Monday, January 14, 2008

Starting a New Semester and a New Class: Risk and Fear in 2008

This has been a busy school year for me (hence the long absence of this blog) and this semester is no different. Still, I wanted to talk about this semester a bit as it begins, if only to remind myself later what I hope to accomplish. [Maybe I'll find time a little later for a recap of what worked and what didn't in the blogging I used with two of my classes last semester.]

Major projects this semester:
  1. Host a conference (the Virginia Forum in April).
  2. Be part of a campus discussion about the role of digitization and digital initiatives.
  3. Integrate wiki-based weekly pre-discussions into my US History Survey and Women's history as I've done in previous semesters.
  4. Teach a new digital history seminar.
  5. Other work items include a couple of faculty searches, covering some classes for a colleague, serving on four other committees, writing a conference paper and trying to get my book through the later hoops of publishing.
The wiki-based discussions worked really well last fall and last spring and I look forward to using those again. [I introduced the concept of posting comments about the primary sources readings to a group wiki to my survey class which started today and one student asked, with some measure of disbelief, "Has that actually worked before?" When I told him that this was the third semester and the fourth class I'd used this technique with (and that the previous ones had been very successful), he seemed surprised.] Still, at least some in the class were intrigued (and a couple had already posted just a few hours later).

The digital history class is my biggest new project and the point that I'm most interested in laying out here. A little background first: I have wanted to teach a history and new media class since I started adjuncting in 1999. For a variety of reasons (tenure not the least of them) I haven't managed to get to it. I decided last year that I would teach the class this semester, as a 400-level history department seminar. I began talking to our excellent colleagues in DTLT almost a year ago and we began meetings last fall that started to lay the groundwork for this class. The class as I imagine it won't easily happen without their help.

So what is the class and what are my goals for it? Well, here's the course description:
This seminar will focus on the process of creating digital history. The course readings, workshops, and discussions expose students to the philosophy and practice of the emerging field of History and New Media. The course will be centered on the creation of four digital history projects, all of which are related to making local resources available online. These projects include the creation of an online presence for the James Monroe Papers, the construction of a site expanding on the state historical markers in the Fredericksburg area, the expansion of digital work previously done on James Farmer's presence on campus, and the building of a digital exhibit for UMW's Centennial.
The roster is made up of mostly seniors, but also juniors and a sophomore or two. I've already surveyed their digital interests, comfort level, and self-reported digital skills (maybe more on that later). We've already chosen which projects each student will work on over the course of the semester. Almost every student has already created a blog on UMWBlogs and a del.icio.us account of their own. And we haven't met yet.

Check out the syllabus and the course site for more on the schedule and the rough outlines I've laid out for each group project here. [I should say that I've been inspired in the formation of this class by the work and graduate teaching of digital historians Dan Cohen and Bill Turkel, neither of whom I've met, but whose work I've been able to follow in a particularly New Media way. Equally important has been the work and encouragement of someone I have met (at Faculty Academy last year), namely Barbara Ganley, whose words, blogging, and teaching continue to influence the pedagogical choices I make.]

I'm incredibly excited to teach a class I've wanted to teach in some form for my entire professional teaching career. But I'm also nervous. Nervous because I want the students to be able to choose some of the path the course takes. Nervous because I don't know quite where that means we'll end up. Nervous to ask many different people (from DTLT, from other faculty departments, from other parts of the institution) to work with me and these students on something that might not look very polished in the end. Nervous because I'm asking a lot of people to trust me that this will be worth it. None of that anxiety is stopping me from doing this class. Excitement overwhelms anxiety this evening before the first class. I hope that it will continue to do so throughout the semester.

I hope that the students in this class will read this (I know one of them will soon, but hopefully the others will find it too). I know some of them are nervous as well. Good. I know that some of them don't feel like they know what they're doing. Good. I know that the class as a whole, and as groups, and as individuals, will struggle at times this semester to figure out what it is that their projects and this class is about. Good. I don't mean that I want them to flounder without purpose. I will be there (with the support of some of the best educators I know) to support them and help them find their own way.

But that's just it. I want them to find their own way. I could (and have) assigned digital projects where everything that students did was scripted for them. [And many of them have turned out really well.]

But I don't want that this time. Or, I should say, I want more than that this time. I have given the students broad outlines of digital projects as starting places with some basic structures, and what I see as key components, but I'm not going to dictate what they should do. I've arranged with Martha, Jerry, Andy, Patrick, and Jim to provide students with a digital toolkit, an array of possible tools with which to approach those projects, but I'm not going to tell them which tools they have to use. I've arranged to have expert faculty come and talk to a few of the groups about their projects, but those faculty aren't going to determine the students' projects either.

Those people who still follow this blog after its long absence, I hope you'll check out the course blog, the syllabus, the students' blogs narrating their work, and the projects as they begin to emerge. I, and the students, will benefit from your comments and suggestions.

5 comments:

Shannon said...

Glad to hear your online voice after a long absence.
I'm very excited for this class and I am looking forward to imagining what my group can do with our project, my brain is already contemplating a number ideas to play with.
To steal an idea from Gardner, it looks like this class will be a fine balance of theme park and sandbox. Just enough structure to allow some great stuff to emerge. Let the adventures begin!

The Cobbgoblin said...

The Cobbgoblin is frustrated that no links to the other digital works that you orchestrated ( the American Technology Wikis... that some of us worked hard on) were linked.

William J. Turkel said...

Jeff, the syllabus and website look great. And kudos to you for introducing an undergrad course on digital history (we still don't have one). I'll definitely be following your class blogs. Best, Bill.

Barbara said...

Wow, Jeff, what a terrific-sounding course (one I'd like to take with Shannon)! I am delighted to see you daring/caring to give students the responsibility for their learning and the freedom to explore projects of their own design as you create digital history. I am very much looking forward to following this adventure. If ever there was a place to do this kind of work well, you're in it with your stellar team of educational technology superstars, your colleagues across the disciplines doing similarly inspired work, and your own deep creativity and sound pedagogy. I am envious.

Please do blog it when you can.

~Barbara

Jeff said...

@Shannon -- balancing theme park and sandbox is a tough thing to do, but it is really important to me that I manage that.

@cobbgoblin -- Check out my previous posts about your class. I wrote about it fairly extensively (and said nice things about the work done by your class). :-)

@Bill & Barbara -- Thanks for your kind words. Since the work and blogging of both of you helped shape the structure of this class, I really appreciate that both of you are following along.