Presentations, Publications, Research

A Very Belated Academic Presentation – My 2014 SHEAR Pecha Kucha Presentation on Benjamin Lay

Way back in the summer of 2014, I gave academic presentations on Benjamin Lay at two different academic conferences — the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists and the Society for the History of the Early American Republic. The timing and location of these conferences was fortuitous as they were both in Philadelphia (or its outskirts), where my in-laws live, so my family was able to visit them and I was able to share my research on Benjamin Lay with experts in these various fields of eighteenth-century and abolitionist history.

The paper I delivered at the CQHA was more traditional, but my presentation at SHEAR was a Pecha Kucha presentation, which was a fun challenge to create. After giving that presentation, which was well-received at the conference, I thought I should really sit down and record a screencast of it while my timing was still spot on.

Unfortunately, I delayed and delayed (and delayed and delayed) while life, work, research, dissertating, life, and etc. happened instead.

Only today, while working on a different screencast project, I decided to dig up my presentation notes and finally put this screencast together. So, if you missed the debut presentation two-and-a-half years ago, here’s your chance to fill that void!

Academic Skills, Pedagogy, Research, teaching

“The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”: Reflections on the New Deal in Fort Worth Project

In preparation for a presentation that I’m giving later today (which is what you have to say when starting to draft something at 12:18 am…ah, the liberties of summer!), I thought I’d put together a reflection post on an assignment I gave to my US History students earlier this spring. My presentation is to members of the Fort Worth Area Council for Social Studies, and although it’s being billed as an architectural history of Fort Worth, my focus will center on the pedagogical design, implementation, successes, challenges, and areas for future revision and improvement regarding my assignment that had the students explore the presence and legacy of the New Deal in Fort Worth. This assignment not only got the students to think about the presence of broad national trends in a local setting, but also got them to explore the city in ways they perhaps hadn’t done before.

My first reflection comment is entirely unrelated to any pedagogical point, but is rather an observation about the weird and wild patterns of internet bots and keyword scouring. Here’s the lesson: putting the words “Deal” and then the name of a city together in a single post will please and delight the overlords who run Groupon and other locally-focused discount peddlers. Seriously, just look at my comments for that post. Only one of them is from a real human (thanks, Erika!).

Sampling of bot-generated comments

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The above images were the set that I used with my class. I initially went about finding the locations just by Google searching phrases like “New Deal Fort Worth,” and “Fort Worth New Deal Architecture.” These searches yielded me some helpful leads and resources that I used to both find the locations that I wanted to photograph and also to get some background knowledge about the buildings themselves. As one of my majors in college was in the History and Theory of Architecture (and you wonder why I’m not managing a hedgefund, right?!?), I already had studied (and preserved a vague recollection) about the dramatic reshaping of the landscape created by large-scale New Deal programs, and also about the architectural, Art Deco elements that characterized most of these projects. In essence, I had a sense of what I wanted my students to be researching and discerning once they found and then could visually study a building.

Surly Pacer overlooking Fort Worth

Then, as an excuse to get out and get some exercise, I rode my bike to all the different locations, took a few pictures at each location and pedaled on to the next site. In taking the photos I tried to get noteworthy architectural features, but also take pictures of key elements that were in fact part of the New Deal building projects. In fact, many of the New Deal projects in Fort Worth were additions to existing schools built in the 1920s. For instance, it seems that stone retaining walls were one of the major components added to Fort Worth schools throughout the late 1930s. In those cases, I tried to capture that particular feature in my photos. My hope was that the students would connect the context of the New Deal, its various phases, and particular building programs to specific additions to the buildings.

I sent the photos off to Costco, had them printed up, and allowed each student to select a certain site. Immediately upon selecting their sites, they began discussing which ones they recognized, which were totally unfamiliar, and how they might go about discovering the location of their chosen building. I enjoyed seeing the earnest and authentic collaboration that took place amongst the students, as that’s often something that’s difficult to create in an assignment. While I did not create groups for the assignment, and instead had each student research and present on his or her building independently, I did encourage them to collaborate in driving around the city finding the locations, and also in sharing their knowledge and familiarity of Fort Worth with one another. I think the collaborative elements when they did happen were authentic and in part that may have been because they weren’t required. The issue of assignment design and effective collaboration is still one that I struggle with and ponder about, but that’s a topic for another day.

I scheduled the assignment so that the students had one weekend in which they could get out, explore the city, and take photographs (for which I required that they appear in at least one…and no Photoshopping!), and then I gave them a bit of class time (I think two days in the library) to cull information about the architect, construction date, noteworthy architectural features, Federal monies spent and the agency in charge of the construction, and other aspects detailed in the assignment. We then had two days of presentations in class, in which students presented their buildings, and information about the other elements I asked them to research. For this presentation, each student had five minutes and twenty slides. I used this modified Pecha Kucha presentation style in order to get students to hone in and focus on their key research questions and also to ensure that all students could present within the allotted time-frame.

So, let’s get onto what worked, what didn’t, and what I might consider changing in the future.


Most obviously, this assignment worked in terms of getting students out and having them look at their city in a way most had not done so before. It also got them to connect the broader national context to their immediate surroundings, and hopefully take away a longer-term understanding of the fact that national and international trends have profoundly local effects.

For some students, the research task also had them exercise their problem solving skills in ways in which they were unaccustomed to doing in a history classroom. The best example of this took place with a student who had this picture:

Mysterious Fort Worth New Deal site

To find the site, the student focused on the circular pattern in the image (NB: here’s one example of the stone retaining walls I mentioned earlier), and then used the Historic Fort Worth website to narrow down a range of years that it could have been built, recognized the yellow bricks as familiar, cross-referenced the location he thought it was with Google Maps, which provided an overhead view of the circular design in the image. I enjoyed hearing him talk about this process of riddling out the location and drawing on a variety of resources to ultimately confirm his suppositions, thereby allowing him to travel in confidence to the location and take pictures of the site. In this respect, I need to find or design more types of assignments that more proactively force students to engage with the material in a problem solving way (or perhaps I already have the structures and assignments, but instead need to find ways to articulate this process better).

I also thought the assignment succeeded from a presentation point-of-view, as the students were generally focused, well-prepared, well-rehearsed, and had thought carefully about what to place on their slides before launching into the presentation. I’d included some links about Pecha Kucha presentation technique for them in the assignment sheet, and my impression was that most used those resources to make their presentations image-centric and avoid excessive text. Interestingly, as students followed one another, it became clear that a relatively narrow range of architects designed these building, and in their observations of these patterns, the students began to refer to one another’s presentations and interpretations — an interconnection of knowledge and research that I was really glad to see develop organically.

Challenges and Areas for Improvement:

The hardest part of the assignment for the students, and one which I debriefed with them after everyone had finished their presentations was the way in which they evaluated the “success” of the projects. I’d included this part of the assignment in order to get the students thinking about these sites in an evaluative way and to force them to cast historical judgment on the impact and legacy of the New Deal in Fort Worth. My hope was that the students would engage with primary sources (local newspapers and magazines), and with broader secondary sources (overviews of the New Deal; histories of Fort Worth) to assess how the project reshaped the city and life for its citizens. However, the most common response I got to this section (many students essentially elided it altogether), was that the site was usually successful because it is still around, or because it serves the same purpose now as it did originally.

While these are both (very impressionistic) ways to measure success, I realized that I need to spend more time earlier in the project emphasizing quantitative vs. non-quantitative methods of  evaluating “success.” At the very least students need to define what they mean by success from the outset, and then, ideally, be able to substantiate that in some specific piece of outside evidence. After doing that, I hope students will be able to seek out and present answers to these sorts of evaluative questions: How much financial benefit did the site create? What was the local reaction to the site? How has the site effected its surrounding neighborhood?

I think that this will lead to me to have future iterations of this project require that the students ground the evaluation in primary sources from Google News Archive, or perhaps even better, The Portal to Texas History, hosted by UNT. Moreover, it might be possible to even have students ground their analysis in some sort of text-mining, like that available from Google Ngram, although I’m not sure what this would tell us — but it sure is interesting to look at!

Google NGram of "Fort Worth" and "New Deal"

Although many students’ research/scouring expeditions proved successful (particularly for those whose sites were schools and where the FWISD had already provided a fair amount of research), some struggled in their attempts to find pertinent information about their site. In the future I’ll considering providing some launching points for internet research, although I did like observing the students’ experience of muddling through information and coming up with a problem solving strategy. This aspect of the assignment gave me great insight into a student’s complex reasoning skills and his or her ability to structure and then dissect a problem.

The final correction is one of my own creation, and that’s that I need to make sure all my locations are, in fact, New Deal projects. I particularly goofed on the T&P Station in Downtown Fort Worth, which was built with railroad company money in the early 1930s before FDR’s election. However, I know there are some sites still out there that are New Deal projects in the city and that I didn’t photograph, so I should have plenty of back-ups to replace any non-New Deal projects that I accidentally included.

Interior of T&P Station Lobby. Not a New Deal building, but a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture

Resources and Readings:

Below are a few resources, websites, and reports that deal explicitly with the New Deal in Fort Worth. Some of them address specific sites, and others deal more generally with Fort Worth’s architecture or specific historical developments.


Although this project broke up some of the narrative cohesion of the semester (something that isn’t my strongest suit in the first place, but that I was also very much learning as I went though teaching a US History survey for the first time), I feel like the benefits of the project outweighed its drawbacks. The opportunity for the students to present in a concise and direct form seemed to make them attentive to their research and mindful of how to organize and effectively share their findings with the class. Moreover, we were essentially able to break some of the confines of the classroom and have students research and perceive their familiar surroundings in a new way. Ultimately, I’ll definitely use this assignment again, as I think it allows for an in-depth study of the New Deal while also getting students to engage with historical material in a more authentic and immediate way than they’re able to with a textbook.

Academic Skills, Pedagogy, Research, teaching, Technology

Harenssing current events in World History class: The Comparative Revolutions Assignment

Asura demonstration in freedom square, Tehran,...

Protesters in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Image via Wikipedia

It’s quite possible that I’ve replicated a lot of work that other teachers out there have already done, and I certainly know that I’m one of many teachers who is trying to capitalize on the timeliness of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere to get their classes engaged in current events and in historical revolutions. For instance, I drew a lot of inspiration, ideas, and resources from Greg Kulowiec, who already put together a neat version a contemporary revolutions assignment.

Given that we’ve just finished talking about the French Revolution and I’ve introduced them to the work and conceptual framework of Crane Brinton‘s “Anatomy of a Revolution,” I thought now would be the ideal time to begin this project. My hope is that students not only build on the research skills they’ve been developing all year long, but also learn about current events, and think critically about the terminology they and others use to describe these goings-on. Are these events best described as “revolutions”? Would “revolt” or “uprising” be a more apropos term? While I don’t have clear answers for them on these issues, I nevertheless hope that they can grapple with that issue in the course of their presentations.

Here’s the assignment:

Comparing Political Revolutions – The French Revolution and Today’s Turmoil

The goal of this assignment is to get you thinking about the form of modern political protests and revolutions, which essentially began with the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and compare the developments and trajectory of those earlier revolutions with the “Arab Spring” protests taking place presently in Southwest Asia and North Africa. In the course of this assignment, you’ll also gain an understanding of Crane Brinton’s model of a revolution (descriptions here and here), get further practice with using the comparative method, and employ the Pecha Kucha presentation technique.

The essential questions that you have to research and answer is the following:

  • What are the greatest similarities and differences between the French Revolution and the events currently taking place in ______________?
  • To what extent is it accurate to call the current events in _______________ a “revolution”?

Things you’ll need to find, read, and process (in this suggested order, and some of which you’ve already done!):

  1. Get context

– Read and study material on the French Revolution

    • Read the textbook chapter on the F.R.
    • Check out the lectures on the F.R. from Khan Academy
    • Read about Crane Brinton’s “Anatomy of a Revolution” (see links above)
    • Participate and take thorough notes on our class discussions
  1. Think comparatively

– See and discuss an example of an application of the comparative method to look at revolutions by reading the TIME Magazine essay that explores similarities and differences between Brinton’s model of a revolution and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

  1. Begin to research

– Choose one of the current Southwest Asian or North African Revolutions of 2011 to study. I’d recommend drawing on the BBC page for a centralized look at the most active countries.
-Here are some examples of strong resources re: the revolution in Egypt:

-Once you’ve decided which modern-day revolution you’d like to study you need to research, read, take notes on, incorporate into your argument,  and create a works cited for the following items:

  • Two factually oriented, objective articles on the current revolution you’re studying.
  • Two editorials that argue opposite or contrasting opinions on the current revolution you’re studying.
  1. Prepare your presentation

– Get acquainted with the format and expectations for a Pecha Kucha presentation. We’ll be doing a slightly modified version of this format, which will consist of 20 slides, with 15 seconds per slide — an adjustment which makes the presentation exactly five minutes long.

  1. Develop your argument

– As you take notes and think about both the French Revolution and the current events that you’re studying, work to constantly consider the two central questions above.
– Make sure that your narration addresses both of the questions, which I’ve placed below.

  • What are the greatest similarities and differences between the French Revolution and the events currently taking place in ______________?
  • To what extent is it accurate to call the current events in _______________ a “revolution”?

– For the first question be sure to use the approaches of the comparative method that we’ve been practicing and refining all year long. Make sure that the details you draw upon and clear and specific enough so that you can make a really strong case in your presentation.
– In particular for the second question be sure to consider Crane Brinton and his stages of a revolution. This general framework can help you answer that question or identify at what particular stage of a revolution the current uprising are at the present moment.

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 at least FOUR scholarly, legitimate sources, from reputable newspapers, journals, agencies, and the like. This information is submitted with the presentation in MLA Style bibliography format. The sources meet the expectations listed above about the types of sources.
  2. Presentation accurately presents facts about the French Revolution with sufficient depth and clarity.
  3. Presentation accurately presents facts about the modern-day/contemporary uprising with sufficient depth and clarity.
  4. Presentation argumentatively addresses the greatest similarities and differences between the revolutions organizing that discussion around clear points of comparison.
  5. Presentation argumetnatively addresses the question of how revolutionary (extent of revolutionary-ness) the current uprising are and does so through reference to and use of Crane Brinton’s model of a revolution.
  6. Pecha Kucha presentation employs pertinent images and adheres to the 20 slides x 15 seconds/slide format. Moreover, the presentation is visually interesting and syncs up effectively and persuasively with the student’s oral narration.


Hmmmm. I’m not sure what happened with the numbering or the links that I’d embedded in there — oh well. Here’s the Google Doc file itself, so that if you’re interested you can see how I formatted there without any goofy copying-and-pasting SNAFUs created in the switchover to WordPress. As I’m sure many others (who are no doubt more timely than myself) have already run through these assignments, I’d love to hear what feedback you have about the challenges inherent in this assignment. My most immediate concern has to do with the overload of information that students will be able to find. Being able to sift through the detritus to get to the meaningful and substantive material is going to be a challenge and there is just so much out there for them to draw on from both official and unofficial news sources.

I remain positive about the value of the Pecha Kucha format. I’ve used it once with my Juniors, and many noted that preparing for their presentations was a bit nerve-wracking, but also forced them to really focus and hone their talks given the five-minute time constraint. I hope the same pattern will hold true for my sophomores, as I think exposure to a new style of presentation and intellectual challenge is a good thing in general, particularly at a time in the year when variety in the course of assignments, etc. can really liven things up. In any case, I’m eager to hear your feedback. Thanks!

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.