Sample Course Materials and Learning Outcomes
The sample materials here are drawn from the first (and, to date, only) run of B200 Medieval Saints and Sinners in Fall 2018, a survey course that traces the history of the Middle Ages from roughly the year 450 to the year 1450. I chose this course to feature in the dossier because it’s the site of many different firsts and therefore lots of experimentation in my teaching: it was a new course prep done in a a new classroom featuring the first appearance of Net.Create in its NSF-funded professionally programmed form. Those firsts, though, highlight the throughline of my teaching, too: precisely because of the new prep and the new classroom, B200 was a good setting in which to refine active-learning, historiographical and digital-methods approaches that have long been part of my teaching practice.
Overview of Course
In framing terms, the course used the easy, simple binary of saint and sinner. Each week for 12 weeks, we read primary sources that described two people from one century of the Middle Ages. The very first week, we broke that model by reading two passages from St. Augustine’s Confessions, one in which he described his conversion and one in which he described his early years of partying and womanizing. Introducing St. Augustine, a North African man and one of the major figures in early Christian thought, as our first saint and sinner also served to present the medieval world as multicultural, a place of interchange across the Mediterranean that was never purely white or European.
In historical thinking terms, the class was anchored around the concept of historiography, the academic back-and-forth that brings new primary-source voices into the historical conversation as each generation of professional historians contributes its new perspectives. From an educational theory perspective, the class and its activities were structured around activity theory. Activity theory asks an educator to identify the gap between their objective for the course and their student’s likely objective and then provides a flexible process for analyzing how the tools, social organization and classroom practices contribute to helping bridge that gap.
The biggest gap I’ve identified in student practice of history is a belief that history is for consumption by professionals, not production by novice student-historians. To bridge that gap, students need the knowledge of the time period about which they’re writing and the confidence in that knowledge to produce their own interpretation of the time period they’re studying.
To help bridge that gap, students produced their own history in small chunks each week, in the form of a timeline entry drawn from their own interests in that week’s primary source reading. Each student was embedded in an interest group–social organization, cultural norms, religious beliefs, educational practices, etc.–so that they had peer support for their independent work. In-class activities brought the different interest groups into conversation so that their individual production of history was set into a broader historical context.
As the final step in their historial production, students then collaborated on the reading of two historical readings–one short but very complex historical theoretical article on history and one long monograph that described change in a single historical figure over time. They used these two collaborations as a model for their own final project, a paper that used changes in the historical trends documented in each of the student timelines to argue for a renaming of each of the historical periods that comprise the thousand years of the Middle Ages
Of course, the class wasn’t all about assignments. Because history as a discipline requires students to engage with the human elements of the primary sources they read, increasing their level of engagement with the course can have a positive influence on their ability to identify with the personal experiences of people in the past (historical empathy, see Endacott, 2010) and their subsequent ability to draw evidence from primary sources as part of an argument (Sakr, Jewitt & Price, 2016). We also explored medieval history by building networks of hadith transmission, playing with computer simulations of plague spread, and crafting our own canonization of a saint.
- Timeline assignment description and rubric
- Collaborative article-reading exercise (week 13)
- Source: William H. Sewell, Jr., “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille”
- In-class Reading and Assessment Guide (PPT download)
- Historiography assignment description and rubric
- Student-produced timeline (from the group focused on cultural and social norms). Student evaluation comments on this assignment noted that it required them to take responsibility for for their own learning, but that the timeline structure and spec-grading detail also gave them a sense of how to prioritize and manage their work effectively. From an instructor’s perspective, while the timeline isn’t perfect, it gains in detail and confidence over the course of the semester (from earlier entries to later entries), and the timeline entries are clearly visible in the historiography papers that the students wrote.
- Student-produced canonization of Herman B. Wells. This canonization exercise asked students to identify the features of 12th century society that were best represented in the saints we were studying that week. We then mapped those features to the IU community, and had a debate about who our patron saint might be. Finally, students produced an artifact, a reliquary to hold the artifact, an illustrated manuscript cover, a saint’s life and a libellus (which I sadly do not have photos of).
- Class white-board breakdown of Sewell’s main arguments in Week-13 activity. Of particular interest here is the fact that a colleague at another institution decided not to use this very article shortly before I prepped this course, because he felt it was too theoretically dense. I kept that in mind as I designed the activity, and ultimately, students collaboratively produced a very accurate reading of a difficult historical analysis completely unconnected to the historical period they had been studying. They reported that it gave them the confidence to
- Sample student historiography paper (available only to internal readers). Two students struggled with personal issues that resulted in Incompletes; all of the other students earned at least a B- on the final paper and most earned a B+ or better.