Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lecture at UNT

My visit to the University of North Texas was quite enjoyable.  The lecture I gave on my book, The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello, was well attended.  Several graduate students asked good questions and I enjoyed interacting with the faculty from the History Department.  Jennifer Jensen Wallach hosted a dinner following the lecture where I got to spend more time with several folks from the History and English Departments at UNT over delicious vegetarian Indian food.  A word should be said about the impressive array of shortbread cookie variations that Jen baked for the occasion: rosemary and kosher salt was probably my favorite!  On Friday I had lunch with some History graduate students and got to hear about their interesting projects.  The students studying African American history have some very promising research ideas.  Many thanks to the faculty, students and staff at UNT for the opportunity to speak at your school!

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Writing Workshops

The writing workshops in my four sections of the US history survey went very well!  This exercise evolved because this past summer I was seeking strategies other than lecture to engage with students in sizeable classes.  The graduate program director at Sam Houston State suggested a model wherein teams of teaching assistants would facilitate small group discussions with the students and offer guidance for completing an in-class writing assignment.  I developed an activity based on analysis of visual sources for the classes as well as a detailed rubric to help guide the teaching assistants in both leading the group discussions and grading the essays.

The results, so far, are quite favorable.  The four classes range in size from around fifty to eighty for a total of around 270 students.  In each class, students worked with a teaching assistant in groups of about eight to twelve.  There were between six and eight teaching assistants collaborating in each class session.  After twenty to twenty-five minutes of analyzing the visual images through discussion, the students wrote short essays that made connections between the primary sources and themes we had recently examined in class.  The overall goals were to offer guidance to hone the students’ writing skills and to promote discussion in a format that would encourage broader participation and improve their oral communication skills.

The essays that I spot checked so far indicate that the students took the assignment seriously.  Most were able to develop a thesis and revise their ideas under the guidance of the teaching assistants.  Some of the essays I read definitely exceeded my expectations.  From talking with the students and reading their evaluations of the process, it looks like around 90-95% of them found the exercise to be useful and many of them expressed a desire to do this again at some point in the semester.  Others said they felt more comfortable engaging in discussion in a smaller group setting because they felt intimidated about speaking up in front of the full group.  One student made a point to shake the hand of the teaching assistant she had worked with and thanked him for his help before she left the class which was gratifying for the teaching assistant and heartening for me as well.

A handful of students noted that group discussion was not their preferred learning method and that they preferred to be able to take an essay home and polish it a bit more.  If I can undertake this exercise again, I will revise it based on these considerations.  The extent to which the group discussions were beneficial was largely based on the level of experience and enthusiasm of the teaching assistants.  I met with the teaching assistants to brainstorm discussion ideas and strategies the day before the workshops and I was pleased with their performance overall.  A few of them have a real love for working with the students and were able to shine.  Those who were new and more tentative got some excellent classroom experience.

On a personal level, though I did not expect it, this turned out to be one of the most satisfying experiences I have had as an educator.  While the exercise did require more than the average amount of preparation time, it was definitely worthwhile.  Because the teaching assistants were handling the nuts and bolts of the writing activity, I was able to circulate around the room.  I could work with students one-on-one in a manner would not have been possible without the support of the teaching assistants.  I listened to discussions and heard students who don’t usually talk in class making excellent points.  Most importantly, I now feel like I have much more of a personal rapport with many of my students and that does not usually happen when one is teaching 270 students.  It is a day that I won’t soon forget.

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