Thursday, October 31, 2019

Flashback Roundup: Early American Witches

In honor of the season's plethora of pop culture references to witches, here's a roundup of all of my posts on teaching about witchcraft in Early America, with some updates and additional resources. I'd love to hear more about other witchcraft history resources--anywhere, anytime-- in comments!

Syllabizing Salem (originally published April 9, 2018)

I'll be teaching a course next fall under the shell "Fiction and Historical Imagination," which I am using to explore American historical mythologies from Puritan witch trials to the passing of the 19th Amendment. Since I've last written about this project, the title has evolved to "Fictionalizing US History, 1630-1920" and I've begun to try and tackle turning my Course Rationale into a functional syllabus. Today, I want to talk about my process of figuring out where to start and what to start with.

Hopefully this will provide a few items of interest-- to students who might be thinking about taking the course and would like a sneak peek; to anyone looking for readings to assign for courses on Salem or just for their own reading pleasure; or to any instructors wondering, "How do other people find things to assign?" These are not the definitive selections-- I may in the end need to add or subtract based on time, availability, or content-- but this is where I am for now.

Beginnings: A Reaction to Reacting

To set the stage: When I first conceptualized teaching my Reacting to the Past course, Conflict and Unity in American History, the early American setting of the first game we were to play was daunting. I had not previously had much interest in

So, Trial of Anne Hutchinson was an odd match. But I wanted to assign Greenwich Village, 1913, which I had played as part of my Reacting to the Past training, and I wanted to emphasize an aspect of the game that I thought could be easily overlooked in a course that attempted to focus on a narrow time period: the struggle for group definition that occasioned the conflict of the game. The players in Greenwich Village are ultimately struggling not only to decide whether they will support suffragists or labor activists with their time and art; they are also trying to determine what they as a community value. Trial of Anne Hutchinson, set in a vastly different time (the 1620s) and with far different consequences for winners and losers (various implied possibilities including: banishment, divine punishment, social censure), represents at its heart a similar attempt to figure out what parameters defined their group.

To truly appreciate this element of the trial, it was necessary for both the players and I to understand what, precisely, the debate was all about (who is really "saved" by God, and how do we know?), and what motivated the drive to ensure the Massachusetts Bay Colony was spiritually unified. The game materials were handy for providing context about religious debates that preceded the trial, the insecurities about the colony's survival, and the Calvinist convictions which made the unity of the colony a critical matter. In the end, these served their purpose well, and I left both semesters confident that students had, in addition to improving their argumentation skills, gained a greater understanding of some very unfamiliar points of view.

However, Anne Hutchinson and Puritan New England has stuck in my head, partially because I noticed an interesting trend when I discussed the course with people. Whether students on the first day of class or other graduate students, most only dimly recalled Hutchinson (I was unfamiliar with her when I first heard of the game) and thought that perhaps she had been tried for witchcraft. I was intrigued by how the complexity of Puritan religious thought, well expressed by my students in their roles as Governors, Pastors, and Teachers in the colony, has been widely translated to "those witch-burners."

Starting from Fiction

When I began conceptualizing this course, I knew I wanted to build upon the complications we had explored in Trial of Anne Hutchinson. I also knew that I wanted to assign The Witch (2015) as one of our fictional treatments of history. I had wanted to screen clips of the film as part of my Reacting course the previous year, but couldn't quite justify its incorporation. Yet I found the film very reflective of the spritual anxieties articulated by the major players in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: not just a censure of powerful womanhood (although, sure, that) but also a genuine belief that one's community must reflect compliance with divine will and a certainty that the devil did, in fact, exist. I now needed two things:

  • A secondary source which could provide the context to appreciate this aspect of the film
  • A reading which could provide a more traditional view of the witchcraft myth

I cast about for options, using the UIUC library catalog to seek out titles related to the history of witches, witch trials, and colonial America. I found Elizabeth Reis's book Damned Women, contemplated assigning it, and realized that her collection Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America not only contained an abbreviated chapter of her book but also additional readings that might come in handy.

My second task was more obvious: I quickly opted for the quintessential treatment of the witchcraft myth, Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953). Not only is it frequently cited in any discussion of real or figurative "witchhunts," it also represented a different form of fiction, and I wanted to be able to potentially incorporate a discussion of form and performance into the course. I decided to start the course, after introductory materials on source analysis, by delving into this text together.

From here, I wanted to provide some complicating counterpoints to the Salem presented by Miller. First, I knew that I wanted to include discussion of Tituba and the role of race in the Salem mythology. I plan to assign selections of Tituba, Reluctant Witch Of Salem, which attempts to use the sparse historical record to trace Tituba's life story and argue for rethinking both her racial identity and her role in the story of Salem.

Upon doing a little digging, it becomes fairly obvious that Salem's witchcraft trials were far afield of what most witchcraft trials looked like. Paradoxically, because the Salem incident was so unusual, they have been remembered; yet in being the only ones remembered, they have passed as the only available example and thus defined popular understanding of American witch trials. I chose Richard Godbeer's Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 to call attention to this discrepancy. Godbeer focuses on a Connecticut incident which occurred in the same yea, but which unfolded very dissimilarly: if Salem was a "panic," officials' treatment of witch claims in Stamford could best be described as "cautious" (7).


So, below is the current list in order-- next step, assigning each reading to a date!

As you can see, the final order is very different than the order in which I conceived of the sources to use. Obviously, there are tons of other things that one could assign to talk about the American mythology of Salem-- these are just a few of my frontrunners, and not the final word (and I suspect I may need to cut this down a bit!). Likewise, there are other great approaches to figuring out what to assign-- I'd love to hear about yours.

* Yes, I know it's not really an f. No, I won't stop pronouncing it "Congrefs."

Related Links:

An interesting guide to the proper use of the long and short s.
Quite an extensive online archive of Salem sources exists at the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
A Smithsonian Magazine article on Tituba.
I'm also considering using Veta Smith Tucker's article Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village, from the Journal of Black Studies.


Interested in how scheduling and organization for this section of the course turned out? Check out my Fiction and the Historical Imagination syllabus. 

Time Travel and Crucible Critique (originally published September 5, 2018)

A shot of the original production of The Crucible, from

It's Week 2 of the semester, and History 365 is now in full swing. In this course, in addition to seminar style discussions, weekly response papers, and a final project, I'm using various creative projects to encourage students to make connections between the historical fictions we're reading and other primary and secondary sources of the eras under study. Today I debuted an activity which asks students to step into one of three perspectives and work together to argue about The Crucible's relevance to the experiences of their group.

How do you solve a problem like Arthur Miller?

I have to admit that I was stuck on what to do with The Crucible for a while. I knew that I wanted to include it as a starting point for our discussion of witchcraft and religion in colonial New England, as so many people's ideas about the topic and the period are already informed by the work. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to read and discuss it in class, so that we would all have a basis for understanding this influential portrayal of the Salem trials. I knew also that it was long enough that it would be difficult to pair with the longer companion texts in the section for a comparative discussion-- I didn't want to have it due the same day as Escaping Salem or The Witch so that we could compare the two immediately. It would not only be more reading than was reasonable for one day but also rush the discussion of both, leaving us little time to get to some of the smaller details. It would have to be the subject of a few days of discussion before getting to these newer texts.

Knowing this was the case, I still couldn't figure out what to do with The Crucible. As performance of a theatrical work can be an important part of its interpretation, I toyed with the idea of having students produce scenes from the work, with one as a dramaturg, one as a director, some as actors, etcetera. Perhaps pairing it with a performance of a HUAC trial transcript. But although I could see the potential value of doing this, I couldn't see my way into or out of it-- I couldn't make it make sense for this class and the kind of intellectual engagement with the text I wanted to encourage.

I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep in under half an hour for once when the solution finally came to me, as these things so often do. I had assigned the Christopher Bigsby introduction to the Penguin edition for the week before the actual play was due, and when I went back to consider it again I found a great deal which seemed delightfully questionable. No statement was so ripe for critique as that which came near the end of the piece, in which Bigsby claims that "the play's success now owes little to the political and social context in which it was written." Such a claim echoes the widespread interest in declaring this particular work as well as most other well-regarded literature as somehow good because they capture a universal humanity, a transcendence of context. How could I encourage students to avoid this mentality, which sounds very nice but is useless for an appreciation of history?

The Project: Time-Travelers and The Crucible

The conceit of the project I ended up designing is this:

In a mysterious and poetic quirk of fate, two groups of 1690s Puritans from Salem, Massachusetts AND two groups of Hollywood writers targeted by HUAC in the 1940s and 50s have been transported forward in time to the modern day. As coincidence would have it, they have landed in the midst of a conference of historians of race and gender who are analyzing The Crucible. In this project, you and your group will analyze Miller’s play in light of your particular viewpoint and come up with a plan to present your experiences to one another and to the curious world in a press conference.

In this project, students are in one of six groups. (For a smaller class, three could easily be used-- my class is too big to have only three groups).

  • Groups 1 and 2: 1690s Puritans who lived through the trials. They are tasked with answering the question: Does this play reflect our experience and values?
  • Groups 3 and 4: Targets of HUAC in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood. They investigate whether this play speaks to their experiences as suspected Hollywood Communists.
  • Groups 5 and 6: Modern day historians of race and gender. They have a more removed task, contemplating whether Miller’s play is more reflective of 1690’s ideas on race and gender, 1950s ideas of race and gender, or some combination of the two.

Each group confers with one another to consider Miller's work in relation to "their" experiences and interests. They create a 5-7 minute presentation, using evidence from the play and other sources provided, such as lecture, primary documents such as selections from Puritan sermons and HUAC trial transcripts, and secondary literature. They took the class period to work on this, and are free (but not required) to work on this outside of class as well. On Friday, they will present their conclusions to the group.

Project sheets and rubric are here.


I am pleasantly surprised to see how well the class has taken to the activity so far. I was a bit worried it would be confusing and I would get a lot of questions about the details of the project. In reality, many of the questions I got were complex historical ones about relationships between ideologies and actions in the Puritan context. From observations I made walking around the room, most of the class seemed to come to the questions and ideas I wanted to encourage, considering issues of race, religion, gender, enslavement, historical interpretation, and the nature of experience in relation to the texts. The questions and arguments raised in this section will serve as a nice platform to build upon for the final week of inquiry into the mythological role that Salem and the concept of colonial witchcraft trials have played in US historical memory.

Related Links:

Some of the sources I provided include the HUAC transcripts of Paul Robeson and John Howard Lawson; Gretchen Adams, "The Specter of Salem in American Culture," from the OAH Magazine of History, July 2003; and selections of John Winthrop's A Modell of Christian Charity; "Regulating Sexuality in the Anglo-American Colonies," from Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality; Elaine Breslaw's Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem; Steven J. Ross, Movies and American Society.


Interested in how to make this activity work on a more individual level, or help students who miss a day to catch up? I also created a project sheet for making up this activity.

Making a Course You Love (originally published June 18, 2018)

I've talked before about being a proponent of giving students an excuse to spend time on something that interests them, having relished those opportunities during my own education. There are so many obligations which face students that they must prioritize, and wrapping some freedom of choice into assignments allows them to reflect on what sorts of things they might be intellectually passionate about. Today I want to talk about the flip side of this concept-- instructors and the freedom they have to steer the content of a course toward things that pique their interest.

An empty page for only me to fill! Should I hold the light bulb over my head, or...

I've been prepping on and off for the last few months for my fall course, Fiction and the Historical Imagination. It's a fun one to organize not only because I'm always interested in how history is portrayed in fiction-- for this iteration of the course, I'm examining popular mythologies and narratives about American history in a variety of fictional sources from theatre to video games-- but because it's enabled me to expand on some topics and questions I've already taught in a much more limited sphere. Only semi-intentionally, this course positions itself roughly within the same time periods as my Reacting to the Past course. It begins with Massachusetts Puritans-- albeit to talk about the Salem witch trials in 1692-1693 rather than the Anne Hutchinson trial in the 1630s. And it ends in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, arguably the paramount goal of the Suffrage faction in Greenwich Village, 1913. So in many ways, it's as if I'm coming at much of this material backwards in planning this course. First, I helped two groups of students live the history; now I and a new group will together delve into the background, the historiography, and the popular memory which surrounds and bridges these two events.

It’s a great opportunity to incorporate the knowledge I have gained from the games into a (slightly) more conventional seminar-style course. Not only do the names and dates associated with these periods come more naturally to me than ever before, but also an appreciation of the humanity, subjectivity, and tendentiousness of historical moments that Reacting emphasizes. I feel I have a grasp on some critical theological ideas of Puritan life that I might not have appreciated without having led students to those realization in the Anne Hutchinson game. One of my former students commented that she had come into the course thinking the Puritans were nonsensical people, but that the game had given her an understanding of their priorities. It's also helping to me envision a future course that marries both approaches; for example, a deep dive into the Puritans which incorporates both the Salem material and the Anne Hutchinson trial.

The difficult part, as always, is transmitting knowledge and appreciation in an effective way to a new group. I know I will want to refer to the events of the games (much as I always make popular culture references in class that only two people understand), and being that there are only a couple of repeat customers I will have to restrain myself!

Tailoring a course to something you'd like to talk about in this way offers a lot of fun options, but it also threatens some pitfalls. Many of us, I'm sure, have taken or heard of courses that were clearly serving only the instructors' interests and not those of the proposed themes. How do we lean into the freedom to shape a course we're excited about without ignoring the needs of the course as a whole?

I don't claim to have all the answers-- hey, this is my first time doing something quite like this!-- but here's the general rules I've tried to make for myself in this process:

  • Lean into joy rather than expertise-- that is, try for a course that emphasizes the things you think are really interesting rather than the very specific thing you are personally studying. These can of course overlap, but enthusiasm draws in people who might not care about the topic, whereas no amount of encyclopedic knowledge on children's hospitals during the Depression era can convince folks to stay in your course past the drop date.
  • Related: Try not to be completely self-serving-- if something helps you with your reading to-do list, your prep for a conference, or just saves you time because you already have a lecture for that, consider whether it also serves the course well. There are many things I've considered incorporating that I've just had to cut because they weren't quite pulling their weight for my overall goals (but, okay, I'm still working on it).
  • Don’t hesitate to embrace the new/fun-sounding-- if you have the time, try to break out of what you've done before and use new resources-- you might find things you never knew existed. For this course, I decided to use Valiant Hearts: The Great War as a fictional source to discuss US involvement in World War I. This decision led me to learn of the Gaming Initiative and try out the Gaming Center at the Undergraduate Library, as well as learning the game had iPhone and Android versions. Now that I know that those things exist, how they work, and who to talk to about them, I can not only use them with greater ease in the future but also refer students to those resources and describe how to use them.
  • Related: Don’t embrace the new/fun just because it's new/fun-sounding-- this is particularly true for online materials, which bill themselves as being the newest most fun millennial/Gen Z appealing way to learn but in reality are often poorly structured and frustrating to both the computer unsavvy and the technology buff. If you don't have time to test the new thing and see if it's actually helpful, the old books/primary sources/paper copies/presentation styles are just fine.

You'll notice a pattern here-- there's a middle ground that I'm aiming for, a happy marriage of all the considerations of structure, effort, enthusiasm, knowledge. A balance between knowing and discovering which brings vibrancy to a group discussion of ideas-- which is, after all, what a seminar is at its base.

Do you have any tips for using intellectual interests to power a course?

The First Church in Northampton, MA (originally published October 23, 2017)

Sign outside of church, Northampton, MA. A link to the sign's text can be found here.

Being in Northampton is wonderful because one is surrounded by women of all ages who seem both smarter and more fashionable than you, and yet somehow it is motivating and not discouraging. Hence it was a little jarring to come upon this sign reminding me of the Trial of Anne Hutchinson, a Reacting to the Past Game I taught in my classes last year which, despite the title, features no women as playable characters --as a General Court of the period would not have contained any women. (See this post from the OAH blog for a description of both Reacting and The Trial of Anne Hutchinson by Mark Carnes, co-author of the Hutchinson game and Reacting Consortium Executive Director.)

In this game, it's 1637, and a variety of men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony have gathered to determine whether or not Anne Hutchinson, local religious thinker and midwife, should be banished from the colony. Her crime? Well, that's sort of complicated. Were I to tell you much more, I would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that those who have played the game come to a variety of conclusions about the charges and her guilt or innocence of them (but no, she's not a witch-- though some of these same Puritans' relatives will also be involved in the Salem Witch trials toward the end of the century. Puritan life was rife with religio-legal drama).

John Cotton plays a critical role in this game-- a noncommittal teacher whom all look up to, both pro and anti-Anne members of the General Court want to win his favor. Cotton is also in a precarious position within the conflict, not wishing to abandon any of his admirers or to upset the power players on the General Court. Historically, Anne is banished; Cotton escapes unscathed, becoming more conservative over the rest of his life. I give these historical details and more in the postmortem to the game (facts about the fate of their character which any student could look up were they inclined, so I'm not giving away any trade secrets here). During this postmortem, a clear theme emerges-- these people, and their descendants, have their mitts all over American history, especially on the East Coast. John Winthrop, Governor and main authority in the General Court, is perhaps the most famous example-- still quoted by a wide variety of politicians, he originated the "cittie on a hill" phraseology which has inspired many American-exceptionalist ideas. His son founded Connecticut and John Kerry is one of his notable descendents.

John Cotton has similarly notable descendents, particularly Cotton Mather, John Cotton's grandson who is known for his New England ministry and his historical writing (and, those darn Salem Witch Trials again!) This sign brings in another connection-- Eleazar Mather, cousin of Cotton Mather, was Northampton's first minister.

This tidbit suggests the reach of some of these families, a stark contrast to the way you meet them in the game. Despite some of their achievements and connections, or their apparent control over the colony, the colonists of Massachusetts Bay in 1637 are a small group in a tenuous position-- they're afraid of England; of attack by local Pequots, with whom they've recently warred; of sin, which lives within themselves; of one another, whose indiscretions threaten to bring down the wrath of God or England upon all of them.

Another connection to the problems and aftermath of the Hutchinson trial is the "Halfway Covenant" promoted by this church's second minister, Solomon Stoddard.

Previously, to join Puritan churches, parishioners had to stand before the assembly and tell them how they came to know that they were part of the elect few who were saved. During the Anne Hutchinson game, a third of the students play the roles of newcomers to the colony, who have to be admitted to the church before they can vote on the Anne matter in the General Court or pursue their own individual goals effectively. They do so through their comportment, the hope that no one can discredit them, and, most importantly, writing and presenting a conversion narrative. As illustrated by Hutchinson's case, the churches' main concern was restricting membership to "visible saints" who were definitely elect.

For example, here's John Winthrop's conversion narrative. Note the detailed chronological retelling of one's life experiences; the confession of one's sins; changing behavior as evidence of becoming sanctified ("the great change which God had wrought in me", pp 6) and yet the lasting struggle with sin ("continual conflicts between the flesh and the spirit", pp 12); yet, ultimately, assurance that he is elect ("when I have been put to it by any sudden danger or fearful temptation, the good spirit of the Lord hath not failed to bear witness to me, giving me comfort, and courage in the very pinch", pp12).

Fast forwarding thirty years or so, the exclusivity of the church resulted in reduced membership and thus a reduced power over public life. The Halfway Covenant allowed children of church members to be baptized into it (though as only "half," not full, members) without having had a conversion experience. This would increase church membership and address the issues that arose with second and third generations of Puritans, who wanted their children baptized within the church but often lacked a dramatic conversion to share. John Wilson, Pastor of the Boston Church at the time of the Hutchinson trial, supported the Halfway Covenant when it was proposed-- meaning that the arduous process that immigrants to the colony were forced to go through was downgraded in importance for the children of baptized members.

Why is this interesting? The church and sign showcases the reach of ideas and families across space and time (and suggests the familial ties between different New England cities), and illustrates the way a single place can echo to a variety of disparate, nationally relevant ideas.

Questions? Comments? Send them my way!

Related links:

Description of the Anne Hutchinson game on the Reacting site.
Winthrop's narrative at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Winthrop's journal at

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Plug and Play: Debates, Decisions, Dinosaurs

Quick Announcement: I'd like to start assembling other blog posts/online resources for a "Friends of the Blog/Blogs of the Friends" page-- a list of links to the diverse variety of topics and interests explored by those who read and/or engage with Lesson Spotted. If you have a blog, blog post on another site, or another project with an Internet Presence, please drop me a line and tell me about it! 

Recently I've been thinking especially hard about ways in which the pedagogical tools I like to use can be applied to a variety of disciplines and topics. This is especially the case with having students take on roles or viewpoints, which can serve goals of building empathy or encouraging the practice of disciplinary skills for almost any learning. Today, I want to share an example of something I did last week in my HIST 103 (A History of Everything: The Big Bang to Big Data) sections. Much of the work we've done recently has been on topics commonly considered more scientific than humanistic (particularly being that we are still predating human history at this point in the course). However, part of my and Professor David Sepkoski's goals for the course are to bring these perspectives closer together, examining the ways in which scientific inquiry can inform a long look at the past and how social and cultural forces inform the ways we understand and practice science. 

The skeleton of Sue the T. Rex, currently at the Field Museum.
Photo from Peoria Public Radio/Dallas Krentzel. 

For last week, we read a chapter of David Christian's Maps of Time and an article from the New Yorker magazine, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. We had several other things to do in class that day-- some questions from lecture, some recent changes to the course schedule-- so we didn't have a great deal of time to do anything fancy. On the surface, my plan for the day was a simple debate. 

But how to frame a debate about dinosaurs? Representing the viewpoint of the asteroid seemed potentially amusing but not particularly useful. Fortunately, the New Yorker article is a gem of a source. In explaining a massive paleontological find relating to the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs in the late Cretaceous period, it also provides ample evidence of the social and political limitations to the practice of paleontology and suggests several reasons one could doubt the findings of Robert DePalma, protagonist of the article and grad student in paleontology at the University of Kansas. Framing a debate around these details offered the chance to explore some of the ways that scientific practice is necessarily mediated by humanistic considerations-- that is, by humanity. 

My sections have 25 people each, which can get a bit unwieldy. I first asked them to skim through the article quickly to find a few pieces of evidence for DePalma and his interpretation of the evidence or against it. I then split them into groups:

1 and 3: Pro-DePalma--- they believe his findings and think he's made a critical discovery.
2 and 4: Anti-DePalma-- they are skeptical of him and his findings. 

Each group planned their statement for three minutes, then had one minute to speak, using the evidence they had mined in their individual reading and refined in their group discussions. 

These four groups made up about 3/4 of the class; the fifth group was a group of impartial judges. I used Reacting to the Past as an inspiration to add that critical game-changing element-- a group of indeterminates with no stakes in the debate. These students asked questions of the pro- and anti- DePalma groups and ultimately voted on whether or not DePalma was credible. Intriguingly, each of my three sections came to different conclusions on DePalma's credibility, though they all mentioned most of the same evidence. 

Of course, if you're using this article or addressing this topic, you could take this activity and do it just the same-- handy! But using this article to frame a brief class debate also illuminated for me how useful it would be to do the same with many other sources. In academia, there are frequently multiple viewpoints at play regardless of the discipline-- different explanations of how evolution has unfolded, contrasting critical theories for explaining nearly everything, etcetera. Sometimes, we can even find evidence of how things outside of the research itself-- access to sources or data, institutional affiliation, class, race, gender, disability, citizenship, etcetera-- impact the way the work gets done, or determine whether it gets done at all. To open these topics to our students is to invite them to not just practice our disciplines but to consider the limitations of our disciplines. 

Related Links: 

Good ol' Wikipedia is probably the most up-to-date info on the ongoing investigation of Tanis, DePalma's dig site. 
An interesting game: Comparing the various search results about Sue the T. Rex. There's the subject of another potential dinosaur debate for your classroom! 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Enough About Me: WAC to School

A blank notebook and pencil. Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels.

Happy new academic year! It's been a hectic ramp-up for me. I am now employed as a Grad Affiiliate at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at UIUC (Hooray!), and so the beginning of the year has been action-packed: Delivering a session about active learning, leading microteaching sessions, and conducting playbacks of those sessions with each teaching assistant to talk about their performance and plans for the year. Additionally, I've been preparing for my own fall semester as a teaching assistant for HIST 103, A History of Everything: The Big Bang to Big Data. And, before I knew all of this was coming, I elected to take the two-day Writing Across Curriculum workshop offered by the Center for Writing Studies during the last few days of summer. (Yes, after all this excitement and then the beginning of classes this week, I slept in HARD this morning.)

As I've mentioned before, I like to go to workshops and lectures to get my brain moving. I never know what connections might occur to me while listening to someone talking about their work or explaining a concept. The Writing Across Curriculum workshop, led by Center for Writing Studies Director Paul Prior, and Assistant Directors Bruce Kovanen and previously discussed friend of the blog Logan Middleton, was no exception. I could philosophize about why this workshop was so good (I left the second day tired but convinced that everyone should take it at some point in their teaching career). However, I'll restrain myself and focus on some of the ideas I took away from the workshop and intend to implement in my own classroom.

First, the idea that discussion and consideration of the writing process is worth doing. On the first day of the workshop, we spent part of the morning drawing out our writing processes for the last project we worked on. I found it surprisingly cathartic-- perhaps because like many people, my writing process is stressful and also because I had a clear project in mind which I sent off for review recently. I'm already thinking about ways in which to implement this into a course. In a writing intensive course, I might assign students to write a short play dramatizing their writing process, then select a few to be performed in class. The goal would be to show how different everyone's process can be; that there are a variety of creative ways to think about and depict it, and to blow off some steam about the anxiety that talking about such a solitary activity can create.

I also found the approaches to grading useful-- I think many of us feel unsure about how to make grading decisions, how much detail to offer, and how to handle the disconnect between the experience of being the person grading and being the writer receiving comment. The workshop leaders suggested making high level/global comments first when grading, and focusing less on noting every missed comma or employing vague criticisms like "awkward" to mark up paper. I like this a lot and kind of did this with the one page responses in HIST 365, without fully appreciating that's what I was trying to do. Keeping this idea in mind may help with some confusion I often have over trying to get "enough" comments on the page, being unsure about whether comments are to justify the grade given or to help evolve the piece or to help the writer to improve.

However, my favorite point was the way that WAC approaches offer an appreciation of the function of writing not just to communicate but as a tool for the writer to think their way through a problem. I've only recently realized how true this is for my own process, perhaps one reason why outlining has always been a complex and frustrating process for me. One of the course readings, a chapter on informal writing from John C. Bean's Engaging Ideas, offers a variety of ways one can incorporate this sort of informal writing into a course. When workshop attendees were instructed to bring in an assignment or plan for the second day, I opted to reflect on one of these ideas. I've decided to experiment with employing writing in class to refocus discussion. If a discussion is getting interesting, heated, or pondering (i.e., circling a question), I will pause the discussion to have students write their way through the problem individually. I will advise them that these will not be turned in and are designed to help them consider a topic more fully, so they should take risks, perhaps write things they are unsure of or many contradictory potential answers to a question at hand and then evaluate them. Ideally, they will generate a short paragraph to a page of rough ideas. The audience for their written product will be only themselves initially; they will then bring up the ideas they wrote about in discussion (giving them the opportunity to be both totally honest and edit themselves for public hearing). I would respond verbally as they told the class about what they wrote, but not through written feedback. This activity is intended to build ease around writing and help students grow more confident in putting their thoughts together.

This idea appeals to me because of its difference from how I have typically used informal writing in relation to participation. Sometimes in the context of a discussion section, writing like this is treated as just a jumping off point, something to do to fill time or have something to grade or to make sure that students are reading or have something to talk about. I like the idea that if a conversation is bustling along TOO well or aggressively, writing can channel some of that energy into a constructive direction. By using this conversational energy and direction, the prompt will be clear and the task obvious: to weigh in on the question that the class just formulated.

More importantly, it can also suggest to students that writing isn’t just done to have something to say, but to help one think through things, as we discussed in regard to the evolution of WAC concepts. If they are encountering a tricky problem and stop to write it out mid-discussion and then discuss where that got them, it really shows the usefulness of that process, perhaps especially if students don’t immediately find it successful, because they can see it work for others in class even if the lightning bolt isn’t striking for them. Moreover, the class I am teaching this fall will not ask students to write extensive or formal papers, so emphasizing informal writing as a thinking strategy seems particularly useful.
Thanks to the Center for Writing Studies folks for giving a great workshop-- I highly recommend it to any graduate teachers.

Related Links:
Don't have time to go to this workshop-- or don't even go here? There's tons of great resources at the Center for Writing Studies' page of WAC Handouts.
This is a fun resource about Writing Across Curriculum-- answer all your FAQs about the concept with a click.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Current Project: Political Posters and Pan's Labyrinth

I just returned from another successful stint as a teaching assistant for the Princeton site of Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth. Juniors and seniors in high school spend three weeks delving into a subject-- in the case of my students this summer, it was Politics and Film. I organized an activity that I was really excited about, but we ran out of time to do it-- so what better way to bounce back than to share it with you? 

The Faun. Via

This activity is designed to supplement a viewing of Pan's Labyrinth (minor spoilers for the film within). The film blends fairy-tale fantasy with the brutal realities of Francoist Spain in the 1940s, as a young girl attempts to escape living with a brutal stepfather who is a fascist captain through undertaking tasks set for her by a mysterious faun. The film features a plethora of disturbing and/or beautiful fantasy images, including creatures like the Faun, the Pale Man, and a Giant Frog. 

The Pale Man. Via
Giant Toad. Via 

For this activity, I wanted to encourage students to make connections between the creatures found here and anti-fascist artwork of the period the film depicts. Additionally, I wanted to give them the opportunity to practice visual analysis, both in terms of semiotic meaning and historical significance. 

First, before the film, I gave them a bit of historical context on the Spanish Civil War-- what the sides were, what they were called, basic events and timeline that might be useful to them in both seeing the film and doing the activity later. We had also done some discussion of semiotics and image analysis. 


1. While students are out of the room, print and hang up the following posters: 

Five posters featuring political caricatures. Captions and original images at Brandeis. 
2. When students reenter the room, encourage them to move about the room examining the posters. 
3. Ask students to work together in small groups or pairs, using their devices, their lecture notes, and their knowledge of history and semiotic analysis to interpret the images. What does the artist mean to convey? What sorts of attributes do these posters criticize or encourage? Do you think the artist promotes Republican or Nationalist ideals? 
4. After giving groups time to discuss and iron out their answers, come together as a large group and discuss their findings. 
5. Compare these images with your memories/still images of the film Pan's Labyrinth. Does the film use similar imagery? Promote similar ideals? 
6. Share information about the artist, found at Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (.doc download).  

If time had allowed, I would have liked to pair this with a disability studies reading about readings of the body, though I have not determined what that piece might be-- any suggestions are welcomed! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Enough About Me: Teaching Without Teaching

An empty classroom.

While (crankily, reluctantly) sitting down to figure out what to compose this blog post about, I just desperately resorted to making a list of all the teaching related things I'd done this semester. While I was doing so, I realized that this semester served as an interesting reflection of a subject I am theoretically already supposed to be brainstorming about: ways to improve your teaching even while not teaching. I touched a bit on my intention to do so in my New Year's post, so we might as well check up on how I'm getting along!

In the history PhD program at UIUC, we often have the opportunity to teach quite a bit. However, many programs don't have such options-- because they have fewer undergraduates, different department cultures, etcetera, and even here there are people who end up only teaching for a year or a semester during their degree. So how does one accrue teaching experience-- you know, that little thing that is likely to make up a portion of many jobs one gets with a history PhD? How do you write a teaching statement if you haven't taught much and haven't had the opportunity to develop a practice-based teaching philosophy? These things I only came to after teaching, to know that they were useful and would have been useful even if I hadn't had the chance to teach, so I hope that collecting a few suggestions here will be useful to those of you who may be wondering about these questions.

First, times without teaching can be a great time to work on requirements for whatever teaching-related certificates you may be eligible to get. I completed my Graduate Teaching Certificate this semester, in part because I finally had some time to look through old evaluations and notes and write the reflections required. However, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning has a variety of other certificate options which require less teaching, so look at your local offerings-- you may be able to get a teaching certificate based on study of pedagogy even if you don't get the chance to put theory into practice during your career as a student.

Non-teaching semesters and summers can also be great times to attend lectures or join in discussion groups or workshops on teaching. In a very on-brand move, I participated in our department's Reacting to the Past workshop, both as a panelist talking about my experience implementing the pedagogy and as King Louis XVI in a quick round of the French Revolution game. Many workshops such as this are available to you whether you have plans to teach using the techniques or not-- it’s a great way to learn about things that at best, you may want to incorporate into future teaching, and at worst, you may benefit from being familiar with in a conversation or interview.

I also had the opportunity to aid a few professors this semester by filling in for them in leading class or doing some extra grading. Others I know have had success with taking part-time work grading remotely for courses at other institutions. Again, this is a more comfortable role if you have taught before, but if you have the opportunity, activities of this sort can develop your comfort with speaking to strangers and making grading decisions, with the added benefit of feeling less momentous-- after all, you are setting dynamics for one day, not the entire semester, so the stakes are lower; if you're grading students you are not personally acquainted with, it can be easier to take one piece of work and evaluate it.

I'm carrying my teaching practice into the summer by returning to the Center for Talented Youth in June. This is another handy way of getting teaching experience-- seeking opportunities with high schoolers either locally (Urbana High School, for example, is often looking for tutors) or through programs like CTY. 

I mentioned above that I'm supposed to be thinking about how to practice/improve teaching while currently without a teaching position; this is not just due to my resolutions but also to a recently accepted roundtable I've organized for the 2020 American Historical Association meeting. I'll plan to speak more on this topic in this graduate teaching roundtable, so if you're attending, I hope you'll stop in.

How do you work on teaching while not teaching? I'd love to hear in comments. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Enough About Me: What is True Commitment?

Me expressing my enthusiasm for my TU MA in history by reading my thesis atop the sign, 2014.
Photo by Arley Ward.

If you know me very well, you may know of my extreme affinity for my alma mater. I spent five years there, entering as a freshman who thought I might "want to write, maybe;" who had no idea what the difference between a master's and a PhD was; who struggled to afford application and test fees to get into college in the first place. I left Tulsa with bachelor's and master's degrees in history and admission to a PhD program at an R1 university. I say this not to brag but rather to give a sense of how the experience changed the possibilities I had-- how it allowed me to envision myself as a person and a scholar.

As I've gone along the path to PhD, I've often envisioned returning to the University of Tulsa or someplace like it. I loved the small department, the dedication to teaching, and the support I received from faculty and fellow students while I was there (did you know my advisor met with me every week during the last year of my masters and read whatever I was working on?) Every department has its conflicts, of course, but I admired my professors at TU for the passion they brought to their research and teaching, and I wanted one day to be their colleague.

So it hit me hard when, on April 11, TU announced a restructuring they're calling "True Commitment" (insider tip: they love starting things with the word "True"; it's part of their "brand.") The proposed plan, which you can read all about in the administration's words here and in more critical words here, basically involves cutting a bunch of programs and smooshing departments into interdisciplinary megaglobs in support of the "professional super college" the administration wants to create. Closer to home, among the programs slated to be cut is the History MA, without which my life would look very different. The program not only set me on a course I'd never anticipated; it also served as a powerful symbol of my achievement. The degree was meaningful to me and to my colleagues-- so much so that I and my friend Arley Ward, fellow MA graduate and Doctoral Candidate at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, did a photo shoot around campus with our master's theses.
Duncan and Ward having one last coffee in the library cafe, 2014. Photo by Arley Ward. 
There's a lot of useful critiques and great organizing going on in opposition to this plan (which could use your help-- see this petition and this list for descriptions of the plan and quick, easy action items). The language in both of the links above notes the lack of transparency and participation of many student and faculty voices (other than a handpicked few) in the process being a problem, which it certainly is; inconsistencies and vagaries in the plans proposed; the speed of the process seeming hasty for the review of as many departments as the committee was tasked with reviewing. However, for this post, I want to pontificate a bit: about the assumptions surrounding first generation students and the pitfalls of the language of "practicality," about the role of larger trends of higher ed being evoked by this, and about my own disappointment with this turn of events. 

In his piece for City Journal, TU philosophy professor Jacob Howland noted that "At his first meeting with TU faculty in late 2016… Clancy announced that he was turning the ship around: we would now focus on recruiting first-generation college students and offering them job-ready programs." Perhaps because of the obvious problems with messaging-- the university is going to make money by recruiting broke students?-- The Academic Strategy for the University of Tulsa brochure announcing True Commitment does not rely on this language, in favor of veiled and value-laden terms-- the new focus is "professional, practical," (3) "high-touch," and involves something unsettlingly referred to as "secret sauce" (5). It's mystifying to this first generation college student, who found in college a way to interpret her experiences as well as simply learning a trade (in my case, research and writing). If this is an attempt to reach out to first generation students, it undersells what we are capable of and what we are interested in. If this is not such an attempt, it leaves us in the lurch anyway. 

So, what is True Commitment? What does it mean? Who is it for? It seems clear that higher education is broadly afflicted by an administrative obsession with simplistic, neoliberal approaches to reforming how we think about and practice "college." Higher education was never perfect, historically dominated by the powerful and privileged, but the modern solutions seem designed not to reform the intellectual system but to further entrench its inequities by claiming that it is not practical for those without money to think deeply; that the study of the arts and humanities is best left to those who are independently wealthy or parentally supported. "True commitment" is what I had to the institution that taught me who I am, and who I could be, in the most significant, shaping five years of my life. True commitment is what every faculty and student org on campus who has taken up the issue has shown when they voted against it. If this reorganization occurs in the way it has been planned, that commitment will be broken-- I'll have no reason to support, speak highly of, or donate to the institution I've cared so deeply for-- all things I've done or aspired to do. I hope that institution remembers the worth of that sort of commitment, and shows the same to all of us. 

Related Links:
Anyone can sign this petition opposing the "True Commitment" changes. Every signature helps!
A useful piece from 2000 on "The Neo-Liberal University" from New Labor Forum, which focuses more on the role of public universities but is interesting nonetheless. An evocative snippet: "the fundamental roles of public higher education, including providing increased upward mobility for underserved populations, have been displaced by the economic role of serving corporations' global competitiveness."