I’ve been convinced for a while that one of the best defenses of small classes and face-to-face pedagogy within a liberal arts education would be to make the process of that kind of teaching and coursework more visible to anyone who would like to witness it.
Lots of faculty have experimented with publishing or circulating the work produced by class members, and many have also shared syllabi, notes and other material prepared by the professor. Offering the same kind of detailed look at the day-to-day teaching of a course isn’t very common and that’s because it’s very hard to do. You can’t just videotape each class session: being filmed would have a negative impact on most students in a small 8-15 person course, and video doesn’t offer a good feel for being there anyway. It’s not a compressed experience and so it doesn’t translate well to a compressed medium.
I have been trying to think about ways to leverage participation by crowds to enliven or enrich the classroom experience of a small group of students meeting face-to-face and thus also give observers a stake in the week-by-week work of the course that goes beyond the passive consumption of final products or syllabi.
In that spirit, here’s an idea I’m messing around with for a future course. Basically, it’s the unholy combination of a Buzzfeed listicle and the hard, sustained work of a semester-long course. The goal here would be to smoothly intertwine an outside “audience” and an inside group of students and have each inform the other. Outsiders still wouldn’t be watching the actual discussions voyeuristically, but I imagine that they might well take a week-to-week interest in what the class members decided and in the rationale laid out in their notes.
History 90: The Best Works of History
Students in this course will be working together over the course of the semester to critically appraise and select the best written and filmed works that analyze, represent or recount the past. This will take place within a bracket tournament structure of the kind best known for its use in the NCAA’s “March Madness”.
The initial seeding and selection of works will to be read by class members will be open to public observers as well as enrolled members of the class. The professor will use polls and other means for allowing outside participants to help shape the brackets. One side of the bracket will be works by scholars employed by academic institutions; the other side will be works by independent scholars, writers, and film-makers who do not work in academia.
The first four weeks of the class will be spent reading and discussing the nature of excellence in historical research and representation: not just what “the historian’s craft” entails, but even whether it is possible or wise to build hierarchies that rely on concepts of quality or distinctiveness. Class members will decide through discussion what they think are some of the attributes of excellent analytic or representational work focused on the past. Are histories best when they mobilize struggles in the present, when they reveal the construction of structures that still shape injustice or inequality? When they document forms of progress or achievement? When they teach lessons about common or universal challenges to human life? When they amuse, enlighten or surprise? When they are creatively and rhetorically distinctive? When they are thoroughly and exhaustively researched?
At the end of this introductory period, students will craft a statement that explains the class’ shared criteria, and this statement will be published to a course weblog, where observers can comment on it. Students will then be divided into two groups for each side of the bracket. Each group will read or view several works each week on their side of the overall bracket. During class time, the two groups will meet to discuss their views about which work in each small bracket should go forward in the competition and why, taking notes which will eventually be published in some form to the course weblog. Students will also have to write a number of position papers that critically appraise one of the books or films in the coming week and that examine some of the historiography or critical literature surrounding that work.
The final class meeting will bring the two groups together as they attempt to decide which work should win the overall title. In preparation, all students will write an essay discussing the relationship between scholarly history written within the academic and the production of historical knowledge and representation outside of it.