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A Reformation of Teaching? Entering the Online World

Author: 
Charles Lipp
Institution: 
University of West Georgia

With the coming of the pandemic, my resistance to online teaching came to an end. I had already stepped into the digital world in certain ways, but up to this past March, when my campus administration sent us into lockdown, the core of my teaching had always remained the face-to-face classroom experience. In this article, I aim to discuss my experiences leaving that classroom and entering the online world. Although a singular case, it may contribute to our larger conversations regarding teaching the early modern in the age of COVID-19, because of my perspective as one of the many skeptics scattered across our profession. Here, for reasons of space and audience, I focus upon how I moved my upper-level undergraduate course on the Reformation to an online environment.

Before I tell that story, I should provide some additional background. I teach in a regional, comprehensive state university in the Deep South. In my classes, I encounter students from a diverse range of personal and economic backgrounds. Most have never deeply studied early modern Europe before. I try to immerse my students in that different world, a world that appears so alien to many of them while nonetheless containing familiar elements. I feel that studying this period provides students a space to think comparably, and for some, perhaps more comfortably, about pivotal issues of their own world and their own lives.1

My Reformation class occupies a core position in my teaching rotation, reflecting my students’ interests. They see the topic as relevant to their lives here in America’s Bible Belt. In normal times, I use face-to-face conversational lectures delivered with an animated teaching persona. I employ storytelling methods and encourage engagement in the form of questions, comments, and reactions. In order to immerse students in past worlds, I assign numerous primary sources as well as one secondary work, following my department’s policies.2 In all my courses, I tend to open the semester by discussing certain central historiographical debates about the class topic and how they influence my telling of the story.3

My university gave me two weeks to transition my face-to-face approaches to an online environment. Four and a half weeks lay before us. I wanted the class to retain the flavor of its classroom version, thereby potentially offering my students a small island of stability during coming uncertainties. Considering the particulars of that online environment, it would be through change that stability might be preserved. Rather than using the “correct” online term, module, for lessons, I continued to break things down explicitly by class week, and, within those weekly units, by calendar day, as stated in the original syllabus, with some necessary revisions. My aim was to present a symbolic continuity. The fact that students had already submitted assignments to an online submission folder also helped in that effort. I believe in adhering to my syllabus so I chose to honor the assignment parameters as originally stated and avoided adding on new tasks. However, preserving continuities did entail some significant changes. To replace our usual in-class discussions, I created a discussion board for our last assigned book discussion with defined parameters for main posts and replies to colleagues’ posts.4 I also created optional discussion boards for every weekly unit entitled “Questions and Comments,” hoping these venues might provide a substitute space for in-class conversations. Some students took advantage.

Most importantly, I sought to retain my storytelling approach as the core of the class’s learning experience. I chose not to use synchronous approaches as I did not have time to learn them and I felt that technology would mediate against the spontaneous conversations I sought. I created PowerPoint slideshows with voiceovers and media elements modeled on podcasts. In recent years, I have noticed students increasingly embracing this genre. I devoted much time to researching and writing scripts designed to be heard. I spoke of “episodes” and referred to my students as my “listeners.” I worked on refining my performance.

To “hook” students into the day’s tale, I also created minimovies as lead-ins to the podcast lectures. These were short documentaries I created using the basic video editor embedded in Microsoft Windows 10’s Photos app. I focused upon the Gregorian calendar reform, the witch hunts in the Alsatian town of Bergheim, the assassination of Dutch leader William of Orange, and the letters of Ursuline missionary Marie de l’Incarnation, as ways of leading into discussions of the Reformation’s sociocultural impacts, religious and political violence, witchcraft fears, and the globalization of western Christianity. The movie scripts also demanded intensive research, made possible thanks in part to the detailed nineteenth-century histories available online. I had many photos and videos, gathered over a number of trips to Europe. These I supplemented with public-domain images from Wikimedia Commons and stock footage created in my backyard using my cell phone’s camera. Creating each minimovie took around twelve to fifteen hours because of the time needed for research, writing, storyboarding, and synching sound with video.

Given all the time invested, I was pleased that student reactions on discussion boards and in emails were positive. To better assess the experiment, on the last class exam, I asked students to discuss which of the online lessons they learned the most from and why. The lesson on witch hunts received the strongest response. Of the seventeen students who followed the exam parameters correctly, eight discussed witchcraft.5 My opening minimovie, “The Witches of Bergheim,”

began with stock footage I made of a crackling fire and then, making extensive use of photos and videos I shot while on my department’s recent study-abroad trip to Alsace, France, I recounted the dark experiences of a small Alsatian town.6 I used the minimovie to raise a core theme I then developed further in the accompanying podcast-style lecture: that the witch hunts were a Reformation phenomenon reflecting broadly held sociocultural fears and anxieties. Influenced by Diarmaid MacCulloch’s arguments, I underlined the contingent nature of the hunts and how they varied across place and time.7 A number of students stated that they had not known that such witch hunts took place outside of colonial America.

Overall, I would describe my experiences moving into the online world as an illuminating process of pedagogical survival. However, I look forward to safely returning to the physical classroom. I missed the direct connections and spontaneous moments of discovery that occur there. I felt rather confined online. I remain skeptical of online as an approach equivalent to face-to-face teaching. That skepticism noted, I did come away with an appreciation for how the online world enables the creation of a multiplatform learning environment that supplements other approaches. As I dream of a return to classroom teaching, I am contemplating creating more minimovies and podcasts that I can post online. After having students watch and listen at home, I would then begin each class with a conversation about what they learned, using that conversation as a foundation for the day’s explorations. If circumstances entail staying online this coming academic year, then I plan on researching further how to adapt my teaching philosophies and approaches to the digital realm. I know that I must continue working at connecting discussion boards and online assignments more closely to the minimovies and podcast lectures so as to promote active student learning. In short, thanks to these experiences, my teaching may not have completely changed, but it was somewhat reformed.

Charles Lipp is Professor of History in the Department of Art, History, and Philosophy at the University of West Georgia. His research explores the intersections between political formation and social developments in early modern Europe, especially in the small states of the Franco-German borderlands. He teaches classes on a wide range of topics, including the Reformation, the Enlightenment, French America, and the French Revolution.

1 My own views on teaching the early modern era have been very much influenced from my own experiences encountering the period without much background when I was a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo and from the lessons I learned from my mentor there, Jonathan Dewald. For a brief statement of his arguments, see Jonathan Dewald, “‘Other Voices:’ The Early Modern Past in Provincial America,” in Teaching the Early Modern Period, ed. Derval Conroy and Danielle Clarke, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 73–75.

2In the Reformation class, I assigned some of the big names including Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and St. Teresa of Àvila. I also assigned David Underdown’s Fire From Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), which explores how Dorchester, England, emerged as an intensely Puritan community over the early seventeenth century.

3 For example, when I taught my Reformation course as part of a study-abroad program to Strasbourg, France, I had students first read Peter Marshall’s The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) to serve as a baseline narrative and one we could complicate inside and outside the classroom.

4 That final book discussion concerned Underdown’s Fire From Heaven. For that book, as with the others, I had students submit a brief one-to-two-page analytical breakdown in which they identified the author’s main arguments and approaches and situated the work in the context of the course. I planned to show a video the preceding class day, an excerpt from popular British historical presenter Michael Wood’s Story of England, episode 5, “Henry VIII to the Industrial Revolution,” BBC. 2010. Wood’s documentary studies English history from the perspective of a single community, the small village of Kibworth. I wanted students to think critically about the contrasts between the two stories of English communities during the Reformation. In order to convert this lesson plan to an online environment, I created the discussion board mentioned in the text above and embedded the video excerpt in a PowerPoint slideshow preceded by a voice-over introduction I recorded.

5 The lesson on the globalization of Christianity received the second-most responses, with five, or about 30 percent. The English Civil War received two responses, while the Age of Religious Wars and the various changes in Europe during the late 1600s received one response each.

6 I first learned about the witch hunts in Bergheim while teaching on my department’s study abroad program to Strasbourg. In Strasbourg’s used book street market, I discovered a graphic novel based on the events in Bergheim. See Roger Seiter and Vincent Wagner, Sorcières (Strasbourg: Editions du Long Bec, 2013). The book included an historical overview with suggested further readings. At several moments during the study-abroad trip, our group visited the lands surrounding the town. When constructing my minimovie, I turned to that historical overview from Sorcières as well as to the photos and videos I shot outside Bergheim. Being in lockdown, I searched for additional information and materials online. A quick Google search resulted in a useful article on the town and its museum on the witch hunts in Alsace, the Haxahus or the Maison des Sorcières, the House of Witches: Festraëts Marion, “Les sorcières de Bergheim,” L’Express, 20 June 2002. I also consulted a range of traveler’s and museum websites about Bergheim: Haxahus: La Maison des Sorcières, L’Office de Tourisme du Pays de Ribeauvillé-Ribquewihr, and French Moments.

7 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2005). Other works that influence my teaching of the Reformation era witch hunts include: Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, 4th ed. (London: Routledge, 2016); Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); E. William Monter, Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976); and Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (New York: Viking, 1996).

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