Category Archives: pedagogy

May 17, 2010, 8:17 pm

More method, more madness.

Ari and I are again teaching the core graduate seminar in history this fall. Below is our reading list, by topic, for your delectation.

November 9, 2009, 1:05 pm

And think.

Edward M. Bernstein, the man who supposedly added the words “and Development” to “International Bank for Reconstruction and Development,” talking to an interviewer, Stanley Black, about his good fortune in life; he got hired right out of graduate school to tenure at North Carolina State in 1930, the midst of the Great Depression.

Bernstein: No, I didn’t start at the bottom. To tell you the truth, although my wife doesn’t like me to say it, all my life I’ve been overappreciated, overhonored, and overpaid. Everywhere I went I got to the top of the scale very fast.

S.B.: It helps to have the talent with words, and writing.

Bernstein: Maybe, oh yes, there’s nothing like being able to write. Being able to write is a remarkable gift. There’s none better, if you can also think.

I really like that caveat. Though the exchange is also nice for Black’s Steve-Martinish interposition.

October 20, 2009, 2:14 pm

How we do.

Ari and I are teaching the methods and philosophy seminar for incoming graduate students, all fields of history. If you’re interested, please have a look below the fold to see what we’ve assigned.


October 2, 2009, 6:08 am

Friday Pedagogical Forum: Mid-semester Doldrums.

The last light of summer fades into fall.  The air has become crisp and stern, as if it’s giving you a final warning lecture before it really takes you to task in December.   The leaves will soon burst into yellows and oranges, and plaid-trousered alumni wander the campus and point out where things aren’t.

(At least on campuses with proper climates.  Mutatis mutandis for pleasant weather.)

But it’s also the time of year where the first assignments of the semester come due, and the students, busy with papers and tests, come dead-eyed into class.  If your class is the one giving the exam or requiring the paper, all their attention is focused on that, not on lecture or discussion.  If your class isn’t the one currently assessing them, your class just dropped off the priority list.

What tricks do you have to keep the classroom engaging?

September 25, 2009, 8:31 am

Friday Pedagogical Forum: The Cure for a Poisonous Classroom

Sybil tells of the development of a troubling classroom dynamic: some of the male students in her survey course seem to have a hard time taking a pretty, young female instructor seriously, and as a result, in class they either doze, disrupt, or sulk.  Unfortunately, dealing with them has been hard on the other students, leading to a classroom atmosphere which is tense and generally unpleasant for everyone.

Sybil’s an experienced instructor and I suspect she doesn’t need advice and her post didn’t solicit any, but her difficulty struck me as an instance of a problem that easily generalizes away from the specifics of her situation.  Whatever the ultimate source of the toxin, it’s likely those of us who have taught have all had classroom environments become unpleasant and unproductive places.  (Not you.  You’re an excellent instructor.  Your friend.)

What’s worked to restore a…

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September 17, 2009, 4:08 pm

I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.

The State of Texas is in the process of defining new social studies standards for its public schools. And if the above video is any indication, we can look forward to a much more appealing version of American history going forward. I say that because Texas is a huge market for textbooks. So if Texans want happy history, the rest of the nation will just have to go along for the ride.

Which news, I have to say, comes as a bit of a relief. I mean, history can be such a downer. Things will be much better when we focus, relentlessly, on how exceptional our country is. Also: if we delete all mention of isolationism. Because that topic is pernicious and depressing. And U.S. history should be a celebration of us. Heck, us is right there in the title of the course.

More here and here.

August 6, 2009, 10:39 am

War and memory


When I teach my seminar on monuments, museums, and memorials, I typically cover the Enola Gay controversy. But one of the challenges I face is getting my students to look “beneath the mushroom cloud” (borrowing a phrase from John Dower). So, given that it’s the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (see here for contemporary coverage), I thought I’d mention that I once juxtaposed Barefoot Gen with the bombing scene from Above and Beyond as a way of accomplishing this goal. This approach has its share of problems, unfortunately, and since I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, I’d be eager to hear other ideas.

By the way, Barefoot Gen is fascinating for a variety of …

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July 27, 2009, 1:50 pm

And on the mirror in blood was written “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” and other collegiate tales

A great illustration of an urban legend I’ve heard in various forms since, oh, sometime in high school.   This is one of those things meant to show the power of the noble Christian David over the godless academy Goliath.  I’ve heard it set in a philosophy classroom, in an evolutionist’s class room, in a  chemistry classroom, at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley.   I had it told to me in church youth group.  I had it told to me by friends, and by professors who had heard the story set at their PhD granting institution.

(Sobering thought:  perhaps this Wandering Atheist Professor is an adjunct…)

I think the course is clear.

Next semester, I’m getting some chalk….

July 22, 2009, 6:04 am

Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.

(So, originally, this post was supposed to follow the other post by one week.  Life got in the way.  Spring turned into summer, gave autumn a miss, &c.  This post contains no camera angles or rightwing lunacy.  Part 2 of 2.)

Let me jog your memory.   A month and a half ago, I described the challenges facing the professor who wants to avoid giving the impression that Spinoza’s Ethics is really just metaphysics. I promised a solution, or at least a suggestion.  I believe this can be done in the couple of weeks normally spent on Spinoza in a history of early modern survey course.


July 21, 2009, 10:39 am

Bullet points don’t bore people, people do.

Following up to yesterday’s rather idle post, I want systematically to take up questions raised in comments as to whether computer presentation software1 is evil and whether there are distinctive features of computer presentation software that make it useful in the classroom. As the title indicates, I will try to make a case that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the software and indeed it can do quite good things for a classroom instructor, particularly in this case a history instructor.

July 20, 2009, 9:53 am

Kill my laptop.

UPDATE: Follow-up here.

This sounds like a survey whose broader implications I might wish were true, but probably aren’t:

A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. “The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions,” said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

My confession: I use Keynote …

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July 14, 2009, 12:17 pm

A rat done bit my sister Nell.

There’s such an enormous disparity between different groups’ experience of American history that what is sneeringly called “multiculturalism” deserves consideration. To pick an example, a good history about the New Deal would (a) show it generally working and (b) show it coming up short for blacks. Which isn’t a way of slighting white Christians. If you pick up a multiculturally influenced high-school history textbook you’ll find no shortage of presidents, captains of industry, explorers, soldiers, and judges—occupations that overwhelmingly tend to white Christians. You’ll find revivalists and abolitionists and social gospelers and Bryanites. But evidently that’s not enough.

The Texas Board of Education, which recently approved new science standards that made room for creationist critiques of evolution, is revising the state’s social studies curriculum…

Three reviewers,…

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June 11, 2009, 7:51 am

I Shall Now Shoot Myself Out Of A Canon

Spell checkers have eliminated the vast majority of spelling errors in student papers. What has replaced the standard misspelling is the “correctly spelled but not the right word” error. Or, if you want to be all Latinate and pedantic, you could call them “Homophone Errors.” The word is spelled as it should be, so the spellchecker doesn’t pick it up, but the usage is wrong. The classic one, for me, is the frequent confusion between “their,” “there,” and “they’re.”

My favorite such errors are peculiar to military history. The first is the substitution of the word “calvary” for the word “cavalry,” as in “The calvary charged across the field.” Given that “calvary” means the “place where Jesus was crucified” and translates roughly as “place of skulls,” the mental image that this brings upon reading is quite disturbing.

Deadly at Short Range

My other favorite, and the particular…

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June 2, 2009, 1:46 pm

The Value of Grammar

What’s a comma worth? Apparently, in extreme cases, $2.13 million:

A grammatical blunder may force Rogers Communications Inc. to pay an extra $2.13-million to use utility poles in the Maritimes after the placement of a comma in a contract permitted the deal’s cancellation.

The controversial comma sent lawyers and telecommunications regulators scrambling for their English textbooks in a bitter 18-month dispute that serves as an expensive reminder of the importance of punctuation.

Now to convince my students…

via Tidbits

June 1, 2009, 8:47 am

Demons vs. definitions.

(After the Sullivanche of the past two days, I now do my best to drive away the traffic armed only with the PSR.  Part 1 of 2.)

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers recently sent around an e-mail inviting papers on how to teach early modern philosophy and suggested the following question:

Can one include Spinoza’s “Ethics” without creating the impression that his “Ethics” is mere metaphysics?

The AAPT wants experienced professors of many years to present so that younger professors may learn.  That rules me out from presenting,  but I still have an answer to that question, and, hmm, is this a blog I see before me?

The short answer:  Yes, but it takes a little bit of work.  Today I’ll describe the problem; later (probably next Monday) I’ll give my steps towards a solution.