Three New Things about Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom

This week began my Spring 2014 Scale-Up adventures in earnest. I introduced the class to the first of three units new for my modified Western Civilization I class. Whereas last time I taught this class, I spent the first four weeks discussing historical methods, presenting various kinds of sources, and introducing the students to relatively narrow content areas. This year, I’ve moved in the other direction and dedicated three of the first five classes to a broad survey of Western Civilization with one class devoted to Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. The last 10 weeks of the semester will involve the students writing more focused studies on various aspects of Greek, Roman, and Medieval civilization so these next three weeks are designed to set the stage both methodologically and in terms of content. Each of these three weeks has a specific exercise that will produce an essay. The three essays will represent a single grade that stands in for their midterm exam

The first of these three broad survey classes involves creating a timeline and essay dealing with some aspect of the Greek world. As we had just spent three weeks exploring how preindustrial societies were so very different from our own, I expected essays that dealt with Greece as a preindustrial society in some way. Floating madly from table to table, I was a bit surprised to see how many groups abandoned thinking about preindustrial societies as a phenomenon and decided to focus their essays on philosophy rather than more traditional political questions.

On the one hand, it is heartening to see students take their own directions and follow their own interests. On the other hand, it is quite strange to see student deviate from the larger thematic structure of the course which emphasized preindustrial societies. It does remind me that, despite my tendency to see our students as little materialists (i.e. “all about the Benjamins”), they retain a strong interest in the life of the mind and want to wrangle with abstraction more than get their hands dirty with the complexities of ancient politics or the economy.

The first time I taught the class, I started slowly and kept work that had to be produced outside of class to a minimum. Most of the outside of class work focused on reading. This year, however, I have set the class up so that class time is dedicated to conceptual and organization work which has to be executed fully outside of class time.

This has prompted more complaints about how the groups are functioning and has shown the logistical challenges of, say, ordering books or balancing individual expectations against the work of the group. The more work that has to take place outside of class time the more pressure there is for the group’s to function successfully.

For more on my Scale-Up adventures go here. 

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