Must Watch: John Fea’s Virtual Office Hours

Mutual admiration society: (idiomatic) A group of two or more people, in a workplace or other social environment, who routinely express considerable esteem and support for one another, sometimes to the point of exaggeration or pretense.

John FeaSo says Wiktionary, and I fear that a picture of Messiah College history chair John Fea and I could easily be inserted between that definition and the illustration of how the phrase might be used in a sentence:

Those two are incessantly flattering one another. They’ve formed an utterly nauseating mutual admiration society.

So navigate away if your stomach is queasy, for I’m about to link to, praise, and recommend John Fea for what must be the thousandth time in the life of this blog, reciprocating similar behavior on his part

There’s a lot to like about John’s work as a scholar, but I’m especially appreciative of his commitment to teaching undergraduates and to taking history beyond the academy. (No doubt because that’s where I’m at these days as well.) I just sent my dean a proposal for a sophomore-level Introduction to History course that will use John’s forthcoming book Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, tailor-made for this kind of course at a school like Messiah or Bethel. And his enthusiasm for public history and digital humanities has proved infectious, leading me to craft a directed study on the former with one of our seniors last fall and to start thinking through what DH would look like in an undergraduate arts and humanities division like ours at Bethel.

Another idea of John’s that is guaranteed to inspire me to take a similar direction (or, to put it more honestly, is so good that it’s going to compel me to steal it from him) is to produce a series of “virtual office hours.” As John explained in episode one of the series, these videos stem from his teaching an intro course similar to the one I mentioned above: he took some of what they’re doing in Messiah’s Historical Methods course and shared it with whomever might stumble across these clips on YouTube.

In that first episode, he asks (with an assist from this famous scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), “How do historians think?” and “What’s the difference between ‘history’ and ‘the past’?”

Since then, John has produced another fourteen episodes, generally in the 8-13 minute range (though a visit to National History Day and a conversation with Geoffrey Galt Harpham went longer). The most recent explores historical blogging and the origins of John’s own blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. It shows John and I to share similar sources of inspiration for our blogging (the desire to publicize a new book and then to reach a wider audience on a variety of topics; being interested in journalism earlier in our lives), even if we have very different models of blogging — I tend to post 500-1500 words just once a day, while John fires off multiple brief posts (usually a link and excerpt to another post or article, with a bit of commentary) and then intermittently posts his own, longer reflections.

I like the “virtual office hours” format for lots of reasons — not least that they seem easy to produce, but also because they flow so naturally out of John’s teaching and complement his blogging. Look for me to start exploring this myself just as soon as I start teaching my intro to history course in Spring 2015 — which gives me a couple years to come up with a different title, so that the intellectual theft/homage seems a bit less blatant.

Here’s the YouTube page for the whole “virtual office hours” series, if you’d like to browse.

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