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

The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

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The History Carousel, Episode 3: Teaching Across the Pond

The History CarouselToday’s episode, “Teaching Across the Pond,” features Tom Cutterham, Ken Owen, Ben Park, and Rachel Herrmann discussing historical teachers, and debating the merits and pitfalls of teaching in the United States compared to the United Kingdom. Come for the boat race jokes; stay for the pedagogy! Continue reading

Throw John Smith Off Ship

Spring is in the air in Southern California! Well, to be fair, this isn’t usual: it always smells like flowers in Los Angeles (when it doesn’t smell like poisonous smog or wildfire smoke), but recent much needed rain has definitely made the city seem more verdant. My students are sunken-eyed and groggy from midterms, but spring break is just around the corner. What better time to take stock of how a new course is going?

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