Now I’m In For It

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.

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5 Responses to Now I’m In For It

  1. Can you say more about the audience for this course? Is it mostly designed for history majors or do you get students from other disciplines? Do you have a more detailed rubric for evaluating the 25% participation that you give students–or is the information here sufficient for them?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I get non-majors and also a range of students in terms of class years, which has always been a challenge for this and other surveys–we don’t teach them as introductions, but we do see them as a good gateway to the discipline.

    I think to some extent the rubric for participation is “active”, “constructive”, “thoughtful” in ascending order of difficulty and contribution to a strong assessment. Everybody has to be active–and I think this format will permit more people to be active in that sense. I think most people can make constructive or useful contributions. Thoughtful is sort of the “A” of participation. I will be showing them examples of all three across the range of participatory work we’re doing.

  3. CarlD says:

    I’m so excited about this. I like to think that this is the kind of course that can intercept and redirect to more effective purpose some of the earnest critical reflexing I see in your commentary recently. Maybe we know how to figure out how things work, how to step back from the quick flash of outrage, parochialism, and ideological preening, how to see dynamics in enough depth and with enough clarity to angle for some influence beyond the blunt force of parties in conflict. But what we know how to do does the students no good at all – they need to know how to do it, and they can only learn that by practice.

    In my world history sections this semester I’ve gone back to an old favorite, Nzinga Mbemba’s letter to the King of Portugal. Just figuring out the power dynamics embedded in that little thing takes the better part of two weeks, spiraling back to ramp up the research skills to fill in context and intertext. Most of my students are raw beginners who think history is names, dates, and Hitler’s peculiar failure to notice that he wasn’t blonde. When something is wrong, they go looking for the Hitler, the one actor in whom all the power is concentrated; in the letter, they’re baffled how a King could seem so pathetic, supplicant and powerless to make things go his way. I could tell them, but then they wouldn’t know how to notice that neither our university’s nor our country’s presidents get much of what they want, either.

  4. Western Dave says:

    What are you using for the collaborative notetaking?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Just a Google doc for now. Was going to try Evernote but we don’t have a campus license for it.

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