Wordle syllabus

Once again I pushed my syllabi through wordle.net and gave them to the students on the first day instead of the conventional one. Here’s World History [pdf] (intro gen ed):

his104sp09

Here’s Historian’s Apprenticeship [pdf] (sophomore historiography seminar):

his210sp09

Seen together the similarities outweigh the differences; field generalities, of course, and there’s lots of the same assessments boilerplate in both, and I also use some of the same instructional tools across classes. This comparative analysis was not available to the students in each class, however.

My first point was to knock them instantly out of the expectation of having their education catered. Some assembly required here – ‘active learning’. They’re used to a textbook and lecturer chewing up knowledge and jamming it down their throats like baby birds. We talked about making the transition from consumers of history to producers of history. In this sense the wordle of the syllabus is like lots of archives – what you need is there, but it’s not organized in a familiar or immediately meaningful way.

They got right away that putting information in order is critical. How to assign importance to disparate bits of data was a longer conversation in each class. With a little prompting they were able to reason out wordle’s extraction of common linking words and sizing by frequency. We talked about whether frequency is invariably a sign of importance, and if so, what kind (in this case, generalities about context).

As I persisted and didn’t cough up a conventional syllabus (I’ll do that before drop/add ends), they got more into the puzzle and motivated to try to figure out the course from the wordle. At this point they began to notice that what they most wanted to know was scattered in the smaller words, and that they brought different perspectives, agendas and assumptions to their ‘readings’ of those.

It’s a gimmick, but it does the trick for starting them thinking like historians.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks LP. You know, there’s always a sort of fictional ‘they’ in these reports – in any group (25 per section in WH) there will be a few vocal students who become ‘representative’ early on. Yesterday I actually went around the room to see what each student got out of the document and the results were more uneven than in the free discussion on Tuesday; although again with some prompting I was able to get ‘why-because’ analytical statements out of almost all of them.

    It’s interesting to see how much information gets stripped out by Wordle. It’s much worse than just the missing vowels in ancient Hebrew. The order of things is so important. So the students get frustrated quickly with the exercise because they can’t actually answer most of the questions they care about, and that’s fine. Next week we’ll dive into an actual historical document and I’ll start to teach them how to read critically, so eventually they can see that no matter how many questions a particular document answers, it can’t answer all of them.

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