What I learned this year…

The academic year is wrapping up this week at the lovely University of North Dakota. I try to take a little bit of time before the onslaught of grading commences to think about my classes and take some notes on what worked and what didn’t. I also tend to think of new, overwhelming, and complicated projects this time of year. Maybe it’s the looming start of all-consuming archaeological fieldwork season that frees my brain from the pressures of ongoing projects and deadlines. Maybe I just start to feel reborn as springtime spreads across Grand Forks.

Whatever the reason, here are my thoughts:

1. Untextbook. I got thinking that I might want to write an “untextbook” for faculty who are teaching introductory level courses in a active learning type classroom. Instead of presenting a body of content, this textbook would present a plan for managing student engagement with methods of researching, interpretation, and writing history. The result of a course that used my untextbook would be, a textbook produced by the students and demonstrating a mastery of basic historical skills.

I’m envisioning a untextbook made of 15 modules that introduce basic historical thinking skills, a primary source, and a writing exercise the contributes to the larger textbook project. Most of my experience in doing this or preparing this kind of book comes from my time teaching Western Civilization in UND’s Scale-Up classroom. There’s a publisher vaguely interested in at least having a conversation about the book. More on this over the next year or so, I suspect.

2. Totalizing versus Writing in Registers. Today I teach my last graduate historiography course, and our reading over the last month or so has me thinking about how we approach the larger project of history. I’ve tended to maintain, at least in my imagining of the past, that events, people, trends, and objects existed essentially in a kind of universal empty space. Arranging these things in this empty space allowed historians to make connections, trace causality, and construct totalizing narratives.

My students have kept nudging me to think of time and events a bit differently, and to think about the past in registers that do not imply clear connections between past phenomena. At the same time, thinking about the past as discontinuous does help us imagine presents and futures that are not the inevitable conclusion of the dense totality of past events. We can create new presents and futures by looking for ways to undermine the inevitability of history.

3. Stability versus Revision. It seems to me that academic life often revolves around the tension between conservative practices – following well-trod paths, embracing conventional wisdom, and resisting change – and the drive to do things in a different way, to push the limits, and to reject old ways of thinking. This year, there have been a ton of changes across campus spurred mostly by budget contingencies, and faculty have quickly adopted a bunker mentality and dug in. This is understandable because of the changes will not improve the life of faculty at UND or the quality of the university or student experience. Most of the budget cuts will make UND weaker and education at UND worth less to our students.

At the same time, I can’t help being excited about this kind of change. Maybe I was getting complacent, maybe I’m too young to realize how good the “good old days” were, maybe my life isn’t impacted enough by the budget cuts which have ruined careers, terminate programs, and created a sense of largely-unproductive tension across campus.

That being said, these budget changes have provoked me to rethink how I teach my classes. Maybe I could be more efficient and offer a bit less without compromising too much of what my classes are about. Maybe I can even do things in my daily life that save some money for UND and mitigate the impact of future cuts. Maybe I can even, in some cases, do more, and embrace contingency and find energy in the opportunity to reimagine what we do and use the urgency to regain some independence from folks who generally lack a threatening stick and now have lost funding as compelling carrot.  

One Comment

  1. I like the untextbook idea. The textbook is a crutch in the survey class, that helps balance the early semester “we will do great things this year” against the mid-semester “I can’t do it, I just can’t do another creative prep.” Scary to think about taking my crutch away. Having modules would help tremendously. At least for me.


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