Teaching “Making California”

This spring I taught a new class in the Community Studies program at UC Santa Cruz called “Making California.” Overall, the idea was to teach students about key moments in the history of California in order to help them better understand and intervene in current events. I used C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination as a foundational theory to help students understand how individual lives are shaped by the broader historical and political context in which they exist. We also paid attention to how social movements have, in turn, helped people to change the political context in which they live. A second key theme of the course was California’s racial history and recent transition to  majority people of color state. Finally, we spent a lot of time thinking about California’s role in the nation and world. This meant we read about both how the state has influenced events outside of its borders, as well as been influenced by the broader world.

For the core class assignment, students analyzed a key moment in California’s history by explaining what happened, what led to the events described, and the current relevance of those events. They were tasked with writing for a public audience, and crafting an introduction to capture a reader’s interest and draw them in to reading the rest of their essay. Students presented their work orally, and in historical order, at the end of the course. In this way we created a partial, “People’s History of California.” The written component of the assignment took the form of multi-media essays they wrote on websites of their own design (more on this assignment in my next post). This assignment was inspired by conversations with Ildi Carlisle-Cummins about how we could incorporate her new project, Cal Ag Roots, into the class. The launch event for Cal Ag Roots will involve telling the story of three key moments in the history of California agriculture. So, several of my students chose her stories as their “historical moments” to work on for the purpose of the class assignment. Their work therefore supplemented her own background research on these three key moments.

I drew on syllabi developed by Julie Guthman and Lindsey Dillon to help structure the class.  See my own syllabus below.

The last-day-of-class student conference: part 2

This post is a continuation of my last post on “The last-day-of-class student conference.” That post provides an overview of the project, in which students participate in a student conference modeled after a poster session at an academic conference. This post gets into the details of how to set up the event.

Few teachers have a lot of extra time to invest in event-planning, so I offer my experience here. The colleagues who guided me in shaping the assignment emphasized that planning the conference can quickly get out of hand and helped me minimize time spent nailing down logistical details. Thanks again, Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen!

Event planning

  • Find a location to host the event early. The campus space that I wanted was booked very early in the quarter, and many other campus spaces required use-fees that I could not provide. Sociology staffer Barbara Laurence helped on this front by suggesting, and securing access to, our department lounge. This turned out perfectly, as it made it easy for people from my department to stop by the event without having to leave the building.
  • Provide refreshments! Food makes the space more sociable and sets it apart from a regular classroom experience. My department provides $50 of funds for each class to work with. I chipped in an extra $25 so we could have coffee, tea, and snacks provided by the campus coffee-shop downstairs. Barbara Laurence took care of this for me, too. Thank you Barbara!
  • Tell guests to arrive 20 minutes or so after the event begins, to give the students time to set up their posters, as well as time for yourself to make any last announcements.
  • Make a plan for displaying posters. I told my students that at least some of them should design their posters to be able to stand on their own. These we put on a table. The rest went on a the walls or on a few easels provided by the department (thanks Barbara!). I brought blue, “paint-safe” tape to use on the walls. Unfortunately, it had very little sticking power. Many of the posters drooped or fell down and needed to be reaffixed during the event, oh well.
  • Make a plan for presenting the posters. I originally thought I would divide the students into three or four groups and have each group stand next to their poster during a pre-assigned time. This seemed excessively complicated, however, so I instead followed Christie McCullen’s advice and told everyone to spend half the time at their own poster and the other half circulating. That worked just fine.
  • How long will the event last? I had a three hour time slot to work with, but chose to use 1.5 – 2 hours instead (I set an explicit time at which the event would end, but have since forgotten exactly how long it was). There was just enough time to evaluate the work of all 40 student, but the event was was also short enough to sustain the group energy for the duration.

Structuring and evaluating the assignment

  • Group work or no group work? I had all my students write their papers separately so I wouldn’t have to deal with complaints about anyone not pulling their weight. But, I let students who wanted to team up on their posters do so. I told them that they would both receive the same grade regardless of who did what on the poster, so they should choose their partners carefully. I also told them they could “divorce” their partners if needed. There were no problems.
  • Give explicit guidelines about what is required on the poster, as most of the students will not have made one before. If I had more time, I would have liked to require them to turn in draft posters to be improved upon for the event itself in order to help them learn best practices of visual communication. Instead, I required a proposal and draft for the paper, but not the poster. You can see the assignment prompts at the bottom of this post, or download it here.
  • How will you grade the posters? On the advice of my colleagues, I graded all the posters during the event itself so I didn’t have to take home a pile of oversize, falling-apart posters and then return them to students. This plan required me to have brief conversations with each student in front of their poster during the event itself. I created a single spreadsheet with each student’s name and a series of criteria on which to judge their work. I quickly abandoned this approach in the chaos of the event and just gave each student a holistic single grade after I looked at their poster and heard them speak about their work. I worked my way around the room systematically, so students could come stand by their work as they saw me approaching. I also quickly figured out that I only had time for short conversations with each student, and in a few case watched them have conversations with others rather than directly interacting with them myself.

The last-day-of-class student conference: Part 1

Each quarter I try at least one new pedagogical idea in the classroom. Over time, this has given me a wide range of teaching experiences that have helped hone my style and priorities. As I continue this practice into the future, I hope it will also keep my teaching nimble and current.

Last quarter’s “new thing” was the student conference. As is often the case, I looked to my colleagues for inspiration. For this project, I drew on the experience of super-star teachers Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen. Thanks, you two! To pay forward their generosity, I share my experience with the assignment here.

The student-conference is modeled after a poster-session at an academic conference. Each student prepares a poster that provides an overview of the work they have conducted for their class research paper. They presents their posters at an end-of-the-quarter event scheduled during the allotted finals period. Students stand by their poster to answer questions for half of the event, and look at their peers’ posters for the other half.

If you’ve been to a million academic conferences already, this may not sound that exciting. But when we tried it in my Nature and Society class last quarter, I loved it!  Here’s why.

  • Students practice describing their intellectual interests in a semi-formal, semi-social setting. The give and take of the conversations that result introduces students to the pleasures of learning and discussing ideas.
  • The event emphasizes active learning by asking students to circulate and ask questions of their peers, rather than passively absorbing information in the form of end-of-the-quarter presentations.
  • Students get to learn from each other. This underscores that the teacher is not the source of all knowledge in the world, and conceptualizes all of the class participants as part of a learning community. Hopefully, decentering the teacher as the source of information positions students to become lifelong learners after they are no longer in school.
  • Students describe their projects over and over again as new people visit their posters. This improves their ability to concisely describe their work as they try new ways of saying the same thing.
  • Our event included not just the students in the class, but a handful of faculty and graduate students as well as some of my students’ friends and significant-others. This helped students meet other people that share their interests. I saw my students engage with these visitors about other writing they might want to read, other classes they could take before graduating, and the political implications of their research.
  • Students get to interact with more than one teacher in the same space. This let them have intellectual conversations with faculty and teaching assistants that cut across their experiences in separate, often siloed, classes.

A note on evaluations.  At my university, our student evaluations happen at the end of regular class meetings and before the finals period. Because we held the student conference during finals period, this meant that students were not able to reflect on the event in their course evaluations. To get a sense of what they thought in a systematic, anonymous fashion, I sent out a SurveyMonkey online evaluation after the class ended. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to it until the students had all left campus for vacation. I also never sent out reminder e-mails after the first request to take the survey. So, only five students completed it. For what it’s worth, they all responded “yes” to this statement: “I would recommend the instructor incorporate an end of the quarter student conference into this class again in future.”

To give you a flavor of the event, I’ve posted photos below with the permission of the people depicted. Click on the thumbnails to see enlarged versions. Tomorrow I”ll post more information about how to set up the assignment.