Practical and equity-minded class changes

As I finish preparing my classes for Fall in a time of plague and social distress, I’m making several changes with contemporary practical/pedagogical issues and equity issues in mind.

Make textbook reading optional

My textbooks were already free and included as part of the class, and were well-balanced in terms of coverage of events and social groups. Most I edited myself, and they took a lot of time and thought.

Practical/pedagogical: They don’t have time to read everything, and reading blocks of text on a phone is wearying. This stuff simply won’t be remembered. I want to focus on process and skills instead, doing things rather than reading. I made textbook reading optional during the summer, and had several students contact me about items in the textbook anyway.

Equity-minded: Even the textbooks I edited myself are still “traditional”, focusing on facts and tending to ignore the thinking shaped by the last ten years of scholarship, particularly on race and gender issues. Textbooks themselves are increasingly seen as tools of the elite, creating a narrative that keeps social hierarchies intact. The diverse voices of the past are more significant than the interpretation of those voices in a secondary text, particularly since my lectures already contain a secondary synthesis.

Eliminate content quizzes

I have set up the quizzes to be as fair as possible, with no time limit. All are open textbook (see above) and have been rigorously tested by students in other classes. They are multiple-choice and score immediately, providing instant feedback. They took much time to create.

Practical/pedagogical: Since the first part of each week already features lecture, and the whole week may be needed for annotating primary documents, the quiz is shoved to the end of the week. That’s too much to do in a time of plague, and it divides the mental tasks too much. If the textbook is optional, such quizzes are unnecessary.

Equity-minded: Quizzes are intimidating, and present themselves as being objective when they really aren’t. Such assessment tools have built-in barriers. These are technological (it’s not easy to take a Canvas quiz on your phone), emotional (quizzes cause stress even when you have multiple tries), and cultural (they privilege those individuals trained to answer factual questions quickly and confidently). Like textbooks, “objective” tests in general are viewed as enforcing social hierarchies. Instead, I have students turning in lecture notes, annotating primary sources, and writing on their own subjects, all of which can be informed by what they bring to the class from their own experience.

Beef up Learning Units

There are five Learning Units: two about primary sources, and one each for the three Writing Assignments. They are designed to teach students the skills before they engage the practice. Each features a written and illustrated lesson, followed by a quiz that has drop-down and matching choices.

Practical/pedagogical: I had a comment on a summer evaluation that Learning Units should be longer and more detailed. Students realize these are helpful to doing well on assignments, but need more.

Equity-minded: Not everyone comes to college prepared to do college-level work, and preparatory low-stakes exercises help such students gain confidence as they earn points for learning the ropes. But more hands-on help may be needed. Even though my classes are asynchronous, I am considering Zoom sessions that would take students not only through the unit but through the quiz together.

Emphasize annotating primary sources

My primary sources are carefully selected — I once had a student call them an “activist workbook”. They are a mix of political documents, cultural expressions, and on-the-spot journalism. We annotate using Perusall.

Practical/pedagogical: Reading things written long ago takes more time and energy, as does interacting with ones colleagues. Annotating primary documents combines social interaction and helping each other with deep reading of the sources. In a time of plague, I want students to focus their attention on fewer items, and those items must be significant.

Equity-minded: The primary documents I have students annotate are the voices of the actual people who experienced their time, and their voices are diverse. If we want students to “see themselves” in their work, they need to hear from history’s people.

Remind about individualization

In all my classes, students find and post visual primary sources for the era being studied. Then all writing assignments are based on the collections of sources all students have created. I tell them they can follow their own interests, posting sources that fit their topic and writing all three assignments, each building on the last, about their topic. They don’t have to do this if they wish to just put together papers using available sources, but they can.

Practical/pedagogical: I want to continue to offer a choice, but some students simply do not believe that they can follow their own interests, and assume I secretly want papers on “The Impact of Andrew Jackson on the Cherokee” or “Should We Have Dropped the Bomb”. I don’t. I want original theses the students create themselves. It makes plagiarism a non-issue and creates papers that are so much more interesting to read. Since some students don’t figure out that they can do this until the last assignment, I want to remind, remind, remind. With examples.

Equity-minded: Some of the very best papers I have read resulted from a student following her own complaint or perspective about society’s ills. Supporting ones own view, informed by ones own circumstances, with historical evidence makes for much stronger arguments against racism, oppression, classicism, sexism, etc. Intellectually and methodologically solid argumentation is a major tool in the fight for social change.

There are other issues to address, of course, that may not be seen as either pedagogical or related to equity in the current sense. Most of those will be in the practice of teaching: kindness as a default, for example. And I went at this backwards. I’ve attended numerous workshops and read many blog posts and articles on equity-minded practice, but it seemed like I was already doing everything I could while being true to my own belief in equality of opportunity. I change some of what I do every semester. But it only occurred to me as I was making these changes I innately felt were necessary why I was making them. Perhaps others will go about this in a more forthright way, but I think the result will be helpful to students on a number of levels.

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