Category Archives: teaching

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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Deliciously Criminal

This term I’m teaching a new history of crime and punishment course. It’s inspired all sorts of fun forays into the Old Bailey Online database, particularly as I’ve shown students how they can search on any number of topics. The research is frequently delicious and I mean that in both the enjoyable and the culinary ways. For instance, we can study thefts involving food or food as an incidental in the course of testimonies.

The most obvious “food theft” might be poaching and, yes, this was a concern even in a city such as London. Convictions for game law offences show an awful lot of fallow deer at risk (as well as the occasional pond full of carp). This case from 1725 features three deer killed by two violent poachers, whose dangerous ways were intimately experienced by one Charles George:

The Prisoner stept to me with a Pistol in his Hand, and swore if I did not go back, he’d shoot me. I was not sure that my Piece would go off, and so I retreated, and found two Deer lying dead, and they look’d as if they had been torne by Dogs. In the mean time the Prisoner and Biddesford got over the Pales. It fell out that some Countrymen were coming by soon after without-side the Pales, (for there’s no Foot-Path thro’ the Park.) I cry’d out Thieves, and they join’d together to assist me. I got over the Pales, and there found another Deer with his Throat cut, and not quite cold. The Prisoner and old Biddesford took their Way towards Roger’s Ferry, and we pursued them. When they came to the Ferry, they turned about, presented their Pistols, and swore we were dead Men, if we came a Foot nearer. However, when they were gone off, we took a Boat after them: They landed at the Half-Mile Tree, (about half a Mile from Kingston) and we were not far behind them. Biddesford was shot in the Fields, and the Prisoner was taken in Kingston, with a Powder-Horn and naked Knife in his Pocket.1

In another case, the sharing of brandy between men and cheesecake between women helped to acquit a family of murder. Seriously! At least that’s what the Proceedings for the 1708 trial of Webb Rawlins, Elizabeth Rawlins and Gabriel Huff for the murder of Jacob Hamson suggests, although the details are sketchy.

The Prisoners in their defence deny’d the Fact and Huff produc’d several Witnesses, to prove that he was at Home from the Morning till he went to Bed, and was that Night at Supper with some Friends at his own House, which was at Old-street, it being St. Crispin’s Day, a remarkable time: Webb and Elizabeth Rawlins produc’d Witnesses who depos’d they had not been from Home that Day, neither had there been any Company at their House from the Morning till their time of going to Bed, except one Man for a Quartern of Brandy in the Morning, and a Woman in the Afternoon for a 2 d Cheescake: Upon the whole, the Jury acquitted the Prisoners.2

I wonder if the jurors wrapped up their day with a little brandy and cheesecake or perhaps a bit of venison?

In case you’re interested, I dug up a 1747 Lemon Cheesecake recipe courtesy of Sasha Cottman, a Regency romance writer whose most recent book I picked up because, hey, historical fiction and recipes? That’s another delicious idea.

1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), April 1725, trial of John Guy (t17250407-57).

2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 28 March 2015), December 1708, trial of Webb Rawlins Gabriel Huff Elizabeth Rawlins (t17081208-23).


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Early Modern War Teaching

Today I wrapped up my half of a team-taught third-year course on Early Modern War, 1350-1850. Next week’s our reading week after which my co-instructor, Dave Leeson, takes up where I left off, circa. 1650. We opened the course with a book-end examination of Greece at the start and the end of our periods – I talked about Greece in the Venetian-Turkish Wars and then we jumped forward to the cause of Greek Independence in the early nineteenth century. I tried to frame each class meeting on different historiographic debates or thematic elements and then illustrate those with interesting examples and compelling readings. We wrapped up each class with discussions on the day’s assigned readings: pulling out arguments and assessing our responses to the same. To give you a taste of what the course has been like, I’m sharing parts of our syllabus below:

Course Objectives: Students Soldiers in Peasants' War, 1525will identify the key technological, cultural, tactical, and strategic developments that have shaped pre-modern warfare; demonstrate awareness of the role of political, economic, and social changes that have shaped war in the world through their research, analysis and assessment of key aspects of the history of early modern war and warfare.

My class topics for the first half of term:

January 8; The Military Revolution Debate

Readings: Michael Roberts, “The Military Revolution, 1560-1660” (Rogers); Geoffrey Parker, “In Defense of the Military Revolution” (Rogers)

January 12; The Rules of War & Chivalric Culture
Readings: Anne Curry, “Disciplinary Ordinances for English and Franco-Scottish Armies in 1385: An international code?” (Reader)

January 15; War as Set-Piece: Crécy, Poitiers & Agincourt
Readings: Clifford J. Rogers, “The Military Revolutions of the Hundred Years War” (Rogers)

January 19; Siege Warfare & the Early Modern Arms Race
Readings: Thomas F. Arnold, “Fortifications and the Military Revolution: The Gonzaga Experience, 1530-1630” (Rogers)

January 22; The Military Revolution at Sea
Readings: Louis Sicking, “Naval warfare in Europe, c. 1330- c. 1680” (Reader)

January 26; War from Below: Revolts & Riots

Readings: Anthony Fletcher & Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Kett’s Rebellion” (Reader)

January 29; Citizen and Soldier: Early Modern Military Cultures
Readings: Angela McShane, “Recruiting Citizens for Soldiers in Seventeenth-Century English Ballads” (Reader)

February 2; Supply and Demand: The Business of War

Readings: I.A.A. Thompson “’Money, Money, and Yet More Money!’ Finance, the Fiscal-State, and the Military Revolution: Spain, 1500-1650” (Rogers)

February 5; New Models of Armies: Military Command and Discipline

Readings: David A. Parrott, “Strategy and Tactics in the Thirty Years’ War: The ‘Military Revolution’” (Rogers)

February 9; Commercial and Colonial Wars, 1492-1650
Readings: John F. Guilmartin, Jr. “The Military Revolution: Origins and First Tests Abroad” (Rogers)

February 12; An Age of Atrocity?
Readings: Will Coster, “Massacre and Codes of Conduct in the English Civil War” (Reader)

Texts: Clifford J. Rogers, ed., The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995) plus additional materials available via D2L and/or on reserve (“Reader”)

Essay Proposal One: 10% (Due January 26, a brief proposal of the topic for Essay One that includes a bibliography.)
Essay One: 25% (Due February 23, an 8-10 page research essay dealing with a topic in the history of war from 1350 through 1650.)
Essay Proposal Two: 10% (Due March 12, a brief proposal of the topic for Essay Two that includes a bibliography.)
Essay Two: 25% (Due April 2, an 8-10 page research essay dealing with a topic in the history of war from 1650 through 1850.)
Final Examination: 30% (All essay cumulative exam scheduled at the end of term.)


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Occult Words

Next Tuesday wraps up my team-taught “History of the Occult” course. As I review my slides, running from antiquity through the mid-seventeenth century, I was interested to see what I blathered on the most about. Here’s a word cloud to Wordle: Occult, Ancient to Early Modern provide one perspective on how I taught them in my half of the term. It’s interesting to see that magic dominated occult, at least in what I projected on the screen. I’ll have to ask the students if that was their impression, too, when we review for the final exam.

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It Can’t Be September

Because if it’s September I start teaching on the third. I also have article revisions due before mid-month.


At least all my syllabi are ready. For those playing along at home, I’m teaching several courses this term beginning with Western Civ. So far there are fifty-five students enrolled. There’s a second-year survey on Early Modern British History with only twenty-five students because it runs at 8:30 in the morning, two days a week. I’m team-teaching a third-year class on The History of the Occult with almost forty students signed-up and then there’s the graduate seminar on historical methods. I’ll also most likely have one Directed Readings grad course running all year.

If my syllabi are ready, I’m certainly not. Time to get back to polishing the opening lecture notes and slides for Occult and to ensure I have something fun for the first class which I’ll meet on Wednesday which is the British history course. And there was that additional article which I’d hoped to complete. . . .

Push back the clock!

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Fun with Pedagogy

Now that I’m past the halfway point of summer, I’m permitting myself some thoughts and work in teaching preparation: even if it’s just one day a week. Late August, as our term start looms, I’ll shift that to two and then three days a week in the final crunch of syllabus-setting and online teaching preps. The upcoming term will be crazily busy with four classes and, possibly, a senior student supervision. One of the courses is a brand new preparation, “The Occult in History”, requiring all sorts of background reading. I’ve chosen cool supplementary texts for my western civ and early modern British history surveys (the great Portuguese national epic, The Lusiads, for the former and Games’ enthralling reconsideration of the Elizabethan and Stuart experience of the wider world, The Web of Empire, for the latter) and been busy reading through those with an eye towards integrating them into our classroom experience.

Always Women Reading in School, 1899 reading, always reading. Who doesn’t love to read? Don’t tell me! My real pedagogical fun for the summer has been reading about teaching and learning. Every summer I reread Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do to get me excited about stepping back in front of the classroom. I also try to read two or three other new-to-me works in pedagogy. To this end, and with some inspiration from The Chronicle’s Top 10 Books on Teaching I picked up How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Ambrose et al. from my library and I also grabbed a copy of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning on my ereader. Reading these books has gotten me thinking about how I employ reflective responses and discussion segments in my classes, and that’s just a few chapters in with each of them.

I don’t want to reninvent my wheel when it comes to teaching but I do want to refine my craft while continuing to fold new discoveries and interpretations into the content that I teach. Creating new courses, choosing new supplementary texts and boning upon the latest insights into pedagogy are all ways that I can keep my teaching fresh for me and, hopefully, the students. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot more reading to do before it’s suppertime.

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Short and Long Cycles (of Courses)

Publisher’s reps are emailing me with increasing frequency, asking what I’m teaching next year and what textbooks I’m going to adopt. I’ve had to consult some documentation to see what that will be because I am teaching a metric whackload of new courses – three brand new ones, to be exact, two of which I’m team-teaching so that means they’re set aside three familiar classes (and one new distance course that I’ll offer online for the first time next January).

There are some courses that I always teach – Western Civ is a historian’s version of Freshman Comp (and just about as much fun as a course concept even though I try to liven it up each year). I taught Renaissance Italy for eleven years running before I ran screaming from what had once been a favourite subject. I give graduate level historiography and methods a serious side-eye having taught it all but three years in this millennium.

Repetition can wear me down. In fact, the major reason that I’m preparing a distance course is to relieve pressure from an over-popular course in Ancient Near Eastern history which can be offered more often online (with another academic taking over the instructor’s duties) than I want to do in the classroom.

I know some academics advise a tight rotation of select courses – come up with a two-year rotation and stick to it. I tend towards the other extreme: I prefer a three or four year plan of teaching that allows me to get a break from a subject and turn towards other interests. I also am always game for a neat new course concept (which is how I ended up co-teaching a course on the history of the occult next year).

I suppose this is also my way of coping with the necessary repetition. I may have to teach the first half of Western Civ every year from now until retirement, but I have fun new courses on the history of war and on the history of crime to leaven the boredom, at least for next year.

What about you? Are you drawn to new course concepts or options (even new themes in a core course would count) or do you prefer to keep your teaching to a tight set of regular-repeated topics?

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What I Learn Teaching Women’s History

This term I’m revisiting a course on pre-industrial western women’s history. The last time I taught it, I was pregnant with my eldest child who’s now university age. Yes, I am that old.

Obviously, the course has been completely revised for the new millennium. No dragging out reams of yellowed lecture texts. A lot has changed in history in the intervening years and I wanted to take advantage of those advances in scholarship while also implementing a more appropriate model of assignments than “some essays, maybe a midterm, and a final exam.”

It’s working wonders, no doubt aided by choosing one of my favourite recent books in women’s history as a course textbook: Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Every few weeks, students write a short response paper analyzing one part Bennett’s argument in light of another reading of their choice and we have a discussion based upon the material. Sometimes the discussions are pretty fabulous as when we tackled how history textbooks they know have (or have not) incorporated women’s history. This sparked a lot of passionate discussion about what should be and why it isn’t always in the master narratives of our discipline. I’m happily anticipating their response to her chapter on economic history “Less Money Than a Man Would Take”. Nothing ferrets out faulty assumptions and presumptions like taking your argument down to the building blocks and essential concepts – women’s history critiques of the status quo consistently makes that happen.

I’m also pleased with the way students have embraced a presentation-heavy course model. Each student makes three presentations over the term on individuals, concepts or events that were important to pre-modern women’s history. Most days we have three to five presentations at the start of class, which are worth every minute of class time that they fill as the audience listens attentively (presentation subjects are fodder for the final exam) and ask questions thoughtfully as well as answering questions posed by the presenter. I’m learning that even in a third-year course, we can set a pretty high standard for formal participation, “ownership of the course” by students, if you will, where they craft mini-lessons on the subjects they’ve chosen. It’s helped me direct the rest of the class much more usefully as I take up the reins after their presentations and can use that time to fill in the gaps or build upon their insights.

It continues to be a pleasure to teach this class, to introduce them to a wealth of fascinating history and learn from the classroom experience how invigorating a clean sweep can be from the professor’s perspective. My only regret is that it will likely be many years before I teach this particular course on campus again (for complicated issues of workload and curriculum) but I’m certain that the lessons I’ve learn here won’t go to waste.


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Reading London

I’m simultaneously shocked and tickled pink to be teaching a course relating to my research specialty at the graduate level. After more than a decade teaching historical methods and years before that teaching nineteenth century European social history (don’t ask), teaching “Topics in British History” will be a positive pleasure.

The course theme is London, 1550-1950. Do you want to read along with my M.A. students? Here’s our reading list:

I’m also steering them towards many outstanding websites, including the following:

Am I missing anything great? Suggestions are eagerly welcomed in the comments. Classes begin January 6th with the first three articles on the list and we’ll wrap up the meetings in early April.


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