Category Archives: pedagogy

November 19, 2013, 4:44 pm


USA522letterBWPrintThe New York Times surveyed 7,000 college freshmen on their knowledge of history and geography. They did not know that much:

The students have but a faint idea of the geographical formation of this country. They place Portland, Ore on the Mississippi River, and St. Louis on the Atlantic Ocean.

Their history knowledge was no better, as educators lamented in the article: “Why are names such as Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Jackson, [and] Hamilton almost unknown?”

Clearly, the Times intoned, the educational system was in crisis and Things Needed To Be Done. Congressional hearings! Subcommittees! More standardized tests! Answering the most important question of all: “What do students learn in school, anyhow?”

Given the existential threat threatening the United States, how, the Times said, could we not ensure our students were well-educated?

It is felt at this time, with the United …

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July 21, 2013, 5:35 pm


Go read Tenured Radical’s comment on the recent revelation from San Jose State’s use of MOOCs, in which 83% of students finished the course and 56-76% of them failed it. She pretty much hits the nail on the head, but let me add in a few comments:

1. A failure rate of 56-76% translates over 40 courses (roughly typical for a four year college) into an infinitesimally low graduation rate. 56% gives you 0.0000000084629%. That’s a bit low because students could take more than 40 courses to manage graduation, but it’s also a bit high because it doesn’t allow for the 17% who didn’t finish the courses.

2. Not finishing or failing the course is – from a monetary standpoint – a feature, not a bug. Students who fail to finish or finish but fail have to pay again for the same (or an equivalent course). Profit!

3. TR points out that the Udacity founder Sebastien Thrun’s quote about the…

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July 3, 2013, 3:41 am


Our long national educational decline is over never existed in the first place! As Kevin Drum points out (with charts!), student scores on reading and math have been going up (or, for 17 year olds, remaining steady) for the last 40 years:

This doesn’t mean everything is peachy; it doesn’t mean there aren’t pockets of unconscionably poor achievement; and it doesn’t mean we’re spending our educational dollars wisely. We can still argue about all that stuff, just as we can argue about charter schools, direct instruction, concentrated poverty, and much more. But the backdrop for those arguments is simple: test scores have been going up for the past four decades, and that rise has continued over the past decade. Not always steadily, but nonetheless going in the right direction.

This came during a period when the American school system 1) worked to integrate itself, and 2) absorbed the…

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July 11, 2012, 4:06 pm

Making the New Deal concrete.

This past quarter, I did something different with my upper-division course on America in Prosperity, Depression, and War, 1917 to 1945. Because the course usually has more than 100 students and no teaching assistant (welcome to the University of California), I have never assigned a research paper before. It’s just too hard to mentor and police that many research projects. But this year, I decided to ask the students to research and write on a New Deal project for one of their papers.

I suggested that the students start by looking at Gray Brechin’s terrific site, and then gave them the following prompt:

Write a history of something – a bridge, dam, road, mural, school, public building, sculpture, park, photograph – that was created or built with federal government money during the years 1933 to 1943. In your paper, consider these questions:

  • Which government agencies …

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July 9, 2012, 3:29 pm

Footnotes to defuse fascism.

The Chronicle has an article by Paul Hockenos about the forthcoming annotated edition of Mein Kampf, the first edition to be (legally) published in Germany since the end of World War II. It sounds from the interviews as though the annotators want their scholarly apparatus to go beyond the usual service of providing helpful points of reference to the reader, and actually to argue against Hitler – “Mein Kampf is like a rusty old grenade. We want to remove its detonator … We intend to defuse the book. This way it will lose its symbolic value and become what it really is: a piece of historical evidence—nothing more” – although it’s hard to tell, inasmuch as there are no examples, just comments from people involved or interested in the project.

But suppose it were so: is there another example of a book that could or should get a sort of scholarly fisking edition, pointing out that the…

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April 13, 2012, 6:06 am

Stories and the survey

When you teach a survey course, you make choices about what to emphasize, what to leave out and what your narrative or analytical through-line for the course will be. For example, for the introduction to US history since 1865, I emphasize the relation between sectionalism and the growth of federal power.

But for lecture you can’t just do a piece of that analytical narrative every time – that would be monotonous. So to change pace and liven things up, you have certain stories you like to tell, even if they slow the insistent forward motion of survey lectures. You say, maybe, here’s a story that helps to illustrate the themes I’ve been laying out; something with a little finer grain to let us see how these issues play out in individual lives.

For example, I use the murder of William McKinley (not surprising, I suppose), the Warren Court and the Brown case; Robert F. Kennedy’s appearance…

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January 15, 2012, 7:16 am

Grassy Knolls All Over The Place

Received in the mail on Friday, by a fellow EotAW blogger-person:


Required for my spring course on “Conspiracy theories in American History.”

January 8, 2012, 11:32 am

The Santorum taint.

Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White shows how government social programs of the New Deal and immediately afterward skewed heavily toward white people – and, as the title indicates, this early “affirmative action” occasioned no objection from the paler members of the citizenry. It was only later, when government programs aimed to help Americans with darker skins, that principled libertarian objections became so popular among white folks.

November 1, 2011, 10:23 am

Strunk and who?

This advice on business writing, although pitched against academic writing, actually seems like pretty sound advice for academics, except maybe for the advice to use “I” and “you”. But: don’t assume a captive audience, get to the point, cut, especially cut fancy words, and it’s okay to begin sentences with conjunctions—all of that sounds pretty good.

October 28, 2011, 11:28 am

Chatty Cathy, clip your string.

I’m having an unusually difficult time this quarter convincing the students in one of my courses that I really do want them to be quiet while I teach. As always, I began the quarter by mentioning that I have very few pet peeves, but people who chat while I’m lecturing are near the top of that short list. I mean, people who kick kittens and/or puppies are far worse than incessant talkers. But I don’t encounter kitten- and puppy-kickers all that often, at least not while I teach, so they’re not a real-world pedagogical concern of mine.

That said, for some reason the initial no-talking PSA didn’t seem to take this go round, so I decided to mention it again. Adopting my very best insouciant manner (because I wanted to make sure that everybody understood that the talkers weren’t getting under my skin), I stopped class a couple of weeks ago and said, to nobody in particular (because I…

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October 25, 2011, 6:35 pm

Best practices.

Among the many things we don’t teach our graduate students — not just here but anywhere that I can think of — is how to referee a manuscript. There are many reasons why this skill isn’t taught: methods aren’t universal, time is short, most people suck at it. There are others, too, I’m sure. That said, this is a really useful guide. Useful enough that I’m just going to paste it in its entirety below the fold.


June 13, 2010, 11:29 am

She was a plagiarist. The first one I caught. The only one I punished.

Plagiarism is understood to be a cardinal sin at the professional level. But, via the email, we get this piece asking whether there are ambiguities at the undergraduate level.

May 23, 2010, 6:54 am

All you need.

In comments andrew patiently reminds us he has previously pointed to Andrew Cayton’s lament that historians “leave the world of emotion to novelists, poets, and filmmakers.”1 While this is perhaps true, it is not only historians who have made this shift to bloodlessness. This discussion began with an example from the 1960s. Here are a few more, which I use in lectures.

May 22, 2010, 6:32 am

Three kings.

Yesterday I gave my Richard Nixon lecture, which I begin by talking about the tales of two other Richards, quoting this passage from Richard II:

May 20, 2010, 8:39 pm

When and (to an extent) why did the parties switch places?

Students Frequently Ask this Question: when did the major US parties switch places, and why? Which is to say, when and why did the Democrats, who had been the party of limited federal government, begin to favor expanding Washington’s power? When and why did the Republicans, who had favored so strong a central government in Washington that they would accept a civil war rather than see its power curbed, become the party rhetorically committed to curbing its power?

When is easier to answer than why, though there’s no single date. (It would be nicer, though, if in one presidential election, say, the two candidates had done a partial do-si-do and ended up in each other’s places.) But we can pretty easily bracket the era of change.

At the beginning, we can put the Civil War. During the 1860s, the Republicans favored an expansion of federal power and passed over Democratic opposition a set…

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