Faculty Spotlight on Innovation: Sharon Leon

Originally published in “Notes of Excellence” newsletter, issue 010 – September 2013.

Sharon Leon HeadshotSharon Leon is the Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) and Associate Professor of History in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. At RRCHNM, she oversees collaborations with library, museum, and archive partners from around the country. Sharon directs RRCHNM’s digital exhibit and archiving projects, as well as research and tool development for public history, including Omeka and Scripto. She is currently a member of the faculty cohort piloting Mason’s new Active Learning with Technology (ALT) Classroom.

What is the most innovative thing you do with your students and/or your classes? Why do you think it is effective?

In “The Digital Past” (HIST 390), I’m using our in-classroom time to support the students in a set of two-stage practicum exercises to introduce students to a range of software and tools that are useful in doing digital history. During the first class period of the week, students work in small groups to get the basic scope an functionality of tools for locating, analyzing, and publishing historical materials in new ways. At this point, they can help each other figure things out, while the instructor and TA are around to answer questions. Then, in the second class period of the week, students get to use the tools and resources to help ask and answer their own inquiry questions about history -in this particular case, related to immigration history. Along the way, the students should be testing out inquiry questions for one that they might pursue in building a more developed digital history website later in the semester. The work that results demands a balancing of technical and historical thinking skills. I don’t want students to ever forget that we are using the tools in service of learning things about the past.

By working in class and in small groups, students get the chance to experiment in a supportive environment. Productive failure is an important part of working with technology and of learning how to investigate historical questions. But for that productive failure to happen, students have to really invest in trying new things. In previous semesters, my students would work these practicum tasks at home alone, where they seemed to only muster a half-hearted effort with the work. Now almost all of their in-class time is engaged in attacking these hands-on task, and talking about the results of their attempts at actually doing digital history (rather than reading about it).

What do you do that creates a strong learning environment for your students?

By far and away, the best learning experiences come for my students when they work with authentic sources and do inquiry driven work. If they have questions in which they are invested, its much easier for them to see the ways that using digital methods and practice can result in new understanding about the past. So, as much as possible, I like to let students form the questions that drive the work of the semester and follow their own interests within the perimeters of our larger topic. Forming good questions is really hard, so on many days that is half the battle. But equally important is the need for students to devote concentrated time to discovery and analysis of new material. Their lives are so busy with so many competing priorities, I find that creating an environment where they can really slow down and dig into the primary sources to get the most out of them is essential. If they don’t experience the benefits of that kind of concentrated analysis in class, they’re unlikely to engage in the process on their own.

What’s one tip that you would offer to faculty new to teaching at Mason?

One thing that I’m trying to focus on while working in the new ALT classroom is the need to be flexible and reflective throughout the semester, and this seems like a good thing for new faculty to keep in mind, as well. Some days, a syllabus can feel like a straight-jacket – a contract set at the beginning of the semester that faculty and students are bound to execute. But if things aren’t working and students aren’t learning, it’s our obligation to change things. I have a set of outcomes that I want to see students achieve, but I’m very aware that we might need to make a left or a right turn at some point in the course of our time together. Not every exercise that I’ve designed is going to work, and I we might need to change our approach so that we can reach the larger learning goals for the course. This semester, I’m keeping a teaching log and trying to find ways to take the class’s temperature at many points along the way, so that I can know to make those adjustments sooner rather than later.

What’s the most challenging thing for you in your teaching, and how do you address this challenge?

I think that the most challenging thing for me about teaching is finding ways to help students transfer knowledge and skills from one situation to another. I’m very interested in students leaving my classes with new tools that they can use to understand and communicate about the past. But to do that, I have to steer them away from an approach where they are accumulating data for recall and toward an approach where they begin to see their own analytical moves and their results. I’ve found that the only way to encourage this self-awareness is by naming the heuristics that will help get them there and offering lots of opportunities for them to practice. As they practice, I offer less and less scaffolding, and hopefully they reach a point where they’re equipped to meet new analytical challenges on their own.