Humanities Matter!

Ran across this powerful statement by Cathy Davidson and Christina Katopodis about why humanities is essential to higher education, and what faculty can do you ensure students come tot he humanities classroom, and leave better prepared.

Changing Our Classrooms to Prepare Students for a Challenging World – Profession

A couple of thoughts about this:

  • Much of my job includes supporting faculty who are doing digital projects with their students. They see the value, or are at least willing to try it out! Davidson  and Katopodis have a quote that rings so true to me: “Students need to unlearn years of being taught that they aren’t experts or innovators.” I see this nearly everyday. Students want clear, specific, rubrics and goals. They want to know exactly what the professor expects. While I don’t disagree with the need for clear goals, what I see is students doing exactly what the professor wants, not knowing/wanting/caring to decide on their own what needs to happen. This isn’t the students’ fault. It’s a problem with grades and with an education system that rewards sitting in a seat and spitting back what you’re told.
  • Skills mentioned in the article are exactly what we do in these projects:

    “working effectively in groups to solve problems together; reading and interpreting complicated data, events, and texts; undertaking original research; and understanding and making sense of ambiguity (the gray areas).”

  • Students struggle in these areas, as I mentioned above. Students frequently dislike doing group projects, and they definitely struggle with gray areas. I am surprised how difficult it can be for them to work with primary sources — the staple of historians.
  • We often hear how students would prefer to write a paper/essay. They know that drill and it’s easy. Working through primary sources and data is complicated. Digital projects also mean a non-linear method of writing, and this can be difficult to learn.
  • The authors’ suggestions of ways that humanities courses can foster these skills. Techniques like letting students talk at the beginning of class as opposed to the professor starting can be so effective in shifting the learning responsibility.
  • I welcome the idea of having students help set the agenda of the course. What do they want to learn?
  • Often, when I do evaluations of digital projects, students feel like they “learn more” through tests and papers. I find this fascinating, and we are digging deeper into this. Professors feel the opposite about the same projects. My hypothesis is that students are looking at content learning as the value, rather than the skills.
  • I will also more carefully incorporate the technique of reflection at the end of a course. Ask students what they’ll remember, what they learned, what questions they might have.

 

More skills mentioned by Davidson and Katopodis:

  • people skills,
  • communication skills,
  • critical and interpretive skills,
  • collaboration and
  • project management skills

Maps that Speak Volumes

I’m teaching a short workshop on the use of digital maps/GIS in history classrooms. I have a usual song and dance that I do, talking about spatial thinking, how mapping is such a powerful tool for students, and how mapping lets students dig into primary sources in ways that other tools don’t. I still believe all of this, and will discuss it, as it is amazing what we can do with maps. Perhaps that is a blog post of its own soon.

However, for the last couple of weeks, and this weekend in particular, I find myself wanting to use maps to make real change. How can we use digital maps to better illuminate problems, amplify hidden voices, and search for solutions?

I’m pulling together a list of maps that may start me on this path… feel free to explore.

History Communication

A friend posted a link to this article about a course on History Communication put together by the National Council on Public History. Here’s the syllabus they proposed. So many thoughts about this article.

Timing

I haven’t spent much time looking at the syllabus yet, but apparently this all came about four years ago. FOUR YEARS????? Where have they been? Seriously? I’ve been doing “History Communication” for thirty years. The “National Council on Public History” just decided four years ago that this skill should be included in undergraduate education. Wow. Frankly, that seems far too late. We’ve done an amazing disservice to our young people.

Sharing

The syllabus has a byline, “Sharing Historical Scholarship with Non-Experts Across Multiple Media.”

I find this attitude incredibly hard to stomach. Just because someone isn’t an academic does not mean they aren’t an expert. It may be hard to believe, but there are people in the world who know a great deal about a topic, even history, but they do not work in in the field. And, really, who is to say the academic or museum professional view is the “expert” view? It’s one perspective, one knowledge base.

The other implied piece in this sentence: the academic “expert” is “sharing” their expertise and wisdom. Wow. Thanks. Did anyone ask for it? Does anyone care? This attitude is what gives academics and museums a bad rap. It’s this self-importance that knowledge comes from the institution. That the museum/university knows everything and legitimizes the content.

Library with old books and busts of men

Experts sharing with “non-experts” feels an awful lot like dead white man history. Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

This is far from true. In both museums and universities, the materials in collections are biased by the institution that collected them. Who’s stories are we telling? Who’s stories are we not telling? Why isn’t the community telling their own story?

I’m not saying the historian/professor/museum professional isn’t incredibly knowledgeable. They clearly are steeped in content, background, context. This doesn’t deny that. But this statement above just strongly implies that the academic/museum professional is better than those “non-experts.”

Course Content

I’ve just glanced through the syllabus but I will say it is still incredibly heavy on the academic and theoretical. I would love to design my own syllabus for this…. The concept of “History Communication” is brilliant, actually, and is a great way to frame the course.

Here are some of my points of confusion:

  • One activity is “Create a Department/Faculty Portfolio for non-Historian Audience.” What in the world does that mean? If I am even close to thinking what that is, why would you ever do that?
  • One activity has students writing a script for a podcast. This is an excellent activity. However….. they use the term, “Brevitizes”. OK – that’s obnoxious. It’s writing in a way that anyone can understand. It means taking out jargon that only a few people know. It means using terms and words that make sense to people who don’t spend their life studying these things. If you’re a historian, think about how you’d want to read something about, oh, nuclear physics, Russian literature, anatomy, auto mechanics, whatever. Don’t be condescending. Make it so people can understand what you’re saying.
  • One week on Digital Humanities? Oh please. That needs to be at least half the course.

My course would have the following:

  • a maximum of two “journal articles.” If even. Probably zero, except to compare/contrast language and writing styles.
  • no papers as assignments.
  • projects: grading would be on minimum of two major projects, at least one digital and one non-digital.
  • writing to analyze: social media from museums and other historians, newspaper articles, magazine articles, press releases, blogs, films and novels.
  • writing to produce: marketing materials, tweets and other social media, newspaper articles, mini-web exhibits
  • audience: every project would be for an audience outside of the instructor.
  • visuals: every single project would include visuals of some sort: maps, photos, infographics, objects, something.
  • teaching technology: the term “digital native” is a myth. Not everyone under 30 knows how to use technology, and we need to teach them.

I better get busy! More to come.

Digital Distraction

Per my previous post about laptops/phones in the classroom, here’s an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “Digital Distraction is a Problem Far Beyond the Classroom. But Professors Can Still Help

In a nutshell, the article posits that digital distraction is everywhere, even the classroom. It’s not just the classroom. ”

“They’re digitally distracted in class because they happen to be in class.”

So many good reasons why banning laptops/phones in class is a bad idea. The better idea is to promote active learning. I see that every time I’m in a class.

 

Can Laptops in class be used for Good? YES!

Thoughts prompted by this excellent tweet and conversation:

Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 2.18.43 PMScreen Shot 2019-04-03 at 2.18.55 PM

I’ve been working as an academic technologist at a university for almost two years. I could retire if I got a dollar for every time I’ve heard complaining about how students can’t handle having computers/laptops in the classroom.

Thankfully, there are people like Rebecca Wingo to make me feel all better. Look at this productive, pedagogically appropriate use of laptops in a classroom. Encouraging students to validate what they’re hearing, to confirm facts, to find additional resources. THAT is what technology can do when used appropriately.

Three people working together on a laptop.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

I was teaching in a class recently. Students were assigned to do research and develop a digital project in the space of three class periods. They had class time to do this. They were in small groups of 2 to 3. For an entire class period (75 minutes), these students were focused, productive and above all, learning. What types of learning did I see?

  • Content: they learned essential content about their chosen topic of interest
  • Group work: they were working in small groups, they had to divide tasks, resolve any disagreements
  • Time management: they only had two class periods to do this project. The weren’t supposed to work on it outside of class. They couldn’t be distracted
  • Digital literacy: they learned how to find information and decide if it was valid, reliable, useful
  • Digital skills: they had to try a new digital tool and master it in a short period of time. It was not complex, but did require them to create and share a Google Sheet (this was new to some); learn a template and publish it within the other tool.
  • Writing: they had to quickly find, digest and communicate information. This was done through digital appropriate writing (much different than academic!)
  • Visual communication: they were required to use visuals and possibly spatial data. Using these different types of media can be challenging. Copyright, interpretation, technical skills all come into play.

I sat in and helped as needed for all three sessions. I did not see a single student “distracted” by the technology. They were on task, they were focused and they created something. They looked at content differently. They discussed. I saw a few kids send a few texts. but they got right back to work. Did they create something like a 10-page final paper? No. And I bet they’ll remember it far longer than the 10-page paper they wrote for another class.

What made this a such a successful project? In my mind, it was a few things:

  • Students were actively engaged in their learning.
  • Students produced something, not just absorbed information.
  • Students were learning about something of their choice.
  • Students were helping each other learn new things.
  • Students were given permission to fail, or to not be as perfect as an A usually requires.
  • Learning was more about the process than the final product.

While my example is quite different than the one Rebecca Wingo shared in her tweet, it’s fresh in my mind.

For my next lecture, however, I am going to purposefully toss a few things in to have students engage. I do love the look on students’ faces when you tell them to get out their phone/laptop. It’s even more rewarding when the “students” are faculty/instructors. I often present to faculty/instructors about incorporating technology into classes, whether it’s the learning management system, Google, GIS  or something else. I usually do incorporate some sort of hands on tech thing, since that what I’m teaching, but after Rebecca’s post, I am going to be even more deliberate to model what they can do with students in class.

 

Cred

I almost forgot — I wanted to address the thought that forgetting names/dates and having students look up things calls into question her credibility. I think it’s quite the opposite. She’s teaching them so much more about how to be a historian, how to study history and how to be a student. I hope our credibility as historians (or other subject matter experts) isn’t on how much we can memorize and spit back. It should be on how we can find information, analyze, conceptualize, and more. I’m even more impressed in her credibility!