This month I’m reflecting on an experimental grading practice that I implemented in my Historical Methods class this semester. In this offering, in addition to introducing students to the nuts and bolts of historical research (archives, primary sources, citation, paragraph construction, etc.), I focused heavily on developing their historical thinking. I emphasized the 5 C’s of historical thinking, in particular, and introduced them to the idea of historicization, in various approaches.
Related to my past post on podcasts, I implemented this investigation of historical thinking by having students listen to and blog about the new podcast, PastPresent, by Nicole Hemmer (@pastpunditry), Natalia Mehlman Petrel (@nataliapetrzela), and Neil Young (@NeilJYoung17). Each week, the podcasters take issues from politics and popular culture and put them into historical perspective. Students engaged with topics ranging from Beyonce at the Super Bowl to for-profit prisons to Harriet Tubman on the $20. We were also lucky to have the podcasters Skype into our class, during which the students were able to ask them questions about topic selection, show production, and also heard about how historians work. (thank you, Niki, Neil, and Natalia!)
Each week, after listening, I tasked the students with writing a blog post that assessed the kind of historical analysis done by the podcasters on a particular topic. Meant to be a low-stakes writing assignment, I wanted students to feel free to both reflect on their opinions on the issue but to push their scholarly engagement with it.
As a low-stakes assignment, I felt uncomfortable assigning a traditional grade to each week’s post. Instead, I modified a technique from a language instructor at Boston University, who taught a course to prepare graduate students for their language exams. This instructor assigned feedback on language homework based on the “ferocity” of a student’s command of the language — in the form of animals (tigers were good; squirrels were not so good; amoebas were…well).
So I adopted my own scale — and though I was a little embarrassed to introduce it to the class, I think they got a kick out of it, plus, it also helped them understand that this course was just the starting point for their learning in the major. Every 3-4 weeks I reviewed their posts and gave them an emoji that reflected their engagement with historical thinking:
The idea, I told them, is that each class they take, each assignment they complete, should help them move up the scale. I told them I did not expect them all to become dragons in my class (it’s a sophomore level methods class), but that they should be thinking about their progress to a higher skill level in all their courses and explorations with historical topics.
I am hoping that this approach reinforced the idea that current events, politics, even events from pop culture, can be seen through a historical lens, and that applying that lens requires certain skills that are developed by the study of history. I have yet to submit their final review, but I anticipate seeing several students having moved from the larval to the rabbit or house cat stage. I’m still a little embarrassed that I took this approach — it does seem a bit silly — but I realized the value of translating our often arcane and unapproachable grading scales, rubrics, and requirements into a lexicon of our everyday lives.