Virtual Field Trips; or Teaching the American Civil War from Across the Pond

This spring, American Crises, a second-year module that explored US history from 1775 to 1968, ran for the first time. Structuring the course proved extremely difficult. Although I had been warned by friends, colleagues and my own common sense that I could not possibly cover 193 years of social, political, military, economic, and cultural history in twelve lectures and twelve seminars, I darn sure tried.

My experience has led me to revise several aspects of module, but one that will remain is the inclusion of unassessed group presentations.

Presentations are a strange pedagogical creature.  On the one hand, they are often touted as a critical component of a well-round education experience. Most jobs require some degree of public speaking, if only at the interview stage, and in-class presentations provide a semi-safe environment for building  self confidence and refining one’s tone and manner to convey the intended message, rather than ‘I am so nervous, please stop looking at me!” Group presentations can also promote student-centred learning and collaboration skills by allowing students to explore those aspects they find most interesting and presenting them in the way that makes most sense to them.

However, they also pose several practical difficulties. Presentations must be viewed, and when to view them is a recurrent problem. Say, for example, you have a small seminar group of eight to twelve students.  If each gives a three-to-five-minute presentation, that is an hour. If we included another three-to-five minutes per student to account for set-up and inevitable technical difficulties, that is two hours. Spread over twelve weeks, this may seem acceptable, but students quickly begin to baulk; my own student feedback has (in previous years) heavily criticised the use of weekly or even occasional presentations as a waste of precious contact hours. This is partly owing to the perception that their peers aren’t particular prepared (or confident) and the presentations add little to their educational experience.  The value is in the doing rather than the watching. Moreover, if you have a large group, say fifteen or twenty students, presentations suddenly become a nightmare to schedule.

These problems are both alleviated and aggregated by the use of group presentations. On the one hand, twelve students can be easily divided into a mere three or four presentations. On the other, group work is almost universally despised by students. No matter how friendly three students may be at the start of a project, no matter how evenly distributed work may be in theory, the perception that some students are not pulling their weight will almost always emerge. Sometimes in a snide, under-breath comment, often in an explanatory email to the tutor, and at least once in my experience during a spectacular breakdown during the presentation itself. This unfair division of labour is sometimes quite amicable, of course, but having a single speaker with a row of life-like student statues is not pedagogically sound.

At this stage we must turn to the elephant in the room, assessment. Depending on the module, department, and university structure, presentation assessment can very widely.  In my own experience, assessment at levels five and six (second and final year) must be structured in a way that allows second marking by another member of staff, and, should need arise, an external examiner as well.  Convincing a fellow over-worked colleague to sit in on student presentation is possible, but to allow external examination requires video recording, something very few students would be comfortable with (and perhaps rightly so!)

So, if they are a nightmare to schedule, create and assess, why do I advocate them? Because, for all their faults, they can be an excellent tool.

Three of the crises I discuss in my module are wars—The American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Each of these have complex political, economic, cultural, and military issues to discuss. I attempted to sample these in my Revolutionary War lecture, with moderate success, but decided to experiment a bit with the Civil War.

My one hour lecture covered the immediate causes of the war, highlighted the general trajectory of the military action, and focused on key political and cultural shifts during those four fateful Aprils. The seminar, however, was left entirely to the students.  They were placed into self-selected groups of two and asked to visit the Civil War Trust website.  They were then to email me the name of a Civil War battle that they would like to present to the class, first come, first serve.

In the week between the lecture and the seminar, the pairs had to examine topographical maps of their battle, kindly provided by the trust, and create a two-to-four-minute presentation that explained to their classmates the chronology of battle and any man-made or natural features that affected the outcome. They were aided in this quest by journal articles, which they had to identify independently, and a selection of walking tour videos from the Civil War Trust website.

The aims of the exercise were

  • to encourage independent research
  • to expose students to historical maps and historical geography
  • to re-integrate military history into an otherwise sociocultural narrative
  • to practice presentational skills

Because I wanted them to focus very closely on the details of the battlefield, they did not have to prepare a PowerPoint; I would simply project their chosen map on the wall behind them. although it was important that theybe thorough in their research, I could not, for the reasons noted above, make the presentations assessed. I had to rely entirely upon student initiative to explain Mananas , Shiloh and Appomattox Courthouse to their peers, and, indeed, to simply attend the seminar at all.

I really wish I had recorded them.  They were truly brilliant.

Not only did I have some of the best attendance of the semester, every group successfully presented their battle to a wholly unexpected level of detail. Although most of the material was derived from the Civil War Trust, students were able to digest and present the material in a clear, concise and engaging way.  They shared the best anecdotes (and absurdities) and were generally well prepared to answer questions about their map. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of the seminar, I asked if the experience had been worthwhile, and there was not a single negative reply.

I cannot say that my experiment negates all of the very real practical difficulties with student presentations, but it absolutely demonstrated that they could achieve specific aims in specific situations.

What I think is key is that student presentations must offer something genuinely useful to the listeners as well as the presenters.  Many of my student relied on that information to direct their essay research; many others will use their notes as they revise for their upcoming exam.

As for the title of this post? It reflects a deep-seated annoyance at my own childhood education. Having been raised in southern California, far from Gettysburg and Manassas, I always greatly envied my east coast contemporaries who took school trips to these historic sites.  Although I have yet to convince my university to fund a ‘class-trip’ to Pennsylvania, the videos at did much to transform these names and dates into real places, where real men and women lived and died, to bring our Sheffield seminar room that much closer to America’s past.

*Image courtesy of 49er Girl, provided CC-BY-NC

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