Whether to blog about teaching

Graph of the Blogosphere

One of the big things I get from being part of the medieval academic blogospheric conspiracy effort is a shedload of perspectives and wisdom on teaching. A lot of the people in my blogroll are engaged, one way or another, with communicating stuff about the Middle Ages to the young, or at least, the novitiate. Those who blog anonymously or pseudonymously have the most freedom to talk about this, and if I tried to list the times I’ve read something at Blogenspiel, The Rebel Letter, Not of General Interest, Quills or The Adventures of Notorious, Ph. D., to name but a few, and thought, “ah, I’ve met that” or “I’m sure to meet that before long” and been educated by their responses, or at least recognised the particular brick wall against which their heads have been banging, I… well, it would be a long list. The process of evaluation and design of outcomes that these people put themselves through has taught me, who have just done less of this than have they, a lot.

Now that I’m teaching again, I’d like to give something back, but not being anonymous, the issues are very different, even supposing that I have anything to say. The last teaching gig I had, one of my students had found this blog within a week, and my teaching group was so small then that there was really no way that, if I’d said anything more specific than “I need to re-write that lecture if I ever give it again”, it would have been possible to obscure what ‘teaching moment’ had inspired me. That seemed like something to avoid, not least because it was unfair on the students to expose them like that but also because it might potentially be actionable. After all, the law on blogs is pretty darn rubbish as yet. Similarly, if I’d said something that could be read as a comment on an institution where I was readily locatable, given the number of my colleagues who know this is here, it would probably not have made any friends unless I’d only said nice things.1 Some people manage this, Richard Nokes and Michael Drout most obviously successfully pull off the double of being both positive and also informative about their classroom practice and results, but I’m not at their level. For all these reasons, student confidentiality, institutional codes of practice written or tacit, correct self-promotion and my own sense of how much I have to learn at this game even now (do we ever stop, after all?) I shall not be blogging about teaching here.

Except. This paragraph is my only exception. The week of writing, this passage from Notker the Stammerer’s Gesta Karoli was in the assigned reading for the seminars, among a lot of other stuff, but there:

This incident led to another much greater and more important. For, when your imperial majesty’s most holy grandfather departed from life, certain … mighty men, I say, despised the most worthy children of Charles, and each tried to seize for himself the command in the kingdom and themselves to wear the crown.2

Now, these kids all have History A-Levels, or at least responded yes to my initial check that they did. It seems that a full quarter of the marks at A-Level (which is England’s final school qualification for those of or around 18 years of age) in History, at least in the first board I searched up, still go for commentary on actual source extracts, and so it should. In other words, they ought to have done this before. So, I feel quite strongly that the question, “So, who is Notker writing this for?” should not have drawn an utter blank from the entirety of both my seminars at this point. Even if they can’t work out who exactly the “imperial majesty” in question is, I would submit that those words are a clue. But no dice. I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, which seems to me like a failure of reading comprehension. I don’t have much latitude to change materials or class titles, so there’s only so remedial I can get and I don’t even think that’s really the right approach, but I should certainly be doing more than nagging them to read more closely and providing examples or testing their reading each week. But one way or another I intend that by the end of the semester they will be reading things for details as well as for overall sense. And any advice that the sages of the Interwebs have here will be gratefully appreciated.

1. I will however risk saying here that if anyone reading is in the UK and does a bit of carpentry or braziery on the side, you should consider getting in touch with KCL’s History Department and offering to make them some new map-mounts. The maps they have and can’t use are miles better than anything anyone will ever be able to put through a data projector and it’s a shame. I bodged up ways of using them while I was there, stringing them from screen housings and so on, but it would be better to be able to have both map and screen at once and I think they might be sympathetic to some suitably pragmatic offer to that end.

2. It’s from cap. 12, one of four paragraphs of Notker they had to lose it in.

18 responses to “Whether to blog about teaching

  1. Oh, thank goodness! You’ve given me a reminder of something I have been wanting to write for a while. The long-term answer is that you might want to get your hands on Sam Wineberg’s (Wineburg?) Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, because there are a couple of essays in it that address some of the issues that we take for granted about dealing with sources.

    One shorter term answer is that you might want to take some time and talk about external and internal criticism with them. If you want me to shoot you the handout I’ve been using (I think I might be expanding on it), let me know.

    And then a really short answer is that this web site might be of some little use.

    • If you could buzz me the handout that might be most useful: I don’t have much latitude to bend readings but asking basic questions about the sources doesn’t seem to be warning them to expect those next time even when I say as much. Things are improving since I drafted this, though. And, happy to spur your memory…

  2. Oh dear! You shouldn’t really need a history A-level for that one. I did IB History at Higher Level (roughly equivalent to A-level history) and this was part of the programme even at the GCSE level.

    I don’t really have any experience teaching this sort of thing, but I remember how it was taught to us: the 5 Ws (who, what, when, why and for whom), and many repeats aloud in the classroom of asking each question aloud. Basically, every time there was a source we had to be prepared to be called on to answer these questions. I actually used similar techniques for teaching SEN basic reading comprehension with decent results. :P

  3. Was the problem with your question that your students took it to be a factual one, requiring one specific correct answer? Because if so, it make a lot of sense for no-one to comment, unless they happened to know about Charles the Fat (and let’s face it, not many people do). Would you have got the same answer if you had started by asking ‘What kind of an audience was Notker writing for?’ Because then you’re more clearly signalling that an approximate or tentative answer is what you want, not a specific detail. In contrast, once you’ve said ‘who’ and they don’t know, any further prompting on your part may just make them feel that they’re being given clues to someone whose name they still don’t know.

    I’m learning with my daughter that even though she’s bright, she’s quite likely to say ‘I don’t know’ to a question if she feels it’s one that she might get wrong. I think part of learning to be a teacher is understanding how to encourage even not very good responses to questions you ask.

  4. I think blogging about teaching is a very good thing. We can pass around good tricks, pedagogical approaches, etc. very easily via the web. I think the key to being able to consistently write about teaching is to avoid getting into the ‘OMG my students are so stoopid’ mode that one finds (not among medievalists, usually) in many anonymous teaching blogs. I always assume that my students will find my blog, but I don’t think I self-censor much. I just try to be able to laugh at myself a little and enjoy the surreal moments that you get in a classroom.

    • I’ve come close to that mode here, of course, but I think if it hadn’t been a universal failure to grasp the text I wouldn’t have, or people might have felt singled out. I think I need rather more perspective on my teaching before I start having the certainty to be able to offer any tricks, though; I always feel much the junior in conversations with people who’ve been teaching any length of time, though some of that is the adjunct’s problem of never having adequate control of the material or adequate warning to prepare as one would like.

  5. It is always good to express yourself on various platforms. Blogging is one of those where you can put your views for the betterment of the students and fellow teachers. I think students should also be invited to blog. It will help to narrow the bridge between students and teachers.

    • I think that there is a potential for offence there; students will probably says things online—indeed, teachers will—that they wouldn’t say to the teacher (or student) in person. That could get damaging quickly. So perhaps the challenge with such a venture would be to get the feedback without damaging the teacher-pupil relationship.

  6. I hope I am not one of the medievalists who writes ‘the students are so stupid’ blogs! I know I have come close on occasions.

    Are these first-year students. I tend to assume nothing with the first years and go right back to basics. Sometimes we get beyond the why, what, where etc. approach in week 2; sometimes we are still there in week 10, but eventually by the end of semester 2 we get there. A-level teaching is extremely patchy and with medieval history, we have the advantage of starting with a clean sheet (apart from the three out of 250 who might have heard of Charlemagne or the Norman Conquest in their sixth-form work). Remember that for many students, medieval history is seen as being ‘hard’. Don’t be afraid to give what you think might be too much direction at first – it will probably be just about right.

    • They are first-years, yes, and if I’d had the design of the course I might have had a couple of sandbox seminars at the beginning where we did some basic playing with sources, but as it is they’re running as they hit the ground. Some of them are getting it now, but I hope we can save them all.

  7. Did you see the link I posted in response to Jonathan Dresner at my place? Or indeed, his link? I think they both might be helpful.

    • Yes, I’ve been paying eager attention to that conversation (and indeed joined it). There’s some good suggestions for exercises there. I can’t however set them any extra work, so it all has to go into the seminars; cramps my style somewhat. My lot’s seminar readings have questions attached like Jonathan’s have, but not as targeted, and changing that’s one way to get the lever into the material for them I hope.

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