Tag Archives: pedagogy

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

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