How would your life change if half of the people around you suddenly dropped dead?

The bubonic plague has forced people all over the world to answer this question, and the bacteria is still with us today. This class will explore how people react to crisis in their day-to-day life by looking at cultural artifacts (art, written sources, clothing, even medical theory) created during outbreaks of plague.

From the sixth-century medieval Mediterranean world to 19th century China, from Renaissance England to 20th century Hawaii, we'll see how cultural similarities and differences shape plague response, and how these responses shape interactions between different cultures. From primary sources to modern research and big-data analysis, we'll use a historian's toolbox to explore the limits of what we can understand about the Black Death's past.

Nota bene: This course takes advantage of participatory learning techniques. As such, readings in the syllabus after Sept 21 are subject to change as the instructional staff responds to your needs, requests and progress. Dates for assignments will remain the same so you can manage your schedule with your other classes.

Live Course Updates

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CURRENT TASK: Dec 12, 2016


Educational research study: The educational research in this class is governed by IRB Study #1512083892. If you change your mind about participating after you've signed a consent form, or would like to sign a consent form, please email Dr. Joshua Danish, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences in the School of Education. The consent form is available in our Canvas files,  1512083892 Consent Form.doc.

Learning Objectives

In this course, you will:

  • Expand your knowledge of the historical contexts in which plague appears
  • Use that knowledge to develop your own interpretive framework of plague as a historical phenomenon by applying historical thinking skills*:
    • Establishing the historical significance of a plague outbreak
    • Using primary source evidence to learn more about that plague outbreak
    • Identifying continuity and change between plague outbreaks
    • Analyzing cause and consequence in the context of plague-driven historical crisis and how people‚Äôs response to it shaped historical texts, art, material culture, science and medicine.
    • Taking historical perspectives by analyzing how your understanding of plague is different than past understanding of plague
    • Understanding the ethical dimension of historical interpretations as you encounter reactions to plague that range from violent and cruel to thoughtful and caring.
  • Enhance your argumentation and presentation skills--in oral, visual, and written form--through regular discussions and writing assignments focused on presenting the results of your historical thinking.

* Dimensions of historical thinking drawn from . We will focus on primary source evidence and perspective-taking but encounter each of the other 6 in the process.

Assignments and Grading

The assignment system in this course allows us to acknowledge the level of effort you invest in attempting new skills without requiring instant mastery of those new skills.

To take full advantage of this mastery assessment process, you should attend class, invest significant effort in your individual assignments and entry-ticket quizzes, participate in discussion, team projects and peer review, and demonstrate ongoing effort throughout the semester.

Entry ticket quizzes: 10 points. These 12 quizzes, taken in advance of class approximately once per week, test your reading comprehension regarding historically significant events, people, or concepts. You will then use that knowledge in class in service of making historical arguments, and then hand in your original answers along with the notes and revisions you made to your answers in class.

Team projects: 45 points (10, 15 and 20 points). Three team projects in the form of a poster or Web site of 1300-1500 words each. Your team will be guided through the process of writing a historical argument statement and supporting that statement with evidence from course readings. Each of the projects will be completed in class over the course of 4 class sessions.

Individual reflections: 30 points (5, 10 and 15 points). Three 750-word individual reflections give you the chance to asses your team's work from an individual perspective. Your response should focus on agreements, disagreements and revisions to your team's historical argumentation and presentation of evidence. You will also have an additional 200-250 words to document your contributions to the team project.

Participation: 15 points. Good participation requires ongoing, consistent, useful contribution to group and classroom activity and discussion. Draft participation grades will be given out after the first team project is submitted, with feedback on how you might improve your participation. Instructional staff will reward close reading, regular attendance, thoughtful participation in in-class activities, and consistently good reviews from team members and other peers.

  • This class does not distinguish excused from unexcused absence but we do understand absences are occasionally necessary. We automatically drop the lowest two of your 12 entry-ticket quizzes to accommodate these absences, and you do not need to provide documentation. However, your presence during in-class activities and group-project work is important and if you must be absent, you will need to negotiate these absences with the members of your group. The instructional staff will not provide makeup work or other options for absent students. Students with documented extended or chronic illnesses should contact the instructional staff immediately to make alternate arrangements.
  • Peer review is an important part of the mastery process. Reading and thoughtfully critiquing your peer's work will help you hone your historical thinking skills by exposing you to alternative view points. These peer-review discussions will also improve your ability to verbally communicate critiques of your peers analytical and writing skills. We will also ask for anonymous peer review of your team member's performance on team projects.

Team Project Description

This group project in the form of a poster or small Web site will make a historical argument in response to one or more of our course readings.

It should:

  • contain an interpretive statement of argument; that is, this statement requires you to provide an opinion about a historical phenomenon, but that opinion must be supported by evidence
  • contain evidence that supports your thesis statement
  • take the form of a poster or a small interactive Web site.
    • Groups may petition to write a group-edited paper with cause (e.g. a group entirely comprised of students who are planning grant-writing careers might choose this path). A team decision to petition must be unanimous.
  • be around 1300-1500 words
    • This word length is not random; rather, it reflects the number of words generally required to present and support an argument sufficiently in the format your group chooses, and it requires you to work as a group in the time allowed.
  • have a clear organizational structure, contain clear straightforward language and full sentences.

The project will be graded on

  • how well you demonstrate mastery of the course learning objectives via
    • the focus, clarity and plausibility of the thesis statement
    • effective selection, contextualization and explanation of evidence
    • thoughtful organization of the argumentative thought process
    • clarity of language
  • Graphic design will not be a factor in grading

Each of the projects will be completed in class over the course of 4 class sessions:

  • One 75-minute session to brainstorm an argument statement and an initial round of evidence.
  • Two subsequent 30-minute class sessions to refine the argument, add evidence and begin to lay out the project.
  • A final 75-minute class session for revision at the end of which you will hand in the project.

At each stage, your team will get additional feedback from peers and from instructional staff.

Individual Reflection Description

These reflections have two parts.

The first 650-750 words give you the chance to assess your team's project by comparing it to 2 other team projects. Your response should take the form of an argument ("My team project correctly assessed the historical significance of event Y but should have paid more attention to event Z") and should be supported by evidence from readings and primary sources.

Consider the following.

  • What did you disagree with? Were there elements of the project where you had a different interpretation of evidence or a different argument you would *like* to have made? How were yours different and why?
  • What was OK but worth extra revision? Were there elements of the argument where you would have used a different piece of evidence? More evidence? Would you have moved one piece of evidence or a sub argument in order to make the whole argument more organized?
  • What did you like? Were there elements of the argument where you were particularly happy with both the argument and the evidence?

An additional 200-250 words document the practical contributions you made to your team's project (which pieces you wrote, what evidence you provided from your notes, etc.). If a team member's contributions were particularly fantastic or a team member did not contribute at all, please note it here in no more than 50 words.

You will be graded on

  • How well you demonstrate master of the course learning objectives
  • The historical significance of your critiques of and agreements with your team project
  • How effectively your organizational structure supports your arguments.

The first two individual reflections will be completed out of class and will be due on Canvas 2 days after the group project is handed in. The last reflection will be due at the end of our final exam period and can be hand-written and submitted on paper or typed and submitted in Canvas. You should prepare a draft of your final reflection prior to arriving at the final exam.