Background: First Post

The first class was thrilling.  I felt briefly as if I was simultaneously historian, newscaster, and Oprah, though missing the microphone that would have allowed my students to explain why they had changed their responses.

I have taught my large history survey on “The Modern Middle East” before, but this time I was committed to finding a way to make this lecture format consistent with my teaching philosophy.  This year there are more students than ever.  Facing a lecture hall, a podium, more than two hundred students, and the best classroom technology available, how could I avoid making these students tourists on the journey of history?  During the summer of 2008, as I conducted a Burch Field Research Seminar in Turkey with ten amazing UNC undergraduates, I contemplated the differences between tourists and travelers.  My students noticed the tourists: people who rode air-conditioned buses, stayed in four-star international chain hotels, ate Western food, and never encountered Turks not already engaged in the industry.  Tourists “learn” about Istanbul from the guide with the microphone at the front of the bus, who has already decided which things are worth seeing, and had already allocated the amount of time required to “experience” each site before boarding the bus for the next attraction.

Our students were different.  They were expected to engage, to ask, to meet.  Their first project was a day-long scavenger hunt that required them to cross from Europe to Asia and back again; to walk the major pedestrian paths of Istanbul, to count the palaces and the Starbucks, and to eat ice cream in the market with the goose.  They had to figure out how public transportation works, how the phones are activated, how to ask directions and use money, which street vendors’ food was most palatable.  They were travelers, and proud of the autonomy and the discovery that resulted from their curiosity—and their discomfort.

Now as I faced my too-quiet 207 expectant students watching me and waiting for me to pick up the microphone and begin the tour, I told them my plan.  I was going to work to turn them into travelers, to dislocate their understanding of the Middle East and introduce them to the discomforts of travel so that they could engage in the discovery of history for themselves.

I had spent months talking with colleagues about how to actually work toward that goal in the classroom. I had visited colleagues’ lectures to see the ways they were engaging students, I had arranged to use a technology I had never seen before, Poll Everywhere.  I decided that telling stories, narrating the past, necessarily sets up a non-discovery learning project.  What else could a historian do?  Recent research has shown how much more effective problem-solving and active engagement are for students to learn—they had always been essential for my own understanding of the past.  But that seems a lot easier in a biology or physics class than in a history lecture.   Nonetheless, in addition to being pedagogically non-optimal, the lecture format seemed to me politically compromising: how can we expect to teach our students to think critically and challenge sources when we tell them what to think during our lectures?

But I finished this first lecture ecstatic (and exhausted), thrilled with the students’ responses and hoping to be able to maintain this kind of excitement for the semester.

I began, of course, with an introduction to the course, and my goals for the semester.  I listed our four main questions, and showed them my mindmap

promising that the final exam would emphasize these issues.  After introducing them to Poll Everywhere by asking them to identify Tunisia on a map, I asked them to “vote” on which caused the “Arab Spring,” Politics, Economics, Religion, or Education.  They seemed very divided, although a large majority chose politics.

After they watched El Général’s music video Reis Lebled,  I asked the students to consult the people sitting near them.  Would their “vote” be different after watching the video?  It was then, as we talked about the music and the role of evidence in forming and changing conclusions, that I wished for that microphone.

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