Before the current semester began, I described my plan to assign small-group projects in Honors 121, an introductory history course. As I explained then, I hoped that this assignment would leverage the power of teaching as a way of learning. I also hoped it would deepen students’ investment in the course and would serve as a very basic introduction to library research. Moreover, I hoped the assignment would help students look beyond the course’s original framing as part of their honors program’s introduction to “the western tradition,” using it as a window into the history of the wider world.
We followed through on this plan. Now that the semester is winding down, it seems appropriate to describe what happened.
Integrating the Assignment with the Course
When I handed out the final draft of my course syllabus, it described the assignment this way:
In a team of three students, you will prepare and deliver a half-hour group presentation of a problem from David Eaton’s World History through Case Studies. This book will be available on reserve in Connelly Library. Your case presentation will help us extend the course beyond western societies into the wider globe. Also, it will give you a relatively informal collaborative opportunity to practice basic skills of historical research, formulating ways to investigate historical puzzles.
Following up on a suggestion from my friend Donna Witek, the information literacy coordinator at the University of Scranton’s Weinberg Memorial Library, I scheduled a library training session as an integral part of the assignment. This training session took place in mid-September.
Eithne Bearden, the electronic resources and outreach librarian at La Salle University’s Connelly Library, generously agreed to teach in the library’s own first-floor classroom, meaning that my students had to visit the library together in person. (I considered this requirement, about three weeks into their first semester of college, one of the most important purposes of the activity.) There, they got to have a true expert walk them through the kinds of resources our institution provides. Eithne carefully tailored her presentation to the assignment—examining not only the prompt I provided but also the relevant chapters of David Eaton’s book.
(I mentioned this in my previous post, but the library’s generosity had already extended to purchasing a copy of this book at my suggestion during the summer, in time for it to be available for this activity.)
A few days before the training session, I had asked my students to rank their individual preferences for case studies, each of which I had already scheduled for a specific presentation date. Thus, based on their preferences and availability, I had organized students into presentation teams of three, giving them their tasks on the day of the training, so that they immediately could begin planning their presentations together after Eithne’s lesson.
The Assignment Prompt
I gave my students a detailed two-page set of instructions for their assignment. I am reproducing it here almost verbatim:
World History Case Study Instructions
In Connelly Library, go to the Public Services Desk to check out David Eaton’s book World History Through Case Studies, which is on course reserve under the professor’s name. … You will be able to use the book only inside the library. However, you should be able to scan the chapter for your case study so that everyone on your team can consult it at home as much as necessary. Be sure to include both the “further reading” bibliography listed at the end of the chapter and the endnotes for your chapter (from pp. 241-275) in the scanned file so that you can consult them later.
At minimum, you should meet with your presentation team twice: once to plan your approach to the case study presentation, and once to practice the presentation before you deliver it to the class. How you divide the responsibilities for the presentation is up to you. But make sure everyone’s contributions will involve a roughly equal amount of work, and make sure everyone will have an equal speaking role in the presentation when you deliver it in class. Remember that your presentation should be approximately 30 minutes long (i.e., approximately 10 minutes per team member), including any planned discussions you will facilitate for the class; however, this does not include the question-and-answer period afterward, when the professor and other students may follow up on points you raised. You will have access to the classroom computer and projector when you deliver your presentation.
Your chapter of the Eaton book describes a specific historical topic in terms of a scholarly puzzle, debate, uncertainty, or interpretative shift. In other words, the chapter describes a historiographic “problem.” The central task of your presentation is to explain this central problem for the rest of the class—based not only on your study of David Eaton’s chapter, but also on the following three forms of additional research:
- Your group must examine at least two key secondary sources (scholarly books or articles) related to the case study’s central problem, so that you can explain them to other students based on your own examination rather than Eaton’s description alone. These sources may come from Eaton’s bibliography or endnotes, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, they may come from your own further research.
- Your group must examine at least one relevant primary source (a text, artifact, etc.) that you can use to exemplify (illustrate, clarify, demonstrate, deepen, etc.) the problem for your audience. If possible, you should find a way to show this primary source to the audience to generate some discussion, e.g., by displaying a photograph or providing an excerpt in a handout so that your audience can view it and answer questions about it.
- Your group must do some light background and contextual research—e.g., using encyclopedias, textbooks, or other reliable tertiary sources besides Eaton’s book or [the main textbook for our course]—so that you can introduce the case study topic effectively. Your time is limited, so you are not expected to catalogue the entire experience of a civilization, but you need to be able to frame the problem effectively for your audience, and you should be able to answer basic questions the audience may raise about it.
Having defined the central problem of the case study and engaged in the additional research described in Step 3, deliver your presentation in class on the assigned day. When you present, try to remember these additional points:
- This is not an interrogation or a performance for a hostile crowd. You now know more about this topic than anyone in your audience, and they want to help you succeed in explaining it to them!
- Relatedly, your presentation will be more effective if you can make it interactive. And if you use a slideshow, leave a little mystery on each slide; don’t just fill your slides with text to read aloud word-for-word.
- Your audience wants to know why your topic is interesting or important. If your presentation can raise (and answer) a “so what?” question early on, it will draw people in.
- As the podcaster John Hodgman says, “specificity is the soul of narrative.” Don’t just generalize; offer some specific examples that people can use to visualize the subject you’re discussing in your presentation.
- Finally, be sure your presentation includes a bibliography handout that clearly identifies the sources used in preparing your presentation.
One more important note: If you will have to be absent on the day you are scheduled to deliver your presentation, inform both your teammates and the professor as early as you can. It will be necessary to reschedule your presentation for a later date, and the professor will have to find a way to fill the unexpected gap in the day’s schedule. Don’t leave the class in the lurch!
The case study presentations began in the middle of October. I had scheduled one per week. Each team effectively took the whole class period by the time their Q&A session was done.
I’m obviously limited in what I can say about the work of students in a small course without compromising their privacy. But I can say that I was very happy with the outcome of this activity.
One thing I am likely to do differently, if I get the opportunity to assign this activity again, is to provide some more informational scaffolding for each case study. For example, I might provide a brief introduction of my own (perhaps the week before a team’s presentation date) to explain the topic’s place in the wider world beyond our main course narrative.
This time, I didn’t want to predetermine what students would do with their topics, but I think they may have needed some advance help with chronology and unfamiliar social contexts. In most cases, probably, I could provide that easily without infringing on students’ ability to frame their case study problems.
The other main thing I’m likely to change next time: I’ll offer my students more guidance on the concept of a historical problem, helping them remember that these case studies don’t require them to settle philosophical or religious questions. Since most of the case studies in David Eaton’s book touch on transhistorical questions of belief and identity, it would be good for me to do more than I did this time to help students maintain their historical focus.
Overall, however, I judge this assignment a success.
It challenged my students in the right ways, inviting them to begin practicing a suite of basic skills and concepts that they would need to use again in Honors 121 and 122. It gave them an unfamiliar problem-solving opportunity, allowing them to support each other as they proved to themselves, as new college students, that they could define and solve new kinds of problems. It also gave them a small measure of direction over their own studies. And I found it a very satisfying balance of structure and freedom—a balance I’m always searching for in my courses.