Category Archives: teaching

Super Size My Seminar

I’m wrapping up the 2011-12 term this month. One aspect that’s felt luxurious has been my seminar. It’s both been a good class and a small class with under twenty in either term. (Pro tip to faculty wanting to shrink their course sizes: schedule your class for 8:30 on Friday and then have the registrar screw up the listing to suggest it starts at 8:00. You’ll scare all but the determined or the desperate away!)

Next year, the picture is bleak. Due to budget constraints and sabbaticals, we’re offering very few senior seminars: fifteen credits worth (or 2.5 full year options). Students with a concentration in history have to take twelve credits of seminars to graduate while majors only need six. Theoretically, fifteen credits should be enough but not when you factor in the large number of majors and concentrations history attracts. And I don’t even get the scary Friday morning time-slot for my seniors. This fall and winter, I meet my seniors on Wednesday mornings. (Grad students? Prepare for a Friday morning fun-fest!)

The crisis of classes and credits has become personal for me in the looming fall and winter terms. I’m teaching six of those fifteen credits offered in our program: seminars on Tudor Britain in the fall and Stuart Britain in the winter. Having crunched the numbers and chatted with others in the department, I safely expect to see a record-setting enrollment of more than 38, especially since some majors have ambitions of finishing up their 2012-13 coursework in the fall term by taking my seminar in conjunction with another scheduled for the fall. In the winter term, mine will be the only senior seminar into which a student in need of seminar credits can enroll (the other six credits on offer is a fall/winter course): also an enrollment booster!


I’ve told our admin that my ‘hard cap’ is 44. There are twelve weeks in the term and every student needs to make one in-class presentation the way that I run seminars. (I’m not willing to negotiate on the presentation component: I don’t consider it a seminar without students having to prepare and make a formal in-class presentation.) Week one won’t count for those purposes since I can’t get students ready to present before class has begun. So there are only eleven weeks left and I know that I can’t run a good discussion session in a three-hour class and take time for more than four oral presentations. The math is then simple: 4*11=44.


Now I have to come up with 44 presentation topics stretching from Henry VII’s reign through Elizabeth’s (with forays into Scots and Irish history along the way). I’ve used biographies before: these are very easy to generate as topics but also quite easy for students to plagiarize. Nothing demoralizes an educator quite like listening to your senior students read the Wikipedia entry word for word! I don’t want to use articles or monographs for presentation topics: these tend to turn into snooze-fests as most students do little more than summarize the contents.

I’ve toyed with the thought of having the in-class presentations be on historical events but I’m a bit staggered at the thought of coming up with so many topics that I can also equally and usefully distribute across the 1485-1603 period so that we’re not having someone present on an early Tudor topic when the discussion’s all about late Tudor wars! So wish me luck or give me suggestions of the almost four dozen topics I’ll need to nail down for Tudor history presentations before the syllabus goes to the press in late August. Please?



Filed under history, teaching

Term’s Over, Marking’s Not

Hooray! The last undergraduate class met this morning. No more 8:30 classes until September. I’ll still be up as early every day, mind you, but I won’t be staring out at a sea of sleepy students at that hour.

Classes wound up wonderfully. Now all that’s left is exams and marking. That won’t even be so bad, thanks to this being my lighter term (our U is on a 3-2 system and this is my 2 course term, although I’m teaching more than that when you count my two grad courses).

And then there’s all the writing and researching. . . .

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Filed under teaching

Just a Marking Machine

The chapter draft is done. I’m pretty impressed with myself. It took less than a week to come up with a chapter of just over five thousand words, most of it dealing with historical parallels far afield of my early modern British ‘comfort zone’. Thankfully, my magpie ways of research and the speedy services of our inter-library loan system gave me lots of great material to work with for the subject.

Now I can pick up the pieces of my life, aka get back to marking. It’s amazing how quickly this backs up. I get a feeling that term-time marking is rather like “I Love Lucy” on a factory line. One bobble and instant disaster.

Poor Lucy! Only, hey, at least it’s candy, not papers!

Bring on the rubrics and polish up the red pen. Tomorrow I’m going to try and get through the backlog of tutorial responses. Once those are done, maybe I can whittle down the pile of quizzes that still have short essays to be assessed. I hate it when the turnaround is more than a week for small assignments such as these but that’s what happens when a writing project is suddenly thrust upon you!

Stay tuned for the week of the 20th when I hammer out a grant proposal.


Filed under academe, teaching

Tutorial Tuning

My tutorials need a tune-up! In my eighty-student Ancient Near East survey this term, I’m having a problem with the tutorials. The task is document analysis and I know they’re good documents – a variety of literary, political and legal sources. Many of them I’ve used before to good effect. But this year, the discussions are painful! (My TA even remarked on that today after class was over.)

They know that the tutorial wraps up with a question that they need for their response paper due the following week. I think that most of them are sitting there, content to wait until the question appears.

It’s not as if they won’t speak up in class. This is a course with a presentation component – every student prepares to help open one class topic. And when they present, the vast majority of the students do an awesome job, sharing a polished, thoughtful response that helps lead everyone into tackling the day’s topic. However, the challenge of tutorial discussion seems a bit more daunting than an in-class presentation. Strange, I know, but there you are.

I tried opening them up to the challenge in today’s tutorial by projecting some sections of our tutorial text (Hammurabi’s Code) on the overhead and asking for volunteers to read individual passages, then posing a question for them on that self-same passage. It felt like pulling teeth. I got a very few comments. I might have gotten more if I’d waited them out longer, but we only have twenty minutes for the exercise, so that won’t work so well. (And I’d love to devote more time to these but given that we usually spend twenty minute on presentations at the start of class and there are only forty minutes left in the class period, time starts to run out for the rest of our activities.)

I realized, this afternoon, that one obvious solution is to open the tutorial session with the assignment question, itself, and then giving them a few minutes to ponder or review before venturing their approaches. I could turn our tutorial periods into brainstorming sessions where I give them the question and then sit back, only intervening when they get too stuck on one track and don’t consider other approaches.

In our next tutorial, I’m going to open with the question projected on the board and ask for someone to suggest a possible response strategy. I’ll let you know how that goes in another few weeks.


Filed under teaching

Snow Day: A Professor’s Perspective

Woke up before dawn this morning and raced out of the bedroom to rouse my computer from sleep mode as I peered out the living room window to a discouraging scene. Winds roared from the south, racing up our street. In the dark distance of the corner where our street meets another, a car struggled fruitlessly to negotiate the unplowed turn until a neighbour popped out of his door to help the driver. The bus service website informed me that school buses were cancelled. The weather site’s alert switched from a “Snow Squall Watch” to “Snow Squall Warning” while I watched. Snow began to cling to the window.

So, reader, I cancelled class. All on my own. I wasn’t going to wait for the university to not do so (our “Inclement Weather Policy” is insanely cautious, based on the optimistic idea that everyone can get into university if they really try and many students live on campus anyway). Yours truly lives a five kilometer trek from campus up and down slippery hillsides featuring a laughable walking path for a small portion of the hike. And public transit in our city is a joke, especially in my neighbourhood, even though it’s located within spitting distance of a major road. Those pesky rock cuts and sheer drops mean there’s no easy way for feet to take you from here to there. But I digress. . . .

Unlike school kids, I don’t thrill to a cancellation. First off, I prepare mightily for a class. It’s much more work to have to do the origami of class reorganization when I cancel a class as it is to teach it. If something is on the syllabus, it’s important for the students’ learning and that means I need to try and find ways to cover at least part of the material. So now I’m splitting up a class on Bronze Age Mesopotamian religion and shoe-horning the bits into next week’s discussion of Mesopotamian social order and economies along with another section prefacing the Sargonids.

Secondly, it’s a fair bit of work to actually cancel a class. Trying to make the antiquated and annoying email options in our course management software actually get emails that anyone will receive? Worrisome. Trying to import a class list of emails into our regular campus email system? Frustrating as the system seems to cap somewhere around twenty BCCs. 80 students in the class, you do the math. (Obviously, I need to get all of them on a Facebook group or following a Twitter feed but you try herding undergraduates to an optional technology platform. It’s impossible.)

Our house, snow bedecked!Most annoying? I don’t get to sleep in. I don’t “take a day off”. I add in several hours worth of additional work with contacting students, answering queries, reorganizing material and then shoveling the damned stuff. (6-8 inches of new fall, drifts up to mid-thigh on me and I am not a short woman.) Mike and Eldest have also done more than their fair share of snow moving since the snow plows finally came by a bit before noon. He’ll have to go out for his evening shift at work. I’ll be home, swotting up on more course readings and prepared to shovel us out after the snowplows run through a second time.


Filed under academe, teaching

Return of the Term

It’s ba-ack! The term, that is. Run and hide in fear!

Actually, this term isn’t half so bad as last term. Half the classes, pretty much, and nearly down by half the enrollments. One class is brand-spanking new: a seminar on later medieval chronicles. However, since I’d planned and proposed this course several years ago as a logical extension of my existing seminar in early medieval chronicles, it feels familiar. The other undergraduate course is my survey of the ancient Near East and that course really is a well-oiled machine thanks to a fabulous textbook and a lot of planning in the past. It takes relatively little time to update material when it’s this well-organized. Finally, the graduate reading course appears like it will continue to be a rewarding class that I have two students working on overlapping material so they can support each other more readily.

The best part of this term, however? Not teaching five days a week. Really, if I’m going to be ramping up my research and publishing the way I’m supposed to do so, I need a day to step back and really get things done without interruption. Even if I leave myself copious “bread crumbs” in the form of notes, it takes some time to get the writing and research back on track. That’s why I’m loving Mondays, now!

Of course, Murphy’s Law meant that I had to make an unexpected trip into campus to ensure a student’s letter of recommendation got in on time. Oh, well. The day was still pretty darned productive as I simply zipped on and off campus as quickly as possible so I could get back to my revisions. I’m happy to report those are done and hopefully there will be many more productive Mondays in the weeks to come.


Filed under academe, teaching, writing/editing

Ask the Right Question

Last term I instituted a new scheme in my intermediate level courses: require short presentations on pre-assigned discussion questions from every student and recycle those questions as essay fodder for the tests and exams. It’s done a fair bit of what I want: ensure that even in a class of eighty, students were speaking every day without my resorting to picking faces out of the crowd. It also led to a lively culture on the discussion boards in our course software as part of the mark was not only for oral presentation, but for posting a polished version of that classroom comment and then responding to others.

I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from students who’ve appreciated this system, particularly that the questions are provided ahead of time so they can prepare for class with that opening theme in mind as well as know that can guide them in test preparation. I’m sure that there are others who’re not quite so happy, of course. I hope none of them are as disenchanted as this group of students at Utah Valley University but I do have tenure and a supportive administration behind me. (Of course, I accommodate students who can’t do oral presentations, say, for the student who has a nasty sore throat on the day – they can provide me a short paragraph, suitable to project via PowerPoint and I’ll share that in class with an invitation for the entire class to respond. But there were only 3 students who needed that accommodation in last term’s survey of eighty!)

I’m finding that the most difficult part of this is designing the best question that I can for each class session. I’m writing questions with the day’s reading in mind. Sometimes the text offers a great opening for interpretation and debate. Other times the ‘angle’ isn’t so obvious and I waffle for hours, reworking the question until I find something with which I’m happy. Because I’ve committed myself to not only using the questions in the class session, but also in the tests, they also have to be open for a broader, thematic analysis when it comes time for the quiz, midterm or semester final exam. So spending time on the questions pays off. That’s how I spent a great deal of time in the week leading up to course launch: tweaking with the discussion question list. Now it’s set in stone and I have a bunch of class sessions already full subscribed with students who’re excited to prepare for their turn.

They’re not magic tools but pre-circulated discussion questions with students presentations are definitely staying in my survey repetoire!


Filed under history, teaching

Once More Into the Breach

Classes start on Wednesday. I start teaching again on Thursday morning and I’m sort of, almost!, ready. My Desire2Learn shell is up and running for the second-year survey on the Ancient Near East and the course outline was in our admin’s hands well before term wrapped up. Preparing the online component of the course was a chore and a half. I realize I still have one assignment folder still to create: the discussions assignment since I’m continuing last term’s successful experiment in requiring discussions in a large-scale sophomore survey. I require every student in the class of eighty to present on the daily discussion question once during the term, post a refined version of their response and then respond to at least two others. That means that some days we can have five presentations! They’re all short (I advise students not to prepare more than a page of text to guide them) but I sweeten the pot by recycling the questions for essays on the tests so students have incentive to prepare and pay attention!

I’ve also finally figured out the intractable scheduling problem for the senior seminar: in order to spend two weeks on The Alexiad, we’re covering Villehardouin and Joinville in one week. Since the latter two are only in excerpts in our course custom reader, that’s okay in my book. I’m happily anticipating finally teaching this inaugural seminar on later medieval chronicles and that means taking some time with some sources (they’ll also read all of the Gesta Tancredi and The Chronicle of Bury St. Edmunds). We’re also going to start and finish the course with women authors: Anna Komnene and Margery Kempe – that has me excited!

However, I feel a little bit whip-lashed with term starting back up again so soon. I suspect my students will feel that even more as exams were scheduled right up until the 21st or 22nd. Everyone’s going to be tired and cranky when I head back to the office. We’re entering into the long, dark, bitterly cold heart of winter that doesn’t help one iota. January term is the cruelest term from that perspective!

How is the new year treating you?


Filed under teaching

Three Down, One to Go

I’ve submitted marks for three of my classes, now only the last group remains. It’s all down to how quickly I can plow through about seventy final exams. I don’t want to waste time counting them up: the total would be enough to make my cry in any case.

Once again, I will note my bemusement with the many students who have handed in not a single assignment for the course but still come in to write the final exam. Even when it’s worth 35% of the course mark, anyone should see that’s insufficient for a pass!


Filed under teaching

Grading Jail

It’s gotten to be that there’s so much end of term marking every December that I can no longer summon the energy to panic. I just mark as best I can, call it a day sometime around eleven at night and then get up too early in the morning to get the kids out the door before starting all over again.

Rubrics help: reducing my grading comments to focused feedback on the thesis and argumentation, the use of evidence, the proficiency of expression, etc. I’m telling students that if they want more detailed feedback, they’re encouraged to schedule a meeting or come by in office hours. Since so many students never pick up their final papers, I’ve finally realized that it’s a waste of my time to pour over all of the essays with a granular level of editing commentary.

So I’m in a zen state of marking as much as I can but not stressing too much about how much isn’t done. However, I’m not doing too much else that isn’t marking. I’m not watching TV (my DVR contains weeks of the one drama I would like to watch), reading any of my leisure books or I’ve only spent three hours (absolutely mandatory) on my own research in the past two weeks. I’m more than a little bit resentful about social obligations and meetings eating into my marking time, mind you – can’t we get together AFTER markings all done? But if you wonder why this blog is so quiet, my confinement to grading jail is a big part of that.


Filed under academe, teaching