Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tilting at Windmills, Vol. 1, No. 3

Gaming in the Classroom: A Walden University Blog Entry

            Once upon a time when a Sony Playstation was an advanced piece of engineering I rented a video game that advertised, “What would you do if you were emperor?” It was the original version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. It looked different than the Mortal Combat clones and first person shooters so I picked it up and took it home. Right after dinner I loaded up the game and began to play on the bedroom television set. I played into the late evening. My wife came in and went to bed mumbling, “Turn it down so I can sleep.” I played on to midnight. Consumed by the need to play at least one more turn I continued on. One more turn saw the sun rise. Eventually my kids wandered down the steps into the room wondering what I was doing up so early on a Saturday.

            My wife woke up and wondering if I was going to play that game all day. I would have if the time between turns wasn’t so long to load up. I fell asleep for a few hours around 11 in the morning. That is the only time I have ever stayed up for more than 24 hours straight. Don’t be fooled by the saying, “One more turn.” It really means, “I am not stopping until I win or the power goes off.” I’ve played a lot of video games, but that was the only one that caught me up like that. 

            That leads me to the subject of this post, playing games in class. I teach History and Geography. World Regional Geography is a class that could easily take a game like Civilization and make it work. In fact, applying lesson plans to the events taking place in Civilization would be a great way to employ activist learning practices. Using the technology tree in the game shows them how civilizations developed over time. Choosing to build their empire peacefully or by conquest can show them how empires expanded over time while their opponents may turn around and conquer them separately or through alliances. 

            To avoid the need for students to buy the game separately or to have the school buy enough copies or licenses, instructors can have students play on FreeCiv at  Instructors can set up a game for their class. A few problems exist such as what to do with players that get wiped out too quick. Larger classes can have multiple games going of course. Video gaming is currently being used in courses and can be educational at the college level. Civilization is used in classes right now just like Guitar Hero is in music classes (Criswell, 2009).

Winning the game in the traditional sense is not a realistic goal either.  I would set victory conditions, but winning is not the object of the game. Learning about the human and geographic features that were involved in the past over time would be. There is also the problem with players attacking one another, sometimes through violations of treaties. I would hate to see friends backstab each other or situations develop which result in serious enmity in a classroom. These things can happen. I know this from my own experiences in high school when my girlfriend backstabbed me during a class game on WWI in which my team was winning. She stole the plans and gave them to her friends who were able to blunt my assaults and survive the blitzkrieg I had planned for them which meant I had to settle for a draw. Needless to say I didn’t have a date that weekend which led to me getting a new girlfriend later. 

            Maybe it is just me, but I am not convinced that running a video game version of Civilization is the best way to use games in the classroom. My classes are 90 minutes long twice a week. A semester usually means I have 30 class sessions. There is a lot of material to cover and allotting precious game time to a game means I need that time to be focused on learning. I flip the classes, but if I did that with Civilization that means I would not be able to do more than provide after action reports on the game and its progress. It also means students would have to play the game turn before the next one could begin. Our infamous “casual” student (insert whatever word you use for slacker going through the motions) would disrupt the game and eliminate any learning opportunities. 

            We could have the students play the game on their own, but that eliminates the value of collaborative learning. Learning experiences would be uneven and I think this would require the writing of an essay so that students show learning from the exercise. Other instructors are using Civilization IV and III in their courses (Pagnotti & Russell, 2012). There are other ways around this such as using the board game version of Civilization. There are two versions of the computer game of Civilization as well as two versions of the Avalon Hill version of Civilization which Sid Meier did play and got some of his inspiration from. There are also other games which are similar to Civilization

            One game I have used in my Geography class is the second edition of Avalon Hill’s History of the World. This is an outstanding game and one which I will be using in class this summer. Geography plays a role in how empires expand in the game. The fact that it is a board game gives instructors opportunities to stop between turns and apply assessment techniques which mean each turn is a self contained lesson. To give students more time to apply what they learned, we will be playing two rounds of the game. One round will be employed near the halfway point of the class where they use the principles of geography in playing the game. The second round will be at the end of class where they apply what they learned in studying four regions of the Earth in conjunction with the principles of Geography. I expect to see some significant shifts in playing skill.

            My students loved the game in the last semester. The students who applied the geographic principles did the best. One student went from zero to hero overnight. The student was less than engaged during the course, but when we played the game over two sessions he dominated one turn by applying the principles and deployed his forces extremely effectively. It was the best score of any player turn. The problem with the game is that it relies far too much on military forces instead of economic/social/diplomatic/technological forces. Religion is not involved and that has played a major role in historical events. The Civilization board games do duplicate these themes in the game which is why I am considering using them at some point. 
            The other problem is complexity. Obviously the past is pretty complex. No game is going to duplicate the past or really show geographic principles in conjunction with the human factors. The best a game can do is approximate them. The more realistic the game, the harder it is to learn it. I need students to learn course content, not game rules. So simplicity is pretty important. There has to be a balance between simplicity and content in the game. Designing my own game is a thought and one which I plan to pursue down the road. So there you have it. Games can be played in class and be learning exercises (Lee & Probert, 2010). A lot depends on the class and the instructor.  I am sure other instructors are playing games in their classes. I am interested in seeing if any play a Civilization game or one similar to it. Comment if you do!


Criswell, C. (2009). Can video games be Educational? Teaching Music, 16(6), 24.

Lee, J. & Probert, J. (2010). Civilization III and whole-class play in high school social studies. Ther Journal of Social Studies Research, 34(1), 1-28.

Pagnotti, J. & Russell, W. (2012). Using Civilization IV to engage students in world history content. Social Studies, 103(1), 39-48.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

History According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 3

Why Study History? 

     In last week's column we explored the concept of What is History? In this second part of the three column series we explore why we should study history. We will conclude the series next week with a column on how we study history. For now, let us focus on why we should explore the subject. For me, two questions sum up why we should study the past.

1. How did we get here?

2. Where are we going?

     Neither question can be answered without studying the past. Without understanding our past we are groping blindly into the future. History cannot predict the future, but it sure can help us in planning for it. In watching this excellent video put together by Joanna Hayes, you can see history unfold with concepts about history brought forth. She began by saying, "History is a window into the past....and understanding the past is the key to understanding the present." I think this is a very important statement and one which I use in my course along with the video.

     I use a series of picture frames to build an analogy of why we study history. I will share the lesson with you. First, the blank frame. A window into the darkness. Only by examining it will we learn what the darkness represents. We really have no idea what this represents, but as we work with sources, both primary and secondary, we begin to add detail to the picture.
 In the second picture we see details start to emerge. The picture is still very unclear and more research is needed to understand what exactly it is. Why do we study the painting? Some of it is simple curiosity. What is this painting? Who was the artist? Why did they paint it? What does it tell us about the past, assuming it is a painting from the past? It could be a contemporary painting for all we know. If so, what is it telling us about today?

  At this point students begin to recognize the painting, but they usually cannot tell me what exactly it is. The lack of color plays a strong role in their inability to identify who the people are in the painting. Also, their lack of knowledge about the past plays a very strong role in their inability to recognize the painting. The only information I have given them is that it is a famous painting. Hopefully, they will figure out that it is a historical painting of American History since we are in an American History course.

With the next picture, we see more detail because it is the actual painting. Hey, it's a survey course! We are always pressed for time. At this point they know it is from the American Revolution, but most still do not know what battle. Here I begin to ask for specific details such as where is the smoke and flames coming from? Who is the wounded man about to be bayoneted? Is the man in the red coat on the right stopping the soldier from killing him? Why is there a black man in the lower right corner? Where is the American flag at? Who are these people? Why are they fighting? What is this painting representing? When did this take place? 

     I then ask the class to consider the words I began the questions with. They are important in the how we study history part. I will explain that next week. For now, I give them the details behind the painting. I also ask them if the painting is accurate.

        1. The painting is The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 by John Trumbull.
2. It was painted in 1786, 11 years after the battle
3. Trumbull was present and saw the battle through field glasses
4. The battle actually took place on Breed’s Hill
5. The painting has several details which are representative of the battle itself, but are not quite accurate
      6. The smoke and flames are from the village of Charlestown which caught fire and burned to the ground when the British ships tried to bombard the rebels. They could not elevate the guns high enough and the shot fell into the town on the shore.
      7. The wounded man is Joseph Warren who died in the battle. He did not die that way though. 
      8. The man stopping the soldier from bayoneting Warren is Major John Small.
      9. The black man is thought to be Peter Salem. Whether he was actually there or not, a few black men were there fighting the British.
     10. There was no American flag because there was no United States as of yet. The battle took place a year before the Second Continental Congress voted on independence. 

      There are other details in the painting, but that is enough to get them to understand that things are not always as they appear. The study of history involves asking questions and seeking answers to them. Without doing any research people might think that the event known as Bunker Hill actually took place like Trumbull painted it. In studying history we get the details straight.

      The study of history is also one of the best disciplines for developing critical thinking or analytical thinking skills. When the course is taught correctly, students use the process of historical analysis in learning about history. That involves activist learning, not instructivist. Instructivist is the boring lecture many of us were tortured with at one point or another by instructors who didn't know how to engage their students. 

We study history to identify patterns and trends in the past. Some historians claim history repeats itself or to be more apt, history is cyclical. George Santayana is famous for a saying that goes, "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it." Far too often people will utter those words while completely ignoring them. 


      That leads us to another wonderful reason to study history. By studying history we learn about other cultures, other people, other civilization and how they have interacted with us and others in the past. In doing so we learn why many things are the way they are now. This is part of the interface between history and geography. 

     When you put these two together you can explore past events and hopefully recall the famous quote mentioned above. Unfortunately, many people refuse to learn from the past such as the disaster that was the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 and would do it again. These people cannot look back to the Vietnam War and see the same patterns emerging because they do not have analytical thinking skills. To me, avoiding useless wars, unwinnable conflicts, and alienating other peoples is just a really stupid idea, but all you have to do is open the newspaper and read the headlines to find that there are plenty of people that lack the ability to use critical thinking skills.

The study of history is also about solving problems. Identifying trends, researching patterns, researching facts leads us to discovering why a problem exists and how to deal with it. That is done through critical thinking skills which is a major part of a college education. Unfortunately, not all college graduates have that skill. We know this because American business has stated so. They need problem solvers. College students who study history learn those critical thinking skills. The college graduate who can demonstrate that they are capable of using critical thinking will find themselves employed. All the above reasons are good reasons as to why the study of history is important.

So here we are at the intersection of the past, the present, and the future. Where do we go from here?


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Diffusion's Blog of the Week, Vol. 1, No. 3

     This week we turn our attention to a blog ran by an actual college professor who explores religious history as well as other topics pertaining to history. His blog is highly respected and is another example of what academic blogging is about. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you John Fea's The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life!

     John holds a Ph.D from Stony Brook University and is the Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is the author of several books and the winner of a few prizes for those books. Two of those are on my shelves waiting to be autographed eventually. In addition, he has authored many articles for quite a few journals and newspapers. He has lectured at various universities and is a guest speaker for many groups, churches, and historical societies. (I have no clue how he gets everything done!)

     That short paragraph is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to John's academic work. The list is long, really long of what he has done. Our focus here is the blog which is one of the better blogs. This blog went live on June 23, 2008. He had made some guest posts on Religion and American History, but while working on his book The Way of Improvement leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment he began this blog. Here we are, almost 7 years later and he remains strong with his blogging skills.

     In fact, John has expanded his skills and added several features to his blog which I have found very useful. One of these is his Virtual Office Hours section which you can also find on YouTube.  I really do not know how many of these he has, but I do know that I have found them quite interesting and useful. In fact, I sought John's permission to use one of them in my introduction to the American History survey course. (More on that in tomorrow's According to Jim).

   This blog is on Blogger which I found to be an excellent platform for a blog. The captcha feature makes posting on the blog a conscious act and I think helps cut down on the trolling. The content on this blog is excellent. John is not trying to write academic articles, but his own thoughts on various subjects. I find that to be very important. As John is an experienced professor and author the posts are insightful as to his thought process. He is not focusing exclusively on any one subject, but instead covers a wide range of topics.

     Plus, how can a Bruce Springsteen loving historian be that bad? He can't. I first found John's blog while looking for blogs written by people who knew what they were talking about and were not partisan rants. Although I will say that any historian who is on Glenn Beck's bad side and writes about religious history is somebody that interests me. John has an outstanding blog that is one I check daily. His book reviews (recently done by Megan Piette) are interviews with the authors. I have added a few books to my must read list right off of these interviews.

    Really, I cannot say enough good things about John Fea and this blog. It is a professional blog operated by a professional historian. I refer students to his blog regularly, especially the Virtual Office Hours. I have borrowed from John and his blog as well as his scholarship. I even have a lesson built with my flipped classroom about America being created as a secular government in a Protestant society. Students find the idea interesting. If I were to rate blogs this would get the maximum rating.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 3

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum

Charles B. Dew. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001. x + 124 pp.

            Historians have been debating the cause of the American Civil War since before the guns fell silent to end that conflict. Multiple theories have been proposed and examined, but regardless of the theory, the issue of slavery cannot be ignored. With the advances in historiography in that era’s history, examinations of the primary sources from that period have been emphasized. Charles Dew, a Southerner himself who described his background as one that embraced the notion of state’s rights as being the cause of the Civil War, explained how his research involving primary documents in Confederate records brought up documents that challenged what he had been told about the war and its cause, and that inspired him to look at the subject to determine the answer for himself.  

            The result was a study into the letters and speeches of the secession commissioners from the first states that seceded to the remaining slave owning states in the attempt to form a new nation. Dew’s analysis of those documents revealed what was said about the reasons for secession by leading figures of the South and the secession commissioners. The study served as the reason he wrote Apostles of Disunion where he presented both the primary documents he examined and his conclusions. The result is a concise assessment of the secession commissioners themselves and their beliefs, what they wrote and said concerning the issue of secession both privately and publicly, the reactions to their words by their audiences, and the conclusions Dew drew from his research. 

            Instead of trying to speak for the commissioners, Dew chose to let their words and actions speak for themselves. He detailed the personal history of each commissioner as well as the context of the situation in the various states the commissioners spoke in. This gave the words of these commissioners a setting in which they could be understood for what they were instead of just words on paper. Dew drew attention to the rhetoric of slavery and race which were prominently mentioned multiple times in each address to the secession conventions. This was a sharp contrast to long held views by some that the war was not about slavery or race, but that of state’s rights, economic differences, or constitutional arguments. Dew pointed out that while the commissioners did bring up those points, they did not place the emphasis on those points while they spoke at length about slavery and race. 

            He also described the reactions to the commissioner’s addresses from both individuals and newspapers which also focused on the issues of race and slavery stated by the commissioners, and not on any other issue. Dew’s major drawback is that he did not explore the conventions or the makeup of the delegates beyond that of a cursory examination. In many cases the commissioner’s speeches were merely exhortations to openly receptive audiences while others failed to sway their audiences into outright secession although in some instances the speeches may have caused some delegates to finally side with secession.

            The result is a slim tome in which Dew was able to show that the fear of slavery’s elimination as well as racial equality was the primary cause of the war because that was what those commissioners focused on in those speeches. In doing so Dew was able to fill in a gap in the historiography of the months prior to the war by limiting the book’s topic to that of the secession commissioners and their own words which speak for themselves as to why secession was desired by many in the South.