Classroom RPGs

As we near the Thanksgiving break, and as my students get increasingly stressed about final papers and exams, I’ve tried to lighten up (mostly Thursday) classes with role playing exercises.  It can be a bit of a gamble, since they rely so much on the students really committing to personifying historical characters, but so far it’s been quite a bit of fun – even if one of my students did call me on the worksheet I gave them as prep being quite close to a D&D character creation sheet!  In the U.S. survey, I used this prompt:

Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams and David Wilmot find themselves snatched out of time and deposited in a bar.  They get to talking about whether it was a good thing to annex Mexico and California.  What do they say?

For 4:00 on a Thursday, my students embraced the roll playing more than I’d expected.  Aspersions were cast against Polk and Wilmot, and Calhoun’s perspective was even delivered in accent.  It’s sometimes hard in larger classes to get group work right – sometimes the groups are too big for everyone to participate fully, and if they’re too small we spend a lot of time at the end letting each one speak – but I’m feeling pretty good about this flavor of activity, even if it does lead to some jokes about dark elves, charisma points and magic missiles.

Sleepy Hollow continues to be weird

My students asked today for a Sleepy Hollow update – which I wasn’t fully prepared to give.  After they found the Lost Colony of Roanoke (on a magic island in the Hudson Valley, no less), I had sort of given up on the show.  I caught up tonight – and it continues to be terrible, but in some rather odd ways.

For one, some officers of the British army are also demons, which takes the moralization of American history that the show has been doing all along to new and strange places.  The premise is that Washington and a band of good guys was tasked with protecting the world from evil (via the British), so perhaps its not surprising that the writers decided to literally demonize British officers.  Nevertheless, it seems like a very literal way to make the point that Americans were the good guys in this fight, and the British were the bad guys.

The second sort of bizarre thing was that Ichabod’s wife, the witch, who was burnt at the stake in 1782 (she wasn’t really killed, but not because there weren’t witch trials in the late 18th century) is first introduced to Ichabod as a Quaker nurse.  It’s not clear if she was also a witch at that point – but it struck me as odd that her Quakerness and witchyness seemed so easily integrable.  I’m not an historian of religion, but it seems like the writers might have surmised that since Quakerism today allows a fair amount of latitude in terms of religious practice, perhaps 18th century Quakerism did too.  It does, though, seem like a very marginalizing move, to cast Quakers as insufficiently religiously serious to object to one among them also being a witch.

Finally, the witches were allied with the Freemasons, which I have no way to explain.  I’m teaching the U.S. survey again next semester, and I’m trying to figure out how to use one of these episodes in class.  With popular historical perspectives this semester – in particular Ask a Slave and the soundtrack to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – I didn’t give my students enough of a framework to talk about the sources.  They thought that Ask a Slave was funny and that Bloody Bloody was selectively accurate, and a bit vulgar, but I need to find a better way to connect the production of popular historical material to what they’re learning in class.  In the past, I’ve asked students to evaluate pop history in light of what they’ve learned in the class so far – but since we don’t get to Washington’s plantation, Andrew Jackson or the American Revolution until the middle of the course, I’m on the lookout for something that I can ask them to consider in the first few weeks, or that they can use as a jumping off point for their first set of response papers.  Perhaps the Roanoke episode of Sleepy Hollow (or, for that matter, Supernatural) might fit the bill afterall.

(Live(ish))blogging the survey

First, a long digression:

I got to sit down with reps from Gale today for about five hours to talk about all of the tools they have for teaching.  Among some other fun things, we were able to test drive Artemis, which will eventually aggregate some? many? of Gale’s primary sources (or, what Gale markets as primary sources – a lot of things that aren’t sold as primary sources, like literary criticism, could still be useful in 20th century U.S. history classrooms, for instance), and what they’re calling “term clusters,” which is basically an interactive pie graph that shows the frequency of words that abut your search term.  It looks like it will be a pretty useful and robust search engine once everything is integrated, though like any archive it’s limited by what Gale’s editors acquire, how they subject index what they have, and (particular to digital archives) how well it’s been OCRed.

We were challenged to think about how we’d use Gale resources in the classroom, and there was a lot of talk about how having a not-infinite-but-still-pretty-vast universe of possible primary sources would challenge students to think more creatively about their topics, and how the analytic tools like term cluster will help students identify trends that they might not otherwise have seen.

Two thoughts:

1) Sometimes an infinite, or seemingly infinite universe can be a great thing.  When a student is working on a year-long senior thesis, having millions of pages of documents to draw from could be really productive.  But, there’s also something to be said for well curated small collections of primary sources, especially for introductory courses, where students aren’t sure how to even approach analyzing a primary source, let alone picking one about which they can make an argument that will sustain them throughout the paper writing process.

2) I’m always struck by the ways in which online databases or search engines try to replicate the functionality of a physical library.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that looking in the metadata for a book’s subject, and then looking for the subject headings that immediately follow and precede the one you’re interested in is like browsing the shelves at a library.  I’ve heard similar things about the serindip-o-matic tool, as a way to replicate the lucky happenstance of coming across an unforeseen or mis-filed document in a brick and mortar archive.  I love the serindop-o-matic, and I’ve been doing the proximity subject searches since college, so I’m not saying that these are bad tools or workflows, but I wonder about how effective it is to try to replicate the research experience of a library online.  On the other hand, we know how to research in libraries and archives, and it doesn’t seem so wise to reinvent the research wheel if we don’t have to – but browsing by proximate subject heading, or looking for high frequencies of words that cluster around any given search term will never the same as browsing the stacks.  Finding a document through serindip-o-matic (which I love, by the way – I think that it’s a fantastic tool, and I’m not sure that it’s makers would characterize it as replicating the eureka in the archive experience, I’ve just seen it described that way) will never be the same as coming across a mis-filed pouch of heroin, say – or perhaps more likely, an archivist who knows you’ve been pulling stuff on one subject getting you something related that you hadn’t thought to ask for.

At any rate, I’m not sure if, or how I’m going to be using Gale’s, or anyone else’s online databases for teaching in the future.  For this imminent semester, I’ve settled on the Major Problems in American History reader, because I really like the interpretive essays, and find the transcription and gobbeting of documents by experts in the field, of say, colonial American history, to be far superior to anything I might do on my own, even drawing from a near-infinite corpus.

But as to the point of this post, I’ve been thinking that it might be a useful exercise in my own pedagogical development, and possibly a useful contribution to the conversation started on the Junto blog last week about teaching the survey, to periodically check in about this, my first time teaching U.S. to 1877 on my own.  Consider this the first post of that project, and if I’m really systematic perhaps I’ll go the digital document reader route next semester and compare notes.