Late last week, I observed a session, devoted to the topic of secession, of the hybrid U.S. history survey. It made me more than a little nostalgic for the classroom, in all its gritty and chaotic glory. And, it reminded me of the madness that is the one-semester U.S. history survey — the first week of October, and you have already reached the mid-point of the survey, the Civil War. Absolutely crazy, and a strong argument for GSU to adopt the standard version of the U.S. history survey, which is generally broken into 2 semester length classes. But that is another topic entirely.
If my last post focused on the risk of the hybrid course, my experience watching the class served to remind me of the potential rewards of the hybrid structure. I have taught the survey several times, and the biggest problem I always face is the necessity of providing context. This is, in part, a coverage issue common to any classroom, but I think in history it is particularly important because as history teachers, the main skill we are trying to teach our students is to place events into historical contexts, to see things through the lens of the past. This is really only possible if you know enough about the past to create a context for it. For this reason, depth and breadth are super important to historical understanding. When I teach say Tom Paine or Harriet Jacobs, I am less interested in the kinds of questions students can readily discuss — was Paine right, was slavery bad — then in demonstrating how awareness of context can create historical interpretations. What I want out of a discussion, for example, is for students to be able to see the play of reason and passion in Paine’s work as a product of enlightenment thinking, to catch the references he makes to the wrongs of George III and to be able to see how he is manipulating those wrongs. Doing this requires context, and context if usually provided via the lecture. I know that when I teach, my class in perpetual tension over the need I have to provide context, which requires (or least seems to require) me talking, and my real belief that ultimately my students will learn more if they are talking more and I am talking less.
This is why the video component of a hybrid course seems so promising, worth the risks that accompany its roll out. By helping provide context out of the classroom, they open up very precious in-class time for discussion, small group work, and other kinds of more student-centered learning. If it works, the potential payoff is huge. As I watched class last week, I saw the professor attempting to do just this. However, I also saw the kink in the system. It seemed clear that few students had watched the videos, leaving a lopsided discussion with only a few participants, and an instructor forced back into talking more than he had hoped.
So, I saw the bad as well as the good, but I left reminded of the vast potential this type of approach could offer.