Throwback Teaching Tuesday

I still get excited about the first day of a new academic year or a new semester. I have a pocketful of new pens, some new ideas for my classes, and the naive optimism that this semester, it’ll all be different. Sometimes I even feel like a baseball player who knows that small changes in my swing, my stance, my head position or follow through is the difference between batting .300 and hanging below the Mendoza line

What makes this all the more interesting for me is that I’m probably teaching my big History 101: Western Civilization I class for the last time in the Scale-Up classroom. I’ve been blogging about this for a few years now and you can follow the development of this class here. I have a half-baked article that’s been rejected a few times that I still have an itch to send out somewhere, and maybe the end of this semester and the final opportunity to teach this iteration of the course marks as good a time as any to refine my thinking, revise this article, and send it out again.

I’m also teaching History 240: The Historians’ Craft which is our required mid-level course for history majors. This is course that I last taught in 2014 and I’m dusting off my 5 year old version of the class to fill in for a colleague on leave. I’ll be interested to see how much I still can engage the course and how much I end up changing it on the fly. 

Finally, I am working with a small group of graduate students to put together a course that I’ll teach in the spring on the history of the latest round of budget cuts at the university. We have collected bibliography and primary sources over the summer and plan to produce a little source reader for the course in the spring with thoughtful introductions that locate various documents in the history of higher education and the history of UND. 

So despite teaching a couple retread and a practically minded class, I do have a few casual teaching goals for the next three or four months that I’ll try to track here on the ole blog as much to keep myself honest as to keep my rapidly diminishing audience engaged in my carrying on.

1. Content and Engagement. I started teaching in the Scale-Up classroom largely because I struggled to get students engaged in my survey-level History 101 class. Now, I have student engagement in spades, but I realize that I need to continually step up my game in delivering meaningful content.

Over the last five years, I’ve focused on the role of argument building in the historical discourse and suggesting that this a “signature pedagogy” for history and a genuine threshold concept for students. The goal of the class then is to get students to marshal historical evidence and deploy it in defense of a historical thesis. And to do this over and over again until they start to recognize that the strength of a historical argument rests in the tension between the evidence and the thesis. This also fits into the curricular compromise on teaching writing present at some many larger state universities. While all courses in the humanities have the responsibility to teach reading and writing skills, many of them are too large to teach them comprehensively (from style, grammar, and tone to content, argument, and structure). Large classes can, however, teach certain aspects of good writing, particularly those elements that involve the organization of complex bit of information to support an argument, but have to overlook things like the fine points of style that require constant, incremental remediation and refinement.

The challenge is, of course, creating opportunities for concepts and practices to be reinforced without making the class repetitive. With engagement being high, I feel like I have a bit more flexibility in how many times I repeat a basic exercise (i.e. like producing an outline to support a solid thesis statement), but I’d also like to change our weekly routine a bit. I am not terribly optimistic that I’ll find the balance between repetition and familiarity and tedium, but I’ll certainly try. 

2. Rapport. Leading into my small History 240 class (capped at 20 right now), I have thought more and more about the need to build rapport with our majors especially in light of recent studies that demonstrate retention and success at the university level depends in significant ways on personal connections between faculty and students. This, predictably, has led to numerous efforts by administrators to mandate personal interaction between students and faculty and to balance the needs maintaining a kind of professional standing around students, as well as allowing them to feel comfortable enough to build rapport.

With the enrollment in my History 240 class capped at 20, there are few structural barriers to engaging students on an individual level, but it involve breaking through both an aspect of professional distance between faculty and students and the typical reticence common to our students here on the Northern Plains. The class tends to be difficult with aspects of rigorous lecture-and-reading based coursework and aspects of independent research. That can, in the best of circumstances, invite a collaborative spirit (i.e. we’re all in this together) and at worst breed resentment and disfunction. And the more I do to self-consciously build rapport, the less likely it will happen. Students are pretty sensitive to any effort to promote a particular “college experience ™.”  

3. The End of the Line. Both History 240 and History 101 are at the very end of their productive lives as courses. I will almost certainly keep teaching these courses from time to time, I will do them different. For History 101, I’m thinking of offering it to smaller classes (capped at 40 or 50 instead of 150), shifting it from an emphasis on method back toward an emphasis on certain kinds of content, and perhaps trying to offer multiple sections each semester with significant differences between the classes.

For History 240, I’m not sure what my plan here is. I suspect that I’ll teach it from time to time, but don’t, at present, have a plan for revising the class.

All this is to say that I need to find a way to keep some momentum down the stretch and glean from these classes things that I can apply in future courses. I’ll journal it as I have thoughts here on the blog.

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