OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:
What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?
My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.
I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.
From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.
Your Course Today
Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?
Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.
My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.
My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.
What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?
The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:
- Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
- This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
- Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
- The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
- Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
- Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
- Poor writing skills
- The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.
Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.
These days, I teach classes in two ways — online courses and hybrid courses. Part 1 of the “What I Do” series will look at how I teach online courses.
I have been teaching online since Spring 2007. I was hired on at my current job in 2006. At the time, I was told that I was to develop online courses for the social sciences department. I was given a year at the time, which meant, of course, that I did not think about it for the first couple of months, as I was just trying to get acquainted with a new place and a new job. I had never taught online before, had never taken an online class before, and had never even seen an online system before. So, I was a complete neophyte in the realm of online education.
Of course, my decision to not think about it for the first couple of months would not last. In November of my first semester teaching, I was told that a decision had been made to move the start date from Fall 2007 to Spring 2007, so, instead of about 10 months, I now had 2 months to get an online course ready. I still had not seen an online course or had any idea what it meant to teach online.
I dove in as fast as I could. We were using the Moodle LMS at the time, and I scheduled a training session with our LMS administrator shortly thereafter. The training was great. I understood Moodle, and I was reasonably confident that I could develop in it at a fairly general level (at least well enough to get started). However, I came out of that training thinking that it was great, but that I still did not know how to teach an online course. The LMS training was great at the nuts and bolts of navigating the LMS, but I still had no idea what online pedagogy was. I did not know how to organize an online course, how to create online assignments that were appropriate for a course, or even how an online course should differ from a face-to-face course. And, as I found out shortly afterwards, that was the end of the training offered at my college. I was told that if I wanted to know more, I needed to go and ask others around the college who taught online.
As a very new faculty member with few connections on the campus (and an office that was isolated from everyone else, as I got the only space open at the time, which was behind the stage in the fine arts center), this was not an easy thing to do. I asked around and got a few examples. Some were bad (just have the students write a few pages on each chapter in the book and give them some multiple-choice quizzes — this online teaching thing is a breeze!) and some were ok (some discussions, quizzes, and exams). However, none really stood out to me as models that I wanted to follow. Later I would learn that there was a whole group of people who had been teaching online well for years, but I would not be introduced to them until later.
Thus, I was left on my own. I had about one month left, and I needed a course to be able to present when the spring semester opened. I followed the one consistent piece of advice I had heard from all over the place — make your online course as much like your face-to-face course as possible. I would never give that advice now, but, over a decade ago, that was the standard. That is what I did.
So, this is what my first course (the second half of American history) looked like:
- My lectures were from lecture notes that I had typed up. I uploaded them, as well as my PowerPoints and other supplementary material that I used in my face-to-face classes.
- I had the students read 1-2 chapters a week. I was told I needed to hold them accountable for this, so I had them submit a weekly writing assignment most weeks on what they had read. I have no idea now what those assignments looked like, but I am sure they were fairly basic response papers.
- I had four week-long discussion forums on primary source documents that were in the weeks that I did not have weekly writing assignments.
- I had three exams that were made up of multiple-choice and true/false questions.
I mirrored this over the summer in developing the first half of American history course. And thus, my career teaching online courses took off.
How did it go? I actually have no idea. Students finished the course. Students got grades. But at that time, I was not much for self-reflection on courses, as I was always just moving on to the next thing. I also had a raging addiction to World of Warcraft that took up much of my spare time, leaving me basically moving in a world without real feedback or intellectual time to think about what I was doing.
For the next several years, I moved along, adjusting things here, moving things around there. Probably the most significant thing I did in year two of teaching online was to record my lectures as audio podcasts. I still use those same podcasts today, and students still compliment me on them, which I take to mean they are both still relevant and were done reasonably well.
By year three of teaching online, I had kicked my World of Warcraft addiction and had started to come face-to-face with the realization that, while my online course was fine, it was nothing special. Over the next couple of years, I started learning online pedagogy, pushed my department to a textbook that had good online tools, and redesigned my course.
My online course today looks nothing like what it did in 2007, and that is a very good thing. I have grown as a professional and now have a course that both satisfies me and is relevant to students and their success. I certainly will not say it is perfect, and I hope to get to a point in this series where I can start talking about changes I would like to make. Up next in the series, I will talk about the structure of what I do today and then will break out the various assignments that I use today.
I am starting a new series here to revive the blog. This series is going to go through what I do as a community college history professor. I am doing this both to share what I have learned over the years about teaching and being an educator and to seek advice and ideas from others regarding what I do and what they do.
This series will look at the two different types of teaching that I do — online and hybrid. I do not teach a traditional face-to-face class, but that does not mean that this information would not be relevant to that format as well.
I will note that I teach history, and so some of this will be relevant to history, but I am going to try and keep much of it at the more theoretical/pedagogical level rather than in the granular workings of teaching American history specifically. The other thing to note is that I teach at a community college in Texas. This may also become relevant as I talk about what I do, why I do certain things, and why I am required to do certain things. When relevant, I will note this.
I hope that you find this interesting. I will try to have a new post every couple of days, and, if I get going well, I will actually set a schedule for the posts. I am not going to commit myself to anything that specific yet, as I am just seeing if I can get back into blogging at this point. Please comment with anything you find interesting, things that you do yourself, or any questions you have along the way.
So, hello again. Yes. I know. I have not been on here in a while. In fact, if you look back at the posting history on this blog, I have not been posting regularly since the fall of 2014. Here it is, the summer of 2016. So, what happened?
We had our fourth kid in the fall of 2012, and by the time I stopped posting regularly, she was up and running around the house. In fact, if I look back at my extracurricular work (blogging, Coursera courses, and the like), a lot of it stopped around that time. I was able to keep going through the first couple of years until she was very mobile and demanding on time. I can’t say it was a conscious decision, but it was something that my wife and I had conversations about. We discussed the constant pressure that I felt to be on all the time in my job. With a teaching load that is at least half online, there is pressure to be doing work 24/7, and, to a certain extent, I was. However, since that point, I have tried to incorporate more family time and more free time into what I do, so that I am not constantly expected to be working. I am not saying I was constantly working, but I was always work-aware, checking email, looking at my courses, and trying to fill my free time with relevant activities. That all changed around the spring of 2015, when I changed how I balance my work and my life to be biased more toward life. And, this blogging has been one of the things that has dropped off.
Another decision that affected the blogging came straight from this decision. I had always had Sunday evening online office hours, even though few students ever attended them. I took two hours out of every Sunday and sat in front of the computer in my office on a video-conferencing program to be available to my students. That was an ideal time to also sit down and write a blog entry, as I had to be in front of the computer doing work for that time. Of course, since almost no students ever came on, I had the time for blogging as well. After the fall of 2014, I dropped these hours because they were so poorly attended and because they were more of an inconvenience that a help to my own work-life balance. While occasionally productive, it brought work home even more directly than I do now, and it was something that became harder and harder as the toddler got more mobile. Dropping those hours is not something I regret, and it has again moved me more toward the life side of the work-life balance, but it has had an impact as well.
In looking back on it, I have mixed feelings about the change. I miss blogging regularly, and I feel more disconnected from my work at times. It also has made my actual work time more stressful, as there is more pressure to get things done in the time I am working. As well, when work does poke into life, as it did in the last semester because of a committee I was chairing, it is that much more stressful as well. However, the overall effect has been good. I do spend more time with my family than before, I think, and I am not as tied into work as I used to be while at home. As well, I have been reading more than I used to, especially of fiction, which I love. I have been using Goodreads to keep track of the books that I read, and during the last school year (September-May), I read 39 books. I consider that a success as well.
Lately, however, I have been feeling the need to get back into pushing myself more academically. I need to find a balance, and I have not yet figured out how to hit that balance. I do not necessarily think that I have leaned too far toward life at this point, but I do think that I have not committed myself to as much of the extracurricular work activity that I should be doing, such as keeping up this blog. I would like to take more continuing education-type courses. I would like to read more in my field (yes, of those 39 books, not a single one was a history book). I would like to work on course redesign, lecture rewriting, and new teaching methods. And, I want to do all of this without disrupting the balance too much. So, we shall see how it goes.
I guess you will see this result directly. If I am regularly posting on here, then you can see that I am working more outside of just teaching. So, keep me honest and let me know when I fall behind. Also, do you have any thoughts on this?