Academic Proposals, Historical Thinking, Research

Churning out new assignments!: “Introduction to Historical Research and Presentations”

There are two major exciting things about this post. Firstly, I’ve actually written something new! In order to accomplish this lofty goal, I thought I’d return to my approach of sharing new assignments that I’ve developed. Secondly, I figured out how to embed a Google Doc in WordPress! Hopefully this embedded document will show up for everyone whether viewing it on or through an RSS Reader.

This most recent assignment, which I’m discussing with my students tomorrow, has the ever-so-pithy title of “Introductory Historical Research and Presentation Assignment: Rome and the Middle Ages.” This assignment shares some commonalities with others I’ve posted before, most notably my “Crap Detection” assignment, as it aims to get students thinking critically about their sources and evaluating the authorship to understand how that aspect inherently shapes the nature of the content.

However, this assignment’s emphases are slightly different as I’m hoping that it will help students to explore research databases, begin to understand and use Chicago Style citations and bibliographies, and gain an understanding of historiography and how historians can approach the exact same topic from a variety of perspectives. Moreover, I hope that by giving students freedom to choose their topics within the broader time period of Rome and the Middle Ages that they’ll have a greater investment in their topics, which will make researching and presenting on them more compelling.

So, let’s see if the second exciting element of this post works. Below, you should see the embedded Google Doc of the assignment.


Any suggestions or thoughts on how I could revise or add to this assignment to better emphasize the skills I’m working to have my students develop? I haven’t yet made photocopies, so I can certainly incorporate any expedited feedback! (However, I probably will have made the copied by the time you read this, so if you have suggestions along this line I’ll gladly take them nevertheless and incorporate them for the future).

Academic Skills, history, Presentations, Research, teaching

Trans-historical Comparison Assignments: Great, or the Greatest?

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lyi...

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lying down on pier, New York City docks, or "how my students might feel after completing this assignment and explaining their complex comparison in the course of five minutes." - Image via Wikipedia

In my U.S. History classes we’ve finished up the era of imperialism and WWI, and are now moving into the 1920s and building toward the Great Depression and the New Deal.

As this is the first time I’ve taught through a U.S. History survey, there’s a lot I’m learning as I progress through each era and try out different types of assignments. One type of investigation and analysis I’d like to have my students do more of is working to understand how contemporary patterns, trends, and dynamics developed in and transformed from earlier eras. So, as I’m moving into this next topic, I thought it’d be an ideal time to work to get the students to explore the links between these present-day phenomena and parallel phenomena that occurred earlier in U.S. history.

To accomplish this goal, I set up a comparative (a trans-historical comparison, no less, the merits and perils of which I suppose we could discuss as well) assignment that gets the students to investigate certain themes and topics from the 1920s and then explore how those are similar to and different from the developments of the past decade. In framing this assignment, I’ve used economic downturns (Stock Market crash and the Great Depression vs. the “Great Recession“) as the focal points of the comparison.

As with any trans-historical comparison (or I suppose any comparison in general, but I don’t want to get to methodologically wonky here, which I probably just did by writing the words “methodologically wonky”), there’s the risk of fitting proverbial square pegs into round holes and seeing events and patterns from a past period as being similar to current developments. However, my goals with this assignment center less on the precision of the comparison, but are more about getting the students to employ their research skills, hone their presentation skills, and gain a fuller understanding of the contemporary history of the past decade.

In order to avoid re-writing the whole assignment sheet in this intro, I’ll cut myself short and go ahead and post the assignment I distributed to my students today:

The Roaring ‘20s and the Boom Years of the 2000s (or aughts, or whatever)

Purpose:The goal of this assignment is both to get us to understand the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the post-WWI period in the United States, and also to help us think comparatively.

This assignment frames our study of the 1920s as a narrative progressing to the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Great Depression. However, beyond simply studying these events as constrained just to the 1920s, we’ll also be working on our skills of using the comparative method and thinking transhistorically by considering in what ways these early-20th century developments have parallels to the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the past decade. In order to facilitate the comparison, we’ll be viewing the 2000s as a narrative building up to the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009, which will enable us to look as the developments of the decade in a more-or-less side-by-side way.

Finally, in terms of sharing this information with your classmates, this assignment will challenge you to become more comfortable with and well versed in oral presentation aided by meaningful images. We’ll be using a slightly modified Pecha Kucha (pronounced “Pe-chach-ka”) format to make our comparison clear. In the course of this presentation you’ll be expected to convey the important points about both decades and advance an argumentative stance about the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.

In completing this assignment you’ll need to draw on your skills of saliency determination, categorical identification and analysis, research for pertinent sources, “crap detection” of those sources, use of the comparative method, and argumentative development and articulation.

Topics: (please note how I have oh-so-generously provided you with the page references for the topics on the 1920s. However, you’ll have to do to meaningful research for the information about the 2000s, and of course, do the heavy-analytical-lifting on making the comparison).

  1. Xenophobia in the decade prior to the decline (pp. 561-562)
  2. Domestic intolerance, persecution, and violence (pp. 562-563)
  3. Technological innovation and quality of life in the U.S. (pp. 563-564)
  4. Changing nature of business and industry in the U.S. (pp. 564-566)
  5. Transformations in real estate and property development on a NATIONAL scale
    (pp. 566-567)
  6. LOCAL Fort Worth city development and transformations of the 1920s vs. those of the rest of the nation (pp. 566-567)
  7. Communications technology and its cultural effects and ramifications (pp. 567-569)
  8. Religious dynamics and developments (p. 570)
  9. Immigrations laws, policies, and dynamics (p. 572)
  10. Race relations, culture, and civil rights (p. 572-573)
  11. Women’s rights, their role in moral advocacy, and other cultural developments (pp. 574-576 and pp. 581-582)
  12. Economic stratification and the condition of laboring populations (pp. 576-577)
  13. Relationship and connections between big business and the federal government
    (pp. 577-579)
  14. U.S. foreign policy and international involvement (pp. 579-581)
  15. Economic decline and collapse in major markets (pp. 583-584 and 587-589)

Learning Standards: The assignment will be evaluated on the following standards. Each of these standards will be evaluated on a 1-5 scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable).

  1. Assignment uses and properly cites (with a Chicago Style bibliography handed in with the presentation) at least TWO contemporary, legitimate sources, ideally from reputable newspapers, journals, and the like. Moreover the bibliography also includes a citation for the textbook.
  2. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 1920s pertinent to that topic.
  3. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 2000s pertinent to that topic.
  4. Pecha Kucha presentation employs pertinent images and adheres to the 20 slides x 15 seconds/slide format.
  5. Narration to accompany Pecha Kucha presentation offers meaningful interpretation and analysis that addresses  the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.
  6. Narration to accompany presentation also addresses the sources of the information for the material on the 2000s, explains its validity to the comparison, analyzes the authorship of those sources to explain the credibility of those sources.
For the material about the 2000s, I encourage you to draw on Proquest Historical New York Times (accessible through our school library webpage), Google News, and Google News Archive. Those three resources should provide you with access to solid and reputable primary sources about the events of the 2000s, meaning you can likely avoid the treachery of AskJeeves,, and Yahoo Answers.
I should note that I built the fifteen topics listed above from Gary Nash, et al’s The American People textbook, and the list effectively follows the structure and major topic headings of the chapter. I broke it into fifteen topics as I have fifteen students. Also, the modified Pecha Kucha format to which I refer is just a slightly condensed one — instead of giving the students 20 slides with 20 seconds for each one, I’m giving them 20 slides with 15 seconds for each one. This time condensation brings the total time for each presentation down to an even five minutes, which should allow us to cover all the students in the course of two 45 minute class periods.
It’s likely that I’ll be making minor (or perhaps major) adjustments and tweaks to the assignment over the next few days, so if you want to stay tuned in to the latest goings-on (and who doesn’t?!?) you can access the Google Doc of the assignment sheet.
If anyone has experience with a similar type of assignment — either in terms of subject matter, comparative structure, or presentation style, I’d love to hear what worked and what didn’t as my students embark on their research and on assembling their presentations over the next few days.
history, Research, Technology, Writing

Omnipresent and Unexpected Reminders: Google Tasks and today’s New York Times

When I returned from vacation a few weeks ago and once again immersed myself in my Google-laden existence (which extends to virtually everything except my iPhone), I realized that they had moved the Tasks functionality from Calendars into GMail. I was excited about this shift as I don’t spend a whole lot of time using the Calendar page, given that my schedule tend to be pretty predictable, but I do use GMail all the time. And while my schedule is predictable, the list of long-term, short-term, and indeterminate-term things I have to do isn’t always predictable.

Back-to-School Tasks in GMail

So, when I saw the Tasks is now part of my most frequently-used Google tool, I realized that this change should help me keep track of all the things I need to take care of in the near and distant future. Particularly useful in the new pop-up Tasks window in GMail is the ability to create different Task lists rather than just have everything subsumed in one gigantic “Default” list. Upon figuring this out, I went about creating a “Back To School” list, a “Blogging/Blog Post” list of writing ideas, a “Music to check out” list to remind me about interesting bands I discover via All Songs Considered or Sound Opinions, and the “Default” list of large, typically long-term regular life things I need to address.

One of the good things about having this “Default” list in my face with regularity is that I’m less likely to forget about them. The top item on that list is definitely the longest-term project I’m dealing with at the moment, which is to take my (rather verbose) article about the Mormon Pavilion (“…and in the left corner, weighing in at 52 pages…”) published in the Journal of Mormon History’s Fall 2009 Issue, and condense it down to a 6,000 word entry for a forthcoming collection about Mormons and American Popular Culture. I’ve not had to revise a previous work in quite so significant a way beforehand, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and figuring out how to convey my argument clearly and effectively in a much shorter amount of space.

The newfound prominence of this list brings me to the second good reminder about my impending writing assignment I received today: an article in the  New York Times about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and their role in a satellite broadcast to Europe in 1962. I really enjoyed reading the article and it definitely reengaged my scholarly interest in the LDS Church and their movement into mainstream American culture. Similar to an argument I made in a portion of my article, the NYT piece by Kirk Johnson contended that the early 1960s marked “a high point of assimilation for the choir and the church” as “Suburbs and large, baby-boom families were in vogue, and that made the Mormons, who’d fled to Utah to escape persecution in the 1840s, look more like everybody else than they ever had.”

Mormon Tabernacle Choir - Image courtesy of Flickr user Laurel Fan

However, Johnson’s article concludes by arguing that this moment in 1962, when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and their rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was broadcast to an ideologically-divided European continent, marked the apogee of LDS integration into the American mainstream. After this moment, Johnson notes, “As the sexual revolution, the drug culture and the social upheaval of civil rights and the Vietnam War advanced, the LDS Church retreated, re-emphasizing modesty in dress and behavior, sharpening the cultural conservatism that remains a church hallmark today.” Therefore, by the “late 1960s and early 1970s […] much of America looked alien through Mormon eyes” given an increasing resentment of Washington and the changing cultural mores.

Perhaps because I’m so steeped in thinking about the 1964-65 World’s Fair as a catalytic moment in the history of the LDS Church, I have a hard time seeing this broadcast that took place two years before the opening of the Fair — an event where the Church very self-consciously sought to proselytize to a broad audience — as the last moment of real integration of the LDS Church into mainstream American culture. In fact, it seems that given the Church’s later participation in other World’s Fairs, the rise of prominent and influential LDS politicians (see: Reid, Harry; Romney, Mitt), and the continued expansion into the built environment through the construction of ward houses and temples, that satellite broadcast really wasn’t as end of an era, but instead marked a step in a process of increasing prominence and integration.

If nothing else, this article has helped re-spark my thinking about the development of LDS integration into the American mainstream. Hopefully these initial ruminations will shortly manifest themselves in the form of making progress on my encyclopedia entry!