Category Archives: Methods

Using Alternative Projects in Russian History Courses

Guest blogger John Corcoran received his PhD from Georgetown University in 2012.  His dissertation examined the political culture of local self-government in late Imperial Russia.  His current research interests include zemstvo liberalism and social welfare programs.  Since 2012, he has been a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Goucher College in Towson, MD.  

Many thanks to Karl for the opportunity to post.  Given the interesting questions raised by Gleb Tsipursky’s series of posts and responses from Alyssa DeBlasio and Karl about the sorts of skills we want to impart in our teaching, I thought it would be useful for me to discuss my experience with alternative projects in my Russian history courses at Goucher College.

As a sort of experiment during the spring 2013 semester, I offered students in my History of Medieval Russia class the opportunity to pursue a creative project in lieu of the semester paper.  I continued the option in fall 2013 with my courses on Imperial Russia and the Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union.

The project, like the paper, would involve research on a topic of their choosing, but the final product was up to them.  I specified that “creative” projects were to meet the following criteria: 1) They must have a research component; 2) They must have a defined final product; and 3) That final product must have educational value for a hypothetical future version of the course.  As with the standard research papers, students were required to submit proposals at the beginning of the project and research updates in advance of the final submission.

Muscovy Armor

Surprisingly, only a handful of students elected to do an alternative project, but those projects demonstrated a wide range of interests and types of final products.  Topics ranged from Muscovite armor to Russian Jewish cuisine (with samples) to the peoples of Siberia to the art of Marc Chagall.  Final products included a shield and mail shirt, a map, digital slide shows, and a video.

As a final summation and a prelude to this blog post, I interviewed students from each class to get their thoughts on the project.  Students were generally positive about the opportunity to do an alternative project, but also mentioned some considerations that dissuaded many of them from pursuing it to completion.  Based on those interviews and my own observations, I came up with the following list of benefits and drawbacks to consider, both for students contemplating these projects and for us as their teachers:


–Engagement: On the whole, students who did creative projects showed more enthusiasm than did their counterparts writing conventional research papers.  Even enthusiastic history majors complained of “paper fatigue.”  When the end of the semester requires dozens of pages of writing spread across multiple courses, some work on a hands-on project can feel like a welcome respite.

–Project management skills: One of the students interviewed said something along the lines of “You can’t make armor at the last minute.”  He was actually grateful that this project forced him to make a schedule, to budget, and to account for unforeseen obstacles—like college students the world over, he has written his share of papers at 3AM the night before they are due.  Given the concerns that have been raised recently about college graduates’ employability skills, this would seem to be a particular point to emphasize for students and employers both.

–Utility in future courses: The tangible final products can be of benefit as teaching aids.  Slideshows or other digital materials can of course be copied, and students might be persuaded to share their creations.  In other words, you better believe I will be wearing that shield next time I teach Medieval Russia.

Information Management: This, to me, is the aspect that students appreciated the least, so I plan to emphasize it more heavily in future semesters.  As our increasing forays into digital humanities are demonstrating, standard prose is not always the best way to convey information, and it requires a different set of skills to think through the best way to present a concept or a cluster of data.  These skills are useful in the outside world, but they also reflect on what we are trying to do in academia.  By assigning projects like this, we can press students to think differently about the learning process, and perhaps in turn we might ask ourselves some of the same questions about our teaching methods.


–Time: A number of students suggested that they had planned to do creative projects, but were daunted by the time constraints.  They suggested I begin project discussions earlier in the semester, to allow more time to plan (this past semester, project planning began about halfway through the course).  The drawback, though, is that they will be exposed to even less of the course material before making a determination about their project.

–Tools:  Students need to be able to acquire the skills–digital or otherwise–that will allow them to complete the project.  This gets at the substance of Karl’s last post, and I agree completely that we need to devote more class time to teaching students how to use these technologies.  But, the more complex programs might be beyond our ken, and we don’t necessarily want them all to use the same ones.  Long-term, we may want to work towards integrating digital skills courses into our curricula; until that happens, I intend to put a lot more effort into connecting students to the resources (on campus or online) that will teach them the skills that I cannot.

On the whole, I think the pluses definitely outweighed the minuses, and I’m looking forward to using this approach in future courses.  I’d love to hear any comments about your experiences with non-conventional project types.

Blogging to Improve Reading, Thinking, and Writing: What the Students Say

I have been asking students to blog in various ways for a few semesters, but in my new course on interwar Europe, we have finally hit our stride. In previous courses I had used blogs primarily as a “free-write” assignment to stimulate conversation. I would often have students in the first few minutes of class write about the days’ sources, but given that most of my class periods are 50 minutes long, I felt that I was “wasting” time that could be used for other purposes. Thus, blogging was born. Students quickly let me know that blogging in this form felt like busy work and took too much time when blogging MWF.

Simios Bloggeando by Julitofranco via WikiMedia Commons

I altered the blogging by dividing the class into thirds. One-third of the students would blog each day. Similarly, students also were assigned a day to comment on the classmate’s posts. In this way, at a minimum two-thirds of the class each day had some preparation for discussion [but this is Dickinson College, so the actual percentage of students prepared each day is much higher]. After about 2 weeks of reading summary after summary of the readings, I got frustrated with the lack of depth in many of the blog posts. I therefore asked students to briefly summarize (no more than one paragraph of their c. 400 word posts) the day’s material and then choose one section of a text (or film for those days) and analyze it from the point of view of our course themes. This began to improve the depth of class discussions, so I pushed to the next level.

Now the students were asked to write about a single phrase or sentence (or bit of dialogue from a film). Here I was trying to get them to use the “notice and focus” method described by David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen in their Writing Analytically (Wadsworth, 2012). This method asks students to find a passage that is significant, strange, or revealing. Thus, they have to stay closer to the text and begin to understand it before leaping to conclusions or judgments. For example, when we discussed Ignazio Silone’s novel Bread and Wine, I divided the class into groups, each headed by one of the day’s bloggers. I placed the sentences in question on the screen and then had the bloggers lead a discussion with their small groups. All groups were animated and on task. I asked them to do three things: unpack the meaning of the sentence in question, discuss how it linked to themes in the novel, and then think about what it tells us about Mussolini’s Italy and our course themes. In moving from specific to general, the students seemed much more able and comfortable in understanding and then applying. Continue reading Blogging to Improve Reading, Thinking, and Writing: What the Students Say

Alyssa DeBlasio: Some Problems I Encountered Using Class-sourcing

Alyssa DeBlasio is Assistant Professor of Russian at Dickinson College. Before coming to Dickinson, she taught in the Philosophy Department at the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). At Dickinson she teaches courses on Russian culture, literature, and the intersections between philosophy and literature. She also teaches Russian language of all levels, and has been experimenting with the use of podcasts, smart phones, blogging, and social media in the language classroom. She is currently completing a book on philosophy in Russia since 1991 called The End of Russian Philosophy?.


In the fall 2011 semester I taught a new course called “Russia and the Environment” at Dickinson College. The course was more or less a survey of Russian and Soviet reflections on the natural world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over 14 weeks we delved into works by Pushkin, Turgenev, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Tolstoy, and Rasputin; secondary sources like Laura Henry’s Red to Green: Environmental Activism in Russia; and a range of films, from Grigory Alexandrov’s Spring to Alexei Popogrebsky How I Ended the Summer.

For the concluding assignment in the course, students were required to choose a topic they wanted to learn more about, research it thoroughly, and contribute an informational blog entry to our course site ( The goal of the blog was to create an on-line hub for information on Russia and the environment, on topics ranging from forestry in the Soviet Union to holistic medicine.

I have used blogs frequently and successfully (I hope!) in Russian courses for years, but this was my first time incorporating blogging into an English-language course. It was also my first time using the class-sourcing model Karl and Gleb have already posted about. Here is the truth: while I liked this model and I will probably do it again, I encountered all sorts of unanticipated difficulties along the way. Here I’ll share three such difficulties:

How Do I Write It?

At Dickinson, like probably at most colleges and universities, we (faculty) go to painstaking lengths to help our students write better. Most of these efforts are focused on the traditional research paper: writing a thesis statement, offering an original argument, incorporating sources critically, and mastering disciplinary writing. When I assigned a blog entry as a final project, thus, I had no idea the extent to which this type of “encyclopedic” writing would be foreign to my students, who were being pushed from every side to write everything as a research paper. Had I thought about this, I would have given them examples of similar articles as guides. This might have cut down on the number of questions I ended up answering about incorporating sources, authorial voice, citations, etc. Blogging is a genre very different from the research papers they are used to writing, and I made a mistake when I assumed that they knew this already.

When It’s Still No Good

What happens when you mark up numerous drafts, the student revises time and time again, and the entry is still just not good? I designed my assignment such that students had to turn in two drafts of their project before posting their final version to the blog. But there are always those students who wait until the last minute to do final research, don’t proofread their work, or simply don’t succeed at the assignment for one reason or another. As I was reading the final versions during finals week, I wondered: What would I do if there was something up here that was just not quality work? Would I remove it so that it didn’t make the broader project/other students look bad? Would I remove it myself or ask the student to do so? Or would I have to leave it up, since I hadn’t stipulated in advance that only posts meeting a certain set of expectations would be posted to the blog? I hadn’t thought this through, but I realized for the future that I should have an explicit policy about what goes on the web and what stays off. Were I to do it again, I would probably have the final (third) version due a week before the end of the term. This way I could require final corrections (typos, formatting errors, etc.) to be corrected by the students before their final grade was assigned.

Temporary Student, Permanent Blog

Most of the students in my course were seniors. Once they left campus, their interest in our blog fell from “classroom enthusiasm” to “What blog?” Within a month of graduation, their Dickinson emails were defunct and the only valid address on our site was mine. I hadn’t anticipated that I would be receiving emails from media outlets, the occasional academic, and even a South Korean logging firm to ask whether I might put them in touch with so-and-so specialist on Russian deforestation for a piece on logging accidents in the Far East. Even now, nearly 2 years later, Google searches for “Traditional Medicine in Russia” or “Siberia’s Environment” pull up our course blog as the very first hit; other searches, like “Air pollution in Russia,” list up our blog on the first page.

I think this is great, and not only because it makes classroom blogging all the more “authentic.” It shows that Russia and the environment is a sorely underrepresented topic on the web, and that my students truly chose topics that needed further research. But it also adds an additional layer of pressure to the project, particularly when I become the only person accountable for the work after the students graduate. The next time I do this, I’ll have to make one of two choices: either 1) I freeze the blog and make it clear to readers that it was a past project that is no longer functional; or 2) I set the blog up in such a way that future classes take over the work of previous classes. Of course, if the blog is a living Wiki that rolls over from semester to semester, then do future students have the right to edit the work of previous students? And if so, how do I write that into the syllabus? Will this make students less motivated to produce a finished piece of work, since they know that a semester or two from now somebody will have the right to alter everything they have done?

Since I have not used class-sourcing since, I unfortunately cannot offer definitive answers as to how I solved/would solve the problems above. For those of you who have encountered these or other issues, I would be happy to hear about the solutions that worked in your classrooms.

Class-sourcing First Step: Initial Thoughts

Courtesy of Chan Wong
Courtesy of Chan Wong

Over the past few weeks Gleb Tsipursky has introduced his idea of class-sourcing and I have provided an overview of my adaptation of it in a course this semester. With the first part of my course’s semester project complete, I thought I would provide an update.

My students have been working on amassing and annotating their initial bibliographies of books and articles. The choices of topics reflect the course’s focuses on modernity and sustainability. Students are working on aspects of nuclear power and waste disposal, tuberculosis in post-Soviet prisons, changing lives of native populations in the Taimyr Peninsula, how the formation of the Union of Composers changed classical music, and the shrinking Aral Sea and the environmental and public health consequences associated with it.

I had asked students to use Evernote as the platform for presenting their bibliographies. However, we realized that there are significant formatting issues. For example, if a student initially types the bibliography in MS Word or uses Zotero or RefWorks to generate the bibliography, Evernote creates extra lines and spaces and doesn’t recognize indenting. Because at the early stage I am concerned with students’ abilities to not only locate and evaluate sources but also to learn proper Chicago style citations (many of the students are not history majors and are more proficient in MLA), formatting issues are problematic. Students were to then use Twitter and our blog to promote their work with a link to Evernote. In the future, I will have students use DropBox, where formatting is not an issue, and share their files publicly. Gleb’s use of Delicious provides an automatic community for sharing (and gathering) information in a way that my approach does not. That said, the majority of the students have responded positively to Evernote as a good way to collect their notes in one place and sync them between their computers and iPads. As students begin to collect media to add to their projects, Evernote clipper will become a very valuable tool.

Even with all the “cons” noted above, I still think that using Evernote (and I might experiment with Diigo in the future) as a tool for organizing and teaching organizing is important. I have found over the years that students can be quite good at finding good material, but because they often lack the organizational skills that are so important for historians they fail to see patterns or how the various parts can fit together in a research paper.

I’ll return in a few weeks to update everyone about the projects’ progress. Later this week, meanwhile, my colleague, Prof. Alyssa DeBlasio in the Russian department, will share her thoughts on a class-sourcing project she used in the course “Russian and the Environment.” She will share her insights into first-time class-sourcing, the pros and cons, writing in a new medium, and the problems of making poor work public. Please check back in a few days.

We look forward to others’ insights into how they help students learn and write with new technology. I attended ThatCamp in Pittsburgh this weekend and met with the creators of Classroom Salon. I will likely use it next semester for peer editing in my History of Childhood senior seminar. Stay tuned.


Gleb Tsipursky on Class-sourcing History: Revisions and Envisioning the Future

Last week on this blog, I discussed how I started teaching students digital skills through class-sourced website assignments. There, I gave a brief introduction to class-sourcing, which involves faculty assigning students to create online projects instead of traditional papers and other assignments, and links to my website that describes the theory and practice of class-sourcing. This week, I want to discuss briefly how I adapted class-sourced website assignments over the three classes that I have taught them, as well as the broader implications of class-sourced assignments.

There are two key ways I have adapted class-sourced website assignments for my future students. First, I have thought through more consciously about the needs of those who would be using the websites in the future, and primarily students and educators at the college and high school level. I have therefore sought to adapt the assignments to fit these needs, and thus asked students creating the website to add a new section to the websites, where they would provide some examples of class activities that educators can assign to those they teach or that learners can do on their own as a way of gaining more from the website. This activity is available to any teacher who assigns a class-sourced assignment. Here is an example of one website that I have assigned in several classes and which has worked well, and here is another I intend to assign to future classes (Figure 1). Second, I have taken websites created by my students in former classes and assigned them to those in my subsequent classes. Learners thus received an opportunity to engage with class-sourced assignments as consumers before they would be the creators of similar class-sourced online projects. This activity is available to those educators who want to assign class-sourced materials made by others as supplementary materials, depending on the availability of topical class-sourced materials. Let me briefly add that I have branched out of doing only class-sourced website assignments and have done online bibliographies through, and visual analysis projects through, all available on my website,

Dissident Movement - Figure 1
Dissident Movement – Figure 1

The second big question I wanted to discuss in this blog post is a vision for the future. Drawing on my experience, I contend that class-sourced assignments produce content well suited to teaching others. In fact, these and similar classsourced artifacts have the potential to satisfy the demand among faculty and high school teachers for free class materials, especially ones available on the internet where learners spend so much of their time. Since faculty guide their creation, these products can be specifically tailored to the needs of teaching and learning, in comparison to crowdsourced sources such as Wikipedia. Moreover, since faculty check and correct their students’ assignments, class-sourced artifacts deserve more trust than crowdsourced data that lacks such evaluation. Furthermore, there can be many digital artifacts dealing with the same topic: by presenting a diversity of perspectives and interpretations, classsourced materials can offer a fuller and richer portrayal than the cohesive and unified narrative style of either Wikipedia or textbooks.

Once enough have been created and compiled together in an organized fashion, classsourced projects would serve as a valuable informational resource for the public. Such efforts to organize these artifacts can start at the level of individual faculty, as I did with my personal webpage, and grow to span departments, universities, and eventually the national and even international level. Faculty can partner with schools, museums, governments, businesses, non-profit organizations, and other institutions to create digital artifacts that serve the particular needs of such external stakeholders. In this age of digital technology and tightening budgets, class-sourcing would help ensure that history stays relevant and demonstrates actively the value of academic contributions to society as a whole.

Class-sourcing on Soviet Sustainability

resourceGleb Tsipursky has introduced you to the general ideas behind class-sourcing and some of the media he uses. In this post I would like to introduce how I have adapted Gleb’s project to my Soviet history course.

Dickinson  College has long been known for fostering global education and study abroad. More recently, we have taken up the call to teach our students and ourselves to be better stewards through the study and practice of sustainability. To this end, many faculty have been creating and reworking, to varying degrees, courses so that we can highlight issues of sustainability in our fields. Given that most definitions of sustainability included not only environmental concerns, but also issues of human rights, access to political and economic power, and maintenance of cultures, the study of the Soviet Union seemed a logical course for me to begin with.

Following Gleb’s lead, I have changed my assignments in this course from a traditional research paper to a series of projects that will support students’ use of and contribution to our digitized knowledge base. In a series of steps, students will accumulate a bibliography on their topics, modify and annotate the bibliography, collect digitized sources (e.g. films, maps, timelines, photographs, etc.) that will help them tell their story, and then construct a lengthy multimedia blog post that will educate the broader public on their topics. Notes and bibliographies will be collected using Evernote so that students can easily sync their work between tablets and computers. Students will then share these Evernote assignments with classmates for peer review and with the wider world via the Twitter hashtag #h254 (the course number) and other social media. Final projects will be posted to our blog in December and will be promoted via this blog and numerous social media.

I will return every few weeks to update on the course’s progress and provide my thoughts on the pros and cons of each stage. Gleb will return tomorrow with his latest blog post.

We would appreciate your feedback.

Gleb Tsipursky’s guest post: Class-sourcing History: Teaching Students Digital Skills

We search constantly for ways to teach students better, to serve our discipline, profession, and the broader public more fully, and to stay relevant in this digital era. I would like to propose one strategy that has the potential to advance our collective capacity on all of these fronts: a new method of digital humanities-informed teaching and learning that I term class-sourcing. This concept adapts the term crowdsourcing, meaning the outsourcing of tasks to a wide group of volunteers, for instance the organization of information best exemplified by Wikipedia. A related but distinct process, class-sourcing consists of two elements, namely having students and faculty create online digital artifacts that organize knowledge, subsequently publicizing, and conglomerating these creations for the benefit of a widely diverse audience. I will discuss the first component in this blog post, and the second component next week.

Class-sourcing involves having faculty give class assignments where students make publicly-accessible online digital artifacts, such as wikis, websites, blogs, videos, podcasts, visual images, and others. These projects aim to report on class to a broad audience in a visually appealing fashion. This component of class-sourcing advances our ability to teach students about history while conveying the skills of a liberal art education. Similar to a paper, students conduct independent research on a specific topic they chose, analyze the information they find, and organize and communicate this data, which strengthens research, writing, and critical thinking, as well as historical understanding.

However, online digital artifacts provide additional benefits, as they advance our ability to teach students digital literacy skills relevant to professional and civic life in the modern digital age. A related advantage of class-sourcing comes from the capacity of digital artifacts to improve student engagement and performance, due to the novel nature of this assignment and the deployment and development of digital skills, which creates a constructive classroom dynamic and enhances comprehension of course content. Additionally, the public nature of the online projects results in improved academic performance, since as class feedback has shown, students are more committed to producing a better project if they know it will be available for a broad audience.

My proposals emerge from my own experience asking those in my classes to create websites on Soviet and imperial Russian history based on original primary source research. These students produced websites on a variety of topics, such as “The KGB,” and “Bloody Sunday, 1905” (Figure 1). From the very beginning, students expressed enthusiasm over these assignments. They have impressed me with their commitment and the quality of their final product generally exceeded my expectations. Furthermore, these digital artifacts have a clear impact, as you can see by typing “The KGB” into Google, where my students’ website currently comes up fourth in the search rankings. For in-depth directions on undertaking this activity and a list of student-created websites, see my personal webpage. After my students created the websites, I checked them for accuracy and corrected mistakes, as I would do for any assignment. Then, I assigned the best examples among these websites as supplementary readings to students in my subsequent classes.

Next week, I will discuss how I have adapted the class-sourced website assignment over the three classes that I have taught it, as well as the broader impications of class-sourced assiFigure-1-Bloody-Sunday-1905-300x178gnments. Stay tuned!

So, what is “class-sourcing”?

Courtesy of Daniel Iverson
Courtesy of Daniel Iverson

Prof  Gleb Tsipursky teaches in the history department of The Ohio State University, Newark Campus. He researches Soviet and post-Soviet history with particular interests in youth, modernity, social controls, popular culture, consumption, emotions, the Cold War, cultural diplomacy, crime, and violence.

Here is a brief introduction to his research:

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Gleb has recently started experimenting with “class-sourcing.” Tomorrow he will tell us about what this is and why he does it. I will soon follow with a discussion of how I have adapted Gleb’s idea in one of my current courses.

We look forward to and welcome your input.


A Dead Blog? No, just a ridiculously long hiatus.

Courtesy Llewi034 at en.wikibooks
Courtesy Llewi034 at en.wikibooks

After nearly a year’s absence, I am again starting to blog on teaching history. The past year has been devoted to teaching blogging and many other media to my students. Now, I want to return to talk to other professionals about teaching methods.

I know that many of us are in a quandary when it comes to combining teaching and technology. Years ago I gave presentations on how to use PowerPoint in the classroom. How quaint that sounds now. Presentation programs like PowerPoint and Prezi are now ubiquitous in classrooms. Most professors don’t think twice about using presentations to accompany their lectures and discussions. Like many readers of this blog, however, the integration of technology into the classroom learning experience poses different problems. Most problematic: how to balance coverage of content (always a problem for historians) while at the same time teaching students skills that they will need after they leave college. Historians have long been comfortable teaching students to write papers as a means of assessment. Then we began to focus more carefully on writing pedagogy in our classrooms. This takes more time away from the “stuff” we want students to learn, but teaching good writing is a skill that all students need to learn. The newest conundrum is teaching students how to use technology. Just as writing is a process of thinking, so too can technology aid the learning process.

Over the course of this semester I will be providing my thoughts on teaching with technology both to develop skills, but also to reinforce learning of content in the courses.

In the coming days Gleb Tsipursky will join the blog to discuss his “class-sourcing” projects. I have adapted Gleb’s model for a Russian history course I am teaching this semester. I will be updating this blog on my course’s progress, and hopefully some of my students will contribute their thoughts.

Please join in the conversation.

Technology and Teaching

Courtesy Nixdorf at the English language Wikipedia

Well, it has been some time since my Willoughby training at Dickinson on how to use various technologies more effectively in the classroom. Not all topics, like 3D printing, were relevant for the courses I teach, but I learned about more methods and media than I can possibly wrap my head around at this point. For now, I am integrating just a few items, primarily in my First-year seminar on utopias, so that I can extend my learning curve over a number of semesters and begin to see how the technologies effect learning and the workload for professor and students.

The easiest of the technologies to introduce is the blog. When teaching in London a few years ago I used the blog extensively as a way to extend the conversation beyond the classroom. At first the dialogue did not happen organically. But through some repetition, instruction, and prompts, the quality of the posts and comments dramatically improved. Students learned how to write texts (and I view the blog primarily as a way to teaching writing and critical thinking in a new medium), post still and moving images, embed walking tours of the city with Google Earth, and more. In my current First-year seminar we are learning the basics of posting, tagging, and commenting. This weekend the students will have their first audio blog, in which they use Audacity to produce a podcast, which they then post with some minimal text to the blog.

We will also be working with video projects near the end of term. Students will practice with iMovie and Audacity to produce a multi-media final project. For their training session, they will use still and moving images from an upcoming field trip to Eastern State Penitentiary to produce a video blog. I think it is important that students have an introduction to these technologies, but my chief intention is to strengthen writing and thinking. For a video project, one has to master more than the technology. Storyboarding teaches students to organize their thoughts, think about what is most critical to their story, and imagine their audience. Without thoughtful content and a connection with the audience, we simply have visual candy. That is not the point of these exercises. By using digital media, I hope to get students to practice serious writing (their scripts) more and thereby improve their writing in general. The assignments also have students improving research and analytical skills.

I’ll let you know how the projects turn out and give you an update at the end of the semester about the time commitment for students and for me.

How do you use technology in your courses? Russian history is an easy venue for using Google Earth and maps, Twitter, blogs, and GIS. I’m hoping to use the latter in my Soviet history course next semester. If any readers have used GIS in their classrooms, please let us know.