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Shared Inquiry and (A)Synchronicity: Online Learning in a Freshman Humanities Class

Susan Mobley & Brian Harries
Concordia University Wisconsin

When the COVID pandemic caused our university to pivot to an improvised online-education model, we faced many of the same struggles as other instructors suddenly transitioning to remote teaching, and we responded in many of the same ways. We had an additional challenge, however, in that we were team-teaching an interdisciplinary freshman class called Western Culture and Worldview. This is a class required of all students in our university Core, and it aims to provide a context for global citizenship by exploring the Western foundations of American and European culture. The class is a joint venture between the History and English departments, combining the methodologies of both disciplines to provide a more holistic cultural view for a general population of students. Our approach from the outset has been to put our disciplines in conversation within the classroom, but with the move to online teaching, we were faced with the difficulty of maintaining this dynamic that we believe makes the class work so well.1

We are both early modernists by training and specialty, although we also function as generalists due to the nature of our small university. As luck would have it, we had just finished the Middle Ages before midterms, so we were moving into our own areas of specialty just as we had to change the modality of the class. Over the remaining seven weeks of the semester, we wrestled with the question of how to negotiate the kind of shared-inquiry model, so key to teaching early modern material, in the new online format.2 Through experimentation and adjustment, we sought the appropriate balance of the pedagogical strategies and tools available to us. We found that for the unusual nature of our team-taught, interdisciplinary course, asynchronous learning can strengthen student engagement, even in a face-to-face class. Inversely, however, we also found that a primarily asynchronous course still needs synchronous intervention for any level of shared inquiry to work.

Beginning with our early modern unit, we contemplated how to switch the course to an online environment while preserving the integrity of the shared-inquiry model that we had been using to guide the students for half a semester. Since both of us had fairly extensive experience teaching online in an asynchronous format and we were not certain how effectively the videoconferencing technology would work for a class of approximately 30 students (i.e., potential for technical glitches and its limitations for class discussions), we decided to transition the course to a completely asynchronous model using our learning management software (LMS), Blackboard. Our next step was to figure out how to structure course material and discussion in an online format. We decided to organize the course into smaller segments with regular activities recurring on a weekly basis, and we titled each activity so that our approach would be (hopefully) immediately apparent to the students: Historical Engagement, Textual Engagement, Thematic Engagement.

For Historical Engagement, the students were given an assignment sheet that contained a list of links to lectures, audio/visual materials, and/or podcasts available online, as well as lectures we recorded ourselves using Zoom or PowerPoint with voiceover. Students were asked to view items of their choice from the given list and be prepared to discuss the questions that were included at the bottom of the assignment sheet. For Textual Engagement, the students were given an assignment sheet that directed them to read a selected primary document and to write a brief response that addressed one of the provided prompts. Students could also access the sets of questions that they would engage via online discussions. The first set contained focused reading questions and questions that asked the students to draw upon their historical knowledge in order to engage the text (Textual Engagement). The second set comprised synthesis questions that prompted the students to compare ideas or beliefs expressed in the assigned texts with other artifacts that they had already encountered that semester and then to draw conclusions regarding what we call the continuous threads of Western culture (Thematic Engagement).

After much deliberation, we decided to use the blog tool on Blackboard because it allowed us to set up a clear linear thread of conversation for each component: the Historical Engagement conversation opened on Monday; the Textual Engagement on Wednesday; and the Thematic Engagement on Friday. We started each blog entry with an introductory comment that framed the conversation and included 2–3 of the questions that had been provided to the students in advance. Once we reached a certain number of student posts, we posted a comment that synthesized what had been said thus far and transitioned or redirected the conversation.

The students for the most part met the minimum requirements for participation and as the semester went on, began to interact with each other in a genuine way, addressing each other by name and responding directly to each other’s comments. There were even instances of polite disagreement regarding historical or textual interpretation! By the time we reached Macbeth (1606) (two weeks into the online mode of the course) students had become comfortable enough with procedural adjustments to begin engaging the higher-level analysis or synthesis questions (i.e., comparing the ideas of one author with those of another author, the priorities of one era with those of another era, etc.) without prompting from us.3

Up to that point, students had only engaged excerpts from primary documents: Pico, Machiavelli, and Luther. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, however, presented a new challenge as a complete early modern text that students were going to read in its entirety. The English Department has an online asynchronous Introduction to Literature class that Dr. Harries was involved in designing that contained a unit on reading Hamlet (1600). We used this as our basic model for assembling an apparatus and set of resources that would support students in reading Macbeth. In the face-to-face version of the class, we spend a good deal of time discussing the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, as well as the politics and culture of early seventeenth-century England. We want the students to engage Macbeth as responding to, and taking part in, this historical context. In the online environment, our goal was to recreate this structure without overwhelming students who might already be struggling with reading a full Shakespeare play. To this end, we started by posting a guide to some of the most common language issues that students encounter, as well as a recorded Zoom lecture introducing the theater and the basics of Jacobean politics. To help with the actual plot of the play, we created an act-by-act reading guide that gave a 1- or 2-sentence summary of each scene, followed by some interpretive questions to help students focus their reading. As we developed the textual interpretation responses for the week, we drew heavily on these questions to link different elements of the play together. We also gave students a list of film versions available through streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Ultimately, we strove to give students the tools they needed to carry on a meaningful discussion of the play.

The students engaged the play more effectively than we had anticipated, although this was evident more in the subsequent conversations than in the actual Macbeth responses. Students particularly honed in on the play as a negative example of Machiavellian leadership and Luther’s model of service. We concluded that narrowing the focus of our reading and discussion to one or two themes helped a lot with this. However, at the same time we realized how much we lost by not being in the classroom with them and guiding some focused reading, small-group activities. Asynchronous material works very well for the foundational preparation and guided reading. But at the application and synthesis stages of interpreting a text, exchanges among students and between students and faculty are key to putting the pieces together.

As we reflected upon these stages of interpreting a cultural artifact, we observed that carefully structured and focused learning activities to provide context, foundation, and direction for students can maximize their engagement. This is not a matter of creating busy work for the students, but developing focused resource materials and thoughtfully constructed activities that are part of a consistent, recurring, transparent pattern. Giving the students the roadmap for the whole exercise at the outset promotes active engagement. We realized, perhaps belatedly, that such transparency helps to build student confidence, especially when they are dealing with texts that seem (to them) very difficult.

Macbeth, of course, is only an illustrative example; many of the same techniques and approaches would work equally well for a long prose work like More’s Utopia (1516), or a narrative poem like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400). Whatever the text, the focus remains on treating it broadly as a cultural artifact. This means equipping students to understand something about the political, religious, and social conditions under which it was produced, as well as the genre and incidental factors that impacted its construction by the author and consumption by the audience. Ultimately, this approach aims to free the text from its status as a pristine museum piece and allow it to function in all of its depth.

The challenge for the shared-inquiry approach in an online setting is that it is based upon class discussions, and these do not work as effectively with video conferencing technology. This is particularly true in a large group (20 or more), where Zoom encourages passive learning, and where asynchronous discussions are harder for instructors to guide and shape. Moreover, there are distinctions between upper- and underclassmen. We found that there was a marked difference between the expectations and needs of our students in classes at different levels. An additional part of our initial decision to use an asynchronous model was due to the fact that freshmen seemed to resist Zoom and avoided opportunities we gave them for office hours, discussion, etc. By contrast, upper-level students specifically asked for more video contact, and those classes developed a richer balance of virtual and asynchronous approaches where students continued discussions across modalities and assignments. We believe that this may be due to several circumstances. First, our upper-level students have a stronger investment in their course. These students have a longer experience with us as instructors and have developed peer-group relationships, which increases their comfort level. Moreover, they have opted into this model, by choosing majors where shared inquiry is the predominant model of course delivery. Second, upper-level students tend to be more self-aware of what works well for them and helps them to succeed. Third, freshmen may simply feel less comfortable advocating for their pedagogical needs, even when given the open opportunity to do so. For this last group of students, we may need to be more transparent in explaining the methods and goals of our shared inquiry approach so that they understand and feel a greater sense of investment in our common intellectual project.

For most freshmen, shared inquiry has not been their predominant mode of learning. They have also been to some degree conditioned to believe that there is a “right” answer, which is not at all the goal of shared inquiry. The asynchronous approach we followed was heavily weighted toward shared inquiry, but without face-to-face interaction we lost the ability to weave together lectures and meaningful conversation, and teach the students how to engage in a shared inquiry model. Even when we lecture, we are still in a dialogic mode, because we continue to engage with the students in multidirectional conversation. Shared inquiry requires a lot of artful guidance on the part of the instructor. Furthermore, this is harder to achieve in a fully asynchronous modality, but equally difficult to achieve in a synchronous modality using videoconferencing technology where only one person speaks at a time. This situation precludes group discussions that can be monitored simultaneously by the instructors.

The main take-away from this experience is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching shared-inquiry humanities classes online. However, we did learn that some balance between asynchronous online activities and synchronous interaction is paramount. The exact proportions of these approaches varies from class to class due to many factors—freshmen vs. upperclassmen, self-selecting students vs. general population, majors vs. nonmajors. In addition, the particular nature of the course’s content influences the pedagogical strategies that are most appropriate. In a freshman interdisciplinary course, it seemed effective to give students a variety of foundation materials to engage and bring to the discussion. The asynchronous discussions built comradery amongst the students, although we felt that we lost some of that same connection between the instructors and the students. For an upper-level literature class, it worked well to have students read the texts, create blog posts articulating their ideas and interpretations, and then use Zoom to allow a free interchange of reactions to each other’s work in a synchronous discussion format. In an upper-level class comprised entirely of History majors, sustained asynchronous discussion allowed students to develop ideas and reach conclusions by drawing on primary documents, secondary literature, and even pop culture, in a deeper way than possible via a brief face-to-face exchange.

On the whole, we learned that asynchronous discussion allowed more time for students to refine their ideas and compose themselves in text, although it comes at the cost of closer personal connections among the members of the class. Online learning is no true substitute for face-to-face learning (and students would be the first to admit this), but we believe the use of online resources and learning activities can augment the effectiveness of a class. As we go forward, whether we teach face-to-face or in some kind of online or hybrid modality, we intend to keep some asynchronous online discussions of the foundational content and context material. On the other hand, if we find ourselves shifting back into an online modality, we intend to retain a stronger synchronous element using videoconferencing technology and other resources available to us. Finally, regardless of modality, we need to be more transparent with our students about the goals and methods of shared inquiry as an intellectual project. Fundamentally, shared inquiry aims at making sense of complex issues and ideas in the context of a collaborative environment. Whatever tools, modalities, and approaches we use, this always has to remain the driving purpose of our classes.

Susan Mobley is Chair of the History Department and co-director of the Classical Education program at Concordia University Wisconsin. Her recent research focuses on the history of education in Reformation Germany and in the Western tradition more broadly. She teaches courses in classical, Byzantine, medieval, Renaissance and Reformation history. In addition, she teaches Latin and courses on the history of education.

Brian Harries is Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor of English at Concordia University Wisconsin. His research interests include the ancient world in Shakespeare, issues of public memory in Elizabethan England, and the impact of the Reformation. He teaches classes on Shakespeare, medieval and early modern literature, history of the English language, and grammar, among others. He collaborates regularly with the History and Theatre departments.

1 Stephen Brookfield has an excellent chapter on collaborative team-teaching especially across disciplinary lines, as well as a chapter on teaching online. See Stephen D. Brookfield, The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom, 3rd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2015). For an additional interdisciplinary resource on teaching medieval and early modern culture, see Wichita State University, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching (SMaRT)

2 When we use the term “shared-inquiry” in this essay, we are referring to a discussion-based course where students collaborate with each other and with the instructors to understand the subject at hand. In short, this is a “de-centered,” or possibly “re-centered,” classroom where the instructors act as guides to exploring a topic, rather than as lecturing knowledge experts. The goal of a shared-inquiry approach is to promote genuine engagement with the material, rather than technical mastery of content knowledge.

3 Of course, it is very hard to know which factors brought about this change. We concluded that for some of the more actively engaged students, they began to feel more confident within the sequenced structure of the online discussions, while for other students they became more comfortable expressing themselves in the blog format. We suspect, too, that the freshmen just needed time to become familiar with Blackboard and its functions.

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