Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
For the next few posts, I wanted to share something a little different: samples of student work produced this past spring. I’ve been teaching American History courses for the past for semesters. Although there was an easy transition from English courses to some of the upper-division courses on “Historiography” and “Research and Writing in History,” I awkwardly discovered a significant break in the pedagogical approach at the introductory courses (the surveys) and in the expectations and participation of students. On the teaching side of things, there was little formal writing assignments required. That is, there were no required research assignments and no writing assignments in general that required students to formulate an opinion or interpretation of events or materials whatsoever. According to the curriculum presented to me, the old-style (perhaps out-dated for these sorts of classes now) lecture—a two- or three-hour talk, perhaps accompanied by a video or PowerPoint presentation—was the expectation. I could already hear the snores echoing in the classroom.
Adding pressure to me and worries to the students, course grades were almost entirely comprised of a few exams and weekly quizzes, all “objective-based,” according the course guidelines and learning outcomes (leaving no room for a student’s opinion). As a general elective, most students perceive these surveys as a necessary obstacle of their respective program curricula. Student expectations were low. They anticipated long lectures, weekly notes and presentations (providing answers to future exams) posted on our course website, little interaction with each other, and little connection to the material or their other courses. In short, they expected to be bored. Students are generally kind and well-prepared, but in these courses many were less than stimulated by the material and few expressed genuine interest or curiosity in the material. Not a term goes by that a student doesn’t nervously approach me at the beginning of the semester confessing that they may (already) need some extra help because of their disinterest in the course content. I began adding supplemental readings and guiding questions to create more discussion during class sessions, but this can be daunting on to of the normal textbook readings. Moreover, this didn’t create a sense of relevance of the material. Students were still disconnected from the material they were supposedly learning.
Over the course of the past few semesters, I’ve begun to experiment more and more with student projects, assignments that tried to bridge the gaps between what we were learning in the class (American history) with the students’ respective majors, family/community histories, and personal activities/interests (i.e. popular culture, entertainment). In short, how do I, as an instructor, foster creative and engaged dialogue in the classroom? How do I make the materials and events covered in the class relevant to students? Some will note the similarities to Greg Ulmer’s concept of the mystory (an experiment in composition (writing/images/video) that combines autobiography, public history, popular myth & culture, and discipline/professional discourse). This past semester was a bit a breakthrough, a success in every sense of the word. I might include full assignments on my homepage, but for now just the gist of the projects’ objectives: The assignment allowed for two options.
Option #1: Make a video / video essay on a specific story within our studies; i.e. a study of a specific place, person, event/date, policy, etc.
Option #2: Create an experiment that allows a re-enactment or re-creation (a making) of history.
Note: Students were also required to include a 1,000 word statement describing and contextualizing their projects (part reflection, part criticism) and an annotated bibliography.
Over the next two (or three) posts, then, I’d like to share (with the students’ permission) the results of these experiments.
This first post includes four videos. The first depicts a visit to Colonial Williamsburg and offers a personal reflection of tourism (from a student-tourist) and Richard Handler & Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum. Second, we have a history of Fort Pulaski, located just outside of Savannah, GA. The student, Ronald, is from Savannah and visited this national monument many times as a child on school field trips. The third video, made by an Economics major, offers an overview of the southern agricultural economy. Finally, a student took a day trip into downtown Baltimore to visit the USS Torsk, a 1940s submarine now docked in the city and part of the Historic Ships of Baltimore. It was an especially memorable for this student because her grandfather was stationed on the sub during WWII and, although she only lives a few minutes away from the site, she had never visited the site.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I did! There should be a post that more thoroughly describes the assignment and my reflections receiving student proposals, consulting on their evolution, and grading/evaluation processes, but for now, I’ll let them speak for themselves…Part 2 is next week!