the same time, I know that it has been a productive season.  Thank you all for all of your support – especially former editor Chiara Ziletti and everyone in the History Department at Central Michigan University.  Finally, I wish my colleague and future editor Marcel Haas all the best in the coming year – viel Glück mein Freund!

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.