After reading about Pecha Kucha presentations in Jason B. Jones’ Professor Hacker post, I experimented with the format for student presentations for the first time last semester, and I am hooked! Adopting Pecha Kucha conventions (20 PowerPoint slides automatically advancing after 20 seconds each) contributed to some of my most effective and engaging student presentations ever.
My department includes effective oral communication as one of our learning goals for majors, so my colleagues and I look for ways to incorporate formal and informal presentations in most of our classes. To name just a few examples, I’ve had students present critiques of outside readings to broaden the geographic and topical coverage in my Latin American history courses, students collaborate on projects investigating Brazilian popular culture, and students in my quantitative methods class create a poster session explaining their research using the Trans-Atlantic Slavery Database.
While I’m convinced that oral presentations of their research in multiple formats is crucial for improving students’ communication skills and comfort speaking before a group, I find myself weighing the balance between meeting this learning goal and maximizing the entire group’s opportunities for active learning in seminar. At their most effective, student presentations benefit the class as a whole by bringing in new ideas and engaging us all in productive discussions. They let students take greater ownership of the course content by allowing them to integrate outside interests with course themes. However, in the (relatively few) cases where student presenters are inadequately prepared, or have not thought carefully about effective presentation design, the seminar audience is not engaged. I worry that in these worst-case scenarios, student presentations can be a waste of the entire group’s time.
This fall, I had students in my first year seminar create Pecha Kuchas to share their semester-long research projects on mapping and the spatial history of the Americas. Two weeks earlier each student had submitted rough drafts of their research papers, and they were working to focus their arguments and clarify their use of evidence as part of the revision process. I’m convinced that the quick pace and the formal design constraints of Pecha Kucha presentations improved oral presentations’ pedagogical utility not just for the student presenting but for the audience as well.
In terms of individual critical thinking and clarity of communication, preparing for their Pecha Kuchas forced students to think carefully about how to put the suggestions for improvement they received on their written first drafts into action. They developed more explicit theses, improved their arguments about historical change over time, and clarified the “take away messages” of their research. In addition, creating their PowerPoint slides dramatically improved students’ consideration of visual evidence. Their interpretations of historic maps became more nuanced, and visual analysis more sophisticated. Happily, developing their oral arguments translated into stronger final written projects as well.
The Pecha Kucha format appreciably raised the quality of presentations. The visual-heavy format and rapid pace engaged the audience. Shy presenters appreciated the audience focus on the screen, and found it easier to relax. Even students prone to procrastination realized that the formal constraints required prior planning and practice; there were few presentations where students seemed to be “winging it.”
I think that the class as a whole benefited from watching the Pecha Kuchas. Although they had read and responded to each other’s rough draft essays, these presentations brought ideas percolating over the entire semester to completion. Students asked engaged questions, and made connections between disparate research projects. In this case, I felt much more confident that allocating several class sessions to student presentations had been a sound pedagogical decision.
With the presenters’ permissions, I’m including examples of some of the successful projects here:
So far, I’ve been (sporadically) using this blog to talk about my research on Brazilian social history. Discussing my research will still be part of my focus, but I want to try blogging more frequently about my experiences integrating digital humanities tools in my courses at The College of Wooster. I hope to start a conversation about my pedagogical goals, my selection and implementation of web 2.0 tools, and the successes and failures I have using digital humanities methods to help liberal arts students ask new questions and apply critical thinking skills in new ways.
This fall, I’m teaching a First Year Seminar called “Mapping the Americas: Encounters & the Construction of Identity in the Americas.” Here is the course description:
“This first year seminar will explore the history of American encounters, looking at how individuals have visually and textually “mapped” their own identities in relation to their social and physical environment over the past five hundred years. We’ll read travelers’ accounts, examine the history of map making and visual representations, and consider theories explaining how colonists as well as more modern travelers sought to fit new peoples and cultures into familiar categories. Readings include Lewis and Clark’s journals, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps, Katharine Harmon’s You Are Here: Personal Geographies and other Maps of Imagination, Dolores Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl, selections from Nicholas Feltron’s annual reports, as well as Latin American films.
In our examination of maps from a wide range of perspectives, we’ll consider how travelers and explorers do not merely present unfiltered data. Instead, all explorers, whether they are traveler writers depicting their experiences through the written word, mapmakers visually depicting their passage through new landscapes, or artists exploring multiple facets of their identities, make a series of creative choices about their artifact’s representation of the viewer and the surrounding environment. Travel writers draw on objects and customs familiar to their readers and use these as the basis for comparison in describing their new experiences: a new fruit is “just like an apple.” Explorers draw maps that highlight features of interest to their sponsors: ports, mines, large settlements, tropical forests, relics of past civilizations. Contemporary memoirists use data mapping tools to visually depict their relationship to the larger world by tracking subway routes, international calls received, their attendance at baseball games. Taken together, these maps provide insight into larger questions about what it means to be “American” and how notions of community, identity, and belonging have changed over time.
Together we will examine the long history of maps and map making, consider how scholars use digital mapping technologies to ask new questions about patterns in their data, and produce our own maps of social and intellectual networks. As a final project, students will create their own portfolio of maps to visually display their engagement with the “new world” of the larger Wooster community and their lives as college students.”
As the course description states, I’m trying to get students to think about “mapping” both through the critical analysis of historical maps and through the creation of their own data visualizations. The course unites first year students with a wide range of academic interests (potential Chemistry, Geology, Religious Studies, and History majors) and extra-curricular pursuits (varsity athletics, knitting, movies, meditation). While it is intended to develop first year students’ research and writing skills, we don’t hold back on the intellectual content.
Thus far, the students have been very adventurous about experimenting with new DH tools and forms of communication. I have them doing a lot of blogging: the night before each seminar, each student responds to the day’s readings, or shares his/her responses to the speakers in our fall Forum. This has been a good way for me to tailor the discussions to the students’ interests. It gives them a lot of practice with informal writing. And it alerts me to methodological or content questions to address in class.
This week they are reflecting on their posts for the first half of the semester. I got this idea of a meta, reflective blog post from ProfHacker and have found it very productive.
Last fall, the students and I focused on the controversy over Our Virginia, the newly-adopted textbook for fourth-grade Virginia history. In her analysis of Virginia during the Civil War, author Joy Masoff included a claim that “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” When this information about black participation to defend the Confederacy was disputed by historians including Pulitzer Prize winner Jim McPherson, Masoff revealed that her source was a website created by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. In an effort to reshape the reputation of their group and distance current members from the history of southern slavery, their website presented the Confederacy as a struggle supported by black and white soldiers alike.
This case about the state-sanctioned presentation of history in the classroom, coupled with readings from James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s 2006 edited volume Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, brought many of the debates we had about the ongoing significance of slavery and public memory. If the goal of public history sites is to get visitors to ask hard questions and see the past in a new way, how do educators balance the need to engage visitors to support the project with the need to present uncomfortable truths about slavery ands its legacies?
These discussions about slavery and public history were fresh in my mind as I visited Ghana in May as part of the College of Wooster’s Hales Fund International Travel Seminars. During the final days of our trip, we visited Elmina and Cape Coast castles. How would the Ghanaian government present the sites’ histories to a diverse audience of Ghanaians, African-American, and white tourists? What would be the tour guides’ “take-home message” about the contemporary and historical significance of the Atlantic slave trade? How would tourists drawn to the site for so many purposes react?
For the first section of the tour, the guide at Elmina emphasized the horrors of the conditions in the holding dungeons. The details of captives’ experiences of sexual violence, unsanitary conditions, separation from family and friends, crowding, and the intense heat were all too easy to imagine when faced with the physical site. Centuries later, the stench of the suffocating air in the dungeons lingers. Having visited many other Portuguese forts, I was awed by the sheer size of Elmina. The structure is massive – certainly many times larger than contemporary military forts in Bahia or Rio de Janeiro, suggesting its central importance to the early Portuguese colonial empire. On the dungeon floors, we saw the floral wreaths honoring the many slaves who died before and during the Middle Passage. The guide told stories of resistance, and the harsh punishments that awaited men and women who fought back. The physical impact of the space created a profound sense of empathy with the Africans sold into slavery here. I was impressed by the emphasis on Elmina as a site to bear witness.
Unfortunately, our guide’s final summing up left me more cynical about the Ghanaian tourist board’s presentation of Elmina as a historic site. With his tourist audience clearly in mind, our guide finished with a plea for the need for forgiveness and racial unity. We should leave history and especially the need to place blame for the atrocities he had described behind, and instead work together for a better future. Although I was prepared after reading Bayo Holsey’s Routes of Remembrance for a discourse that distanced contemporary Ghanaian life from the history of the trade, and I recognized the difficulty with constructing a narrative that would speak to his diverse audience, I was still disappointed with what seemed to me like such blatant pandering. For me, the message that we needed to “forget the past” betrayed the emotional power of the site, the stories of suffering and courage, and the continuing legacies of European imperialism in contemporary Ghana.
The site included a display highlighting the “impacts of European contacts”, including “Education”, “European languages”, “Religion”, and “Multiracialism”, illustrated with photos of light-skinned Ghanaian families.
And yet this depoliticized message was itself formulated in response to the need to market Elmina as a tourist site appealing to a national and international audience. When members of our group asked our guide about how he formulated the final section of his tour, he acknowledged that it was largely in response to complaints from European tourists who felt they were blamed for the slave trade. Ghana needs the tourist dollars that are their fourth largest source of foreign income. And as our photos from touring Cape Coast show, not all Ghanaian young people view the sites with the same sense of reverence that Diasporian visitors do. Exposing as many visitors as possible to the site itself seems key to honoring the memory of those who died there and pushing the visitor to ask new questions about the historic legacies of the trade.
Note: this is a republication of a blog post I wrote for the Hales Seminar’s communal blog. You can read the reflections of the entire group here.
I often point students to the Oxford English Dictionary when we discuss colonialism and race in the Atlantic World: looking at how the use of terms like “white” and “black” have evolved over time can make my arguments about race as historically constructed make more sense.
In the same way, I often rely on 19th century Brazilian dictionaries when talking about racial terms in Imperial Brazil. The Universidade de São Paulo’s Brasiliana Digital collection offers an easily accessible way to look at the standardized definition of racial terms in the 1830s, providing a searchable scan and full-text pdf of Luiz Maria da Silva Pinto’s Diccionaryio da Lingua Brasileira (Ouro Preto: Typographia de Silva, 1832). Pinto was a native of Goyaz, and his dictionary claims to be representative of nineteenth-century Brazilian local usage.
The most common designations of qualidade, or individual social status, I find on 1830s Brazilian censuses are pardo, branco, preto, and cabra. Luiz Maria da Silva Pinto’s definitions are fascinating. First of all, he makes no mention of branco as a racial or color term, but defines it as “De côr semelhante à de neve, etc.” (“of a color similar to snow, etc.”). This is interesting because record keepers in notarial and parish registries frequently use branco to describe people. Pinto’s dictionary is not silent when it comes to terms suggesting African descent. Pinto defines preto as “Negro (como subst.) Homen preto” (Black. Preto man); pardo as “Adj. “De cór entre branco e preto. Mulato.”; and cabra as “Filho do pai mulato e mai negra, ou ao contrario.”
Douglas Cole Libby’s BRASA X presentation “Quitéria Moreira de Carvalho, Mina Forra, and Six Generations of Her Descendants in 18th and 19th century Minas Gerais” made big impression on me, and provided a valuable reminder of the need to carefully historicize racial terms. In a remarkable piece of archival work, Douglas painstakingly reconstructed six generations of a freed Mina slave woman’s descendants as recorded in parish and notarial records.
In addition to thinking about life histories of former slaves and their descendants in Minas Gerais, Douglas considered how colonial record keepers applied color designations like crioulo and pardo to successive generations. His findings suggest that we should think of these as color designations, or markers of status, rather than “racial” designations. He found that pardo, in particular, could imply a broad ranger of mixture, including indigenous ancestry. Douglas argues the records for colonial Minas, pardo served as a social signifier implying a slave past, rather than merely indicating the child of a branco and a preta.
This might imply that the early Brazilian Empire was a period where “racial” terms became – at least in theory – less flexible in their use as Brazilians paid greater attention to questions of descent and ancestry.