Blogs > Cliopatria > Crash Courses

May 22, 2005 11:24 am

Crash Courses

Out of a sense of reponsibility to my students (we didn't have a lot of available seats this last semester), my colleagues (we all use the same textbooks for the World History courses, and I hadn't used this one yet; I wanted to use it before we revisited the textbook question in the Fall, but it turns out we've ditched it already), and my family (the money's good), I am teaching a section of World History Since 1500 in the interim -- i.e. short -- summer session. This is a new experience for me: I haven't taught a 2¼ hours per day, 18-day course in five years; the last time I did this, I taught Japanese Poetry through the Ages, and it worked pretty well, but Japanese poetry is both short and highly repetitive....

I'm not as afraid of the course as you might think, since I've been teaching this particular stretch of human history for a half-dozen years now in a variety of configurations. It's over 40 contact hours (over 48 of those 50-minute"hours" by which we count course credits), which is the same as the regular semester. But it's a very different style of cognition: we think of these courses as lapidary accumulations of knowlege, carefully and slowly built up; this is more like bricklaying....."drinking from the fire hose" comes to mind, too. My students don't have time to think about what I said and what they read: it has to make sense the first time. On the other hand, they don't have time to forget, either: I can be reasonably confident that by the Friday quiz the stuff we talked about on Monday will still be reasonably present in their heads (and yes, the first quiz seems to be bearing this out, more or less).

The pacing, though the days are long, doesn't feel that different to me. I'm covering the same topics in more or less the same depth; maybe a bit less detail, but then I feel like I'm hitting the important stuff harder and it's more clearly in context. When you cover the age of exploration, Columbian Exchange, Imperialism and mercantilism, Reformation, Scientific Revolution and rise of absolutist and constitutionalist states in one week (as we just did), you get less of that disconnect that I often feel: it's all happening at the same time, and it's all in your head together. Next week I get to cover the Islamic Empires and Africa in one day, Japan and China up through the 18th centuries in two days (I'm an Asianist, after all), and then the American and French Revolutions, Napoleon and counter-revolution in two days. It sounds horrible, but for the purposes of this course -- basic familiarity with history, some understanding of historical issues, grasping the interrelated and global nature of history -- it's really going to be easier to make some of the points I want to make.

It's a terrible burden on the students, of course: pretty heavy reading load, and I'm forcing them to hand in homework to make sure they keep up. But I admit it up front, and I've made a good case for the importance of the homework they're doing (again, the quizzes I'm grading bear that out pretty well) in relation to the goals and grades of the course. I can use the homework to keep them involved in the lectures, and they've been pretty willing to ask questions, even very basic ones, when they didn't get something.

All things considered, it's going better than I feared, and almost as well as I'd hoped. I'm even thinking there's some virtue to structuring the process this way, and I've said for years that I didn't think regular history courses could be taught this way. We'll see how I feel about it next week!

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Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

Thank goodness this is only the last half millenium....

It really does require committment from the students. The usual ratio of 1-3 hours of homework per hour of class time means that a student who's taking two compressed courses has a full-time load.

Oddly enough, I really have to force myself to stop and take a break, and I think I actually pick up steam as the day moves along. Though I've had less trouble ending the class on time than I usually do during the semester, so perhaps I'm winding down better, too.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/23/2005

Less, and no.

This is one of the ways in which the compressed schedule really matters: it's hard for students to keep up with the readings as it is, so unless the readings are directly tied to assignments or discussions (and tests) I really doubt that students would do them or get much of them.

And since you're already with them 2+ hours a day, how much are they going to want to be with you outside of class, via the internet? I'm always available to students by e-mail, and they will take advantage of that, but even the course website is decreasingly important this time around. There's no time for extra credit; course-related announcements have to be made promptly in class; since they're only taking one or two courses and doing almost nothing else, they are less likely to lose the syllabus, handouts, etc.

Note that both these answers are probably going to differ for courses that are more topically and chronologically focused, particularly the latter question.

Nathanael D. Robinson - 5/22/2005

I'm glad that it is going so well. I remember teaching short-term courses as well (at least it was only two centuries of Europe rather than, er, uh, how long has the world been around?). Students seemed to follow the historical threads more easily with fewer interruptions. But as the class approached the second hour, I would run out of steam. However, homework was a complete failure: the course was in the evening, and a few students worked during the day.

Manan Ahmed - 5/22/2005

In this rushed pace, do you think it is less or more helpful to have "background" readings ["Read this summary of the faith and practices of Islam even if we won't ever talk about it in class"]?

Do you think that there are ways of engaging the students outside of class, [eg. email listserv, discussion forum, blog? ] that might be beneficial in this scenario?

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