By Nancy Quam-Wickham
Imagine a crowded room where students—shoulder to shoulder—worked frantically to complete architectural drawings. As the moment to submit their projects approached, an aide pushed a little cart (the “charrette”) through the classroom; students were required to deposit their drawings as the cart passed. Those not yet done with their work leapt into the cart, adding finishing touches to their designs as the cart passed drafting tables. The exercise was a loud, raucous, frenzied, stressful, though profoundly creative experience.
The concept of a design charrette is well known in the arts and urban planning, though less so among historians and other humanities scholars. Originating in the demanding architecture academy at the École des Beaux-Arts in 19th-century Paris, the design charrette was an exercise in which instructors assigned students to work individually or in groups to complete a specific design challenge within a short period of time.
Fortunately for us, the idea of a design charrette has evolved to be an opportunity for professionals to share their ideas with others and receive feedback in response. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) adopted the charrette model as a way for scholars to share student assignments with others and to get feedback for improving them. Last year, the AHA, at its annual meeting in Atlanta, modified the NILOA model and invited historians from across the country to submit assignments for their introductory history courses and to participate in an assignments charrette workshop. Essentially, the assignment charrette encompasses collaboration and the peer-review processes in a supportive setting. As scholars, we embrace the concept of peer review for our research; now, with the AHA’s support, we have the opportunity to share our classroom assignments with our colleagues at other institutions, but without the fever and stress of the exercise as it originated in Paris.
At our Denver meeting in January, the assignment design charrette at the Undergraduate Teaching Workshop promises to be a productive venue in which instructors can submit their assignments for peer review. Last year in Atlanta, more than 40 faculty members from a wide variety of institutions—two- and four-year, public and private, highly selective and open access—participated in the assignment design charrette. Organizer Julia Brookins, Tuning Project coordinator, asked participants to submit their assignments in advance of the meeting (scroll to the bottom for details on how to submit your assignment for this January’s meeting in Denver).
The assignments were innovative and often involved hands-on activities—not your standard book review assignment. For example, a team from Siena College brought their “Global Literacy Project” assignment from an introductory 20th-century world history course that requires each student to complete a research paper, accomplished in discrete steps, on an issue of importance to the world’s future. Heather Perry of University of North Carolina at Charlotte introduced the “Great War Avatar Project,” an assignment for a first-year general education course, the Global First World War, in which students develop historically accurate identities (“avatars”) who write responses, in character, to specific prompts on a private blog. Other assignments included local history field explorations, discussion “labs” in which teams of students evaluate a collection of US State Department documents for bias and perspective, an archival research task that introduces students to their college archives, a student-curated exhibit of historical photographs on humanitarian issues in African history, a “deconstructed” historiographic essay, and assignments in which students create extensive digital timelines. Common themes among all assignments include an emphasis on writing, active learning, and encouraging students to embrace the “hands-on skills of historians,” in the words of one instructor.
Additionally, each participant outlined the course, student characteristics, learning objectives of the assignment, perceived difficulty, grading basis, and assignment weight. As one of the many facilitators of this charrette, what I found most illuminating were the answers each participant provided to these questions: “What is your general experience in using this assignment to date?” and “Any questions or concerns about this assignment?” Here, participants detailed the difficulties students often had with the assignment, shared success stories, and asked for advice on how to make their assignments more meaningful and rewarding for students. Participants wanted advice on evaluating student work, tweaking assignments to ensure that students engaged with the material, or altering a seminar assignment for use in a large lecture class, among other things. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, honest evaluations, and self-reflection that each participant showed in their answers to these questions. These were clearly faculty members deeply committed to improving student learning.
At the charrette session, facilitators assign participants to groups and provide them with their group members’ assignments. Groups then adjourn to separate rooms. Each group has a table facilitator who keeps everyone on time and the conversation flowing, and a recorder who jots down critical discussion points to share with participants later. Each participant is given five minutes to present her or his assignment to the group. The presentation is followed by a longer Q&A session, after which fellow group members complete a written evaluation of the assignment. Then we move on to the next group member. These written evaluations are shared with the assignment author, providing reviews of the assignments by like-minded peers who share concerns about instructional effectiveness. At the conclusion of the activity, all participants, facilitators, and recorders reassemble in the session room to decompress and discuss their experiences.
A majority of those who attended the workshop indicated that they found it helpful and showed interest in attending future assignment design charrettes. One participant found the workshop to be a highlight of the meeting, noting that it “provided an excellent opportunity for professional growth and development. I took ideas home with me that I have been able to apply to my teaching this semester.” Another historian enjoyed the workshop because it offered “the chance to interact with others and hear them speak about the logistics and practical ways they use the assignments. I often read teaching articles, but that is a one-way mode of acquiring information. I liked this because it allowed for live interaction.”
The use of assignment design charrette has been spreading, from NILOA and the AHA, to local campuses and, in some cases, individual departments. Why the emphasis on individual assignments? As Pat Hutchings, Natasha Jankowski, and Peter Ewell write in a NILOA Occasional Paper, carefully crafted assignments can embed assessments of student learning within the classroom, in the provenance of the faculty, not the administration. When put to use, they can thus lead to improvements in student learning. Moreover, according to the authors, assignments are “pedagogically powerful—sending signals to students about what faculty think matters, and about what they expect from students. At their best, assignments pose interesting, fresh problems that capture students’ imagination.” Intentionally designing student assignments that promote engagement with our discipline should be our goal. The assignment charrette can help us reach that objective and get students excited about history.
We are pleased to announce that the AHA will be holding an assignments charrette during the Undergraduate Teaching Workshop at the 131st annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. Please consider submitting an assignment to participate in this special workshop. We welcome assignments for undergraduate courses at all levels and in any field (specialization), especially introductory history courses. Anyone with a valued teaching assignment or a brand-new one that would benefit from in-depth review and discussion with faculty from other institutions should consider applying. For applications, please visit historians.org/2017charrette.
A graduate of University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Tuning group, Nancy Quam-Wickham is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach.