I’m an archaeologist at heart, so when I decided to go back to teaching after a six-year hiatus, I decided to dig. First I started digging into bibliography. I teach ancient history, but you wouldn’t believe how much has changed over the past few years: new discoveries, new interpretations, new books and articles. Lots of new books and articles. Starting last summer, I gave Muhlenberg’s interlibrary loan system a pretty vigorous workout.
New teaching techniques had emerged too, and I was eager to try them. The flipped classroom, digital humanities, blogs and online discussion forums, MILA (Muhlenberg Integrated Learning Abroad) courses – I wanted to try them all.
I also did some digging in my own basement, specifically a file cabinet where I stored syllabi and lecture notes from my first foray into teaching ancient history – at Penn in the late 1970s. And it was here, among the cobwebs and brittle, crumbling sheaves of yellow legal pad paper, that I made a shocking discovery: In 1979 I was an absolutely terrible teacher! I never taught more than 20 students at a time (it’s a miracle that even that many enrolled in my courses given the abstruse subject matter) but every class was a lecture, nonetheless. And every lecture was backed up with at least 20 pages of densely organized, handwritten notes. My biggest fear, apparently, was that some undergraduate would ask me a question I couldn’t answer – so I put everything I knew (and then some) into my lecture outlines. And, having prepared them, what else was I to do but read from them? In retrospect, it is a miracle that I wasn’t sued for educational malpractice – or beaned with a baseball bat by some indignant student driven beyond reason as I droned on about the onomastic evidence for the Amorite infiltration of Mesopotamia.
A decade later I was teaching at Colby and had learned a few new tricks. Lectures were still necessary, but I could intersperse them with a little discussion if I thought up some really good questions in advance. Even so, as often as not the discussion would peter out after one or two students had weighed in, and then….back to lecturing. I was not, it’s fair to say, up to Muhlenberg College teaching standards – at least not yet.
Coming to Muhlenberg was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, in terms of my understanding what it takes to be a great teacher. One of my first impressions of Muhlenberg was the centrality of teaching, the seriousness with which the faculty considered their work in the classroom, and their commitment to continuous improvement through the Faculty Center for Teaching (FCT). Presentations on how to use case studies effectively, how to respond to student writing, how to design effective syllabi, the neuroscience of learning, and countless other sessions on the nuts and bolts that make good teachers into great teachers. Funny thing: not one session urged faculty members to bring 20 pages of handwritten lecture notes into their classrooms as back up.
When I decided to re-enter the classroom, I knew that the bar was high. Muhlenberg students expect extraordinary teaching. I knew I wouldn’t be as gifted in the classroom as Muhlenberg’s best, but I didn’t want to be the worst teacher they had during their four years here either.
The first thing I did was to get the lectures out of the classroom and onto the web. This is the essence of the “flipped classroom.” Students can stream the lectures at their own convenience. Two a.m. at Stooges? Okay with me. They can watch them at their own pace. They can pause for a sandwich. They can hit rewind. I didn’t know how to film or edit lectures, but I forced myself to learn. Fortunately I had help: my son Alec (a filmmaker who worked for two years at the Apple Store) and Tony Dalton in media and communication coached me on the finer points of iMovie (To sample my lectures, go to: media.muhlenberg.edu, click the “videos” box, and browse the available videos).
I had learned from the FCT’s workshops on the neuroscience of learning that students zone out after about 20 minutes. Thus none of my lectures could exceed that limit (actually, one did – by 10 seconds). I had also learned that students can consolidate their knowledge with quick tests and feedback, so I incorporated brief, ungraded online quizzes for each lecture.
I’ve long been a fan of audiobooks (great for long drives) and thought that, since The Iliad and The Odyssey were originally composed and performed as oral poems, the students might as well stream those too. Trexler’s librarians were more than willing to help. As a result, one evening my students had a great class discussion contrasting the experience of hearing the poems versus that of reading them as texts.
Lanethea Mathews in political science and other faculty were raving about how their students used blogs, so I decided to try that as well. Every student in my class would be required to post at least one 350-word blog each week – and comment on the blog posts of at least five other classmates. Here’s what I learned from that experiment: some students love talking in class (often they even have worthwhile things to say!). Other students? Not so much. But give them a blog and the students who are quiet in class can really shine. And their classmates, responding to their blog posts, can see how bright their quieter classmates really are. The result: greater self-confidence and greater mutual respect. Two-thirds of the way through the semester, the talkers are writing more thoughtfully, and the writers are venturing opinions in class.
I’ve tried a few other experiments. Some have worked, some haven’t. Some are still works in progress. The archaeological scavenger hunt was a blast. My students used their cell phone cameras to photograph reproductions of Bronze Age Aegean artifacts I’d brought back from previous trips to Greece. Be the first to track down the original, send me photograph of it along with a description of what it is, where it was found, and its date and you could earn one point of extra credit. Within two hours, my students had identified seven of 15 objects. Within a week, they’d tracked down all but two.
Online discussion forums didn’t work so well. My fault really, I was hoarding the really good questions for class. So, okay, we dropped those – at least for now.
The online searchable archive of Bronze Age Aegean artifacts is a work in progress. Students must upload at least five images before we leave for Greece in May – and another fifteen images once we’re in Greece where they can photograph objects in museums and in the field. They will need to consult with each other because no duplicates are permitted – each artifact must be unique.
Maybe it goes without saying that all of this activity outside the classroom frees us up for projects, discussions, and debates when we meet in person every week. And that interaction will intensify in May when we fly to Greece and spend long, arduous, glorious days clambering around the ruins of Knossos, Mycenae, Akrotiri and other sites.
I set out on this experiment because I wanted to learn how the tools of online education could be used to enrich traditional, in-person, liberal arts teaching. I also wanted to be a better teacher. By the time the course is over, I hope my students will feel confident in their knowledge of Homer and Aegean archaeology, and in their ability to use digital tools to achieve their learning goals. I hope they will love Greece and ancient history too. If they learn as much from taking the course as I have in putting it together, I will be well satisfied.