Category Archives: teaching

When a Picture is a Thousand Words

Or at least several hundred. My co-instructor and I wrapped up the latest offering of The History of the Western Occult, HIST 3406, with a discussion about themes, topics and ideas we’ve all been working with over the last three months. It was a lively end to a fun course that teaches a lot of valuable skills for historians all in pursuit of cool topics, obviously!

My favourite part of the wind-up is the use of word clouds (generated over at Wordle). Word Cloud of Occult History Terms It’s interesting to see what gets emphasized more, or less, in a course. I threw in all the text that had appeared on our course slides – this is the result for my half of the course which runs from antiquity into the seventeenth century. Yes, a very heavy emphasis on magic in my classes. I’m not sure if that’s a weakness or a strength?

This second word cloud comes from my co-instructor, Dr. Dave Leeson, who taught the topics from the seventeenth century to the contemporary era. Word Cloud of Occult History Terms The contrast and comparison between the two makes for some really intriguing insights both into our different ways of approaching the occult but also into the very different ways that occult history has developed since the Enlightenment era.

Hopefully they’ll also be useful tools to stimulate our students’ minds as they study for the final exam coming next week!

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Time Management and Teaching

As we support Youngest in her transition to university, I’m reminded of how vitally important are all those skills that aren’t only academic, especially the skills of time management. In my own undergraduate days, I wasn’t a paragon of time management prowess. Many essays were typed the Sunday before they were due only by virtue of the fact that it took most of a day to go from handwritten notes on legal pads and a towering stack of books beside my table to typewritten essay. I kept well ahead of readings mostly because I love reading but I lacked the savvy to read efficiently so that the only thing that saved me was my ability to speed-read. I never pulled all-nighters, but I stayed up too late too many times doing too much stuff at the last minute. In short, I wasn’t good at time management but I learned through the school of hard knocks.

I’ve tried to teach time management to my students in university – not as a broad set of academic principles, but in practical requirements for the course that force students to try out some time management principles by scaffolding assignments with proposals, submitting drafts or discussing their progress on a regular basis. I’ve become convinced of the value of planning work ahead, even to the point of assigning myself fictitious due dates (a few weeks or a month ahead of what’s required) to ensure that I’m not, myself, working up against an impossible deadline.

Youngest, who has autism as an additional factor, doesn’t cope at all well with last-minute pressure, wouldn’t work well burning the midnight oil and doesn’t know how or want to BS her way out of undone readings and homework (hallelujah!). But she doesn’t intuitively know how to break down a list of due dates and class schedules into an actual plan of attack. So we’ve been spending time with her these first weeks of term showing her how to identify what needs to be done and then putting that into a plan of attack for the week ahead (as well as, in a general way, the entire term). Here’s what we do:

  1. Open up her planner agenda for this week (after scanning the month page that lists all major items)

  2. Review course manuals (syllabus/outline/whatever), learning management systems and class notes for what needs to be done this week (readings, labs, quizzes) as well as what might be good to prepare for further ahead

  3. Estimate how much time each activity will take – 30 minutes/problem for these questions; 3 hours for this reading, etc.

  4. Write all that needs to be done in this week’s NOTES section

  5. Note each individual task on the week day it’s going to be done

  6. Cross off achievements as they’re completed and don’t forget to submit all completed work (that’s on the list, too)

We’ll see how this goes. So far today she’s done two parts of one big assignment and read through a textbook chapter. I’m off to remind her now that the first two books of The Odyssey (another part of today’s goal) still await before I take a moment to write down and organize my own week’s activities because I’m realizing this level of planning can work for me as well as for her!

Want more time management material? York U’s excellent Time Management Guide and Many Time Management Resources & Links at Dartmouth. Enjoy! It’s time for me to get back to class prep. That’s in my schedule, you see!

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HIST 3406: The Occult in Western History

Another autumn course is this course on the occult that I’m team-teaching with a delightful colleague, David Leeson. The Occult in Western History surveys esoteric beliefs and practices from ancient times through the twentieth century. Thankfully, I have my colleague to tackle everything after the witch-hunts!

I look upon this course as a way to discombobulate the students, forcing them to clearly articulate what they know and believe as well as what people in the past knew and believed (and the essential differences between the two). How does it change our understanding of early Christianity when we acknowledge how it related to magical beliefs of the time and created new secretive philosophies to engage thinkers? How are alchemy and chemistry related and yet also distinct? How much of the occult can be explained by a lot of lonely people throughout history who just want to find true love (or epic wealth or gain respect or whatever they lack)?

The trick is not to make it all about lecturing but to get the students to participate. This is the second time we’re teaching the course so I’ve added even more questions and discussion prompts to my daily lists. In the opening weeks of term we’ll be reading The Perfect Discourse and using that to lead them into the hermetic occult tradition. Then they’ll pursue some research projects before wrapping up their term work with a study of Nightmare Alley.

I expect we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way, not the least of which will be bringing up and appropriately debunking pop culture takes on the occult like this:

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HIST 4516: Early Medieval Chronicles

I’m teaching a seminar in the autumn term on early medieval histories. (The course title uses the word “chronicles” not to focus particularly on those works but to reduce confusion with the second-year survey on early medieval history.) I went through a wholesale course redesign this summer to better intermix scholarly chapters and articles with the wealth of primary sources I rely upon. The course focuses on the early medieval genre of history and how histories were made and used in the period. One goal of the course is to open students’ minds to how immediate was the world of early medieval history. At the same time as they hearkened back to ancient Rome or the early church, much of the history that they crafted was about their own time or their near-contemporaries.

You can download the the PDF course outline. If you take a look at the first class topic, you’ll probably also figure out one of the current cultural influences I’ll be drawing on in the class. If not, the video segment below should clue you in!

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The Joys of a Good Teaching Text

Wednesday we’re back into the routine with three courses on tap for me this fall: Western Civilization (Renaissance to French Revolution), Early Medieval Europe and a graduate seminar on London history. Al told, I think I’m squeaking in with just under a hundred students in the three courses: still the most of any one faculty member in our program. Go me?

I’m really excited about all three classes but particularly happy with the prospect of this year’s go in Western Civ. The subject is something I’ve taught almost every year since starting but it’s a course that constantly renews itself given the hundreds of years of history and historical studies I draw upon. This year I’m doing something unusual for myself – I’m teaching with all three of the same texts as last year: two general survey narratives that cover our period from 1350-1815 and one primary source work, The Lusiads.

Normally The Lusiads - Oxford World ClassicsI swap out primary source texts every year to keep teaching fresh (and to minimize the chance of plagiarism). But The Lusiads was such a fun work to teach and had so many intriguing aspects to it that last year’s class had only begun to explore, I felt compelled to give it another turn. The Lusiads is Portugal’s great national epic and a conscious throwback to Virgil’s great Roman poem, The Aeneid. Yet it’s also very contemporary for the sixteenth century in which it was written: telling the tale of Vasco da Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa and travels to India.

The epic poem, ably translated into modern verse by Landeg White, has just about everything you could want to touch on in an introduction to European history for the period: there are themes that draw on Renaissance conceits (classical gods, learned allusion), elements of religious conflicts (Christian divisions and prejudice towards other religions), the broad sweep of exploration, discovery and exploration in da Gama’s voyages, and all brought together with innovations in technology, worldviews and social orders. Relatively little-studied in the anglophone world, I found that teaching with this text was a great refresher for the course which might otherwise feel ‘stale’ and I can’t wait to tackle it again with a better sense of the pitfalls and promises inherent in such an unusual text!

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I Should Be Grading

My dreams are haunted by grading. My days are devoted to grading. I turn on the computer: oh, look! There’s grading! I look over at the nearby table: a stack of exams waiting for grading. Let’s not forget the senior and grad student projects that, you guessed it, also need grading!

Grading, grading, grading, grading!

(The above works best when you say it with the intonations of Jan Brady bewailing her perfect older sister, Marcia.)

I don’t figure that I’ll be out from under this grading-induced guilt mountain around the end of the month. Until then, have a classic bit of academic tomfoolery: A Guide to Grading Exams or what I call “the staircase method”. Tempting but no. . . .

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Off Balance

I admit, while this term has been wonderful in terms of my face-to-face class time, exploring the possibilities of my newly-developed online course and interacting with students or colleagues at the university, I’m feeling seriously off balance when it comes to my grading.

You could say that I’m in grading jail. It’s a prison of my own devising and it’s not terribly onerous except, of course, for the nagging feeling that I should be grading all the time. (Last night’s hour of watching “Wolf Hall” was strangely mediated through marking source analyses of “Erra and Ishum” and “Nergal and Ereshkigal”.)

I clearly assigned too many things at the end of the term but given that Canadian academic terms are only twelve weeks long, I’m loathe to request a substantial assignment much earlier. The next time I offer the Crime and Punishment course, I’m going to cut my Old Bailey assignments from four to three. All of those were being handed in during the second half of term: quite unbalancing my marking workload. I’ll assign a lit review in the first half of the term in place, getting a course objective addressed earlier in the course where it will be quite useful.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with my other unbalanced course. I’m going to have to rethink the assignments and course structure a bit more thoroughly for the online course on the Ancient Near East. I don’t want to ditch the primary source analyses – they’re vital! – but I do need to think about the rhythm of term and what all can be accomplished in twelve weeks. There are six quizzes (one for each unit), two primary source analyses, a project proposal and a short research paper plus the exam. That feels like too much, especially in the last half of term. Some of those need to go and some need to be reorganized. I’m still thinking this one through.

Tomorrow the first group of students in my three courses writes their exam. Wave to the Crime and Punishment class who have been entirely awesome. Seriously: one of the best class groups I’ve taught in over twenty years. The last exams will be written on the twenty-fourth where we’ll see what the students in our fun team-taught course on Early Modern War can do. Three classes, three sets of exam papers: there’s about a hundred exams I’ll be expecting to see in those courses. Well, maybe eighty-five or eighty-eight, as my co-instructor in the war courses will take half of the pile.

I also have a whackload of graduate and senior project reviewing to do. How many fifty page papers can you respond to in an already busy week? Again, it’s part of my workload but not entirely predictable (most of it comes much later than I would like or theoretically expect as I plan my term). The only predictability is that these project papers will always come later than we want and just when marking’s heaviest.

For now, I’m dropping some revision notes into my virtual class folders to remind me how I want to rebalance the assignment plans for the next time I offer the course (likely one to two years away). I should also put a note in my calendar for next fall when we’re likely to be discussing graduate supervisions reminding me to expect some crazy times in March and April when all of those papers land in my inbox. Maybe next year I’ll feel well-balanced when it comes to marking. That’s the hope!

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