Monday, April 15, 2013

In which I invite the students into the process

This morning in a Monday morning fit of enthusiasm inspired by the placing of History 717: History and the New Media in the draft schedule for Spring 2013, I sent out the following email to the students in the UWM History Department:

Dear History Graduate students:

I requested and have been given the opportunity to teach History 717: History and the New Media next spring semester. This is a class that fulfills a portion of the PhD program's methods requirement and perhaps a useful opportunity for those of you in the various MA tracks to learn about digital history. I hope that some of you will consider taking it.

I am writing today with two invitations:

1. If you are interested in this class (whether or not you plan to take it) and have some idea about what you would like to see happen in it, please let me know your thoughts. The class has been taught only once in our department, and I am very open to your suggestions for what to include that would maximize its usefulness for you. I would be happy to hear about model websites, readings, tools, or assignments that you would like to discuss in the structured environment of the seminar.

2. I invite you to read and comment on my blog, The Reluctant Digital Historian, where I am attempting to document my progress in developing the course. It has only three entries so far, but as you provide me suggestions and I make a more concerted effort to plan the class, I expect that to change. The blog can be found here:

Thank you for your consideration.



The first response to this missive came in from a student who has much more knowledge of and experience in digital history than I do. The note reminded me dramatically that I should not attempt to teach this course from a position of expertise. My job is to facilitate the learning of everyone in the room, including myself, no matter how much each of us knows. It threw me back to a workshop for Teaching Assistants that I participated in about 20 years ago, sponsored by Northwestern University’s Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. In the workshop, participants were asked to associate their preferred teaching style with one of four leadership styles: facilitator/moderator, peer coach, expert, and a fourth approach I can never remember without looking it up in my documentation. I identified with the facilitator/moderator style, but over the years I have become more and more comfortable with my own expertise. Teaching a new course in digital history slams me back into facilitator mode, because I will not be able to fake being an expert.

As I thought about what that meant for how I run the course, I came to two preliminary conclusions:

First, part of the pedagogy of this course has to be transparency about my own lack of expertise—and what the implications of that that position are for how I run the course.

Second, it occurs to me to consider leaving open the capstone assignment for the course. By that, I mean, I should give students the opportunity to propose what they think would be an appropriate final assignment and then to execute it.

I did have a much more inspired set of thoughts about each of those points when I was out for my walk. But when I came home, I saw the news about the explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line, so I will leave it at this for today.