Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Bit of Mad Libs, A little practicality and a little fun

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Every semester it is one of my favorite assignments.  In asking students to start to recognize the vocabulary that can help them place a Vita (translation: Life–as in an early form of biography that often focused less on accuracy and more on example or political commentary) in the appropriate era, I have them select an era and then draw up a list of words, Mad Libs style, that would be appropriate for a Vita from that era.

Below, are examples from this semester with my commentary:

Roman

The virile man was cunning.  He conquered other nations. 

He always ­delegated to Jupiter in the morning earning

the admiration of Alexander.  When combat happened

in the noon he was the first to struck his Caesar.

This group included key figures/deities that would indicate a Roman text, as well as focusing on the admirable traits of a Roman leader: virile, cunning, conquering, striking–in other words, strong, clever, and militant.

Carolingian

The literate man was educated.  He copied other nations. 

He always ­converting to Charles in the morning earning

the admiration of Missi.  When the crowned emperor happened

in the death of Charlemagne he was the first to defend his Carolingians.

This group selected the Carolingian era, for which they read an excerpt of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne.  This is rather different from the Late Antique-era Vitae which focused more on holy men and women with a special emphasis on martyrdom, conversions and miracles, or withdrawal from the world.  The Carolingian Vita–and especially Einhard’s–is deliberately copying the Roman tradition of Vitae.  This group, however, chose to focus on the particular marks of Charlmagne’s reign: education and literacy, copying of texts (though in the Mad Libs, this meaning was changed considerably), conversion and defense of the Church and empire.  It also included important Carolingian features and events, such as the Missi who were the messengers of the king, distributing his capitularies (laws) and charters, and the crowning of Charlemagne as the new emperor by the pope.

Roman

The hearty of service man was master of good will.  He overpowered other nations. 

He always ­surpassed to Caesar in the morning earning

the admiration of soldiers.  When assault happened

in the nighttime he was the first to die his orator.

Here, again, is a Roman example.  This one also focuses on virtues of a leader including a permissible goodness, strong military career–including the admiration of soldiers–and a touch of the Hellenistic or possibly a nod to the typical career-building of the Roman elite (or both) in identifying him also as an orator.

Late Antique

The blessed man was arrogant.  He granted other nations. 

He always ­relinquished to Jesus in the morning earning

the admiration of martyrs.  When persecution happened

in the Easter he was the first to overthrow his bishop.

This one is a little confused merging historical interests of the Late Antique writers, such as Gregory of Tours, and the holy-man/martyr-Vita.  If one discounts the use of “arrogant” and “overthrow” in this sample, one can see the clear use of Late Antique preoccupations in their Vitae: blessed men (and occasionally women), relinquishing worldly possessions and goals, devotion to Jesus, willing martyrs in the face of persecution, the importance of Easter, and the significance of stable church offices, such as the bishops, in the face of great change and threat of violence in a post-Roman Empire world.  Historians of the era, on the other hand, often discussed the violence of the newly arrived peoples–particularly that of fratricide among Frankish princes in order to secure a larger cut of the kingdoms they inherited.  This may explain the incongruous additions of “arrogant” and “overthrow”–unless their Vita was a conversion story, of course.

Carolingians

The strong man was controlling.  He reinstated other nations.

He always ­sent to the Merovingians in the morning earning

the admiration of missis.  When the Battle of Tours happened

in the Treaty of Verdun he was the first to convert his Carolingians.

And, finally, another Carolingian mock Vita.  This group focused less on Charlemagne’s renovatio (the word the Carolingians used to describe their own program–what many scholars today call the Carolingian Renaissance) and more on the type of leader Charlemagne was: strong and controlling, trying to convert the Saxons.  They still include the renovatio in the verb “reinstated” as many Roman and Church traditions, in addition to the education programs, were attempted.  This group references the Carolingians fellow-Frankish dynastic predecessors: the Merovingians, including (I think) their glorious campaign by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles “the Hammer” Martel, the Battle of Tours (they mean Poitiers, though, unless this is just a convenient place name to describe a battle which could have taken place) which drove the Muslim advance out of Gaul (modern day France) and back into Spain.  They leap forward then to the later Treaty of Verdun signed to attempt an amicable division of territory between Charlemagne’s grandchildren–it would not last.

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Lecturing and passive learning

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A common question for educators that is often raised is that of lectures and passive learning.  There are two reasons why it is  good to ask about this:

  1. Is the lecture/passive learning method a successful means  for teaching our students?
  2. Do we employ it simply because it is how we were taught (keeping in mind that many of us enjoy our subjects and therefore often enjoyed many of the classes we took)?

I think, firstly, that we as educators have to admit that we frequently enjoyed our lectures as undergraduates and, for those of us who sought grad school, avidly attended many conferences when feasible.  Because of our interest we were seldom passively learning, however, and often making connections to other material or asking questions.  We frequently enjoyed lectures.

On the other hand, what about students who lack that interest or experience with other material?  Is it impossible to inspire them to be interested?  I can freely admit to sitting in class, genuinely interested in what the lecturer was saying, but totally unable to keep my eyes open unless I got up to get some water.  How much more difficult is it for someone who has not yet learned to appreciate the subject or gained experience with related subject matter?

Lecture is effective as long as it is engaging.  There are many ways for lectures to be active learning experiences, but we have to be honest and acknowledge it is easy, without vigilance and planning, to make it a struggle for everyone.  Whenever I feel I’ve fallen into the dull lecture trap, I like to return to the Ken Bain book I was assigned in a graduate level historical teaching course: What the Best College Teachers Do and especially the chapter, “How do they conduct class?”  This book is the result of asking people about their best experiences with college professors to create an interview list of the top instructors in the country, as well as inquiring about their worst experiences to create a negative persona, Professor Wolf, with the bad examples.

Below, I want to provide my own summary of this chapter.  (Keep in mind that I’m prioritizing my summary based on those things I am either most passionate about or those points about which I think I need the most improvement, personally–other points within the book might apply differently to other instructors.)  The headings are directly from Bain.

Create a Natural Critical Learning Environment (99)

The gist, here, is that students should be engaged, probing materials and assumptions, seeking answers and asking questions.  They should be grappling with the same questions and problems that scholars do.  They should be doing this while they are sitting in class with the instructor!  The biggest and most common mistake an instructor can make is to provide answers to unasked questions.

This learning environment pushes students to higher-order intellectual activity: “encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember.”  (102)  Bain describes the story-telling and Socratic-questioning of Donald Saari (filling me with all sorts of envy that I never took his class) that challenges the students to develop the concepts of calculus: “‘When I finish this process,’ [Saari] explained, ‘I want students to feel like they have invented calculus and that only some accident of birth kept them from beating Newton to the punch.'”  (102)

Questions are a great means of reinforcing processes and building to the next step in the lesson:

  • What’s the next question?
  • What can we ask now?
  • (in response to questions asked by students)  What do you think?
  • If this is true, then why (how, what, where, when, etc.)…?
  • What major conclusions did you draw?
  • What questions remain in your mind?

Of course, there are many ways to create this environment–lecture is not required, but nor is it true that lectures are incompatible.  Investigations supply a vocabulary of the field and the experience of thinking like an adept in the field.  Bain found no professors who relied solely on lectures, but none of those who used lectures provided an “encyclopedic coverage.” (107)

Start with Students rather than Discipline (110)

Bain speaks briefly about the need to get the attention of students and hold it in his 2nd heading of this section.  He begins this under this heading by stating that it is necessary to gain students attention for higher purpose, to initially focus on something the students get, are concerned about, or assume before our own stories, theories, or outlines.  Another professor Bain interviewed, Michael Sandel, reminds us that Socrates began by staring with what people thought they knew and then tried to “systematically to wrench them from their familiar place.”  (110)  Thought exercises/experiments can introduce familiar scenarios that test for assumptions and force students to reason forward, applying critical thinking, self evaluation, civil argument, and defense.

“Many of the best teachers,” Bain writes, “make a deliberate and carefully measured effort to confront some paradigm or mental model that students are likely to bring with them to class.”  (112)  This is a student-centered ethos that serves to draw students in and introduce them to the type of thinking and questioning that is required for solving problems in the field.  It starts with the students and elevates them from where they began the process to a new level within the field.

Help Students Learn Outside of Class (114)

Students should be armed with the necessary skills and preparation for the next homework assignment.  This is in opposition to merely “covering” material or assigning something because it “deals with” some subject.  The best teachers plan in reverse, says Bain creating a map with intellectual way-stations that provide the opportunity to develop through the course.  In other words, they know what their end goal is for the students and develop a course that will guide them there.

This means that they are properly prepared to advance both their knowledge and their thinking by doing the assigned work outside of class.  It should contribute both to their knowledge of content and the skills they need to employ while working in the field itself.

Engage Students in Disciplinary Thinking  (114)

Any course that is not designed with this tenet in mind is a waste of time and money.  Just read a textbook or watch a few documentaries if we are going to ignore how this information is gained.  If, as a professor, I present my discipline without teaching you how to replicate the field’s problem-solving, them I’m swindling you, withholding the sacred knowledge, keeping you beneath me.   That is unacceptable.

Besides, we should take advantage of our disciplines to advance our students’ thinking skills.  What could we possibly gain by neglecting this fundamental duty?

Create Diverse Learning Experiences (116)

Alter the rhythms of learning: supplement oral information with visual information; allow for group discussion of problems; and, use case-studies.  Diverse materials, experiences, and input reinforce both content and method.  Interviewed professors relayed to Bain, “Some material was organized inductively, from facts, data, and experimentation to the general principles and theories; other things, deductively by applying principles to specific situations.  The teachers gave students an opportunity to learn sequentially, a piece at a time; they also gave them space to learn globally, through sudden insights.  Some of the learning involved repetition and familiar methods; some, innovations and surprises.”  (116-7)

The key to successful lecture, thus, begins with a successful concept of the course, including a commitment to engaged learning, followed by the notion that it is more of a conversation–a collaboration, if you will–than a performance or an exhibition of one’s knowledge and know-how.  Passive learning is, in actuality, ineffective.  But, this does not mean that lecturing has to equate to passive learning–good lecturing is, without doubt, a means of engaged and active learning.

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“Learn More, See More”

Close-up of a blue human eye

Teaching our students to “see” our field is an essential aspect of what we do.  While I had a student recently express frustration with my midterm that tests for methodology as much as content–and, what would he need that for when this is a 101 class and he’s a computer science major–the simple fact is we want our students to see more of the world around them, not less.

History has a humanizing quality about it, but one cannot access that facet of the field unless one has an understanding of how history works.  Engaging humanity through another culture, even if it is a root for our own–especially if it is a root for our own–forces students to effectively open a dialogue with the people who came before.  But, that is impossible if we pretend to be the man behind the curtain and provide our students with a sterilized “history” that has already “answered” all the questions for the students.  Rather if we open the discipline up to students and encourage them to attempt formulating their own interpretations and engage directly with those of scholars, then we will expand their vision.

Perhaps, I should explain what I mean by “expand their vision” so it is not some empty platitude.  Neurologist Richard Restak explains that the eye does not operate as a camera lens, taking snapshots of “the world out there.”  Instead, it sees according to the knowledge of the scene already possessed, hence his expression which I borrowed for my title, “learn more, see more.”  If I, for example, brought a sailor, a marine biologist, an American historian, and a local businesswoman out to the point where Fort McHenry sits in Baltimore, each of their minds would seize on different aspects available in the scene, would be drawn to different subjects:

  • The sailor would likely notice the tides, the shipping lanes, and perhaps scan the port visible across the water;
  • The marine biologist would plausibly look for algae blooms, scan the fauna along the shore, notice the sea birds or other animals that the others might miss, and see the unwanted debris floating in the Bay;
  • The American historian would probably focus more on the Fort itself and scan the horizon for the landmarks during the War of 1812 or the Civil War, looking for the neighborhoods that were occupied or were battle zones;
  • The local businesswoman would doubtless take in the new developments in the surrounding neighborhoods visible from the point or, depending on what her business is, direct her attention to the port and its activities, BUT…

If she is a local, born-and-raised Baltimorean, she may well see many of the same things as her counterparts:

  •  Boating is such a big part of local Bay culture that she may be an enthusiast, herself, or have friends and family who are thereby having picked up something of their knowledge;
  • One cannot live on the Bay without being acquainted with the local animals and fauna, nor without being aware of the decline in its health and efforts to improve it, frequently hearing in the news, local radio, and PSAs about its conditions and what threatens it most;
  • The history of Fort McHenry is well known to locals who are proud of its place in American history and as the site where the star-spangled banner waved in the wind, inspiring Francis Scott Keys, held on a British man-of-war in the Bay, to pen the poem that became our national anthem.

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The more we can add to what our students and our children see, the more rich and nuanced the world they live in becomes–the more alive!  When a person can scan the horizon and see in his or her line of sight a teeming vision of the community around him or her (whether it is a positive and pleasant sight or one that insights frustration or anger), boredom and disinterest remain distant.  Citizens are thus engaged in their community and in the world in which they live.  As a result, they can share more with all of us.

This same argument applies to the skills the field requires, not merely the content.  Seeing is a verb with many meanings.  One can see the scene in front of him or her and one can see patterns in verbal communication (which can later impact how one sees the scene).  We are a culture inundated with verbal communication: ads, news, social media, entertainment, etc.  It is crucial that we learn to digest that material effectively and critically.  It is also expected that as citizens we are prepared to engage in the dialogue, but for that to be useful the output has to be intelligible and preferably intelligent, even if contrary.

Historians have to read critically, recognizing what questions a source answers (even if that question was not already in their head when they sat down to read the source!) and which questions still need to be answered–this active reading and developed curiosity leads to interesting and productive explorations.  It also fuels useful discussion.

It is further incumbent on historians to interpret what happened in the past given the available sources and make an argument defending that interpretation.  This argument requires developing verbal skills in both written and oral communication.  This in turn should improve ones recognition of the patterns of argumentation one encounters.  (Please note, however, that this is precisely what textbooks and most documentaries do not do!  Rather, these forums provide the interpretation as fact–a squirrely thing in the field of history–not as a single interpretation that has been developed through one’s research into past sources, which are themselves often interpretations of an event and thus subject to critical reading, analysis, and interpretation.)

If we can help students to see these things in what they read and write we are training them to be successful whether they are stay-at-home moms or dads, computer science professionals, local businessmen and women, or historians.  It trains them to see information with a critical eye and ask the right questions, recognize answers, and intelligently navigate arguments.

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