Blending the “Old China Trade”: Week 4 Readings Reflections
In redesigning a course on the “Old China Trade” toward a hybrid or blended format, I am more wary the readings for Week 4 of BlendKit 2012 have left me even more wary about the pitfalls of communication. As I mentioned in my first blog posting on this subject, the readings both the history of the China Trade (again, we should be using a broader term such as the “Indies trade”) and hybrid teaching challenge the instructor to master multiple languages—those of the 18th- and 19th century Atlantic community, of 18th- and 19th century Western commerce, of 18th- and 19th century Asia, and of separate domain, modern educational technology.
My aim is to build on a one-week summer institute in local history that Kimberly Alexander and I taught in 2008 called Everyday Life in Early America. Kimberly and I taught the course on-site at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth New Hampshire, where she was Chief Curator, instilling a sense of vicarious experience through lectures and discussions that took place in historic homes and workplaces. A key element of the institute was the blog—which we still maintain—that posed questions for the students’ evening reflections (http://everydaylifeinearlyamerica.blogspot.com). The prompts included quotes from the course readings, a Thanksgiving Prayer composed by a Stratham, New Hampshire shoemaker, and epitaphs from a 19th-century graveyard. We saw truly thoughtful responses to our daily posts, and many students returned to the morning class feeling (they reported) quite connected to the course and its several themes.
Applying this format to a course on the “Old China Trade” next semester will, I anticipate, be more of a challenge. In past iterations, a number of students were impressed by what they described as a “crossing borders” experience of meshing the US History and Asian History courses they had taken previously; others, however, reported feeling a bit overwhelmed by the complications of the approach. Consequently, this course needs to offer a broad medley of assignments that can appeal to the variety of students’ learning styles.
One advantage of a hybrid course is that it offers additional layers of communication and assessment beyond the traditional face-to face course. So, briefly, an instructor can reconsider the conventional formats:
Lectures. I like face-to-face lectures. I don’t think I am very good at them, but many of students say that would rather watch and hear “the expert” present an organized body of narrative and analysis. Mine are not strictly monologues, but more socratic discussions, that describe a chain of events and ask the class to consider causation (“Why did American merchants need to move beyond their familiar Atlantic and Caribbean domains after the Revolution?”) and experience (“Considering the readings from Shaw and Delano, what did it feel like to be one of the first Americans in Canton or Bencoolen?”). And, in this way, students’ responses provide an opportunity of assessment—even in a lecture.
On Canvas (or a similar platform). I can augment the face-to-face lecture by posting the Powerpoint lecture, adding more material and even posing questions to consider in the slides.
Discussions. Not my strong point, but, again, many of my students enjoy the give-and-take conversations we have. Many like, also, the opportunity to ask questions? Other, still, like to show off what they have learned. Perhaps the major obstacle to classroom discussion is time—there is never enough to allow everyone enough time to participate. The “talkers,” it frequently seems, could talk all day long. The “wallflowers” want to participate, but are held back by shyness or an inability to articulate complex ideas. This is where the technology has been a great benefit.
Having recently instituted asynchronous online discussions on Canvas, I have been quite impressed with my students’ conversations. They appear able to reflect more deeply on what they have read and to express their ideas more clearly. And, these become threaded conversations in which many actually respond to what others have published earlier, so I can see and analyze how well the class understands the my lectures, particular readings, and even the broad course themes. And, the discussions provide another assessment opportunity.
As for assignments, there is too much to say about the variety of tasks an instructor can design in a course on the Old China Trade; I’ll explore a sampling in a later blog.