You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘pedagogy’ category.

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 (the Mactastic replacement for PowerPoint) for big lecture courses, particularly the survey of US history 1865-present. But pretty reliably once a year the system flakes out and I end up teaching the class without it. Which bothers me not at all. But I believe I can see the students getting restless. For US intellectual history I don’t use Keynote, as the concepts generally don’t benefit from visual representation. Increasingly I use it for my research talks, though. I believe it’s becoming a norm.

If there’s any truth to the survey, I believe it’s that most people use these tools badly. You see an awful lot of computer presentations with way too much tiny text per slide, or slides that are basically the lecturer’s notes, or the PowerPoint version of Ken Burns: show somebody’s face while you’re talking about them.

Whereas there are of course perfectly good uses of visual media in lectures. Such uses can even engage the students: “What does the graph tell us?” Or, “What do you think this map shows?”


Answer below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history. Two of them want to remove or de-emphasize references to several historical figures who have become liberal icons, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

“We’re in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it,” said Rev. Peter Marshall, a Christian minister and one of the reviewers appointed by the conservative camp.

… The three reviewers appointed by the moderate and liberal board members are all professors of history or education at Texas universities, including Mr. de la Teja, a former state historian. The reviewers appointed by conservatives include two who run conservative Christian organizations: David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, a group that promotes America’s Christian heritage; and Rev. Marshall, who preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War and Hurricane Katrina were God’s judgments on the nation’s sexual immorality. The third is Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.

The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America’s founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man’s fall and inherent sinfulness, or “radical depravity,” which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances.

The curriculum, they say, should clearly present Christianity as an overall force for good — and a key reason for American exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.

… But the emphasis on Christianity as a driving force is disputed by some historians, who focus on the economic motivation of many colonists and the fractured views of religion among the Founding Fathers. “There appears to me too much politics in some of this,” said Lybeth Hodges, a professor of history at Texas Woman’s University and another of the curriculum reviewers.

Some outside observers argue that curriculum analysts should be trained academics…

Nearly every state has its own curriculum standards, and there are scores of social studies texts to choose from at most grade levels, so what happens in Texas won’t necessarily affect other states. But the Texas market is huge, so most big publishers aggressively seek approval from the board, in some cases adopting the majority’s editing suggestions nearly verbatim.

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 subject of the title today, is the substitution of “canon” for “cannon,” as in “The canon belched flame and shot at the enemy lines.” Since the major meanings for “canon” (besides being a camera company) are “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture” or “a clergyman belonging to the chapter or the staff of a cathedral or collegiate church,” this also creates an impressive vision.

Why do I mention this today? Because the New York Times, blast the dark and necrophagus necrophagous souls of their copy editors, have managed to let the latter such error slip into today’s edition. In a review of William Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, which is apparently about the best ways to blow one’s self up in the garage and was inspired by a David Brooks’ (!?…@#$#!) column, the Times puts in the middle of the review in larger letters (what are those interjections called?) the phrase “How to make your own gunpowder and a canon to match.”

I read it. I spat coffee. I screamed. I annoyed my wife. Luckily, she is a good and patient woman, so I survived to write this post. The error is not present in the online copy, so (because we are a full service blog), I include a photo:


It’s bad enough that the paper of record has declared the split infinitive acceptable. Now, my students can argue vociferously that “canon” is an reasonable alternate spelling of “cannon.”* The Times says so!

*This assumes that any of them read the Times.

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

(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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews.  As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly.  Why?  In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes.  My sentence read:

Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.

That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed.  Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful.  But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:

When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.

Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable.  But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.


*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.

**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.

If you were teaching a methods/historiography course, what texts would you use? And yes, I know methods and historiography are two different things, thanks.

Several people ask of the WPA graphing question, why not use a log scale? Commenter Stinky (no, I don’t know who s/he really is) kindly supplies a graph showing just this. For my money, it speaks for itself—which is to say, it screams, “don’t use me!”

We want to accomplish two things: (1) show how very outsized a chunk of money went to highways and (2) show also meaningful distinctions among lesser expenditures.

The log scale permits (2) while pretty much wiping out (1), unless you know how log scales work. I don’t think the likely consumers of such a graph do really know. But I’m wrong, Stinky says.

I find that if I teach a course in the afternoon I have previously taught in the morning, I am left at the end of the fifty minutes with a fair amount of uncovered lecture material—maybe as much as ten to twenty percent of what I thought I’d do.1 Which suggests of course that I talk markedly more slowly in the pm than in the am. Or maybe I dilate more expansively on a given point.

Students who believe I talk too fast or cover too much too quickly may wish to consider the availability of slower, afternoon Eric.

I bet there are other odd factors that determine the relative quality of one’s teaching—how much sleep one gets, how much coffee2 one drinks, etc.

1Based on an observed sample of two instances of am/pm shifting.
2There are of course other beverages that have marked effects; I remember one person who argued white wine doesn’t count, so you can drink it in the morning, and another who would place a pint on the windowsill in the lecture hall, for ready access… these are obviously not stories of our time and place.

In a comment spurred by this post on MLK and popular memory, charlieford wrote:

Just thought I’d share with ya’all that I turned this into a paper assignment in an Intro class (ie, US History Survey–almost all non-majors, sophomores and freshmen). I had them read tha tail of the “Dream” speech, most of the 1967 “Breaking Silence” speech, and Kai Wright’s piece in the Prospect. I asked them to frame it in terms of “mythic King” vs. “real King,” and why the two are out there, why the one is more palatable, and to evaluate the whole thing in whatever terms appealed to them. For about half, that was slightly ambitious. BUT: I think this was one of the most engaging papers I’ve assigned in some 10 years of teaching–ie, about 80% of the students really got into it. They almost all admired King enormously already (thank the schools–some had had King family members visit in elementary school) but to a MAN/WOMAN, none knew of the radical King. Maybe 2, out of 70, were disappointed that he’d criticize his nation when it was at war, but almost all were deeply challenged by his more radical analysis of US distemper. If you’ve read enough papers, you can tell when people are passionate, and when they’re feigning interest. Lot of passion from this assignment. Fun to grade, too. I thank Ari, Eric, and the EAW community for the inspiration to do it.

That does sound like a good paper topic. (And not because the answers charlie got from his students support my contention in the original post. Actually, I think his students’ responses buttress charlie’s point in the comments. Come to think of it, it’s just like charlie to design an assignment in order to win an argument with me. Selfish, that’s what’s he is.) Regardless, reading charlie’s comment raised a question in my mind: what’s the best paper assignment you’ve ever given? And by “best,” I think I mean the prompt that elicited the most interesting responses and that helped your students learn what you hoped they would from your course. That said, I might mean something else by “best.” I’m not entirely sure. I am sure that I need a nap.

For my part, I think the best paper topic I’ve ever given was in a seminar on memory I taught a few years back. I assigned Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, David Blight’s article, “For Something Beyond the Battlefield: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” and Glory. I asked the class to consider the relationship between the primary source, the scholarly article, and the film, focusing on the production and transmission of memories of African-American troops in the Civil War. The assignment, it turned out, was too complicated for some of the students. But the majority of them dug in and produced papers that I enjoyed reading (which might be a more accurate measure of what I mean by “best”). So, what about you? What assignments have worked well for you?

This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."