Study Guide

Discussion

This will likely be a new experience for many of you, so please read this carefully. You may have noticed that discussion accounts for much of your final grade. This means participating in discussion is vital, so you'll want to get off to a good start. How do you do that?

Speak up! The first thing to do is something not to do: don't let the class get away from you. Start talking right away; that will make it easier to keep talking. Your first post is easy: it's your intro. What comes after?

You have to post about the readings, which means first of all you have to read, so get to those initial readings right away, at the very beginning of class (in fact, since everything here is always online, you can even begin before the class officially begins). If you haven't done any reading, you'll have nothing to say, and that first week will slip by before you know it.

So, what about those first posts? The easiest thing to do is to post a question, and the place you'll most likely have questions is in the primary source readings. Read the essays first, as that will give you the general narrative of events, and then go to the sources. Note down any word or phrase that seems odd or about which you are unsure. The same goes for events, places, individuals.

Next, look them up. This is a discussion forum, after all, not a help desk. I want you to make a stab at answering the question for yourself. You can then say, here's what I didn't understand and here's what I found. Or, here's what I found but I'm still not sure about it and have questions. Or, I found something but it seems wrong. Or, I found contradictory things. You get the idea.

Don't just say "what's this?" I give credit to those who try, not to those who cry. Often the really useful historical lesson is to be found in the attempt—where you looked, how you interpreted what you found, and so on.

If all else fails, I have discussion topics posted for each section. Everyone hits a dry patch where they find they don't have much to say. The discussion topics should help you out there. As for the rest, keep reading and keep posting!

What "Minimum" Means

The requirement is three messages per week. A week is Monday through Sunday, midnight to midnight, MST.

Any sort of message counts, in terms of quantity. Note, however, that quality counts. If all your messages are little more than "gee whiz" posts, your grade will suffer. If you're only at the minimum, this would push your grade down to a D.

The key is participation. You can't post 45 messages in one week and have it count for the semester because at that point you're not participating in discussion, you're just blogging. By the same logic, if you post two messages one week, you can't post four the next to "make up" for the previous week. If you missed, you missed.

Here's some advice that I hope you take. Too many students think of the minimum as a semester goal. If you aim low (for the minimum), you lose flexibility. You can't afford to miss, even one week.

Instead, think of it as a weekly minimum (which is how the requirement is stated). If life is blowing up around you, and you just don't have time for Knox's class this week, what's the minimum you can do? Three messages. But in ordinary weeks, you should be aiming higher.

What Aiming Higher Gets You

First, a practical benefit. Sometimes you have a rough week. Or two. Or three! If you get into the habit of posting more than three messages a week, then falling short still keeps your head above water.

Second, and more important, it really is the case that the more you talk the more you learn, at least in my classes. This is because history isn't just about facts, though those are the foundation, it's about interpretation. If you don't try out your own understanding, explaining it to others and listening to their questions and critiques, then your own understanding can never grow. It's roughly similar to advice given to writers: if you want to learn how to write, write! History is the past, yes, but history is also a scholarly discipline and the only way to learn that discipline is through practice. The trade of historian is words: reading them and writing them. So in a very real sense, this discussion forum is where you do history.

That's why you want to aim higher: because you want to learn history. Sure, maybe all you want to do is get through this class, but even then presumably you want to do so with a good grade. If that's the case, see above. The same still applies.

What To Do When You're Stuck

Inevitably you will find yourself with nothing to say. Here are some suggestions to help you out.

Ask questions

It's okay to ask what a word means, or to have some phrase or passage explained. You may not have any great insights to make, but people always have questions. You can draw from the primary sources or from the essays or from outside reading. Ask about terms, people, events, explanations, interpretations, claims. Ask about things you always heard were true (or false). If you don't have any questions, you haven't done the reading yet. And don't assume you're the only one who doesn't know. Neither do your fellow students; they just haven't asked yet.

Everyone has covered everything

No they haven't. Chances are, you're not getting online often enough, probably waiting until Saturday or Sunday night. Try posting at the beginning of the week, which means you'll have to be ahead in your reading, not behind.

Take Notes

Read knowing that what you are reading is providing fodder for your posts. Make notes about what you don't understand, what seems striking or unusual, what catches your interest. Use your notes to do some additional research. Then bring that to the discussion board.

Respond

If someone else has asked a question, try to answer it. If they have an idea, comment on it. If they've said something, see if you can add to it.

Discussion topics

The discussion topics (which I'll eventually have for all my classes) are there strictly as a backup. I much prefer that students drive the discussion rather than having me set the agenda. Nevertheless, if you are stuck and none of the above seems to help, then check the discussion topics. Fair warning: these aren't topics you look up and answer. They're for discussion. You'll have to do some research. So don't leave it for Sunday!