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Flipping History

20 Aug Posted by in Academics | 1 comment
Flipping History

I’m about to begin my introductory World History course, which I’ve taught at least once a year now for three decades. As the field has developed and I have learned at least a bit more, and as the world itself has changed, the course has altered substantially, so I’m not embarrassed at its duration. It’s an exciting, rapidly changing field and my own enthusiasm is undimmed.

As I’ve mentioned before, however, I hope this year to do a more fully participatory class—if not flipped, as the current parlance goes, at least tilted considerably. I’ve long since abandoned the notion that the course should be primarily lectures, as opposed to shorter statements interspersed with a lot of discussion. But I’d like to go further.

There are, however, some constraints. A predictable one is the extent to which a further conversion depends on a good number of students doing reading and analytical preparation in advance. I will tell them about expectations, but I anticipate some disappointments. We’ll have to see if I can make the flipped part sufficiently engaging, and sufficiently connected to ultimate grades, to make this aspect work adequately.

Then there is the related issue that historical analysis—what I’ve long wanted to aim for—is impossible without some factual knowledge. There’s always a danger that working sessions will turn into assessments of what facts are indeed known, because of a shaky grasp of new materials even when the materials were consulted in advance.

But the big challenge is the extent to which fields like history have not usually defined themselves in terms of problem sets, as many math and science courses can do. We actually do expect students to solve problems, when it comes to papers and exams, but we often think of the subject matter in the meantime in more purely descriptive terms. My daughter, who teaches psychology and is also hoping to flip a bit more, believes she faces some of the same issues.

What I hope to do, at least once a week, is save a considerable amount of class time to work on a historical problem that will be defined in advance. It may involve comparison, or causation, or testing the significance of change. It will, I hope, at least by the second half of the course, involve determining local versus global factors in shaping human societies—one of the areas where world history should be contributing to student thinking but where, in fact, our actual pedagogical experience is not very well defined.

We’ll see how it goes, and how different it is from what I’d already been doing in recent years, and whether my ratings (usually pretty good I can note with due modesty) suffer in the process. I always like to feel a bit nervous before a new class starts, and I feel this for sure this time around. My efforts at deeper engagement will test the students, and I know they will test me. Should be fun.