Blogs > Cliopatria > Crash Course II: Mid-Semester Report

May 30, 2005 5:48 pm

Crash Course II: Mid-Semester Report

I began my interim session adventure two weeks ago: with only eight class days remaining, and the Napoleonic Wars behind us, it is time to start taking stock. I am still pretty satisfied with what I'm covering, relative to what I cover in a normal semester, and the performance on the weekly quizzes has been good. But some of the compromises I made to the form of the course have not been wise, and there are things I could have done better.

Absenteeism has been a bit of a problem, and since missing a day of class is like missing almost a week of a regular semester, my usual lackadaisical attitude towards attendance now seems somewhat strained. Normally it's a small portion of the grade, and I don't make a big show of taking attendance (I note who is there both by eye and by noting who doesn't get their homeworks back) particularly in a small course as this one. And, to be fair, most of the absences this time around I would have excused normally, but they weigh so much more heavily because of the compression and I'm wondering if a different policy would have been a better idea. I very much doubt that a different policy would have prevented most of the absences I've seen so far, though, so all it would mean is that the final grade would be more affected. Eh. Call it a draw.

I've always been concerned that the mostly chronological structure of the course gives students a fractured narrative, particularly in a geographic sense. Some of that is mitigated by arranging the material in more intuitive fashion (I am shameless about reordering the course readings to suit myself), but some of it is not. I know all the arguments in favor of more geographically focused study, but I find that students then become terribly confused about chronology, and if I as an historian have to sacrifice one or the other, it's going to be geography. Still, one of my frequent assignments is a history of a single country through the eras of the course -- this gives students a chance to focus on something that interests them and a new way of breaking up and integrating the course material -- and I'm seriously considering ditching the final exam in favor of a final essay of that sort. I'll have to decide tonight, of course, so that I can announce it in class Tuesday and give them the benefit of a whole week's worth of prep time.

Manan asked me last week whether I thought web-based discussions could be useful, and at the time I said no. But as I read over my students' homeworks this week, I've been thinking back to a Tomorrow's Professor posting on"Just In Time Teaching" which I read some years ago, suggesting that collecting homework via the web not long before class would allow instructors to tailor classroom time to necessary misunderstandings and avoid needless repetition of basic material. My immediate reaction to that model has always been some trepidation, but now with a small group in a fast-paced class, I am thinking that this would have been the appropriate semester to try. As much as I try to supplement the textbook, and correct its failings where I know about them, I don't catch everything, and I don't like the idea of spending part of each precious session going back over material that's been covered twice (homework and lecture) to"fix" (if that's possible) a few minor errors or themes.

So, what can I do at this point? Not much: I still have to get through the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries (and I slip in a little 21st century material here and there), two more quizzes and a final. I'm seriously leaning towards shifting the final to an essay, but that puts a whole new load on my students, particularly since I was seriously considering restructuring that essay assignment into longer stages.... I also want to shift the document readings more to the foreground (as usual, when trying to plow through this much material, they've been slowly pushed aside, though I've been able to reference almost all of them in lecture at least once) so as to respark discussions (difficult, when the group is so small and so diverse in preparation, but I'm going to try). I make that resolution pretty much every semester, but this term's rapidity, ironically, gives me an opportunity to create an ongoing discussion, if I can just get it going.

It's an interesting experience, still. I'm quite sure now that 8am class times are not for me, though I don't feel like the actual classroom time suffers: it's more the pre-class (dashing in to work and with little time to reflect and prepare) and evenings (getting to bed early!) that are a strain. My students have been pretty game so far, and I hope I can make the case for the adjustments: after all, we still have half the semester to go!

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More Comments:

Michael R. Davidson - 6/12/2005

I am about to embark on a similarly-compressed course, although it is 20 class meetings/2 hours, so the pressure-cooker atmosphere is not quite as pronounced. It is, however, a 'fun' specialty elective - 'History versus Hollywood'. It filled up a month early - at which point I e-mailed a link to the syllabus to all the enrolled students. At which point there were a number of drops when students realized it was going to be a hopefully fun class which would require quite a bit of work. . . As I am the bottom rank instructor in the department they should, however, make quite a bit of money off the course!

One of my colleaugues, however, just finished up teaching the first half of our 100-level World survey on the 3 week/15 class meetings of 3 hours format. The approach was to structure the course just like it is done during the semester - except that a weeks worth of material was covered in one class meeting - two lectures, followed by the students breaking up into discussion sections. It will be interesting to hear the post-mortem.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/12/2005

I agree with a lot of what you say (I'm having serious doubts about what "sinks in" for either format, honestly), but there's a "bread and butter" issue at work here: there is a steady demand for summer survey courses, and weak demand for speciality electives (or even for upper-division courses; exceptions are courses offered by known popular profs, who can fill just about anything). Perhaps our summer school is unusual in its strict attention to fiscal responsibility (whether a course runs or not depends on whether enrollment covers the cost of the instructor, and since that varies by rank, so does the minimum enrollment). If I want to make the money (I love teaching, but not so much that I would take on a course like this for free), and to give students some opportunity to make progress towards their degrees, etc., I need the course to fill.

Otherwise, I do agree: these intensive forms work better for narrowly defined topics, for discussions of meaning and nuance rather than broad substance.

John Henry Haas - 6/11/2005

I had pretty much the same experience. Last year I taught a (somewhat quirky) elective during our May term (15 days, 3 hrs a day). This year, I was asked to offer the 2d half of the US History Survey during May. I found the elective worked better than the survey: it was an unusual topic, and felt different: more celebratory and enjoyable than just grinding throught the material (even though it wasn't particularly "light"). For the survey, besides doing the whole semester in 15 days, I made the decision to try something new in the readings: I used both Howard Zinn and Paul Johnson for a left-right dual perspective. More exciting--or at least, dynamic--but twice as much reading as usual. Because of that I didn't use any auxiliary readings. It was a bit exhausting, I have to admit, but the students thought it was worth it. I didn't require attendance, but did have a quiz every day just on the readings, and there were no other exams and no make-ups for missed quizzes (they had an option to request a final so they could raise their grade, if they wished, and no one exercised it). That worked fine--everyone got the same grade they would have received in a more traditional or balanced regime of requirements. I do think, pedagogically, the survey is just too much information to cram in so quickly. That's how it felt to me, at least. (I'm actually not sure it sinks in any better over a semester.) In dealing with Viertnam, just for example, there's barely time to discuss what a communist is, a nationalist, anti-colonial revolts, and Cold War concerns, let alone make sure they can keep North Vietnam, South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, etc., etc. all straight, while trying to discuss motivations, strategy, justifications, and dissent across four or so presidencies. I could see they were really swimming, but we had to get on to other aspects of the 60s, so on we pressed. Usually I am happy to let the books carry the weight of info-impartation, and just discuss whatever needs discussing, but this time I tried to hit all the major topics briefly (and made it as far as the Clinton presidency!) All in all, I would prefer to stick with electives, I think.

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