Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class. I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester. I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today. But, I digress from my main point today.
This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class. I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class. I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.
These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:
- what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
- what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
- why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
- why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
- what we can learn about the United States today from this era
I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. This is what I wrote on the board: The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence. Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.” I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like. I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information. In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.
The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies. I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion. This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still. I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much. Still, I think it went pretty well today.
As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion. The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall. They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point. Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of history. We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.
Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day. I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways. We shall see.
I just finished up the first “week” of the hybrid class. The real first week was taken up with orienting the students to the class and introducing the format (as I detailed here). Since then, I have been seeing each of my sections for the first time with real work to do. I divided the class up so that each student only meets once a week, and, since Labor Day was last Monday, we just finished up the first round of classes today.
For this week, I had the students do the usual stuff – access my lectures and read the textbook. However, the activity in class centered around the students watching a video and then having a discussion in class. As this is the first half of American history, we concentrated in on the Spanish conquest and the motivations for coming to the New World. For that purpose, I chose a video that looks at the transformations that occurred on both sides of the exchange between cultures. I would have loved to have had the students watch the documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that is not available for free and is not available streaming for my students. Even more, I would have loved to have them read the book, but that is even more impossible at this stage. So, I settled on one offered free and streaming through pbs called When Worlds Collide. It is not bad, although the narrator does get on my nerves a bit.
The actual class day went like this:
- Troubleshooting/check in on progress
- Student introductions (I waited for the smaller groups for this)
- Questions about lecture/textbook content and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Discussion on the documentary
The discussion went well in all four classes. Nothing spectacular, as expected for the first time out. And, as expected, only around a third of the students actively participated. Since the grade is almost completely participation based, I’m going to assume that some more might be participating the next time out. I also, since it was the first time out with this discussion model, let the students largely direct the discussion. I tried to ask as few questions as I could and let them go where they wanted. I started each discussion with the “What did you think? What did you learn new?” set of questions, and, for the most part, that’s the most guidance I needed to do. Because of the other things, we only had about 30-40 minutes for the discussions, but that seemed to work pretty well. What was interesting is how different the four different discussions were. Even though the material was the same, each class went in different directions. We did cover many of the same topics, but, instead of a lecture that dictates exactly what each student will hear, this more free-ranging approach allowed the students to concentrate in on what they found interesting.
Another very interesting aspect of this approach was the number of times that I was asked a question. When lecturing, I rarely ever get stopped and asked questions by my students. The very mode of a lecture can be fairly prohibitive of that. With this format, though, I was asked multiple questions by the students. While some were asking about things they did not understand, the majority of the questions were more along the lines of asking for further information about what they were interested in. In that way, I feel that the discussion model was a success.
The drawback that is quite apparent at this point is that only about a third of students are participating. The rest just sit there. This class cannot work with only a third participation, and grades for the rest are going to be quite low otherwise. I am going to see how this next set of assignments work, as it will involve some in-class group work. We shall see what happens then.