How I’m Planning to Teach Online (part 2)

Yesterday I started thinking out loud about my plans for converting my courses at Bethel University into online offerings. Part one summarized some basic principles I’m trying to follow, then explained my plans for a 100-level gen ed survey. Today: my two 200-level History courses…

HIS/POS252L History and Politics of Sports

Course description and students: A new course that I’m co-teaching with the chair of our Political Science department, Chris Moore, 252L meets a sophomore-level gen ed requirement in contemporary American culture and thought (though there are also a handful of History, Political Science, International Relations, Digital Humanities, and Social Studies Education majors taking it for elective credit in those majors). We’re exploring sports past and present as a way of looking at everything from public policy and international relations to race and gender, plus we keep asking how sports have been used by Christians and how sport can become a kind of religion itself.

I don’t normally use textbooks in 200/300-level courses, but for this first time through, I’m glad we adopted Richard Davies’ Sports in American Life, now in its 3rd edition

Pre-COVID instruction and assignments:

• We meet three times a week, 50 minutes each class. Because our course got capped at 70 students (huge, by Bethel standards), we’ve had to lecture more than we expected, taking turns as the lead instructor for the day and often giving in-class reading quizzes. But we also assigned each student to a team (professional learning community, I mean) that sits together for in-class discussion.

• Then outside of class that same team works together on three big projects. The first was a case study of the history of one sport that we hadn’t presented in lectures. The next two projects are connected to in-class, multi-day simulations we’ve planned. For each simulation, we’d break the class into two halves, with each having five teams playing roles in the simulation.

Before break we launched the first simulation: an American city debating whether or not to offer public funding for a new NFL and/or MLS stadium. Individually, each student researched and wrote a case study of a recent stadium debate/decision in another city. On day one of the sim, we planned to have the two franchise teams make pitches for their stadium projects to a team representing the city council. Then on the final day, teams representing different citizens groups (pro and con) would make their arguments before the city council, which would vote as we close. The late April simulation is meant to feature cities around the world bidding to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

• After the stadium simulation, we would have students write a two-part, take-home midterm essay. Then the final exam — coming after quarters on international sports and the frontiers of sports — would include an in-class section, and a take-home essay tied to our planned field trip: a Twins game at Target Field during their series against the Royals on May 8-10.

Where we were before break: We’re two weeks into the second of four “quarters.” We’d started by doing some case studies of the modern history of baseball, football, and other sports; now we’re trying to study sports and American society more thematically. The week before break, for example, was focused on gender and sexuality.

Online plan:

In our third “quarter,” Chris will lead us through Victor Cha’s Beyond the Final Score

• The big challenge is the simulations. Here too, we’re averse to attempting some kind of synchronous activity. Instead, we expect to do a step-by-step version of the stadium simulation over the course of three days before Easter: that Monday, the sports franchise teams will make their pitches for public funding by distributing a brochure or video; that Tuesday, the different members of the citizen groups will write op-eds for and against the proposal; then that Wednesday, the city council members will announce and explain their votes by writing press releases. (I’d thought about building a course blog to serve as something like the city newspaper, in order to disseminate all these materials. We’ll see if that comes to fruition…) We’ll come up with something similar for the Olympics simulation in late April/early May.

• It sounds like MLB games won’t start until mid-May, if not later, so the trip to Target Field is probably kaput. At this point, I like the idea of reorienting the final essay to focus on the implications of the COVID crisis for sports — or the economic, social, and cultural implications of a prolonged sports hiatus. I’ve also thought of creating a COVID discussion board on Moodle where we can all share and discuss articles and other fodder for such an essay.

• Then to replace the lectures we’d normally have done in class on our remaining topics. Generally, we’ll start each week with a narrated PowerPoint that surveys key historical and contemporary issues; followed by individual and/or group responses to reading assignments during midweek; concluding with weekly episodes of our 252 podcast, with students supplying comments and questions for Chris and me to discuss. The first week back, we’ll be looking at race and sports, surveying the African American experience of sports past and present.

HIS290 Introduction to History

Course description and students: This is the gateway course to our department, required for Bethel’s major and minor programs in History. HIS290 is meant to be a first- or second-year course, but as usual, this semester we also have a few older students who switched majors or added the minor late. (In fact, having that mix of perspectives really enriches our discussions, though it can be odd to take our gateway and capstone course in the same semester…) Most basically, it’s a “tool kit” course, helping undergraduates develop the core competencies of historians (research, analysis, and writing, in particular), but we also ask more philosophical questions about the discipline and consider non-academic ways of engaging with the past.

This semester I’m again having students read John Fea’s Why Study History?, but I’m also trying out Tracy McKenzie’s new Little Book for New Historians

Pre-COVID instruction and assignments:

• Coming back after two years away to a course I created, the main change I made was to have students work on a semester-long research project, on any historical topic they choose. It’s an attenuated version of what majors do for our capstone course; Intro students won’t write the 25-30 page paper that ends Senior Seminar, but they’ll complete many of the intervening steps (including a topic proposal, annotated bibliography, and journal article analysis so far), as a way to simulate a research project — and give them something to feed their curiosity for several months.

• Like History and Politics of Sports, Intro has three 50-minute sessions each week. I’ve tried to give each day of the week a different flavor: Mondays we tend to discuss larger questions of meaning and method (e.g., our last topics before break were historical revisionism and counterfactual analysis) while Fridays are reserved for exploring non-academic ways of making meaning of the past: historical films/TV series to start, and eventually “past-related practices” like commemoration, reenacting, genealogy, etc. In between, Wednesdays are meant to help students work on their projects — sometimes via a guided activity in class (e.g., a research tutorial in our library), sometimes a one-on-one check-in. And sometimes I simply give up that class time to let students focus on a research assignment, while I make myself available for an extra office hour.

• Then our last two weeks of the semester are set aside for exploring different historical vocations, setting up a final essay in which students try to connect their interest in history to their callings as Christians.

Where we were before break: Students were writing a midterm take-home essay using two of the books on their project bibliography, as we transition from a focus on secondary sources and historiographical debates to units on primary sources and then public history. We’re three-quarters of the way through a kind of March Madness-like tournament to determine the best historical film, with students taking turns presenting nominees in different categories and then voting for favorites.

Online plan:

• I’ll drop one planned assignment because of the week we’re losing to extended spring break, but otherwise the research project will continue largely as planned. When we get back, we’ll spend a week on primary sources: first, students will write a response to some textbook reading about the nature of historical evidence; then they’ll explore different types of evidence and identify multiple primary sources that would be relevant to their project. Later I’ll have them write the first page of the paper they won’t have to complete. (In my experience, nothing is harder for undergraduates — and most other historians — than writing the introduction to something.) The project will conclude in late April with a unit on public history; I’m hoping to record an interview with a friend or two at the Minnesota Historical Society, then students will propose a museum exhibit or historic site related to their topic.

• This is the one class where I do plan to use Moodle discussion boards, probably one early in the week (to fill in for the Monday discussions of academic history) and one later (focused more on those non-academic, “past-related practices”).

Much like face-to-face discussion, I’ve found that online discussion rises or falls based on how the professor approaches the activity. If all you do is put out a single question and passively await a single response from each student, they’ll jump through the hoop and give repetitive, disconnected responses. But if you’re willing to engage more actively, replying to student comments, affirming especially helpful responses that can serve as models for other students, sometimes playing devil’s advocate or redirecting the conversation, and planning follow-up posts that add new layers to the discussion — i.e., if you’re willing to do an online version of what you would normally do in class — this kind of activity can work well.

It should help that this isn’t as big a class as the other two I’m teaching: just seventeen students this spring. I’ve already got some natural leaders in the class, and others who may be even more active when given the chance to read and write instead of listening and speaking.

As a kind of practice, I think I’ll lead off with a forum where we discuss the role of history and historians in the midst of the COVID crisis: “How does thinking historically about context, change over time, causality, contingency, and complexity help us understand what’s happening? Have you seen helpful historical analogies — and what limits their utility right now?”