29 August 2012

PowerPoint in the College History Classroom

As a student, I railed against textbooks and lectures. I wanted primary sources, strong monographs, discussion and debate. In addition to learning the names and principal achievements of the European Renaissance, I wanted to argue about the implicit ideology at work in the label for that era. Taking notes while a professor summarized some of the key relationships between political adversaries in the early American Republic was one thing. I wanted to read their letters. From these texts, it would have been possible to construct my history of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with John Adams. That history could then be submitted to expert critique from my peers and from my professors. I wanted seminars. Seminars should not be limited to senior capstone courses for undergraduates, and then required in the distribution on graduate student transcripts. Rather, the methodology of the seminar should inform every history course even down into the college preparatory courses in high schools.

Becoming a Lecturer

As a young professor, I constructed some of my courses to satisfy those old student cravings. For the senior level Indians of the Pacific Northwest which I taught for several years at Washington State University, for example, students purchased a stack of texts that included monographs and compilations of primary materials. Students had to read these texts, discuss them in class, and write papers about them. That process of reading and writing with a bit of class discussion was a normal part of undergraduate history courses.

Of course, indigenous history presents complications. A putative Native autobiography highlights certain problems. Yellow Wolf: His Own Story (1940) was written not by the veteran of the Nez Perce War of 1877, but by his friend, Anglo-American rancher Lucullus Virgil McWhorter. The words in the text were spoken by Yellow Wolf, but the arrangement of the materials and the presentation of his memories was put together by the Anglo-American. Such texts formed a foundation from which I hoped that students would develop their own narratives. It was even possible to visit the archives in our library and examine McWhorter's papers. As Yellow Wolf told his story to McWhorter over several years, the rancher took notes. From these notes, he wrote the "as told to" Indian autobiography. Those notes are in the WSU library.

Seminar was not part of the name of the course, nor part of its official description in the university catalog. Students resisted my methodology. They wanted to be fed. They wanted me to make deposits that they could withdraw with interest at exam time.* As time went on, I developed a series of lectures for this course.  What I had to say about McWhorter and Yellow Wolf pushed aside what my students might have said.

In my lower division courses, the seminar structure was out of the question. I did not attempt to transform these into seminars, but embraced my destiny. Teaching became public speaking. One semester, Introduction to Comparative American Cultures 101 had two hundred students. Lecture was the only way to effectively feed large groups of hungry learners. Despite my proclivities, I learned to entertain. But even in lecture there are ways to provoke student engagement. It is not all passive note taking. One particular semester, I felt pleased after one class session late in the semester that was mostly question and answer during which I called upon more than two dozen students by name. Ninety percent of the students were silent, but I had a normal classroom full of engaged learners who I knew by name mixed into the larger crowd.

In those large courses, my lectures were driven by questions. Some of my questions went unanswered. From overhead transparencies of images and snippets of text, students confronted primary sources. How does a concentration camp differ from an internment center?
I have made the statement here that enemy aliens would be accepted in the State of Nevada under proper supervision. This would apply to concentration camps as well as to those who might be allowed to farm or such other things as they could do in helping out. ... I do not desire that Nevada be made a dumping ground for enemy aliens to be going anywhere they might see fit to travel.
Governor E.P. Carville to General DeWitt, February 1942 (quoted in Personal Justice Denied, 102)
Heart Mountain, Wyoming
Effective speakers who can entertain hundreds of undergraduates and fill their heads with knowledge and ideas for reflection are not necessarily effective teachers. I struggled to be both. Some students said nice things about my presentations. Sometimes they complained that they could not stop thinking about my class. That complaint was a compliment!

Beginning ten years ago, overhead transparencies gave way to PowerPoint slides. Classroom technology made it easier for me to prepare lecture materials. These innovations also made student note taking easier, or perhaps less necessary. Students demanded that PPT slides be available on Blackboard for review. Gone were the days when academic success rested upon the ability to convert an audible stream by a professor to a filled student notebook.

Transforming Technology

Students have access to the visual component of the lectures before they are presented. This structural change offers opportunity to renew my early vision for effective college history. My PowerPoint presentations had been listed on previous syllabi for my course as "lectures". In the current iteration of Pacific Northwest History that runs for six weeks beginning in mid-August, the term "lecture" appears no where on the syllabus. Now they are called "thematic presentations".

Changing the name is only the beginning. More substantive is a transformation in my expectations for the students, and for myself. In the past, as I constantly revise and update old presentations, these have been posted to Blackboard by mid-day before each class period (classes meet once or twice per week, depending upon whether they include Saturday session or not). Students are able before class to print the slides in a format that provides them with room for taking notes. In the current class, these presentations are  available on Blackboard as much as one week before each class session. I ask students to review all, or specified parts, of each presentation before each class.

Instead of racing through each presentation to "cover" the material, I highlight certain portions. My slide shows remain inordinately long, but the lectures are shorter. Some sequences of slides are raw material for the students to use as a resource alongside the assigned texts--books and primary source material--to answer questions during small group discussion.

Fomenting Resistance

For years I have cajoled students into interrupting my lectures. I have urged them to revolt, to take control of the course and their own education. I have suggested that the design of a lecture is something that demands disruption. Never did I urge disruption simply for its own sake, nor disruption that interferes with the learning process. Rather, I have insisted that more learning takes place when they argue with and interrogate the speaker (me). They learn more when they force me to adapt what I have prepared to their preparations, and to their experience of the past. Some students embrace such dialogue, but it is too easy to sit back and take notes. Many fall into the passive pattern that has been a mode of school as long as any of us can remember.

Some of the ways that students actively engage professors during lectures was brought out during an external review of my graduate degree program while I was a student there. Such reviews are part of the re-certification that university programs must undergo periodically. One of the reviewers--a professor from another university with a similar degree program--asked a group of graduate students to comment on certain qualitative aspects of ourselves both as a group and as individual students. We were asked to compare our self-evaluation to our perceptions of our peers in the two principal departments that fed our interdisciplinary program. We took courses in both American history and American literature. As part of our response, we described the classroom dynamic in a course on early nineteenth century American history in which there were undergraduate students, graduate students in History, and graduate students in American Studies (my degree program).

American Studies students, we explained, frequently interrupted the narrative of the professor's lecture to raise substantive issues with historical interpretation. We sought to engage our teacher in discussions concerning the merits and deficiencies of this or that historian's approach to his or her subject. The History graduate students, on the other hand, were difficult to sort from the undergraduate students with one or two notable exceptions. Several of them tended to raise their hand during lecture for the purpose of asking, "Professor Hume, could you repeat that date?" American Studies students raised their hand to inquire whether the professor thought that subsequent scholarship had confirmed or refuted Reginald Horsman's assertion that belief in white supremacy was planted deeply in the nation's dominant ideology by the middle of the nineteenth century. Most of Hume's discussion of race seemed to come from Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (1981).

Illustrative Lesson Plan

Pacific Northwest history for adult students (age 25 and older) is one of my regular courses. These courses last six weeks, in which time we pack in a full semester's content and labor. Due to the shortened duration of the course, class sessions typically run 3 1/2 to 4 hours on weeknights, and occasional 7 1/2 hour Saturday sessions. My PowerPoint slide show are the visual and textual element in excruciatingly long lectures. Although originally conceived as stimulants to imaginative critical reading of the key text, and intended to provoke rather than stifle discussion, these slide shows easily become the forum for a kind of talking that leaves me hoarse and leaves my students numb.

Before next week's class, students are to review the slides in "Gold in the Klondike." They also must explore a website that offers many digitized images and texts concerning the last major gold rush in United States history. My "thematic presentation" concerning the Klondike gold rush has more than fifty slides. Flipping through them in front of a group of students could easily become a three-hour monologue.

This presentation has four parts: allure of gold, economics of gold, creating questions, and Seattle Spirit. The first two sections highlight the significance of gold rushes to Western American and Pacific Northwest history, the debate concerning the gold standard and bimettalism during the presidential election of 1896, Adam Smith's synopsis of economic theories of value in Wealth of Nations (1776), and a few related points. I will lecture through that portion, although a few slides pose questions that elicit student response. The other two sections comprise the bulk of the slides. Some concern Seattle's early history from the Arthur Denny party to the completion of the Great Northern Railway with that city as its western terminus.

The section creating questions offers a series of images of newspaper advertisements from 1897-1899, followed by extracts from letters written by a prospector who died in Alaska in 1900. Students are to develop historical questions from their examination of these images and texts. In class, they will present their questions and we will discuss how additional sources could serve to help develop answers.

The notion of the Seattle Spirit is an odd one. Sometimes, it seems, folks suggest that something in the air in that city develops marketing genius. Such successful businesses as Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, and Nordstroms reveal a thriving business climate that contrasts with the city's early failure to beat Tacoma in competition for the Northern Pacific Railroad terminus. During the centennial celebration of the Klondike gold rush, there were a number of claims made both for the significance of this gold rush to Seattle's development and the almost mystical Seattle entrepreneurial spirit. Students see some of these assertions in the slides. Having them pore through the slides before class makes it possible to avoid flipping through the projections during a lecture. Instead of lecture, students bring evidence to bear on the issues raised in these assertions, evidence that they compiled from their exploration of digitized images on a website. If we need to look a the the slides, the projector is there, but it is not necessary.

Instead of taking notes on my narrative of these events and their significance, students work together to craft their own explanations. What is the historical significance of the Klondike gold rush to Seattle and the broader region? The answers my students develop are more important than my own.

*See Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans by Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continum, 1993). Friere's critique of the banking concept of education informed an earlier post: "Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning" (August 2009).

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