Guest Post: The Value of Storytelling

We’re thrilled to welcome as our latest guest poster, Casey Schmitt. Casey is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law under the supervision of Brett Rushforth. Casey holds an MA in history from the University of Utah, where she wrote an excellent thesis on the British Asiento, illicit trade, and the limits of empire in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Her teaching and research interests center on the inter-imperial nature of the early modern Americas.

As a newly-minted ABD embarking on my first stab at teaching the early American history survey, I find myself buried beneath my own excitement for the material. No one warned me that the biggest obstacle to designing a course would be curbing my own unrelenting enthusiasm. Perhaps no part of that enthusiasm has proven more damaging to my syllabus than my passion for storytelling. Specifically, I approached teaching the early America survey with a litany of historical works of fiction and non-fiction that I wanted to familiarize undergraduates with: 12 Years a Slave, Benito Cereno, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Letters From an American Farmer, among many, many other titles. Before too long I was looking at a weekly reading word count over 150 pages. Yikes. Continue reading

Guest Post: Teaching and the Problem with Parties in the Early Republic

Mark Boonshoft is a PhD candidate at Ohio State University. His work focuses on colleges and academies, especially the networks forged in them, and their role in the formation of revolutionary political culture.

Boonshoft Flow ChartAs an undergraduate, I found the political history of the early republic to be fascinating. As a graduate student, I find teaching the subject to be utterly frustrating. This surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. I was already interested in early American history when I got to college. Most of my students don’t share that proclivity, to say the least.[1] Generally, they assume that the policy debates of the founding era and beyond—especially about banks, internal improvements, and federalism—are downright dry. That said, our students live in an era of rampant partisanship and government paralysis, punctuated by politicians’ ill-conceived attempts to claim the legacy of ‘the founders.’ The emergence of American party politics is pretty relevant to our students’ lives. So with many of us gearing up to get back into the classroom, I thought this would be a good time to start a discussion about teaching the history of early national party formation. Continue reading

The Problem with Big Books; Or, Alan Taylor’s Biggest Sin

[Headlines are supposed to draw readers, right?]

TaylorOne of the first things I did after finishing my dissertation a couple of months back (other than sleeping for an entire week, of course), was reading Alan Taylor’s latest tome, An Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1776-1832 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. (One could argue that Taylor’s biggest sin, other than the one I’m about to discuss, is hogging all the major book awards.) As one would expect given Taylor’s track record, I was floored by the book’s exhaustive research and lyrical prose. I made a mental note that this would be a great book to assign to students. Now that I’m prepping for this fall, when I’ll be teaching a Jeffersonian America course, I gave the idea more serious consideration. However, I soon realized the biggest problem, which more seasoned teachers probably already know.

The book is just too big.

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Triggers in the Past

Over the past few weeks, a discussion about trigger warnings has percolated across the blogosphere. Educators, op-ed columnists, and pundits have debated the use of these warnings about potentially upsetting content on syllabi or in the classroom (and leave it to the Chronicle to publish a disdainful mockery of the concept). As I’ve developed my courses, both at the survey and upper levels, I have confronted some of these same questions about the past: Is there anything in history from which we should shield our students? Or, to put it more broadly, how should we approach material that some of our students may find offensive, hurtful, or painful?

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Grade Inflation or Compression?

Back in December, the Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard was quoted from a meeting of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences saying, “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.” This statistic was highly shocking to the general public (or at least the general media). Yale itself moved last year to address the problem when it turned out that 62% of grades given to undergraduates in a two-year period were A-minuses. Just a few weeks ago, the Teaching Center at Yale hosted a day-long seminar entitled, Are All Yale Students ‘A’ Students? A Forum on Grading.” Most recentlyRebecca Schuman published a piece on grading at Slate entitled, “Confessions of a Grade Inflator.” However, rather than only seeing what has happened as the inflation of individual students’ grades, we should also see it–from the instructor’s perspective–as a compressing of the grading scale itself. Doing so reveals multiple repercussions for both students and faculty that the individualized, student-centered notion of “grade inflation” misses. We need to keep in mind that grade inflation or compression doesn’t just benefit unworthy students; it actually has negative effects on both students and faculty, which should be the real causes for wanting to address the problem.

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History All Around Us

The ongoing discussion about whether the humanities in general, and history in particular, are relevant to today’s students can often get deeply abstract (enough so to be off-putting even to many of us invested in the question). But the debate and discussion also has a practical element. In my classes, and in particular in my survey courses (which most students are taking for general education credit), I encourage them literally to see the history that lies right outside their doorsteps.[1]

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On Assigning Undergraduate Reading

Student ReadingDuring my first year as a Teaching Fellow, I’ve done a number of pedagogy-related posts, covering student preparation, undergraduate writing, and lecturing. Having finished that first year, I have found myself thinking about different approaches I’ve witnessed to assigning readings. The question I have is: What is the best approach to assigning undergraduate reading? Continue reading