Empowered Learning: History, Collaboratively

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jesse Cordes Selbin, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014

My course design is guided by the belief that context matters. By organizing my courses around periodized cross-sections of literary history, I emphasize the historical context from which literary texts emerged and which they, in turn, helped shape. Last semester, in a course entitled “Narratives We Live By: The Nineteenth Century and the Shape of Experience,” I asked students to explore the use of narrative structures and methods employed in texts drawn from a variety of nineteenth-century disciplines and genres. Alongside literary works like the poems of Robert Browning or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we read texts from scientists such as Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, explored the burgeoning field of sociology in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and read political tracts by John Stuart Mill and William Morris. In designing this broad, interdisciplinary syllabus, my goal was to help students understand the centrality of narrative practices across fields, both within and well beyond literature. But stretching the syllabus’s disciplinary focus also threatened to undermine my pedagogical goal of engaging deeply with context. My key challenge, then, was to give students a wide-ranging understanding of a historical period without forcing them to wade through history textbooks.

I believe that education functions best when students are not merely passive recipients, but collaborative creators, of knowledge. To that end, I designed an ongoing assignment wherein students used online software to contribute to a collective historical timeline of the nineteenth century. At first, many students found it difficult even to remember the weekly assignment; those who did remember filed their posts dutifully, but drily, and often at the last minute. Over time, however, students took to posting events that bore interesting relationships to the texts discussed in class. I took class time to highlight the relevance of their posts to our readings, linking the words on the page to the historical events the students had uncovered. This practice, in turn, increased the students’ investment in the assignment; soon they were exceeding my requirements. Students began to add photos and video clips to posts that required only dates and names. They also increasingly exhibited diverse approaches to the practice of constructing history: some considered their work with studied detachment, scrupulously filling in major events such as wars and coronations; others, conversely, sought a kind of “secret history” of understudied or little-known events. Some students opted to personalize their research interests: a member of the football team kept track of nineteenth- century sports history, while a physics major traced events in the history of science. Inspired by our reading of Jane Eyre, another student curated a chronology of linked events in the history of women’s rights. Thanks to the collective vision of the class, by the term’s end our timeline had transformed into a vivid, robust, and at times surprising portrait of nineteenth-century life.

I measure this project’s efficacy by its development between origin- and end-point. I don’t mean simply that our communal timeline moved from a skeletal outline to a flourishing and multifaceted one, but that the students themselves became markedly more self-directed over the course of the semester. They exhibited critical skills in assessing and narrating historical events, and in so doing became active participants in shaping the broader direction of the class. The function of the timeline was primarily informational: it was intended to give a deeper understanding of a historical era. But its crucial secondary function was to ask students to reconceptualize their own role as creators and perpetrators of historical narrative. As students felt increasingly authorized to shape a shared project, they rose to the challenge of becoming active agents in their own education.