Category Archives: Teaching

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.

Digital + Liberal Arts = Employability?

In an insightful recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“No More Digitally Challenged Liberal-Arts Majors: How to give B.A.’s in arts and humanities more career options without abandoning the life of the mind”), William Pannapacker relates a number of conversations he has had with employers and institutions providing internships for students at Hope College, where he teaches. In short, they stated what many of us already recognize: liberal arts students have learned how to write well, synthesize large amounts of varied information, read carefully and critically, and bring a curiosity and ability to learn quickly. Yet many liberal arts students share one critical flaw that plagues students at all kinds of institutions: although they are users of some social media, most students today struggle tocreate meaningful content and to actively use computer-related skills that are essential in many modern workplaces.

I posted the article on Facebook and asked alumni to comment on the article and how it relates to the training they received at Dickinson College and how it prepared them for life after college, and the responses were

Courtney Cacatian, a policy studies major who is now Marketing Manager at Arlington Convention and Visitors Service noted that learning to make effective presentations, in addition to other practical skills, made her a more attractive hire. However, she agreed with Pannapacker and his call for colleges to provide other technical skills. Employers expect today’s graduates to know social media and often digital marketing. A history alumnus who is now an administrator at a private college elaborated, saying that he looks to hire people who have a “digital win” on their resumes. They should either be able to organize and analyze data in spreadsheets and databases, complete on online project such as a blog or webpage, or be familiar with industry-specific software. Alicia LeBlanc could not agree more, and she made the important observation that as much as technical skills are important now, they will only become more important in the future. Although she had some technical skills before coming to Dickinson  College and acquired more while majoring in French and English, see argued that “it’s about applying the curiosity and confidence we liberal-arts majors gain in research & critical thinking to a different format: technology. Frankly, it’s the same process.”

In my mind, Alicia hit it on the nail and reflects my view (and Pannapacker’s it seems) about the value of the liberal arts. What we do best is to nurture students’ curiosity and provide them with broad-based research and critical thinking skills. Rather than training students for a specific job or even profession, we give them the tools to succeed in any job or profession because they have learned how to learn throughout their lifetimes.

So, how can we liberal arts schools meet the professional needs of our students? The history major suggested that the best option would be for departments to “actively replace papers and tests with digital projects that can be demonstrated” after graduation such as constructing digitized archives, making QR codes for cemetery headstones that are no longer readable, creating projects that, for example, create a statistical analysis of average grades for papers based on time of submission.  Alicia agrees that if technical skills are not taught in college, where will they be? A good friend of mine who studied history with me as undergraduate at the University of Missouri, chimed in. For nearly two decades he has been in management and training positions in a number of companies and is now a director of brand and international operations, so he certainly has a sense of what employers today need and want. Of the comments of Pannapacker and my former students, he simply said, “I can’t agree enough! Digital skills (beyond the basics in spreadsheets, presentations, documents and social media) is so important, no matter what you end up doing.” The last word goes to Alicia and her desire for greater dialogue with employers. Alicia argued for a “greater overall marketing campaign … (and we all partake in this, in living our lives as successful, in any sense of the term, liberal-arts people) to remind people of this usefulness of liberal arts.”

Hopefully the conversation on this topic will continue. Although liberal arts institutions are not (and in my mind should not) narrowly train students for particular professions, it is incumbent upon us to continue providing our students with the broad range of skills that can allow them to be successful in their lives after graduation. Whereas we once could teach students to read deeply, analyze critically, and write persuasively, these skills are not enough. They are still essential and provide the foundations for all else, but we must also begin to think of ways that we can introduce technical skills into our classrooms to complement the training we have long provided.

I encourage all readers to continue this conversation at the Dickinson College Digital Humanities Advisory Committee’s blog and on my Teaching History blog.

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