Active participation is important to enhance your understanding of the material and assist others in class in doing the same. This means several things, among them regular attendance and active interest in class as evidenced by your questions and your contributions to in-class discussion. In addition, there will be substantial electronic discussion, focussing around the assigned readings and specifically regarding the topics assigned for the short papers. By virtue of posting your comments as you are involved in the reading and relating it to material presented in class, you will demonstrate that you are actively thinking about the course material. Details about this may be found on the pages regarding the papers and regarding electronic discussion. You should be aware that it is easy for the instructor to keep track of levels of participation in electronic discussion, since the software does allow him to generate statistics, collect your comments, etc. That said, he will be interested less in quantity of postings than in quality of postings.
The instructor recognizes that not everyone is comfortable in expressing opinions in front of an "audience." This is one reason why the electronic discussion format has been added to this class, since often the "distance" provided by the computer is reassuring. Do remember though that in any discussion you are not necessarily expected to have "the right answer." Your contribution may be to raise further questions rather than provide answers. Historians focussing on the material we cover (remember, this means, among others, your instructor) love to disagree, and the sources they use may at best support a range of reasonable hypotheses. Many questions--including those you will be asked to write about in your papers and discuss--are open ended, and some source materials, especially on the first read, may be difficult to understand. What is important is your willingness to venture analysis and opinion and be open to responses that may support or question your position but in the process should help you to improve your understanding of the material.