HIST 1011 (Greeks Romans, Kings, and Crusaders) is primarily an introduction to the ancient and medieval roots of European society and culture. It attracts approximately 250 students per semester in various sections. It has a follow-up course, HIST 1012, which covers modern Europe. Both courses count toward the General Education requirements for the College of Arts and Sciences; they also fulfill the requirement for one European course for History Department majors. I am currently unsure of how the course fulfills requirements in other colleges, such as CMCI, Engineering, and Business, but a substantial number of students come from those colleges.
Although I have taught a completely online version of the course since 2013 in addition to teaching the course in a classroom since 1996, for purposes of research I am focusing on the in-class version of the course, which I have taught every semester successively since 2005. Although the course attracts students from a variety of backgrounds, minority students appear to be noticeably underrepresented in this course. My suspicion is that the course may have a reputation because of its previous name (Western Civilization) and the racist and imperialist assumptions associated with that title. I have certainly heard faculty outside of my department refer to courses associated with Western Civilization in this context. I typically address the racist, imperialist, and sexist traditions associated with a course entitled Western Civilization on the first day of class and explain that we will shed that approach to the material and the associated celebration of European achievement by dissecting elements of European culture and how they developed over millennia.
Based on Fall 2018 data from a course of 140 students, the students consist of 60% freshmen, 23% sophomores, 11% juniors, and 6% seniors. They come from various schools across campus including 77% from A&S, 10% from Business, 6% from CMCI, 6% from Engineering, and 1% from ARPLU. The students are approximately 60% male and 40% female. This gender imbalance is greater than the 55% male to 45% female gender distribution across campus. Finally, 22% of the students have an undeclared major, 10% History, and then small numbers from various majors (4% Finance, 3% Psychology, 2% Economics, IPHY, etc...)
In the Fall of 2016 I surveyed students at the beginning of the semester about their interests vis-a-vis topics covered in the course. Topics that students expressed a strong interest in were Ancient Greece (76%), Ancient Rome (69%), history of warfare (62%), history of technology (59%). They were least interested in the history of literacy (16%) (See Student Interests). Although almost a third of these students report having excellent history classes in the past, well over half of the students rated their experience in history courses variable with 10% indicating that they had not derived much value from history classes in the past.
In order to address the diversity of student backgrounds and experiences in previous History classes, I convey to them a set of broad learning objectives for the course as a whole and for each module within the course. For example, “students will be able to comprehend, interpret, and explain complex evidence contained in primary sources.” We discuss how the interpretation of evidence is a skill that has broad applicability in multiple disciplines and that evidence often does not speak for itself but has to undergo interpretation to make it meaningful. Similarly, I seek to help students to “develop a historical argument in concise and well-structured prose based on the synthesis of information provided in lecturers and readings.” We discuss as a group how well-structured and concise writing constitutes a valuable skillset that cuts across disciplines. Whether they are in engineering, music, natural sciences, social sciences, business, law, or humanities, they will need to explain their work clearly.
When I first started including these objectives in my syllabi in 2013, I was skeptical of their effectiveness at conveying value to students enrolled in a course. More recently, as our department has produced a unified set of learning objectives, I have reevaluated this skepticism as I have watched our enrollments grow. After all, the value of studying the past is not immediately evident to today’s student population, and if students see no value in their work, they will not engage the material. In short, the learning objectives are somewhat central to the overall objective of engaging students completing core requirements.
Another crucial ingredient in the process of engaging students in a core requirements class involves scaffolding: gradual steps toward increasingly complex work. The course begins with the interpretation of fairly simple texts, such as the story of Cain and Abel and the Epic of Gilgamesh, before addressing more complex texts, such as Tacitus’ Germania and Beowulf. The assignments that address these texts are pretty much identical so that students can utilize feedback from the first set of assignments to improve their work on the next set. In addition, within each module, the assignments tend to work up Bloom’s taxonomy: the first assignments require simple recall, followed by assignments that require application and then synthesis of the material. Similarly, the final exam requires quite a bit of synthesis and application of concepts raised throughout the semester.
My motivation for creating this course portfolio is to invite discussion, feedback, and criticism of these approaches. As teaching faculty, instructors have traditionally not received enough feedback from professionals devoted to teaching who are outside of our department. Given that we have chosen to pursue an emphasis on teaching, this habit or custom seems very unfortunate. I invite constructive criticism related to the course, its objectives, structure, and so forth.
My primary objective in embarking on this project is to consider ways to improve student success in the course. I have noticed that on any given day only about two-thirds of the students enrolled in the course actually make it to class. Although I make attendance part of the course grade, many students choose to skip class. Ultimately, this habit undermines their success in the course and decreases the value that they gain from the class. I am examining ways to make the course more valuable to students by increasing the number and types of in-class activities.
I chose this course because I have taught it the most and thought about it most. When I implement new teaching techniques, I tend to introduce them in this class. For example, I introduced overview videos for each module in 2014. I followed those up by embedding low-stakes quizzes in those videos in 2016. More recently, I have shifted the course away from a textbook, which is still optional, and focused primarily on the interpretation of translated primary sources. This decision preceded the History department’s definition of its learning objectives; however, the assignments reinforce many of those objectives, and I have deepened the course’s utilization of those sources in order to advance students’ familiarity with the interpretation of primary sources. We examine context and internal coherence of the documents in order to reconstruct the worldviews of ancient and medieval authors.
Finally because this course addresses the most students of all the courses that I teach, any improvements that I make are likely to have the most impact. For this course portfolio, I focus on student attendance and engagement in the course. I want to figure out ways to improve both.