Breakfast cereal or CD-ROM?

“Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is ‘what is this?  Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?’ Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops.  Something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book.” – Douglas Adams.  The Salmon of Doubt, p. 155

I’m re-listening to the Salmon of Doubt for the first time in almost five years, and while the whole thing is brilliant this quote has really stuck with me.  In class, I’ve been struggling to convince students that form matters – that asking for polished paragraphs isn’t an arbitrary rule we’ve concocted to stymie their writing style – and that the form that a piece of writing ultimately takes should be as thoughtfully considered as the title, the citations or the content (one hopes).
This is also one of those times that what I’m doing in the classroom bleeds over into other areas of my professional life.  As I’m singing the praises of Strunk & White’s commentary on form, I’m forced to think about how the form of my own work (and particularly, this behemoth of a dissertation draft staring at me from across the room) could better conform to the aim and argument of the thing.  (There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about how, in order to write the most effective history of nineteenth-century philanthropy, and to produce a work that doesn’t fall into the historiographical pitfall of disaster/philanthropy particularism, I need to de-center the disaster that has been at the heart of this project since its inception, but I haven’t quite figured that out yet.)
I think the assignments for this class – which range from informal blog posts to a formal research proposal – provide great opportunities to talk about the power of form, and I’m gearing up this week for a long-ish discussion on what students are meant to get out of these blog posts that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of in-class writing, that’s different from what they’re meant to get out of more formal assignments.  (This week, we’re reading Typhoid Mary, and I’d forgotten how beautifully Leavitt lays out her reasons for organizing the book like she does.)
This is a long way of saying that all of this has forced me to think about what to do with this space, and of late I’ve been tending more and more to use it to think out teaching dilemmas, with moments of archival joy or frustration thrown in when the mood strikes.  For the next few months at least, I’m going to think of this as primarily a teaching blog, focusing on one junior historian’s quest to become a better teacher, and as a bit of a commonplace book for teaching-related things I come across.

Why major in history? -or- the thrill of the archive

Well, to be fair, that’s probably a more provocative title than needs be, but it was also the header on a packet distributed by my department this year.  All of the reasons were good ones – careers in journalism or policy making; development of writing, speaking and research skills and (though this wasn’t included in the departmental list) good tidbits for cocktail party conversations.  Recently though, I’ve noticed that the media – and particularly TV and movies – provide another compelling reason for undergraduates to major in history: the thrill of the archive.
From shows like Alcatraz to movies like National Treasure to books like People of the Book, it seems like every third thing I see or read has characters who spend their time leaving through boxes of old documents, discovering dog-eared diaries of long-dead molls (a recent episode of Castle) or thumbing through newspaper archives to discover the vital clue in an unsolved crime.  Most of this archival work happens in the context of detective work, but it (perhaps inadvertently) glamorizes the work that historians do in our archival comings and going.
Now, I don’t want to suggest to the students in my methods class that the chances are good that a stray or unexplained letter they might come across in an archive can plunge them into a world of glamourous spies and international intrigue, or put them on the trail of some long-lost treasure (an aside: I’ve been reading through Elizabeth Peters’s non-egyptology series featuring sassy historian Vicky Bliss, which, like The DaVinci Code, present the world of academia as one long car/foot chase with brief research interruptions) but I do think there’s something to be said for conveying the trill of archival research.  For the first time ever, I’m having students blog both responses and about progress towards their final paper, and I hope that once we get into working with actual sources that the students will begin to both express and pick up on each others’ excitement.  In the mean time, I’m playing around with the idea that research and detective work are the same kind of projects.  On the one hand, detective work is concerned with finding the answer to a problem, not necessarily understanding why the problem happened.  History is also interested in the ‘what’ questions, but (as a recent session on asking historical questions reminded) more with the hows and the whys.  Maybe, though, the work we do is more like fictional detective fiction.  In books, the plucky heroine or hero always wants to understand the criminals’ motivations – otherwise the books or shows might make for a dull read or watch.  Maybe there’s something to extending this comparison, and thinking about historical writing like Holmes explaining something to Watson.  In the meantime, though, I wonder if the quite regular appearance of archives in pop culture is another way into piquing student interest.  If the U(C) could say things like “want to be Indiana Jones?  Come study archaeology” then can’t we say things like “want to be Nicholas Cage/solve crime/find treasure?  Come study history!”

“Teaching with technology”

The NYU teaching workshop last week was all about teaching with technology, and while we talked a lot about the pros and cons of online teaching, we didn’t really move beyond blogs/blackboards as teaching tools.  I’m relatively new to teaching with online components – this semester is the first time I’m using a blog for student posts instead of blackboard – but I’ve been thinking about how to change some of my standard classroom exercises to include online components.

First, the blog.  I should say that I hate Blackboard, which is what both NYU and the U(C) used.  The message boards are clunky, threads are hard to follow, and the interface is so user unfriendly as to be non-intuitive.  This term, I’m trying a wordpress site for student responses, and so far its working pretty well.  I’m asking students to read each others’ posts before class, to link back in their own responses, and to tag each post with three or four key ideas.  I’ve also been pretty upfront with them about the pedagogical intentions of these tasks – this is all new ground for me, but so far I’m pleased with the results.  I think some of them are skeptical of something from “their” world – blogging – being used in academia, but they all seem pretty game to try.

Now, other social media.  This is a pretty unformed idea, but on Friday I was following the live tweet of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library.  Now, as a murder mystery fan, I was thrilled with this project – especially how the tweeters (twitterers?) adapted the voice of Miss Marple.  I’ve seen similar approaches to history, like the now infamous (among historians, at least) Facebook news feed of the Hundred Years War.  I’m also a really big fan of this series of youtube videos explaining historial events/eras.  I know some teachers who have their students put together their own historical videos – which I think is a great way of engaging students who are interested in history, but who aren’t necessarily equipped or inclined to write research papers, but I was thinking about how these live tweeted/facebooked events might translate into a classroom setting as well.  One of the exercises I’ve been playing around with recently is something I borrowed from my exams at Trinity.  We were asked to argue for or against certain major events (the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Boyne, the siege of Limerick) as turning points in Irish history.  I really like the idea of having students do something similar at the start and end of the class – identifying what they think are turning points in the history of the United States, the Atlantic World, or American immigration.  The idea is that at the start of the class, this exercise gives me a baseline for student knowledge, and by the end, they’ll be able to use the designation of turning points as a way to make arguments about their interpretation of American history.  I think it might be fun to combine that with the live tweet history/facebook news wall meme.  I’m all for encouraging students to get creative with their relationship with history, and I think it would be really interesting to see how students characterized historical actors in the parlance of the present.