“Coming Out” in the Classroom: When the Personal is Pedagogical

June, 2014 · By Justin Bengry

I’ve never come out to my students. I’ve never stood at the front of a classroom and told my students that I’m gay, and I’ve never told them witty anecdotes about my husband. That isn’t to say that I’m not completely out both professionally and personally (as google will immediately tell anyone). All of my academic bio pages highlight my work in queer history, and when introducing myself to new classes I describe my research on homosexuality and capitalism. Few students would be surprised to know I’m gay.

Still, I’ve wondered what impact explicitly identifying my sexuality would have on teaching, learning, discussions and the overall atmosphere of the classroom. That being said, my teaching so far has mostly included broad surveys of traditional European political history, courses whose structure and content was largely already determined for me. While I had the freedom to reorganize some lectures to explore topics in gender and sexuality, my own sexual identity has had little overlap with what I teach, at least so far. But looking ahead, I wanted to know how others navigate this potentially challenging terrain. So, I put the word out to friends, colleagues and mentors whose sexual identities are various and not always static. Each has chosen either to come out or withhold identifying their sexuality in the classroom for a variety of reasons, personal, pedagogical and political.

Continue reading at NOTCHES…

This post was originally published at “NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality” on 10 June 2014.

Is Wikipedia the Devil? Or the Devil we Know?

March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

Students rely on Wikipedia. Professors can pretend that their threats of Fs on assignments matter, but in reality it offers little deterrent. Students can and do weave facts, information, opinions and interpretations that they find online into their papers. If the material seems reasonable, or general, or cited elsewhere, it might not even draw our attention, particularly when we have to grade 50 or 75 or 90 term papers on a weekend. What is the solution?

One answer, probably the most common, is to scold and threaten. We tell our students that Wikipedia is an inappropriate and unacceptable source for historical research and writing. We threaten them with Fs and rewrites. Another answer is to explain to students why Wikipedia is an unreliable source. It lacks appropriate documentation of sources, and is written by individuals with uncertain research skills who base entries largely on sometimes-dubious secondary material. And then we threaten them with Fs and rewrites. But is there a third solution? We know our students use Wikipedia. Can we use this to our advantage? Can we teach them about online sources and how to determine the credibility of what they read and discover?  Can we undermine their reliance on Wikipedia, while at the same time use it as a teaching tool?

All term I’ve told my students that Wikipedia is an inappropriate source for university work, and that recourse to it in their work is forbidden. This seemed to work, and their term paper proposals and other writings have so far remained fairly clean. Then I read the midterms. All material necessary for complete answers to all midterm questions was available in lectures, documents, and text readings. But when I graded the midterms, I began to find unexpected references to statistics and details I was unfamiliar with appearing in more than one exam. I googled particular terms and discovered that even when provided with all materials necessary for a complete A-range response on the exam, my students still used Wikipedia as a study tool. And they clearly made notes that they then memorized, preferring the statistical “facts” to the focus on interpretation that I emphasized.

After frustration and disappointment passed, I thought about what I could do. Forbidding Wikipedia is only a partial success, and impossible to enforce completely. Promising to deliver instant Fs on any work relying on it seems too draconian. Certainly there has to be something to learn here, something that we can apply to the classroom?

Over at the Cliotropic blog Shane Landrum has one idea. Noticing that Women’s History was significantly underdeveloped on facebook, Shane is exploring the idea of assigning Wikipedia building and cleanup assignments:

If you teach history courses on women, gender, or sexuality, or on the history of any racial or ethnic minority in the United States, it’s worth considering adding a Wikipedia assignment to your syllabus. … Students could learn a lot about what we know and how we know it from editing the articles, and I think it also would teach them to be more skeptical the next time they try to use Wikipedia as a reference.

As Shane points out, others are already building similar assignments in exciting ways. A historian of ancient Rome has worked out many of the logistics:

I’ve used the “stubs” feature of Wikipedia to generate a list of 120 topics relating to ancient Roman civilization that need full articles. Then I’m requiring the 120 students in my upcoming Roman Civilization class to each write one article. This will hopefully teach them how to do original research in the library on obscure, narrowly focused topics and then create something of lasting value to others. The students will also be required to each review three of their fellow students’ articles in order to learn about the collaborative editing process. I’m a little nervous about its success, but I’m hoping to be part of the solution to the issues raised by Wikipedia, rather than contributing to the problems.

I’m convinced that there’s something to this. I’m wary of validating Wikipedia as a legitimate source through assignments like this, but I can see the immediate value offered by giving students the opportunity to do original research for publication in a venue they can already identify with. And maybe if they realize that the people writing entries are no more expert than themselves, they’ll have a greater awareness of the risks of using Wikipedia as a source.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 March 2011.

Where we fail our students: Writing Skills

February, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

I firmly believe that one of the great benefits of an education in history is the development of writing skills. I strive for that in myself, and encourage it in my students. Writing skills will continue to benefit them beyond my classroom, in other disciplines, and beyond the academy. I’m certainly not alone in this belief, and almost universally I hear from other professors, lecturers, and TAs how important writing skills are to them as well. But what do we really do about it? We mark up papers, we make ourselves available for consultation, and we direct students to university writing centres. Is that really enough?

But doing more comes with its own pressures. I realized this recently when I decided to devote an entire lecture period to discussing writing issues. Initially I planned only to devote 15-20 minutes to addressing the most egregious writing problems I discovered in recent student assignments. But by the time I created slides with examples, I realized that more than half the class period would be required simply to go through them all, leaving inadequate time for “real content”—as in the history part.

I went back and forth all day, worrying that I was somehow doing my students a disservice by devoting less time to EU formation or Soviet politics or whatever else was scheduled that week. The importance of the “real content” of history has been so ingrained into us, I realized, that I felt like I was somehow cheating, or not doing my job, because I was going to spend an entire class period helping students with writing concerns, and working with them to build their written communication skills.

Many of us put hours into grading, where we correct grammar and spelling errors, suggest ways of clarifying arguments, and highlight awkward writing so that students can later improve it. How much does this accomplish? Do students really look closely at these suggestions or incorporate them into their work? Short of assigning drafts and revisions, it sometimes seems that there is little we can do to help students improve their writing skills.

What I realized is that if we value writing skills, and if we truly believe that improving our students’ written communication skills is one of the goals of history education, we need to work actively toward that goal. It’s not enough to correct papers and expect students to studiously incorporate suggestions into work in their next course when it’s another professor’s problem. Nor is it sufficient to shuffle them off to the writing centre (though these are valuable and often underutilized resources). Instead we have to make the teaching of strong writing skills part of our own project as well.

In smaller courses, or larger courses with TAs, we can ask students to work on a paper throughout the term, handing in drafts and revisions, each contributing to their grades. We can also reward genuine effort and writing improvement in their grades as well. In courses like mine which are officially too small for TAs but too large for everyone to submit multiple drafts, we can devote lecture time to writing skills, and turn some class time over to actual writing exercises. At the moment I devote one day a week to document discussion, but in the future, I plan to turn one of those classes each month over toward writing development.

Too often we fail our students in this area. They earn poor or failing grades because they are unable to express themselves effectively. But too often we also fail to teach them the skills the need to be able to communicate better. What have you done to focus on writing skills in your classroom? As a student what have you found most useful? How do we make a history education about both content and skills?

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
3 February 2011.


Re-teaching Gender and Sexuality

December, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Issues related to homosexuality are currently at the forefront of public discourse. Globally, but particularly in the United States, marriage equity, military service, queer youth and bullying are not just matters of policy debate, but have engaged popular concern and action as well. Seattle columnist Dan Savage’s recent ‘It Gets Better Project’, for instance, has captured an extraordinary degree of public interest, using short video clips of ordinary people, celebrities and global figures to help draw attention to bullying and suicides among queer youth.

But it is another short online video, titled ‘{THIS} is Reteaching Gender and Sexuality’, which is in part a criticism of the ‘It Gets Better Project’, that challenges us to reconsider our understandings of sexuality while drawing attention to the plight of queer youth. In the ‘Reteaching’ video, queer youth appear in their own right, speaking for themselves, demanding immediate social and cultural change, not just the promise of something better somewhere down the road. But far more than draw attention to bullying and structures of oppression, they want us instead to recalibrate how we define sexuality and sexual identities. As two speakers put it, ‘I can like boys and girls. … I can be none of the above’.

So how does this relate to history? Well, we can be part of the re-teaching project, in fact, we already are.  In our case, it’s not re-teaching, it’s simply telling the histories of our subjects in the context of their own worlds, rather than through the limitations or needs of our own.

I recently reviewed Barry Reay’s New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern AmericaReay’s main argument is that the world of hustlers (male prostitutes) and trade (men who had sex with other men without identifying as gay) illuminates how  sexual practices and identities   throughout much of  the twentieth century challenge rigid heterosexual-homosexual binarisms. Reay positions himself against scholars who overlook this rich sexual fluidity and flexibility of the mid twentieth century in favour of narratives that lead only to the creation of a recognizably modern gay identity.

Other scholars have identified sexual flexibility among working-class men and military men across the twentieth century in Britain and America. But such studies still tend to be couched in terms of understanding how we got to modern understandings of gay identity, an identity defined as wholly different and separate from heterosexuality. Reay instead follows the lives of men who fail to neatly fit these categories. Nor do they conveniently remain consistent in their sexual practices over a lifetime. The fluidity of their sexual object choices, in fact, sound remarkably similar to the queer youth described above.

Reviewing this book made me think about how we can teach (or re-teach) gender and sexuality. Reay’s study need not be confined to gender, sexuality or queer history courses. His work offers insights into urban history, twentieth-century America, histories of crime, migration and ethnicity.

Gender and sexuality should, and must, appear in courses other than those devoted wholly to gender and sexuality. But so too should religion and faith, military and war, economics and commerce, ethnic and minority groups, and the list goes on. Of course we can’t do the fullest justice to each of these in every course, but we can create a culture of inclusivity in the classroom. And inclusivity applies to students as well as historical actors. Ultimately, including one can create a place for the other.

Clearly categories which organize our world are changing, but categories that organize our teaching need to change too.

This post was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
17 December 2010.