Making Course Evaluations More Useful

At one of the universities where I teach, instructors can add twelve questions to our end-of-semester course evaluations. This lets us ask course- and field-specific questions, making the (notoriously flawed) student evaluation system at least potentially a bit more useful.

I gladly make use of this option, as you can see in the image below. All of our customized questions must be answerable on the same one-to-five numeric scale, although we get to label the scale ourselves. (For consistency's sake, I use the same labels the university uses in other sections of the form, from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree.") These prompts are for my world history survey.

In addition to asking students how they perceive their own success in various specific content areas, I also include a prompt I borrowed from a different university's evaluation form: "Hard work was necessary to get a good grade in this course." I've also added two original prompts to show how my students perceive the course's role in their overall education: "Taking the course changed my mind about something, and/or challenged me to defend ideas I already had," and "The course helped me understand topics or ideas I have studied in other courses." This semester is the first time I'm using the latter prompt.

If colleges are going to rely on student evaluations for any purpose, they should provide options like this to make them more useful. And when instructors have options like this, we should think carefully about how to make the most of the opportunity.


About that AHA Jobs Chart

Unlike some other academic disciplines, history (at the doctoral level) does not have many direct industrial applications. And with rare exceptions, parents, donors, and taxpayers do not care about your research. From their standpoint, original historical scholarship is valuable only insofar as it contributes to the quality of your teaching.

Of course, specialized research is important to teaching. It is not even particularly difficult to explain why. But the American academy has compromised its ability to make that case. In the courses taken by most students, academe has proven itself fully satisfied with the work of poorly paid temporary workers, and it has shown no interest in whether they have the time, resources, or skills for any research at all.

At The Junto, I wrote about the American Historical Association's preview of its latest statistics on history job advertisements.

Brown Bag Talk: Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library

On Monday, I had the great privilege of delivering a talk at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library under the title of "The House at Four Corners." I spoke with staff members and other Winterthur associates in a room called the Charleston Dining Room. I discussed the history of the room—that is, the room's carved wall panels and windows—in the context of the lives of the family who once owned the hotel from which it came. I also wrote a post for Winterthur's blog.


The talk was related to a book project I have in its early stages, in which the story of the hotel (and the stories of the Charleston family who established it) will frame a story about black identity, African American nationhood, and the struggle to resist racism and articulate an inclusive vision for American society before the Civil War.

Adjuncting in Trump Country: What Has Not Changed


I was invited to contribute to a roundtable on "Teaching in the Age of Trump" for The Panorama, the blog of the Journal of the Early Republic. I wrote from my viewpoint as an adjunct, trying to address some of the cognitive dissonance I often perceive when professors articulate their political role.

Almost everyone in public life, on the left or the right, seems to agree that teaching the early history of the United States is critical to building good citizens and advancing liberty. Yet our working conditions reveal something else entirely about their values. In the meantime, the republic needs its history teachers, and our fundamental mission has changed very little.

Review: City of Dreams


The Institute of Historical Research has published my review of Tyler Anbinder's City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York.

As I note in the review, I'm not persuaded that "immigrant" is the best term for New York colonial settlers of the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries, at least when the term is applied across eras this way. The first five chapters of City of Dreams almost seem to belong to a different book. Nevertheless, it is useful to have a sweeping history like this.

One of the reasons this book is useful in the present moment, as I note, is that it "slowly builds a case against a central idea of contemporary American nativist rhetoric: that earlier immigrants were different from today's, assimilating more easily, working harder, respecting the law more, sharing more values with the native population, or being less assertive. Anbinder decisively refutes this notion, at least with respect to New York."

OAH 2017: Bonds of Reflection

On April 7 in New Orleans, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the 2017 annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. It was part of a panel solicited by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, called "Bonds of Reflection: Tracing the Imagined Community in Early America."

Jessica Parr, Eran Zelnik, Andrew Shocket, and I (with comments in absentia by Margaret Sankey) discussed metaphors by which to understand the intellectual relationships that knit together various communities or publics in early America. My paper, entitled "Exploring the Early American Intellectual Archipelago, 1783-1815: Booksellers' Newspaper Advertisements in Port Towns," expanded on part of my dissertation work to make a case for the importance of understanding the early republic book trade as a thoroughly maritime business.

This was my first time at an OAH annual meeting. It was great to spend some time in New Orleans (in a week with perfect weather), to catch up with friends I had not seen in a long time, and to meet some longtime social media friends in person.