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Teaching Historiography to Undergraduates, Part 2

In my last post (I know, 9 months ago…but give me a break because I was on sabbatical and finishing my book manuscript!) I discussed the new approach I had taken to teaching historiography.

On my end of term survey, one student’s comments summarize those of all students: “I understand how and why historians employ certain research methods. The note-taking template was very helpful to learn how to dissect an article. However, it is very repetitive, and it feels a bit like a chore at this point in the semester. Overall, I have really improved my ability to understand, identify, and write historiography.”

Not a full-throated endorsement, but I’m pretty happy. The “negative” remark is actually gratifying. The note-taking templace became “repetitive” and “a bit like a chore” because the students no longer felt that they needed to walk through the template step-by-step. They had gained confidence and competence in dissecting secondary sources during a semester of practice. If we compare the data from the mid-term and end-of-term evaluations, we can see marked gains in the students’ self-reporting.

Midterm Survey End of Term Survey
Q1 – Please answer the questions below. 0= “absolutely no”, 4=”absolutely yes”
# Field Mean Std Deviation Variance Mean Std Deviation Variance
1 Are you better able to distinguish between historical facts and interpretations? 3 1.18 1.4 3.56 0.5 0.25
2 Are you better able to recognize the chief points of disagreement and debate among historians within a specific field or topic? 3.33 0.67 0.44 3.11 0.57 0.32
3 Are you better able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to the past within a specific field or topic? 3 0.82 0.67 3.33 0.47 0.22
4 Are you more familiar with genres and historiography and historiographical schools and approaches? 3.22 0.79 0.62 3.33 0.82 0.67
5 Has the historiography in three acts helped you to understand historiography and how to write it? 3.22 0.79 0.62 3.56 0.5 0.25
6 Has the note-taking template helped you to read secondary sources more effectively? 3 0.82 0.67 3.33 0.94 0.89
7 Have you improved your ability to read and think critically? 2.89 0.57 0.32 3.11 0.74 0.54
8 Have assignments allowed you to begin to explore historiography on your chosen country? 3.22 0.79 0.62 3.33 0.67 0.44
9 Have you learned to write and communicate more effectively? 3 0.82 0.67 3.11 0.74 0.54

In general, there is a positive narrowing in the standard deviations and variance. In all but one question there is an improvement in the mean. The outlier, question 2 ( Are you better able to recognize the chief points of disagreement and debate among historians within a specific field or topic?), is a bit baffling. This might be explained by some students’ over confidence during the mid-term survey. As the course progressed, they might have realized that what they perceived as obvious or simple was more complex than they had imagined.

The gains on question six (Has the note-taking template helped you to read secondary sources more effectively?) seem to justify the method I employed in teaching them how to read secondary sources. Gains on question five (Has the historiography in three acts helped you to understand historiography and how to write it?) suggest that the multi-stage writing in the early semester paid dividends when they wrote their final historiography paper (and my assessment of their papers support their self-reporting). Questions one, three, and four were key targets for me in the course re-design, and student self-reporting suggests that we achieved some degree of success.

Overall, I am quite pleased with this experiment. I am the course again starting in two weeks, and I plan to revisit these questions with you in the coming months.

Happy teaching, and please ask me questions or leave feedback.

Teaching Historiography to Undergraduates

I’m taking a break this week from discussing video production to write about historiography. I am heading to the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) conference next week to  speak on a pedagogy panel. If you can’t make it, this post will summarize my thoughts. If you are able to attend our panel, this post can serve as a refresher.

I teach at Dickinson College, an undergraduate-only liberal arts institution. My department consciously opens all our courses except the senior seminar to all students (first-year to senior) of all majors. This creates particular challenges that those of you teaching historiography in graduate school will not have to face. The two key issues I would like to address here is how to explain historiography and how to get students to write historiography.

What is Historiography? Continue reading Teaching Historiography to Undergraduates


Welcome to my newly designed website and blog. I moved to a WordPress blog so that I could consolidate my thoughts on teaching, research, and current topics all in one format. I’m still in the process of designing and building out, so please be patient. Those of you used to reading blogs.dickinson.edu/teachinghistory will now be directed to this blog and be able to read posts in the tool bar to the left and in the slide show in the center. I was managing three blogs, so the consolidation of my main page with my teaching blogs will save me (and readers?) much confusion. In addition I have also embedded my Twitter feed here so that you can follow what I am reading and writing there.

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 fascinating.college-student-computer

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