That’s what some of my colleagues asked me after the summer was over and the fall semester had started again. I gave most of them the “elevator version” answer: better than I thought, surprisingly well, a few tweaks are necessary…
And indeed, with all the anxiety and self-doubt beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised about the process and the results of the course. In my course proposal I had indicated the following learning objectives:
“This seminar will investigate the particular strengths and limits of a wide range of resources from across the Humanities. The class explores how history, critical theory, philosophy, film and other academic fields have approached the understanding of the Holocaust, each of them adding a facet to the “truth” about the Holocaust. We will also consider the meaning of the Holocaust in contemporary German and American culture. In addition, students learn to critically analyse the different approaches to the Holocaust that go beyond the traditional historical approach. Finally, they have to apply their newly acquired analytical skills to a specific aspect of the Holocaust.”
Judging from the final projects, most students seem to have reached those goals. We discussed a number of current academic approaches to the Holocaust and evaluated in weekly synchronous discussions the strengths of each approach. Challenging were the readings by Michel Bernard-Donals (Critical Theory) and Claudia Card(Philosophy). Bernard-Donals’ distinction between witnessing and testifying was for some students difficult to grasp as was Card’s Atrocity Paradigm. However, I believe it was important to expose students to other approaches than just counting victims and reading memoirs. What students learned, for sure, was that all our/their knowledge about the Holocaust is mediated, already interpreted. Even the testimonies of the survivors found on the various websites (USHMM; Yad Vashem; Shoah Foundation, …) are only giving us a glimpse of the horrors. We can only read and hear their testimony. We can neither smell the stench of the camps nor feel the cold or the flea bites in cramped quarters. That does not make these texts less valuable; but we have to be aware that “the truth” about the Holocaust lies in many sources.
Teaching at a liberal arts college, my colleagues form UMW’s Online Learning Initiative (OLI) and I indicated liberal arts values as core elements of our courses. For my “Holocaust and the Humanities in the 21st Century,” I identified the following: Interactivity, Reflection, Exposure to New Ideas, and Critical Thinking.
The course provides the opportunity of a high degree of interaction between student and instructor, as well as between the student and other students. The assignments submitted by the students got individualized feedback. The assignment in week 3 was based on group work that needed everyone’s input. Here, the students contributed sometimes unevenly. Thanks to the different colors used in the editing process on Big Blue Button (BBB – similar to Google docs), I could identify the amount of contribution per student and grade accordingly. During the discussions, which we did synchronously through BBB video conferencing and Chat functions, students had the opportunity to talk to each other. Prepared PowerPoint presentations with questions got the discussion rolling. Problems arose from students not having headsets and trying to keep up by chat window with the oral discussion. One solution to this problem will be to require all students to have headsets as a course requirement.
The questions WHY and HOW the Holocaust could happen as well as how the different humanities disciplines approach the subject of the Holocaust, was the focus of weekly reflection and discussion assignments. After an initial individual reflection, students engaged in discussions with each other and the professor. The reading of the book “Neigbors” by the Polish sociologist Jan Gross and its critique by Polish historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz started students thinking of the reliability of printed sources and the importance of research methodology.
The multiple blog assignments showed that the students did not only reflect critically on the on the readings and films, they also referenced their peers’ reflections. The final project showed, for the most part, that students applied their newly gained abilities to their final projects.
Exposure to New Ideas
The course itself had as its main goal the exposure to new ideas, new approaches to the Holocaust. Topics like the Philosophy of Evil or studies on the differences between witnessing and testifying are usually not taught within our undergraduate curriculum. The students had a hard time reading selections of the two texts and creating questions for their fellow students. Some students did not participate at all in this (group) activity and received 0 points for it. However, most students cold show that they could apply new ideas in their final projects.
Students were encouraged to question the new ideas and approaches they were exposed to. The best example was the the reading of “Neighbors” and following critique. I could observe that from this point on, students were more careful in accepting sources at face value. In addition, provocative materials such as the video of a Holocaust survivor dancing in Auschwitz were challenging the notion of appropriateness and demanded critical investigation. In their final projects, students had to define their own approach to analysis.
Overall, the course went surprisingly well. I was expecting the whole time that some major crisis would occur, but everything went rather smoothly. I believe that the year-long training in OLI cohort and the review of the syllabus by multiple parties was a great help in preparing this course. Thanks to all of you.
I think that I achieved the goals and liberal arts values that we had set in the OLI meetings. The online delivery was well-suited for this topic as we were discussing 21st-century approaches to the Holocaust. Tools such as BBB and Popplet kept students and instructor connected despite the physical distance.
For the next time, I would make the following changes:
- Require the use of headsets by all students
- Set a time for synchronous discussions before the course starts. (Possibly investigate entry in the course catalog.)
- Find ways to have students participate in all assignments.
- Have students present their projects during synchronous discussions at the end of the course.