Put the Chalk Down

Posted by sepoy on December 10, 2004 · 6 mins read

Class over. There were days when I imagined it would never be over. And days when I cursed myself for holding down a full time job, preparing to go on the academic cattle-call and attempting to narrate 12 centuries of Islamic history in 1.5 hour digestable bites. And days when the discussion really was fruitful and the students really made an effort. Now it is all over. I had never taught this class before, and don't know if I ever will again - so the research took a lot out of me but now I have some useful maps and lectures.

Wherein stock is taken:

  • Blog was an unqualified success. Every student commented that it was extremely helpful. And my usage stats showed that they checked it almost every day. Here is what I did: On the site, I put the syllabus with hyper-linked readings, an extensive bibilography, and various resources. On the blog, I would post the week's lecture notes by sunday - including all relevant names/dates. This was to make sure that the students were not overwhelmed with transcribing names and places in the lecture and were instead paying attention to the thematic elements. This also helped me tremendously because I was forced to write the lectures for the whole week over the weekend. Furthermore, I gave specific blog posting assignments (report on a movie, a talk on campus, a book, reactions to a class discussion etc.). In the past, I have used a bulletin board and a listserv, but the blog fits so nicely into the class discussion rubric and kept the discussion threads coherent for all to follow. I highly recommend using a blog to my peers who are teaching.
  • Assigned texts were mixed. Ross Dunn's Adventures of Ibn Battuta was a disaster. I should have chosen a straight translation of the Rihla instead of Dunn's treatment. No one liked it - and it was a lynchpin in my overall argument in the class. John Esposito's Oxford History of Islam, on the other hand, was a great success even though I never directly engaged the text in class (using it mainly as background reading). McNeill's Islamic History is not worth its price. I had a lot of primary sources anyways and I should have saved the kids some money. Watt's Muhammad may have been too uncontroversial a choice. Maybe Maxime Rodinson? PBS's Empires of Faithdocu-recreation was lame to me but the students liked it a lot. I only used the second tape on the 'Abbasids and the Mongols. Said's Orientalism garnered some new followers (I only had selections and one lecture).
  • Digital readings were a success. I scanned every article, every map, every primary text, every geneology chart, every hand-out, and put it online. I did not have to take one single print out to class. I can honestly state that it saved my sanity. In the past, just having to deal with the "did I print enough copies?", "Prof. Sepoy, I wasn't in class tuesday and I need the handouts" gave me an ulcer. Now, all I said was, please check the blog. See, technology IS your friend. Oh, for the copyright issue, my site was pwd-protected and restricted by IP ranges.
  • Students were mixed as well. A few never left their inner selves to join us. No matter how much I prodded, I got nothing out of them in class discussions or even a spark during lectures. Some were very engaged and clever. One would talk interminably and had to be cut off every 2 minutes. One came up to me during the second class and said he was from the South and didn't have good English writing skills. I told him that I was from another country and English wasn't even my second language and if I can learn to write, he can. Another got subpoenaed in a federal grand jury as a witness. Another had a bad case of anxiety disorder. And one had a roommate make death threats on a website against him causing the poor guy to move back in with his parents. Interesting bunch. And the topics they chose for their final assignments were really good as well; from Ottomans in the Balkans to women sexuality in Arabian Nights to land reform in Ottoman Levant to Jews in Jerusalem during 'Umar to controversy over French veiling to the use of satire during the White Revolution to Ghazzali and Nizam ul Mulk on non-believers.
  • Evaluations were quite positive. Everyone liked my lectures but said that sometimes I did not force the discussion enough letting uncomfortable silences build up. I am ok with that. A few said that when I wrote things on the board, I did so in a random manner (wherever I was standing in reference to the blackboard) and that made note-taking confusing. Hmmm, pay attention? But, what really brought a tear to my eye (metaphorically) is that they got Islamicate. They got that there is no monolithic Islamic civilization. They got the diversity, the debate, the influences within every tradition and it's cultural manifestations. That's all I hoped for, really.

No more teaching unless I have an Asst. Prof next to my name. Have a nice weekend, gentle readers.


Sumana | December 10, 2004

I remember the days that teaching was awesome and I remember the days when I was talking to a wall. Congrats on your work and thanks for sharing. You can click my homepage link to read one of my teaching experiences. You can skip the high school angst part in the middle.

S¯nee | December 11, 2004

Congratulations on your successful course and it sounds like you did a splendid job. I wish my prof. could link/scan everything too !!

wanderer | December 11, 2004

congrats, your class sounds like a success! getting people to appreciate the concept of 'islamicate' is no easy task, kudos! (prof blogs can be very helpful especially in law school, allows one to interact with the prof, have virtual office hours, and never lose a piece of paper)

sepoy | December 11, 2004

many thanks, y'all. sumunah, your entry was great. such electric moments, rare as they are, make it all possible.

Jonathan Dresner | December 12, 2004

OK, I'm starting to be convinced. How many students did you have? How much of the techno-stuff did you have to do on your own v. institutional or prepackaged software stuff? Can I take your class?

sepoy | December 12, 2004

Jonthan: I had 24 students. I did all of my techno-stuff but there isn't that much: WordPress for the blog (installs in 5 minutes); hosted on my account at the university; pwd protection builtin the blog; JSTOR etc. for majority of articles and scanner for all the rest. Handouts/Maps scanned as well - the maps esp. were great because there are some crappy maps on the internets. if you like, I can send you the url for the class blog and you can take a look around.

Kate | December 12, 2004

Hi! I loved your comments on the results of blogging in this class. I am planning to replace my previous use of discussion boards with a blog when I next teach in the summer. The question I am working on (based on earlier discussion board use) is how to get students to talk to each other on the blog. In the past, I've required a certain amount of postings, and a certain amount of talking to someone else, but I am on the lookout for any hints you have. (The key, it seems, is to get them to do this without overbearing requirements to do so!)

sepoy | December 13, 2004

Kate, I had a little tutorial on blogrules. I printed out a few entries and their comments from my favorite history blog (Cliopatria) . I passed them out to students as examples of a good post and how comments are made - what role they serve, what rules govern them. I also stressed that the a chorus-line is a good thing. So I told them to please simply comment, "you are right, I agree", if that's the only thing they have to say. And it helped. As far as the assignments went; an early one was that I divided the class into three groups. One group posted an article review; another group commented on the post- stressing what they felt was missing; and the third group posted a new post in which they tried to synthesize the discussion so far and added their inputs - and the first two groups commented on their final take. Yeah, it feels like a big jumble but it worked - since the point was simply to get them to post and comment. I won't say that I reached the level of involvement that would have made me really happy. But by the last few weeks, kids were posting and commenting on newsworthy things they had come across - that is, away from any assigned topics or readings. Which I took as a sign, ultimately, of success.

Connor | December 13, 2004

Cool. This gentle reader wonders if that blog is still up, and what's the url? It'd be interesting to take a look, if you don't mind. ~ Connor

kate | December 22, 2004

Sepoy, Your techniques sound useful. I too would love to see the blog if you did not mind a few visitors!

sepoy | December 22, 2004

kate & connor: suddenly I am unsure if I should allow others into the blog - the kids posted with their real names & email addresses and the blog was understood to be restricted off the www. seems like a privacy thicket to me. so, what I will do is to put up the blog with my lecture posts for all of you to see after the break. And take out any student posts/comments.

kate | December 26, 2004

sepoy, you're right about the privacy issues--this is an important consideration. i hope you don't have to go to too much trouble over this, but thanks for sharing (in the interests of pedagogy, etc. etc.) kate