Starting From Scratch

Sometimes just revising a course isn't enough, writes Rob Weir.


July 20, 2011

Did you ever notice how many metaphors we have for “fresh?” One can be as fresh as a daisy, a spring rain, a mountain stream, the newly mown hay, paint, spring, or a crisp apple, and that’s just a small sample. Our society also uses fresh to modify perspective, and that’s the subject of this piece. Most of my columns offer advice to newly minted instructors, but this one is aimed at those who — to use another metaphor — have been around the block a few times. Its central thesis has a profoundly perverse-sounding premise: if you’ve been doing something for a long time in a particular way, just stop — particularly if you’re sick of doing it, or if you’re not getting the results you desire. You might wish to stop what you’ve been doing just because you’ll astonish yourself with the results.

I'm not talking about revision; any professor worth his or her metaphorical salt does that. I've never taught the same course the same way in my life and never will; new generations bring differing skill sets, and even classes from the same generation have divergent needs and interests. Many of you probably have files such as mine: notes, lectures, and lesson plans filled with marginalia, crossed out material, sticky notes, and addenda. In electronic form we have material that is version 1.9, and that doesn’t include the number of lessons we’ve trashed in class in favor of alternatives that were never documented. We revise because that’s what good professors do: bring experience to bear, stay current with new research, and engage in constant rounds of self-improvement.

Keep doing that, but allow me to defend an even more radical approach that results in an absolutely fresh perspective. The comedy troupe Firesign Theater once posed the absurdist dilemma, "Everything you know is wrong." What if you took that as an axiom for a course you’ve been teaching for a long time? What would happen if you didn’t open the old files at all? What if you acted as if you had never taught that course, didn’t grasp the material entirely, and had to build it from the bottom up? You might be surprised at what a wonderful semester awaits you.

I did this last year, not because I was feeling innovative but because I was bored. I came down with pneumonia -- in the summer no less — and was housebound for what seemed like much longer than it took Lawrence to pacify the Arabian Desert. I knew that I had a fall course awaiting on the history of the Gilded Age, one I had taught before. Maybe it was restlessness, maybe it was the antibiotics, but when I opened my files I just didn’t like what I saw. I tinkered for several days, scrawled the requisite marginalia on lectures and exhausted a pack of post-it notes. Blah! If there was any silver lining in being sick in the summer — and there wasn’t bloody much — it was the inspiration to close the file and start fresh.

I read books I had been meaning to read or reread for years but hadn’t, went online to look at syllabuses from other professors, and considered popular culture perspectives on the topic. (I was surprised to learn there were more than I had imagined.) Mostly I tried to think outside my boxes. I tell novice instructors that our profession involves dollops of acting, even if we’re not in the performing arts, so I challenged myself to heed that advice and infuse drama into the course. I imagined ways to get (trick?) students to think my course was unique. In the end, I had one of the best semesters I’ve had in over 30 years of teaching. Here are just a few things I did. I don’t claim they are earth-shattering in their originality, only that they were new to me within my Gilded Age course. Steal them if you find them useful, but my primary point is the value of working outside one’s normal comfort zone, however that is done within your discipline.

My first challenge was conceptual. The word “gilded” is archaic, and it has particular connotations in American history concerning the veneer of wealth that could not hide the staggering social problems of the late 19th-century. So I went to the local dollar store, bought identical glittery "gold" gift bags and several packages of bite-size Hershey’s chocolates that are wrapped as if they were gold bars. On the first day of class I brought the bags to class and asked for a class volunteer to open the gift reserved for the students. It contained a hard crust of bread. Then I said, "Let’s see what’s in my bag," dumped my gold bars onto the table, and ran my hands through them like a maddened Midas. Next I flashed PowerPoint lyrics of an MP3 file I played, “Labor’s Ninety and Nine,” a Gilded Age classic of the masses who struggle while masters lived in luxury. I did all of this before imparting a single bit of traditional content. Finally I explained what gilded meant and why Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner so christened the period. I also told them of the song’s origins and why so many people agreed with the lyrics. But back to those gold bars.

An old labor leader, Harry Bridges, was once accosted by a politician demanding to know if he was a communist. Bridges replied, "Congressman, if I thought you knew the difference between communism and rheumatism I’d answer that question." Add any old ism you want, and very few undergraduates can articulate what they mean. My course required that they have some immediate understanding of those isms. I saw students eyeing the chocolate and told them that they’d be reading documents on Social Darwinism, gave them a thumbnail definition, and advised that Social Darwinists cited many reasons why it was good for wealth to concentrate into the hands of a few. I also told them that they’d be reading Edward Bellamy, who argued that everyone ought to have exactly the same amount, and encouraged students to (pre)consider the merits and demerits of each idea. (O.K., I softened and went Bellamy before the class ended!) Score one for the prof; students made reference to this lesson throughout the semester.

I also decided to frame the material differently. I adore Mark Twain and used the DVD release of the blockbuster film Avatar as my hook to make Twain a course centerpiece. I told the class that he would be their semester-long avatar, but because he was deceased he was the type of avatar called a psychopomp, a guide to the realm of the dead. (They liked the word!) I pitched each lesson around something Twain wrote or said, which worked quite well.

Two of my more successful strategies involved research. Getting students to commit to topics can be frustrating — distressingly gendered topic selections are made, a few students dawdle, and others insist they can research topics you know they can’t. I had planned to show Martin Scorsese’s film version of The Age of Innocence and wanted students to comment on its usefulness as a historical document. I previewed the film, took some notes, and then went to class with a sheet of paper with blanks numbered 1 to 40 (the class size). I simply passed it around the room and told students to write their name in any blank they wished, and write the number in their notebooks.

When I collected the sheet I advised them to go to the course website to see which research topic they had "won." The class assignment was to research that term, person, or event and compile a one- to two-page specialists’ Wikipedia-like entry and email it to me. (I provided samples on the site.) I warned that it needed to be edited, as all their peers would see it. I then posted all the entries on the website, we viewed the film, and they did the assignment using only lecture notes, assigned reading, and peer websites. It was great fun to have males writing on topics such as high tea, ball gowns, and the language of flowers for a change. The papers were a delight!

I did a something similar for my final. I had each student select a single year of the Gilded Age. I then asked them to write their birthday beside that year. Their culminating exercise was to adopt a single issue of either The Boston Globe or The New York Times — their birthday on the year selected — go to the library, and read it. All of it, from ads and classifieds to international news and entertainment. Their task was to "explain" and "decode" that paper. Not only did I get fabulous papers, numerous students thanked me for the assignment and said it made them feel like a "real historian."

I did lots of other (for me) unorthodox things. I held a discussion about 3D technology and then passed around a stereoscope with Victorian slides in it. We held a readers’ theater comprised of the writings of Native Americans and compiled an image bank of people’s faces to discuss race, social policy, and eugenics in the Gilded Age. Students considered the content of what they’d put in their utopian novels when they read Bellamy. And so on….

To reiterate an earlier point, this all happened because I threw away all that I had taught in the past. I did not, of course, really wipe the slate of all that I had previously learned about the period, but it was a stimulating and rewarding exercise to pretend for a time that everything I knew was wrong. Try it while there’s some summer left and your batteries are recharging. You might come away as fresh as a — well, you know!


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