Archive for the ‘Pedagogy’ Category

I was asked yesterday how I would evaluate students’ digital projects, and today I just came from #AHA2015 #s195, where a lot of the discussion centered on the challenges of having your work evaluated for promotion.

Regarding the question of evaluating student work: I was quite prepared to be asked that, but probably didn’t answer it as fluently as I might have because to my mind this question, which everyone asks, gets it backwards. Essentially, I regard the appearance of a digital project in a similar fashion to the cover and contents of a book: it might look interesting and well done, but I can’t tell from a quick glance whether it is logically and analytically rigorous. I need to dive in, look at the structure, understand the argument, examine where the choices were made, and assess how it has been received at large.  In other words, I’m more concerned with logic and argumentation than with the way in which a particular work is packaged or presented. Perhaps it’s due to my training in debate, and then going on to medieval studies, but I want to see how you’re reasoning and arguing. In the Middle Ages, the “humanities” as such didn’t exist; history and literature weren’t courses, and the social sciences hadn’t been invented. Instead, you learned the mechanics, process, and metaphysics of reasoning, which you then applied to politics, history, theology, philosophy, etc. At the same time, foregrounding argument and debate is also a touch democratic, since audience always matters. You stand or fall by your ability to convince, and anything that promotes democratic habits of mind is a plus, in my opinion.

So, asking how I would evaluate a digital project versus a typed paper, while a necessary question given the (improving) reception of DH in academia, just doesn’t make sense in my way of approaching the problem. The biggest challenge, to my mind, isn’t whether I have a grasp of genre, it’s awakening my students’ minds to the excitement and challenge of reasoning from concept to data and back to concept. Another way of putting it is that my criteria for a successful project do not derive from the discipline of the project itself. Mills Kelly just said more-or-less, in essence, the same thing in #s195, which suggests to me that I’m on the right track. It’s not about content and discipline, per se, it’s about showing me (and even better, your wider audience) how you’re using your intellect. It might be a semi-“medieval” approach, but that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

1. What is the point?

2. What does victory look like?

3. Who is the enemy?

4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

5. How *could* you defeat the enemy?

6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

11. Or, are they due to the nature of war?

12. What is war?

To break these down somewhat:


My friend Jon asked me this question the other day over lunch, and it kind of took me back for a minute. But it got me thinking. How does one mess up teaching a medieval course? How can you ensure that what should be a fun and eye-opening experience for students becomes instead a dull, confused mess that fails to broaden perspective, and maybe even leaves students alone in their smug prejudices? Below is a greatly expanded, cleaned up version of what I came up with verbally the other day. Note that I don’t claim to have a perfect record. Some I’ve succeeded quite well in avoiding, others I’ve fallen into without realizing it.

How to mess up a medieval survey course, in 10 easy steps:

1. Fail to directly engage with students’ popular knowledge of the Middle Ages. Some folks will disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. But I think that if a history class is supposed to foster understanding and critical thinking, engaging with what students bring to the table in terms of popular culture can be extremely important in that regard. Most of them have seen Lord of the Rings (which, let’s face it, IS a frame of reference), Kingdom of Heaven, Game of Thrones, Knight’s Tale, Braveheart, Robin Hood (any of several versions), hopefully Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the BBC show Vikings, maybe Ironclad and if you’re really lucky The Seventh Seal and Arn: Knight Templar, to name a few.  Maybe they’ve read Pillars of the Earth, or any of Bernard Cornwell’s medieval books (can’t wait to read 1356, myself).  Use it. Use all of it. This could be what drew your students to your course in the first place; if you kill their enthusiasm, or treat it with disdain, even if it derives from a  popular source you find laughable, you’re doing yourself and your students a disservice. Students are generally fascinated that their professor is a walking, talking IMDB “Goofs and inaccuracies” page, and are equally fascinated that there’s so much more backstory to events that they’ve only ever known through watered-down cinema. Pointing out the only scene in Braveheart that deals with the Balliols, using the Poitiers scene from Knight’s Tale to show how knights’ identified with war and tournament, explaining the ideological inaccuracies of the surrender negotiations in Kingdom of Heaven–these lead to more open and inquiring minds, which lead to more learning and understanding, which lead to a better history course.