A blog about teaching history at Dickinson College

Tag: 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

It Ain’t Easy Being a Green Screen

In the latest installment of “how-to” (or at least “think about this”) posts about filming your own mini lectures, I discuss the wonderful world of green screens. We have all seen this. Every weather reporter stares at a green (or sometimes blue) screen while using off-camera monitors as guidance. That big weather map behind her: there is nothing there except a blank green screen. This presents those of us making videos with a wonderful opportunity to project an image or images onto a background and then layer live footage or text on top. But there are some things you need to consider before using a green screen.   Continue reading

Creating Video Lectures: Storytelling

So, if you have been following the blog you now have had a glimpse behind the scenes and read about why I initiated this project. Hopefully you have watched a few of our videos by now. If you haven’t, please do so before reading this blog post.

Welcome back. So, you watched a few videos and thought, “Wow! How did they do that.” Ok, perhaps you said, “Meh…” but are still interested in our process. Aleks and I will walk you through a video from start to finish. We really had no fancy equipment; only what we could get at our media center on campus. You’ll see in the images that we worked in about half of a small room that served as our studio and then edited in a old closet.

Our fancy studio

Our fancy studio

IMG_0250 (1)

What kind of experience did we have coming into this project? Karl has conducted some oral histories and edited in iMovie (he hates Apple products, but iMovie is far superior to Windows Movie Maker). During the year Aleks works at the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues where she regularly uses software such as PhotoShop, InDesign, iMovie, and Audacity to create visuals and edit interviews. Because Aleks knew more of the editing tech than Karl, in most cases we divided the labor. Karl came up with ideas and wrote scripts; Aleks filmed and edited it all. There are some exceptions which we will discuss at a later time.

First thing you should know: Continue reading

Creating Video Lectures: Why?

Welcome back to my long-dormant teaching blog. I’ve been teaching a lot, just not blogging about it.

During summer 2016, however, I tried something quite different and thought that I would blog about it. With the superb assistance of a rising junior, Aleksandra Syniec, we have put together video mini-lectures for several of my classes. This is not a MOOC! The hard intellectual work is always done in concert with an instructor and peers. Some might call this “flipping the classroom,” but isn’t that what we always do anyway? Students read/watch/listen before class, and then we talk about it. I teach at a small liberal arts school, so talk-and-chalk is unnecessary. My role is not information transmission; my job is to teach critical thinking and communication.

Our fancy studio

Our fancy studio

My intent in our “Time Capsules” videos was to experiment with topics and forms, assess student learning, and ask students to evaluate the videos so that I know if the tremendous investment in time is worth it. My objectives were to 1) replicate the overview that students might get from textbooks (but I never assign textbooks; they just aren’t challenging enough for my students and they are unnecessarily costly), 2) free up time in class to discuss our primary and secondary sources, 3) provide some skill development for one of my students, and 4) allow students with certain learning challenges to start, stop, and rewatch rather than struggling with the manic pace of most of my in-class lectures. I’m certain that the videos will be helpful for #4. Aleks has already commented on how valuable it was to her as a student to collaborate on this project.

I’m not sure what to expect for the first two goals. Because these are very short videos, all under 15 minutes, I cannot possibly replicate the amount of information covered in a textbook chapter, but that is not my intention. I am covering smaller parts of one topic. For example, whereas a textbook might have a chapter on World War I, I have elected to just talk about the development of alliances on the video. In class we will cover propaganda, the technologies of war, home front and frontline, etc.

I expect that I will save time in class. For the industrial revolution video, for example, the video is about half the time as similar material I would cover in class. Unless students arrive in class with a lot of questions from the video, there should be a good time savings.

I will be adding new blog posts regularly in the coming weeks. Until then, check out our YouTube channel at: https://youtube.com/c/KarlQuallsTimeCapsules. Like us, and make sure to subscribe so that you get notices as we put up new videos. Follow this blog for updates, and please share with your friends and share your ideas. For ASEEES colleagues, contact me if you are interested in discussing presentations on alternative pedagogies.

Creating Video Lectures–Behind the Scenes

The Teaching History blog is now officially up and running again. For my first post of the upcoming academic year, I want to show you what we have been doing this summer. The Digital Humanities Advisory Committee at Dickinson College was gracious enough to provide funding for a student-faculty collaboration for eight weeks. I hired one of my students to help make 9 mini-lecture videos that will help set the stage for certain classes in a variety of courses. You can watch all of the videos on our YouTube Time Capusules site; I have embedded our “Behind the Scenes” report below in which we provide an overview of the project and discuss the benefits of student faculty collaboration. Enjoy!

During the coming months, I will be writing short posts on the ins and outs of creating videos. These will be neither prescriptive nor proscriptive and certainly not “best practices” (how I loathe that term). We will simply walk you through what we did and then you can decide what might work best for you.

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

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