So I’ve overhauled my survey course on the history of the Atlantic slave trade in West Africa this semester as an experiment in “flipping the classroom”. I’m not quite flipping the way that some do, with lectures as homework and problem sets in the classroom, but that’s a bit of the spirit of what I’m doing.
The way the course is going to work is that the syllabus will be something of a work in progress, especially after the first five weeks or so.
I’ve identified two major questions that will drive the course: why did the Atlantic slave trade happen to West and Central African societies, and what were the consequences of incorporation into the Atlantic system for West and Central African societies? We will spend time in class sessions breaking down those questions into more manageable subquestions that have purchase in the existing historiography. During class, and sometimes outside of class, as an assignment, we will be locating relevant scholarship or other materials to help us work with these questions, and we will then read some of that work together in class, taking collaborative notes on a shared document.
I’ll have another shared document called “Lecture Requests” open during class where students can semi-anonymously request that I spend some time talking about a subject that is either confusing in the scholarly literature or that seems both important and too diffuse for us to fully grasp from the readings alone. Sometimes I’ll try to lecture as soon as I see a request, other times I’ll wait and do it in the next class, especially when I feel the need to prep a bit on that particular subject.
We’ll also keep a spreadsheet “reading log” that I will eventually export into Viewshare so we can create visualizations from our reading (say, a map of places in West and Central Africa that we read about during the semester). We’ll have a few other docs open during most class sessions (one for harvesting good specific search terms for further use in locating appropriate materials, for example).
I’m doing this because I’d like to see if there’s a better way to both produce more consistent command over a body of knowledge than my usual pedagogy does and at the same time do something more powerful or lasting in terms of showing students how to learn, how to build knowledge out of reading and note-taking. I’m fairly convinced by Randy Bass, Cathy Davidson, Douglas Thomas and others that if we want to make the case that maintaining the high quality of intensive face-to-face teaching requires and thus justifies hiring expensive, highly trained professionals, we need to find ways to make sure that the time we spend in classrooms is the best use of that time that we can think of within the information-rich, profoundly-networked world that we actually inhabit.
A lot of the class will be visible in public (and I’m linking it to Hastac’s #FutureEd initiative), so I invite curious onlookers and helpful kibitizers to take a look now and again and see what they think about how it’s going.