Category Archives: pedagogy

Reflections on my “Teaching The Black Athlete” series

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The Paseo YMCA, KCMO where the Negro League was formed in 1920.

The final part of my summer series of designing my African-American Studies course “The Black Athlete” for this fall is up at the Sports in American History blog. The post talks mostly about my philosophy and strategy in creating assignments. They’re not necessarily unique to a sports history course. I don’t include the syllabus in this series, though I plan on sharing it on “Teaching” section of this blog once it’s finalized. If you’re curious about how things go, this winter I’ll probably write some sort of postmortem (also on this blog) to see how well things worked in the course.

The teaching series didn’t quite turn out as I hoped. While it definitely helped me with my course prep, I felt like I was either too vague or too specific when writing about it. Being a relatively inexperienced teacher, I felt kind of reluctant, under-qualified, and vulnerable putting ideas out there that haven’t all been tested. It’s really hard to write about your choices and goals without being too specific or knowing if they’re truly the best approach. In the end, I wanted to share my process and approach to start a conversation and get people thinking. Perhaps it is all that time I spent in the Ed. School as an undergrad, but I believe that reflecting on our choices is important. So as the series ends, I hope everyone who’s read the posts has at least found it thought-provoking and maybe a tiny bit useful. Thank you to everyone who has commented and shared their advice. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations; hopefully they continue.


Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part I Choosing Course Materials

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 2 Organizing the Course

Teaching “The Black Athlete”: Part 3 Designing Assignments

AAS 371 The Black Athlete Syllabus

History is Personal: The Final Lecture of My Course

One of the professors that I’ve TA’d for at Purdue does a very powerful and moving “Meaning of Life” lecture to end all of his courses. In the presentation he takes the kids through his personal history emphasizing important lessons he’s learned on how to be successful and happy. It’s incredibly well-done and always leaves students moved.

Though I don’t have the same life-lessons and experiences yet, I tried to do something similar at the end of my course this fall. I called it “History is Personal” and delivered it on the last day of class. I was unable to do my “The Recent Past” lecture, where we talk about things like 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama, because I was ill, so I tried to build off of those historically significant moments where my students have personal memories to start a larger conversation about our personal interaction with history. While this is a theme I tried to carry throughout the semester via the book on Swimming Pools, I viewed this final presentation as a more explicit discussion of personal history.

I divided the lecture into four different angles to look at history — all of which my students can personally relate back to themselves. The angles were: 1) historical events you lived through, 2) historic sites and places, 3), personal history, 4) digital history. Then I concluded with some final thoughts and takeaways from the lecture and the course overall.

* * *

The “History You’ve Lived Through” section was more questions driven. I wanted my students to think about major historical events that took place during their lives and think about what they remember about it, how if affected their lives, and consider how their experiences are different than other people who lived through the same things. At the heart of these questions are notions of perspective and context highlighting the complexity of history and sources. They also shed light on questions of significance and how time and distance can affect our views of the past.

Most of my students were 5 or 6 when 9/11 happened, they remember it much differently than I do. Likewise, some were in different parts of the country. Timezones can make a difference when major events happen. Regardless, they all had some sort of memory and something to share. These memories are important. Some recognized that they’ve been shaped by subsequent news coverage and anniversaries. What was fun was to see their minds working though their memories. Especially when I told them that these are stories they’ll probably be telling to their kids or grandkids someday. My Mom told me a story about where she was when JFK was shot, and they’ll have something similar. History is something we all witness and all have different views and perspectives on. It’s a real thing, and sometimes these multiple memories and perspectives get lost in lectures and textbooks.

* * *

Next, I asked my students to think about how they connect with historic places and sites. At a fundamental level these things attempt to anchor history to place. The idea of what happened here, or as my good friend Peter asks, what grows here (since he is an environmental and agricultural historian), are fundamentally personal questions about a community and a place that invite us to learn more. They’re telling of a place and its history. It’s the connection between sense of place and sense of history. These connections can be very powerful and help not just historians, but visitors and community members better understand their world.

I asked my student to think back to when we talked about the 1920s and 1930s — I told them about Ross-Ade Stadium and Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue and their connections to national trends. I reminded them that there are probably similar stories about their hometowns. A famous person, a famous building, perhaps a courthouse or a school, maybe a park and a bandstand. Maybe it’s an old stadium. These histories are their history because they shape who they are by defining where they’re from. They introduced them to the world around them and what their community values.

Of course, historic sites aren’t personal for everyone. If you go somewhere new, you might not see the significance in things. An old house or an old tree might seem lame. But if you take a step back, you can see how different things in history are important to different folks, different communities. This goes beyond places. People in the South view the Civil War and its leaders much differently than those of us in the North. People out west have different views of Native Americans. Likewise, a historic site in a different country might not mean the same thing to you.

* * *

For me, however, personal history is directly connected to public history. I got into history because I grew up having really close and personal relationships with my Great Grandmothers. I continued cultivating my interest in history by studying the places around me. Much of my undergraduate research was on local history and university history. I did my senior thesis on the history of my college track team. Later, my master’s thesis focused on Billy Mills, one of my running heroes growing up. For me, history has always required a personal connection for it to come alive. Learning family history and local history helped me discover who I am, where I came from, and how I fit into the larger story of American history. I hope that by sharing my story and the story of my family, it helped my students to think about their story and how they connect their personal and family history to the history they learned all semester.

* * *

On my way back from my research to trip to Oklahoma last summer I drove through Kansas. I grew up in Kansas and while I was cruising through the majestic Flint Hills I passed familiar places from my youth. I was overcome by nostalgia seeing the familiar sites and reading the town names. It’s been probably 15 years or more since I’d seen the old family farm and the houses where my Great Grandmothers lived and I spent so much time as a kid. I decided to stop, stretch my legs, and take a few photos.

As my biography page explains, I was lucky as a child. I grew up with two Great Grandmothers that lived into their 90s. Both of them died when I was in high school. They lived less than an hour from me so I spent a lot of time with them at their houses. They told me stories about our family history as well as some local history. One of them got me into collecting coins which I think also contributed to my love of history. In a lot of ways, because of their age and experiences, it was like growing up and having close relationships with two amazing primary sources. Below are a few of their stories (I have more that I didn’t share here).

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McGregor Farmhouse, July 2014

* * *

My Grandma Edith and Grandpa Dean (who I never met) moved to Saffordville, KS in the late 1930s. They moved into a large 5-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of town, across the street from the Toledo Township High School. The house was built in 1916, my Grandma loved to remind me. When they bought it, the trees were overgrown and I get the sense that it was vacant for some time. I remember one story she used to tell about when they first moved in. A black snake was inside the house, slithering on the wall across the archway between the living room and dining room. The rooms were divided by wooden pocket doors. The snake must have nested inside the pockets and become spooked by the new residents. Grandpa Dean was unfazed, Grandma explained. He grabbed the snake by the tail and snapped its head against the ground quickly killing it.

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Grandpa Dean and Grandma Edith at the 50th Anniversary, June 1978

Edith was the daughter of Welsh immigrants. Her father, Evan Ellis, came to the U.S. in 1883, when he was 12 years old. In 1905, he settled in Lebo, KS and began farming. Grandma Edith was born in Kansas City just before they moved. Though she had 5 younger siblings, she outlived them all. I never met my Great Grandfather McGregor. He died before I was born from complications following a stroke. Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad. They lived in Newton, KS prior to moving to Saffordville.

Saffordville was a small town located along the railroad and U.S. Route 50 between Cottonwood Falls, Strong City, and Emporia. The Cottonwood River ran just south of town providing fertile soil and irrigation to the farming community located on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills. Farming and ranching were the primary occupations of most resident of Chase County, Kansas. Though Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad, he owned land too. He rented some, but not all of it, to other nearby farmers.

I don’t know the complete history of Saffordville, but the story of its end is all too familiar. The 1951 ravished the area. The Cottonwood River didn’t just jump its banks, it engulfed the nearby plains. The water kept rising and rising. It crested just below the top of Grandma Edith’s dining room table. While most residents evacuated and moved, she stayed. Grandpa Dean took a row-boat to Emporia for work and the rest of the family — my Grandfather Gary and his sister Janet — moved to the second floor of the house.

Grandpa Gary was 16 at the time and quickly grew restless. According to William Least Heat-Moon’s book Prairie Earth (which is a history of Chase County, KS), he passed the time by climbing on to the roof to shoot trash floating by in the muddy water. Heat-Moon’s account comes directly from my Grandma Edith, who he interviewed while writing the book.

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Toledo Township High School, July 2014

Saffordville never recovered from the flood. Most residents picked up and moved to higher ground or other towns not in the Cottonwood’s flood-plain. The only remnants of the town are three houses and the old Toledo Township High School. As a kid we joked that we doubled the town’s population whenever we visited. 

I’m not sure when the high school closed. Both my Grandpa Gary and my Grandma Donna graduated from the school in the mid-1950s. The interior wasn’t in bad shape when I explored the old building in the late-1990s. We walked through the gymnasium and I remember being amused by its small size and lack of a 3-point line. This was before I learned it wasn’t added to the sport until the mid-1980s.

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Saffordville United Methodist Church, July 2014

* * *

Following the flood the Saffordville United Methodist Church moved to higher ground. As I recall the church building was moved on a truck and placed on a new foundation north of U.S. Route 50, roughly 3 miles from the old town. Both of my Great Grandmothers were members of the church. Their funerals were held there, and I believe my Dad’s parents, my Grandpa Gary and Grandma Donna, were married there. It was the social center of so many of my visits to Saffordville. Throughout my childhood I attended church there on my visits and went to their Vacation Bible School during the summers.

Because my Great Grandmothers both lived into their 90s and spent all of their adult lives there, the entire congregation felt like family (and a lot of it was). My Granny Buffon lived closer to the new church site. She was born and raised in Chase County. Her father, Walter Erickson, came to the U.S. when he was 12 too (which would have been 1895). He was tenant farmer most of his life. I actually own his old truck now, a 1952 Chevy.

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Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse

My Granny Buffon taught school while my Grandpa Buffon farmed. Granny Buffon started teaching right after she graduated from 8th grade. She got a special teaching license and taught at the Lower Fox Creek one room schoolhouse. There was only about 3 families in the area, so she didn’t have too many students. Her younger sisters were actually among those students. The school is now a part of Tallgrass National Prairie Reserve. My Granny was the last teacher at the school, and according to the National Park Service, she made $80 per month in 1929 (she would have been 18 years old). She later went to Kansas State Teachers College  (now Emporia State University) and got her full teaching license.

She continued to teach while my Great Grandpa farmed. They mostly just had animals, cattle, sheep, and chickens. My mother tells a story about the first time she met my Great Grandpa. They were in his truck and he reached over to the glove box and pulled out a bunch of sheep’s tails and waved them in her face to see what she would do. He always a bit of a jokester. My Grandma Donna once told me a story about having to clean chickens for dinner. Granny Buffon would chop the head off with an ax, turning away not to watch the impact. My Grandma Edith, on the other hand, would just wring their necks with her bare hands. Then, my Grandma and her sister would have to clean the bird — pluck the feathers, bleed it out, etc. — before they could cook it. It’s so fascinating to me that only 2 to 3 generations ago that’s how people lived.

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Buffon Farmhouse, July 2014

When I was a kid they still had an old wooden outhouse not too far from their house. According to my Dad, my Great Great Grandpa Walt, who lived until he was 98, refused to use the indoor plumbing. He was a weird guy. He also used the same coffee grounds all week long. A throwback to simpler times when you had to be frugal.

One thing I’ll never forget from my Granny Buffon’s house was the time we went for a picnic in her “crick” — not creek — and the soda we brought started to float away. It was one of those 6-packs with rings that connected all of the cans. We put it in the water to stay cool and anchored it down on a stick. The stick came loose in the current and it started to go down stream. Granny B ran to the house, strapped on her waders, and then went marching after it. I don’t remember if she found it. I think she did.

* * *

This early history, this family history, taught me about who I am, it taught me about the place I was from. Although I didn’t know much about what was going in American history at the time, it gave me a baseline of personal knowledge to connect with major historic events I learned in my classes. Things like the urban rural-divide. The Great Depression, immigration, etc. Of course, I also learned a thing or two I’ve never was taught in school. My Granny Buffon taught me the origins of the phrase “hicks” as in someone who is backwoods and uncivilized. As an old one room schoolhouse teacher, she claims that the term comes from rural and unorthodox teachers who disciplined their students with hickory sticks. People who disagreed with their methods called them “hicks.” I’ve told that story to several other historians, and no one has heard anything similar before, but it seems to be accurate.

My students may not have had the same vast experience that I had with my Grandparents and Great Grandparents, but hopefully they’ve had some. I think its useful for them to think about where and what their grandparents were doing during many of the events we talked about. Personal places and personal history can serve as a way to anchor major events we talked about in class into tangible realities.

* * *

The final angle I explored was digital history. I’m very interested in the digital humanities and mixing history and digital technology. One of the things I do is kook at ways to present history to the public in innovative ways. During the course of the class and as I moved into the 1980s and 1990s, I began to wonder, how do we tell the history of the digital age? What are the important events? And how has digital technology complicated the process of history — remembering things, saving and preserving documents, images, etc.?

My students are what scholars refer to as “digital natives.” They grew up with computers, smart phones, digital cameras, USB drives and easy storage, etc. They also grew up with social networks and blogs. I remember in college waiting a full year after my friends at KU got Facebook until my college was added to the network. In the early days only college students could sign up (you had to have a .edu email) and only certain colleges were recognized. It was a slow process of expanding. I got mine in May 2005.

Now, today so much of our own personal information is spread across the web. Our photos are spread across websites and apps like Instagram and Facebook. All of our phone numbers are all in our phones. Everyone’s had that experience when they lost or broke their phone and everything is gone. You have to start over. No one lists their number in phonebooks anymore. It’s almost impossible to get someone’s number that you don’t know. Phonebooks are basically obsoletely.

We’ve probably all also had the experience of a hard drive going bad and losing our saved files, you know, before the cloud. Bye bye photos and videos. Bye bye saved term papers. How do these things affect history? And how are these things a part of history? Research is affected, obviously. Digital data is tricky to preserve. You have to update software or find machines that can use old software, old storage disks, etc. You also have to figure out what to save and how to best preserve it for future access.

When I went to the archives this summer I searched through a lot of old correspondence. People sent letter to each other, but they also kept a “onionskin” copy. So you can see both sides of the conversation in the archive, you can see the paper trail. Email saves that stuff too, but how do you archive email? How do official organizations saves those records? Technology has made life so much better and easier but it complicates things, too. These are among the issues we have to consider as historians in the digital age, but also as everyday people trying to preserve our own memories.

Digital history is personal for a lot of us. We have our own history of social networks and email addresses, of old messages and photos, old blogs posts, etc. We also have our history of websites. Can you think back to websites that you used to love but have changed or don’t really exist? Do you  remember Homestar Runner? It was big when I was in high school. Did you know there are a few projects building a history of the internet? Have you heard of the Wayback Machine?  They have over 400 billion archived websites. You can go in and visit a popular website on a specific date in the past to see what it looked like. The Internet seems to be a place in constant flux. We might not notice little updates, but over time websites and things have radically changed. The Wayback Machine is one way for us to go back and see change over time.

So what’s the point here? I wanted my students to think about the next phase in history. I wanted them to think about how they interact with history and make history, make documents, every day. The Library of Congress is archiving every public Tweet. Which can be really cool for historian 50 years from now, but also kind of scary for college students Tweeting about their lives. The Library of Congress also put together a Personal Digital Archiving Kit a few years ago. It offers resources on personal digital archiving for the general public. It’s mostly a collection of important tips and strategies for preserving digital files, photos, videos, emails and social media accounts. They encourage people to host parties and workshops to help spread the word about personal digital archiving you are raising awareness to these ever changing formats, technologies and techniques. Preservation is important and requires an active role by all of us, especially in the digital age. I joked that even if we fail to preserve everything, the NSA seems to be doing a good job of collecting our data. Perhaps their massive public spying program can double as a new National Archives of personal digital data.

* * *

So we looked at history from four angels: 1) Historical Events they lived through, 2) Historic sites and places, 3) Personal History, and 4) Digital History. What’s the takeaway?

Obviously we study history to be good citizens. To learn about our government and how we got to where we are. To see how things have changed over time. We learn history to honor our past — national figures, veterans, and even relatives. We learn history to win bar bets and know fun-facts, too. But I think a lot of this all comes back to knowing who we are and where we’re from.

Learning history also helps us think about the world around you in different ways. One of the reasons I assigned the Contest Waters book on the history of swimming pools was because I wanted my students to understand that everything has a history, and everything is affected by history. The book did a wonderful job of illustrating this and my student’s essays really bare that out. As this class ends, that’s one of the main things I hope they take away.

I also want them take away the idea that it’s about them. History is theirs. I recall repeating the phrase “History is yours” several times in the last lecture. It’s something that they’ve inherited it and they’re going to contribute to it. It’s important to know what they’re inheriting. There is a lot of promise in American history, a lot of success, but there’s also some problems, disagreements, and unfortunate stains. But this is our history; it’s theirs and mine, its ours. I encouraged my students to take ownership of history.

We’ll all contribute to it in various ways — voting, running for office, having children, donating money, or just being a part of community. Being a friend and sharing your life with someone can be very significant, too. We all have those friends, teachers, neighbors, whoever, that we remember fondly. As the inheritors and writers of this history, we can use our knowledge of the past to help make changes. History is ours to shape.

During the course I had them write questions for the exams, part of this is because I’m lazy, part of it is because it’s a good way to help them study, but it’s also a way to make history theirs. To give them a say on what they think it important and significant. By writing the questions, they were telling me what they value.

* * *

In the end, this exploration of history from four different angles was a reflection on what history means to me and why I think it’s important. It’s also a reflection on what history looks like outside of the classroom. I wanted my students to understand that history is real, it’s all around them, it’s a part of who they are and they will be and are a part of it, too. Each angle helps illustrate those ideas. They three major takeaways of my class were 1) history is real, 2) everything has a history, and everything is affected by history, and 3) history is theirs (history is yours). As a 100-level, general education, survey class I felt like it was my responsibility to show them how and why history is important. Since this might be the only history class many of them take, I also wanted to give them a few ways that they can use the class to look at the world differently. I think this last mediation on how “History is Personal” really accomplished that and hit home for a lot of them.

This last lecture was one of my favorites to give. It was deeply personal for me not only because I shared my family history but also because I bared my soul and passion for history. I explained who I am and why I’m a historian. It paid off. They responded really well and a few started clapping at the end. I enjoyed the back and forth of sharing experiences and ideas with my students. Seeing them nod their heads as they made connections and soaked in the personal components of history. These reactions validated the semester of hard work and stress, and confirmed that I made the right decision to pursue a career in teaching and research.

Learning Together: Thoughts on Teaching and Evaluation

I’m in the middle of teaching my first solo course. It’s a survey of American history — U.S. history since 1877 — that falls within my major field of study. The class is 100-level and the vast majority are non-history majors taking it for required general education credits (I have 2 history majors out of 48 student). You can check out my syllabus here.

Because it’s my first time going-it-alone in the classroom, I’ve been able to experiment with a few ideas and test out my teaching philosophy. I took 3 years of education coursework when I was an undergraduate (I had 2 classes & student teaching away from being certified), so I have a lot of ideas in the bank. Added to this reserve are ideas I’ve picked along the way from my various advisors and by interacting with different people (such as the Hybrid Pedagogy folks).

Part of what has characterized my approach so far is the notion of dialogue between student and instructor, what I call “learning together.” It has been essential so far, precisely because I’m learning how to teach while they are learning about history. We’re both learning. But even if I wasn’t new to all of this, it’s something I really believe in.

Part of starting this dialogue was the first quiz I gave them at the end of week 3. To that point they hadn’t received any sort of grading or evaluation. I knew a few of them were nervous about it. So on that Friday I gave them a 4 question, 10 point quiz. The first two questions  were multiple choice and the second two short answer. I admitted to them that the short answer were a big broad and might be difficult to answer in a brief amount of time.

After 15-20 minutes or working I stopped them. I told them that we were going to grade them together, that we were going to have a conversation about what the right answers were, about my expectation. After all, one of the hardest part about college is learning and adapting to the expectations of a new instructor. Likewise, one of the trickiest things about being a new teacher is knowing what they’re taking away from my lectures. I see many of them furiously taking notes during class, but I never know what they’re writing and think is important.

Some would say it’s not their job to know what’s important. They’re not the experts. This is partially true. I trust students to pick up on repeated ideas and themes. If I keep coming back to a certain idea or belabor a point, they can tell it’s important. This trust isn’t something you want to let go unchecked for too long though. Some will only write down what’s on your Powerpoint slides. Treating the first quiz as a conversation starter to seek mutual understanding of each other is a good first step.

We started with the multiple choice was easy, but to lessen the pressure I guaranteed them 1 point for answering and 2 for a correct answer. Maybe I’m just soft, but I wanted them to feel safe. I didn’t want them to worry about failing. The real discussion began with the sort answer. Many were unsure what to write or how to approach thematic questions. The first question asked them it give examples of how the railroad industry was entangled in economic, social, political life during the Gilded Age. The second dealt with changing attitudes towards racial minorities in the late 19th century (African America, American Indians, and immigrant groups). The short answers were worth 3 points each. To grade them, I asked that they underline any of the points they made that we talked about during our discussion. Three underlines equals full credit.

The conversation was the important part for me. It allowed to me to assess what they knew, their ability to connect ideas across time, and to better explain how I think about history. Most of them did very well. They tended to grade themselves a bit harsher than I would.  I adjusted their grades after reading their responses but promised only to raise them. They ended up with an average over 90%.

This may seem like spoon-feeding or pandering. I may sound like I’m being too easy. Maybe I am. My belief is that all evaluation should be two-way a dialogue between the instructor and the student. I want all of my students to have the best chance at being successful. Evaluating students should be a clear and open process. The better they understand that process and have a stake in it, the more likely it is that they will do well. Having this open dialogue and discussion is part of creating that mutual understanding. It helps break down assumptions and works to eliminate biases across disciplines. For most of my students this will be their only history class. They’re not used to writing essays or approaching questions that don’t have absolute answers.

Next week is our first exam. We’re having an in-class study session the day before and I prepared a study guide with a few sample essay questions, an overview of the format, and a few recommendations on how to studying. The dialogue is continuing. They’re also helping shape the exam. Each student is writing 2 multiple choice questions. The assignment to write 2 multiple choice questions counts for quiz grade. I joked with them that it’s because I’m lazy, but that’s not really true. The idea behind it is that it forces them to study by looking over their notes, reading the textbook, and deciding what’s important. Reading their questions indicates to me both what they think is important  but also how well they understand the information (individually and collectively). Some questions are poorly written and confuse a few ideas. It’s helpful for me to know this ahead of time and correct it in the study session as well as when I teach those concepts in the future.

This is not a perfect process. Perhaps I am being a bit generous with my dolling out of points. The quiz grade is only 15% of the total grade, so inflating it a little bit won’t hurt, I’m just hoping to make the class democratic and student centered. So far I think that I’m doing that and I’m seeing pretty solid results. I’ll know more next week.

 

Preparing to Teach: Thinking Through My First Survey Course

Now that I have passed my exams and am hard at work on my dissertation prospectus, teaching my own course is not too far on the horizon. In fact, one of the reasons why I chose to Purdue is that nearly every PhD student is given the opportunity to teach their own course once they’re ABD. I was recently informed that I am teaching this fall.

I’ve been assigned a section of HIST 152 – U.S. since 1877 – the second half of the U.S. history survey. It’ll be my first time teaching my own class. I’m excited about the opportunity for a variety of reasons. First, teaching and interacting with students is one of the big reasons why I got in this business. I spent 3 years in the education school during my undergrad days, and always knew that teaching was something I wanted to do. I spent over 80 hours in junior high and high school classrooms teaching lessons and tutoring students; I feel comfortable with them. I’ve been a TA for the past four years working closely with professors on tests, quizzes, Powerpoint presentations, and of course holding office hours and grading. During this time I published a companion teacher’s manual for a sports history textbook. I also coached track and field at the high school and college level for three years. There are so many overlaps between coaching and teaching and I feel that having done both will really shape my approach to this course. And I can’t forget all the conversations I’ve had about pedagogy and technology with the MOOCMOOC crowd two years ago. All of these experiences have prepared me to teach. But at the end of the days, this is still my first time. I’m still nervous.

Though it’s a little ways off, my textbook orders are due March 21st, so I’ve been forced to start thinking through how I want to teach the course. I think it’s probably a good thing for me to take time to conceptualize what I want to do this far out. One of the first questions I’ve had to ask myself is what book(s) do I assign? Do I use a standard textbook? What about a primary source reader? Should I use a monograph or novel too? As I think through these questions, I’m also forced to consider what type of assignments I want to give and what I envision my tests looking like.

There are also questions about technology. The class is capped at 50 students. That’s large enough where discussions can be tricky. Should I attempt to use Blackboard to facilitate out-of-class discussion, or maybe Twitter? Maybe doing flipped-classroom Fridays would better facilitate student engagement. I’m a cultural historian and so much of the twentieth century can be paired with great media clips and images, so I need to think about the best way to incorporate those into my class too. I could collect them into YouTube playlists, embed them into Powerpoints, or design a special WordPress or Tumblr site to serve as the central repository for these things. Because of my digital humanities field I’m excited about the opportunities to play around with technology and teaching, I just don’t want to use too much and have it become a crutch.

I feel fairly confident in the content, after all that’s what I’ve been working to master throughout my grad school career. Most of my concerns and questions as a first time teacher revolved around how innovative to be. I’m aware of debates about technology, textbooks, primary source readings, online history labs, etc., but how do I know what will work best for me? I guess the answer is you never really know until you try something and play around with it. My gut is telling me to be more traditional the first time around. I’ll probably assign a traditional textbook and maybe reader. I know for sure that I’m going to do at least one monograph, but then I think I want to pair that with some sort of multimedia review (most likely film). There will be the fairly standard three tests, plus the short writing assignments on the book and film. And maybe a handful of quizzes.

I’m not married to any of these ideas just yet. I still need to decide on my books and construct a course outline. But I think asking these questions will help me shape the contours of the class. I feel really lucky to have had all the experience I outlined in the second paragraph above to draw from. I’ve TA’d for some really amazing professors with distinct teaching styles and pedagogical techniques. I’ve been waiting a long time for my chance to teach and implement my own ideas. Now that it’s here, I just hope that I can make them proud this fall and live up to the high standard of educational excellence that my students deserve.

If you have any thoughts, tips, suggestions, or general advice for me as I prepare my class, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments or over email.

Critiquing and Teaching Films: A Review of 42

I finally got around to seeing the new Jackie Robinson film, 42, last week. Overall I enjoyed the movie and thought that they did a pretty good job of developing the characters and presenting an engaging story. Going into it I was curious how far the story would go. Most of the time we hear about Robinson breaking the color line and winning the Rookie of the Year award (now named the Jackie Robinson award), but the story usually ends with integration. He broke the color barrier, we are told. He won the ROY award. The Dodgers were a good team with him. But the narrative is less about those things as it is his initial entry into MLB. That’s not a bad thing, but it presents problems for movie making.

The film covers a rather short snippet of Robinson’s life. It begins with a few scenes of him playing with the Kansas City Monarchs and challenging racial norms on road trips and quickly progresses to his meetings with Branch Rickey and the Dodgers. From there, we see his wedding and first two spring trainings, one in Florida and one in Central America. These events show the racism of the South and professional baseball. Soon thereafter Robinson is called up to the majors to start the 1947 season. The film depicts an attempted player mutiny and lots of emphatically racist gestures during games including those by an opposing umpire and manager as well as an intentional spiking by an opponent. After the call up we follow Robinson throughout the 1947 season witnessing his frustrations, the calming support of his wife, and a satisfied and happy Rickey. The movie ends with Robinson hitting a homerun to clinch the 1947 National League pennant for the Dodgers.

The homerun ending was a bit abrupt and sappy with its Disney-esque music montage. For me, it returns to the issue of narrativization. I would have preferred it if the film showed the Dodgers lose the 1947 World Series offering that as a metaphor for how Robinson helped the Dodgers (and baseball) improve, but they had not yet reached the promise land. Indeed, the ending made no mention of Larry Doby or any of the other African American players who trickled into the Majors after 1947. Doby and some others were listed on a chalkboard earlier in the film, however, during a discussion of which player the Dodgers should get.

Watching the film as a sports fan and a historian of sports presents another layer of analysis. I’ll readily admit that I am not well versed in the historiography of baseball (that’s part of summer reading list), but I have read a couple of books on the Kansas City Monarch and visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum several times while growing up in KC. Before viewing the film I did a bit of homework and re-read a few passages of Janet Bruce’s The Kansas City Monarchs:  Champions of Black Baseball.  Bruce’s book is a short and easy-to-read account of the Monarchs but focuses on the team’s relationship with Negro Leagues. The team’s history is a nice parallel and exemplar of the larger story of black baseball.

With the help of Bruce’s book I was able to identify some small and fairly insignificant historical inaccuracies with the film. One example is that the movie often showed the integrated seating during games. The films also says that there were 400 players in baseball in 1947, and 399 were white. Although I haven’t seen the exact numbers and rosters, I find this difficult to believe. Native American and Latin American (particularly Cubans) players had been accepted into Major League Baseball much earlier than African Americans. According to Jeffrey Powers-Beck, Louis Sockalexis joined the Majors in 1897 and was followed by other prominent Native Americans such as John Myers, Charles Bender, Allie Reynolds, and Jim Thorpe. This is not to dispute the significance of Jackie Robinson, however. Black integration was a huge deal and Robinson had a much deeper impact on American than the Sockalexis. Another tedious example is from one of the early scenes depicting Robinson stealing bases in a Negro League game. The film shows an umpire at each base making the safe call. According to Bruce, however, most Negro League games only had two umpires.

Bruce also challenges many of the popular narratives that Branch Rickey “bought” Robinson for the sole purpose of integrating baseball. She points to two competing interpretations but doesn’t point to which one is correct. Both suggest that Robinson was signed by Rickey because he was trying to start a competing Negro League (the United States League) and Jackie would play for his team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. The USL never got off the ground, however, so Rickey was stuck with Robinson and a three-year contract. It remains unclear whether the USL was just a cover to mask Rickey’s original intentions or if its failure quickened the pace of integration. Regardless of which is true, the film mentions neither. Instead, the Negro Leagues are presented almost like informal barnstorming teams that Rickey scouted and selected the best players for tryouts.

The film’s portrayal of the Negro Leagues seems to accurately match Rickey’s. The Dodgers plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs without compensating the team and refused to acknowledge his prior contract because it was verbal. According to Bruce, Rickey believed “there is no Negro league as such as far as I am concerned” (112).

Despite these small inaccuracies, I think the film did a good job of presenting the history. Branch Rickey was presented as innovative baseball lifer who had clung to strict values. Based on my limited reading, I believe this to be fairly true. He did attended Ohio Wesleyan as the movie explains, and he worked to build the farm-system during his time with the St. Louis Cardinals. The most power aspect of the movie, of course, was its use of the N-word and overall depiction of racist attitudes.

There are a couple of particularly vivid scenes that bring the pervasiveness of these racial attitudes home. The most powerful is a moment between a father and son in the stands. We first see them talking about the Dodgers and the Reds making predictions on who will win, and other small talk. Then, Robinson takes the field and the father erupts with racial epithets. The son looks confused and sits there for a moment before following suit and hurling his own slurs. You get a feeling from the scene that the son sensed this was wrong and didn’t quite understand it, but followed along anyways because he respected and looked up to his father.

Although one of my friends described the movie as a Disney film with the n-word, I think that’s a little bit unfair. It is impossible to judge a big-budget Hollywood film by historical standards and not be disappointed. In fact, I think 42 accomplishes quite a bit within those restraints. It is very entertaining and has good character development that is largely grounded-in and true-to historical facts. Although I wanted a bit more, it did an adequate job a presenting a succinct narrative of Jackie Robinson’s first season integrating baseball. Likewise, through its use of the n-word and racism it helps provide an understanding of the courage and willpower Robinson displayed in integrating baseball as well as the pervasiveness of racism.

I think historic films, no matter how imperfect, are important. As scholars and teachers we owe it to our students to see them and critique them. It is important, however, to execute our critiques in the proper way. I think 42 is an entertaining and good movie. It introduces a lot of topics and ideas and sketches out the contours of Jackie Robinson’s integration story. As an American hero who almost everyone has heard of, it’s good to make the story entertaining and accessible to larger audiences. As teachers then, we can use the film as a baseline and an entry point into deeper discussions of race, sports, integration, etc. Our critiques should not serve to ridicule the film or Hollywood narratives of history but rather as opportunities to fill in the gaps. As I hope I have illustrated here, we can use the film to look deeper into a variety of related ideas and themes. One such idea that I mentioned earlier is the notion of “integration” and the differing types of “color lines” drawn by baseball and American society. Another might be the reaction to Robinson’s integration moment by society – both white and black. For me, historical films if used correctly can become excellent teaching points, and I think 42 does just that.

Twitter vs Zombies, the Humanities, and Pedagogy

So this weekend I attempted to join in on the Twitter vs Zombies game. Most of my participation came in the form of avoidance. I’m not really sure why, but the game forced me from Twitter — one of my favorite places. It started as part of my strategy to stay alive, but eventually grew to something more. I’m not sure how or why, but I just was done playing, but I didn’t know how to quit. I was really interested in it. I don’t like the Zombie narrative. I sort of understand how to use Twitter, and it seemed like a lot of extra work and interactions to explain why I wasn’t playing anymore. So I dropped out. But my way of dropping out was avoidance.

Twitter is a free space for me. I communicate with friends and family on it. I post articles, photos, random personal thoughts, etc. It’s a tool of interaction for me. But, the game took that away. It was all encompassing. I didn’t like how it was ruling my life or my timeline. It made me anxious. I’m sure I could have just said I was done and sorry I just lost interest or didn’t have time for it and it would have been OK, but I also didn’t want to let people down.

Based on this sort of reflection and explanation, and from watching Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel’s presentation about it (and other things) at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, I came up with some questions and thoughts we should consider after the game.

  • What do you make of the inactive users who joined the game?
  • How do you account for those who “drop” out?
  • Is this an issue of interest, motivation, or something else?
  • Were there instances of Zombie bullying?
  • Are there ways to keep the game from consuming the totality of someone’s life / Twitter interactions?
  • Because some Zombies “stalked” their human prey, how to deal with issues of privacy? Is that just a part of Tweeting in general or does the game add more focus to what people Tweet? If so, is this increased focus good or bad?

I really enjoyed their discussion of archiving the game and its creations. I also was interested in their question about publishing an article about the research to  save/share the methodology they created. But within these conversations I had a few more questions:

  • Does it have implications for archival practices? Are there industry standard practices for digital archiving?
  • Are there ethical issues of using human subjects to experiment/test/study new ideas?
  • Who owns the findings/thoughts, particularly when they are contributed from others via reflections, archiving, etc. ?
  • Do all participants become co-authors, or is that an issue of citations?
  • How does this look in another discipline?

I really, really love Jesse’s notion of pedagogy in the humanities, and how it’s important to keep it at the center of the conversation not only in digital teaching and games, but in our everyday practice. I was taught that during my undergrad and my MLA that reflection and epistemology are integral parts of learning. The liberal arts and humanities are so valuable because they teach us not facts but how to learn, how to process and filter information, and provide us the tools to become life-long learners. This skills make us adaptable in the real world and allow us to figure things out on our own (or at least figure out where to get help). The digital humanities serves these same ends. One of the major failures of liberal arts and humanities faculties has been communicating and demonstrating these outcomes to justify their funding and existence to the more business minded, bottom-line type administrators. Developing more precision and clarity in our pedagogy is one way of doing this.

Too many disciplines disregard pedagogy to focus on research. It is as if research and teaching are different things and serve different purposes to many. I don’t think this is the case. When I conduct research and design research projects I always think about my audience, my end goal. Sure, I’ve come up as a public historian wanting to branch, but shouldn’t all scholars be focused on engaging with their audience — for me the general public and my students — and find ways to make their findings interesting and meaningful to them? For me, connecting research to an audience is teaching. Public history is impossible to do without understanding pedagogy. I believe the same can be said for the humanities writ large.

Digital Prewriting

As part of DigiWriMo, most of my stuff has been school related. I’m using the month to help develop some discipline and encourage me to write something somewhat academic/serious every day. I need to get into better writing habits. In fact, I started this blog back in August with that goal in mind too. So far I’ve been pleased with the results. I’ve posted about once a week, really branched out, and done some good networking.

But sometimes, coming up with things to write about is hard. I don’t always want to post all of my grad school assignments and ranting book reviews. They’re not always of good enough quality and a lot of times I don’t see it as appropriate. So when I am swamped with grading, reading, and pithy book reviews, what do I share? I asked this question on Twitter, and got some neat ideas and feedback.

Jeff Bracket asked me what I’m passionate about:

Carrie Padian asked me what I have been writing and suggested I break out of the mold.

These suggestions coupled with the lack of an obvious love letter recipient got me thinking. First, I wondered who to write to and whether it should be a traditional love letter to a person or to an idea or object of passion.

Carrie suggested prewriting my ideas. I asked Carrie if she thought prewriting was actually writing in and of itself. Does it count for DigiWriMo? Pete chimed in with a great philosophical answer to our conversation and inspired what follows.

I agree with him. Prewriting is important. And, because I am taking a class on autobiography and memoir, the last of his Tweet really struck me. I’ve read several theorist and literary critics this semester who talk about the idea of “living autobiographically” and how we are constantly reviewing, revising, organizing, and making sense of our lives. This process is usually mental, but the idea of writing it down is what’s fun about “life-writing” in general (the discussion of genre is vicious so I’m going to call it life writing). Of course, we rarely see the prewriting in the final products of life-writing. But the idea of prewriting as being the act of living seems to be quite true. I would argue prewriting is not only how we dream, it is how we learn, it’s how discover who we are, what we know. It’s how we connect and make sense of things.

I’ll admit I don’t do as much prewriting as I should. A lot of times I just start writing and then I get on a roll and let it flow out. I’m doing that right now in this blog-essay. It works for some of us and feels natural.  With my more “serious” or “academic” writing that I am turning in for grades or publishing, I spend a lot more time planning and am less likely to break grammatical rules. To be sure, I do that with most of my other blog posts. I collect links, outline ideas, etc. But that’s not always the case. I recognize that my biases and definitions of publishing, and academic are problematic in my previous sentence, particularly for an aspiring digital humanist. That’s why I am here, learning, exchanging, collaborating, discussing with #DigiWriMo, #DigPed, etc.

Thinking of prewriting in the digital world is important both because of those sort of structural and power dynamics as well as the plain and simple format of it. What does digital prewriting look like? How is it better/worse? Does it have benefits? I don’t have answers to these questions but I think they are worth asking, especially as more of our students become so computer and digital dependent. There are now special note taking programs, I have a digital version of sticky notes on my Mac. During MOOCMOOC and DigiWriMo I’ve noticed lots of people using Storify and Scoop-it to collect tweets, links, and other sources for later use. I suppose that is all part of prewriting?

Personally, I’ve always done it differently. While I am not one of the old school notecard people who rearranges them in stacks and lays them out to construct their paper/book, I do keep a stack of loose-leafy paper on my desk. I scribble on it frequently. I always feel so much more free with a pen and paper than a blank screen and blinking cursor. I’m a web drawer and outliner. There are often criss-crossing lines between ideas and themes. I love to do this after I read a book when I am preparing to write a review. My scribbles usually make little sense to anyone else. Hell, sometimes I can’t even read any of my own writing. But it’s still freeing and helps me reflect and visualize on what I’ve read/learned.

Writing on paper helps add some order to the craziness in my head without forcing me to conform to certain formatting procedures. There is a certain amount of anxiety with the word processor. The page numbers, the word count, the squiggly red and green lines under your every typo — they’re constant reminders and judgments of your productivity. Paper is judgement free. You can’t get upset and delete paper. The piles of wadded up paper on the floor remain and can be unraveled to reveal the half-truths of your previous errors. The blank page also doesn’t mind the careless errors that come with the bursts of energy accompanying new ideas as you race your short term memory to save them.

I’m not sure if I could do digital prewriting.  I think its deeply personal but we can learn from others. In many ways this is already a hybrid activity for me. I like to have my paper notes and scribble. I tend to prefer paper articles and books too. But my drafts and final products always end up digital. I also have started book marking and saving links of sources. Sometimes I test my ideas on Twitter and then later string them together in a blog post. I’ve seen a lot of sports journalists do this last thing — particularly during March Madness. It’s a great way to put ideas down as they occur and them come back to them. To allow our writing to live autobiographically, in real time, as it begins to take shape.

This post is a casualty to my own lack of prewriting. There is no real cohesive point here. Instead it’s both a portrait and a lesson in prewriting and how topics/ideas are formed. I went from uninspired, searching for a topic several hours ago to reflecting, pondering, and connecting ideas together — with the help of collaboration — creating a 1200+ word post. I do think we need to have more conversations about the collaboration and hybridity of prewriting. How does our increasing digital culture affect it? What are the best practices, tools, and methods? And so on.