That Just Seems Backward- Considering the Backwards Design Approach to Student Assessments

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    In thinking of student assessment for this week’s blog post, I was reminded of a number of topics we’ve discussed in class concerning the backward design approach. For example, I thought immediately of the numerous times we’ve talked about our desires for students, various ways to intellectually engage them with course materials, and the importance of concerning ourselves with much more than the content we teach but the skills set we wish to impart upon our students. I was also reminded of an article I read several weeks ago from the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Harvard-Seeks-to-Jolt/130683/). The article was primarily about a conference held in February for Harvard’s new teaching emphasis. The project, simply called the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning, is boosted by a $40 million grant and seeks to improve the teaching methods of university professors, enhance the learning capabilities of the student body and improve student skill development. Leaders of the conference argued that most professors tend to teach according to their own “habits and hunches.” Faculty members in attendance attributed this problematic approach to the lack of training graduate students receive on how students learn. Without a necessary background in student learning, new instructors tend to rely upon methods of teaching that emphasis content and lack any consideration of the “cognitive capabilities” they want their students to develop. Of course, we know this type of consideration to be the foundation of the backward design approach. We’ve frequently mentioned the significance of attaching a type of applicable skills set to the courses we create so that we may actively consider the interest of our students. By doing so, we can help our students develop the intellectual capabilities we want them to take away from a class, particularly those that stretch far beyond the content we present.

    Another interesting discussion the Chronicle article offered highlighted issues surrounding lectures. As many of us are aware, lecture-based courses promote a type of passive learning where students forget information they may have temporarily absorbed as soon as it’s regurgitated in a multiple-choice assessment. A number of other lecture failures were listed: The lecture hinders the instructor’s ability to “prod students to make meaning of what they learn, to ask questions, extract knowledge, and apply it in a new context.” So how do we construct better lectures or utilize better forms of instruction and assessment?

    By getting creative, of course. So, in order for us to improve our assessment skills, we’ll have to open our minds to nontraditional, innovative methods of approach. This article offers a few adventurous ideas. Conference leaders suggested asking students to explain concepts or teach the material they’ve learned to fellow classmates. One of the professors in attendance actually requests short essays from his students asking them to respond to current readings. He then incorporates these weekly responses into his class lectures and discussions. Other professors suggested having students identify relevant areas or questions that their readings have left unaddressed. These assignments can also serve as mild forms of assessment that supplement larger essay or short answer tests. As this article reveals, there are already professors employing a variety of assessment forms to discover those that work best for them. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to start treading those unchartered territories.

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Detached Histories- Reading into Eric Wolf’s “Europe and the People Without History”

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This week’s reading, Europe and the People Without History, emphasizes a theme of connectivity. Eric R. Wolf utilizes convincing examples of consistent global links ranging from imperialistic movements, like the slave and fur trade to economic transformations of industrial capitalism. Asserting that the world histories familiar to many are largely stories of separation, uniqueness and distinction, Wolf reveals that scholars tend to fall into a practice of purporting various concepts or categories as tangible, exclusive “things”–static things void of interrelated influence. This practice ultimately contributes to a concept of world history as linear. Wolf argues that the study of sociology, (and other disciplines emanating from the nineteenth century) is responsible for reconstructing world history in such a misleading manner. In responding to the bursts of scholarly interest in economic history during the eighteenth century, sociologists developed a number of hypotheses, all of which Wolf discussed in his book. Yet, Wolf asserts that these propositions are limiting in a number of ways: they create a type of structuralized history, absent of economic, political and ideological influence. Moreover, they fail to recognize significant interactions like those established between groups in their “mutual encounter and confrontation”. Sociology has, as its name informs, focuses upon the functions of society. As Wolf asserts, this very word has become a governing term–one that is usually attached to a nation-state, used in direct reference to a particular Society and indicative of a West vs. East dichotomy. And although Wolf recognizes useful contributions from anthropologists and environmentalists, he is sure to highlight the structurally restrictive nature of the world histories produced in these fields.
In a search for ways to ameliorate issues that limit and distort world histories, Wolf looks to some of Marx’s broader arguments–those most “relational in character”. Although Marx’s work has often been appropriated for use in economic history, his view of production was quite universal. By employing an expanded version of the “modes of production” approach, Wolf believes we can get closer to creating world histories that are more reflective of global connections. Ultimately, he suggests that historians, anthropologists, sociologists and environmentalists change the ways they view society, culture and ideology. If we consider all of these terms and the ways in which they are related and influenced by politics and economics, we can improve world history and its consumption.
This book has great implications for designing a world history course. It suggests that we focus less on structure and separatism and more on connectivity. It would seem that this approach would fall in line with the anchors that many of us have chosen for our own course projects. I’m sure we are all concerned with painting a picture of world history that reveals complex global relationships, and many of them (especially within the time frame our courses will cover) will include, if not begin with, European imperialism.

Where are We on the Commodity Chain?: Reading “Maize and Grace” and “From Silver to Cocaine”

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     This week’s readings encourage us to consider the ways in which global commodities have shaped or influenced world history. Beginning with James C. McCann’s Maize and Grace: Africa’s New World Crop, 1500-2000, we learn about the dramatic impact of maize (what we know as the vegetable, sometimes grain, corn) upon the African continent. McCann sets out to detail the two contrasting narratives of maize that attempt to explain the integral role of the crop in several African countries, specifically those sub-Sahara. Each narrative relates to the use of maize as a source of food and displays a connection to maintaining labor forces. The first narrative emphasizes the role of maize in providing the chief source of sustenance within burgeoning mining and industrial southern African economies. The crop provided a cheap form of fuel and entertainment (attributable the grain’s fermenting abilities) that supported a large labor force. The second narrative tells the story of maize and its cultivation on small farms, primarily maintained by women. It asserts that these small farms frequently struggled in competition with commercial agriculture and its buying of large amounts of land.

    This book also seeks to tell the story of how 95% of the maize produced in Africacame to be used as the continent’s primary food source. The examination of this phenomenon goes on to reveal the social, economic and political implications such dominance has had upon Africa and how this influence has moved beyond Africato affect the global market. Tracing the introduction of maize to the continent circa 1500 (in the wake of the New World discovery) up to the end of the twentieth century, McCann provides a detailed account of how the crop reaches Africa, its early to more recent uses and its unique ecology. This account also focuses on several crucial events that shape the continent’s consumption and production of maize. The development of the “Maize Triangle,”—a 19th century conflict which McCann describes as “a product of the historical conjuncture of maize, labor migration and nascent industrial capitalism” in South Africa—is examined in detail. And a chapter is dedicated to examining the ways in which European colonization transformed the social, political and physical role of maize in Africa. As hinted by the title, Maize and Grace, the main question of the book inquires whether the history of maize in Africa “has been a story of grace bestowed on theOld World by the New, or whether this is a more fundamental human tale of struggle for both sustenance and meaning.” Although each narrative can be effectively argued (especially with the details given in this book), McCann seems to believe the answer lies within the future of maize inAfrica. In many ways, he seems to leave much of the answer to the interpretation of his readers.

     While Maize and Grace focuses on how a single commodity transformed the history of Africa, the collection of essays compiled in From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500-2000 examines (within the same time frame) the ways in which various Latin American commodities have transformed and historically shaped the global market. Each essay in this anthology takes a unique approach to assessing the impact of various Latin American commodities in the global market. Identified as the “commodity chains” approach, this type of economic assessment looks beyond monolithic studies of production and examines the “complex networks of commodity trade and the chains that were created between producers and consumers.” In line with this approach, the authors in this collection view markets “not only as natural laws that impose themselves on humans but rather as human constructs that are determined by social and political values and institutions. The authors are also concerned with the social and political consequences that are experienced among both producers and consumers. They assert that these experiences are crucial in determining commodity prices and have significant influence upon consumer spending.

     One of the articles I found most interesting was “Banana Boats and Baby Food: The Banana in U.S. History” from Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read. This article briefly examines the banana monopoly established by the United Fruit company in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Bucheli and Read emphasize the significance of European and American consumption in the banana market while effectively engaging the legal (anti-trust laws), political (both World Wars) and social (banana health benefits, puréed bananas for baby food, print media endorsements) changes that impact Latin American banana production and American consumption. Outside of the many contributions of this article to Latin American economic history, this article offers incredible insights into how such histories can be studied and written. By employing the commodity chains approach, the complicated processes that goods undergo before reaching consumers can be examined more adequately. Bucheli and Read assert that this approach emphasizes the fact that no single part of the process to produce goods is more important, or more determining, than the entire process as a whole. These arguments should be considered when pondering ways to organize a world history course. Can we organize a survey course using commodities as the anchoring theme? I would argue that we can. Tracing the impact of particularly significant goods within world history may offer students an attractive theme to follow in the mist of several competing trajectories. It also seems to be a theme by which students will find ample relevance within in their modern lives. Such a connection of the past to the present may increase student participation and promote the development of analytical writing and thinking skills.

Mythical Histories- Reading Restall’s “Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

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How many of us can remember when we were introduced to the story of the Spanish Conquest? If you’re like me, the memory (if it exists) is distant, but profound nonetheless. Often told in the traditional light that positions the friendly “civilized” nation against the savage “uncivilized” groups, the stories always presented the Spanish conquistadors as revolutionary heroes. This misconstrued view of history is exactly what Matthew Restall attempts to deconstruct in his book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

At the onset, Restall asserts an ambitious goal to display the ways in which history has often been crafted and propagated upon the basis of various myths. For Restall, the best example in support of such an argument is the examination of seven misconceptions that have shaped Spanish Conquest historiography. However, this book does more than juxtapose the misconceptions and truths of battles and ambitious leaders, it emphasizes the fact that myths are usually accepted truths for those that create and consume them. Also, in examining the histories composed during actual events of the conquest and those composed afterward, readers can see the ways in which these histories were culturally influenced. By default, these arguments also reveal that absolute objectivity is an impossible goal.

Invoking the mystical significance of the number seven in his exploration of the Spanish Conquest, Restall makes a seven-part argument that he develops in seven chapters. His argument begins fittingly with a challenge to the traditional attitudes that Spanish Conquest history is best told through the lens of conquistadors. However, as Restall asserts, this view is incredibly pejorative and positions the conquistadors, Spaniards and Europeans as superior in worldview. The multiple argument expands in chapter two as the complex identities of the conquistadors are revealed and traditional perceptions of these men as the “king’s soldiers” are dismissed. Restall goes on to examine the integral roles of natives and Africans in the Spanish expansion efforts. In revealing the importance of these men and women, conclusions can be drawn that represent the cultural and political influences of the conquistadors. Later chapters examine the ways in which “modern historians” have created a “countermyth” that “emphasizes Spanish-native miscommunication” and deconstruct the misconception that native presence was nearly erased during the conquest. The final chapter culminates in one of the larger themes of the book—it examines the accepted reasons for the Spanish Conquest. Ultimately, Restall asserts that “the myth of Spanish superiority” was “a subset of the larger myth of European superiority and the nexus of racist ideologies that underpinned colonial expansion” into the 20th century. The epilogue brings the seven arguments full circle. It offers a detailed look into various versions of one of the most important battles in the conquest. In the end, Restall is unable to assert that any of the accounts are absolute in truth. However, something of truth (be it a concept, minute detail or historical perception) can be taken from the multiple stories. For Restall, this is, at most, what we can hope for when exploring any history—to find something true about the past in the mist of multiple narratives and possibilities.

This argument is perhaps one I appreciated most in the book. It deems objectivity an unattainable goal for the historian and promotes the complication of historical events and people. I also appreciated the maintenance and reiteration of the larger argument throughout the entire text. Restall creatively incorporates minute examples that represent the influence of a particular myth. For example, Restall examines the often exaggerated actions of Cortes and his conquests in theAmericasto reveal the ways in which Cortes has been portrayed as an exceptional leader. These examples usually support Restall’s larger theme of European superiority or mythical appropriations of history.

Overall, I truly enjoyed reading Seven Myths. Not only was it incredibly informative in content, it was enlightening in argument. We are all influenced by our culture and personal circumstance. However, seldom do we take a step back to examine the ways in which our culture and experience have shaped our perceptions of the past, present and future. Restall’s work reveals that the historian works (be it subconsciously) within the realm of his or her culture, circumstance, experience and perception. This, in turn influences every interpretation we make. For Restall, this fact is why historians must examine the multiple narratives of the past in hopes of discovering “something true about the world,” not in hopes of discovering absolute truths about entire histories.

The Historian as Thief

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A few days ago, I came across news that I thought may provoke an interesting conversation with my fellow seminarians.

A quick summary:

This week a presidential historian pled guilty to stealing important (and highly valuable) documents from various library and historical society archives in the Northeast. Barry Landau, along with his assistant, Jason Savedoff, spent years working in a collaborative scheme that resulted in the theft and reselling of nearly 100 historical documents.  

 A link to the article:

 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46301379/hs/us_news_crime_and_courts/

 My response:

 Although I’m sure this type of “art” crime isn’t new, I was somewhat surprised to see it surface at this day in age. While reading the article, I developed more questions than thoughts. I wondered… To what extent, if any, does this act reflect the character of historians profession-wide? Was this, in any way, a response to the changing market of employment within academia? More importantly, how do historians feel about this crime? How do graduate students feel about Landau’s use of his 24-year-old assistant? And in the interest of our course, what thoughts come to mind about the work, purpose and responsibility of a historian? I hope this article sparks thought in your mind like it did for me. Please, feel free to comment as you think!

A Little Disclaimer

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Hello and welcome! This place in internet space will be home to my first attempt in establishing my own voice and presence online. It is my hope that this blog will contribute to my growth as a scholar, an academic and a modern historian. It is also my hope that every set of gazing eyes will be kind and patience as I learn to navigate this medium, for it will probably be riddled with the occasional mistakes of a rookie.

The Metaphors We Live By-A Response

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This week’s reading, The Metaphors We Live By from authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, left a profound impact on my understanding of language, its usage and its multifaceted role in communication. Although the text became incredibly heavy with lofty terminology and categorical labeling, it maintained a very focused and informative tone. I enjoyed the authors’ ample use of examples and I found them incredibly useful in helping the reader to personally engage the somewhat complicated topics discussed. The idea of inclusion finds a great deal of emphasis in this work. From the authors’ definition of metaphor as the process of “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” to the “experientialist” view of understanding discussed in the last chapter, metaphors are described as integral parts of our ability to communicate, our intellectual interpretations and perception of life. The integral and multifaceted role of metaphor in language, communication and personal understanding is perhaps the most important of The Metaphors We Live By.