Teaching Thursday: New Classes, New Methods, New Goals

Yesterday our department had a 3-hour meeting to discuss how we might adjust our curriculum now that our graduate program has been de-funded. The positive side of this is that we will have the ability to offer more classes at the undergraduate level, and this opens the door to developing a more innovative approach to how we teach. At the same time, we also have declining enrollments in our history major, which is more or less a national trend, and this combines with more stringent expectations on enrollments in individual courses, a changing landscape of “essential studies” requirements, a growing emphasis in “high impact practices” in our classroom, a recognition that a number of my colleagues will be retiring in the next 5 years, and a new school in our college (The School of Everything Everywhere Studies). 

It many ways it is an exciting time at the University of North Dakota, but it’s also a bit stressful and confusing time for the Department of History. There are some great opportunities to innovate, but also very real consequences if our innovation is less than successful. If our classes don’t enroll and they get cancelled, this could be read as a lack of demand and the consequences of this could be administrative and impact our resources and opportunities moving forward.  

While I recognize that these pressures are fairly common in academia, they impact me personally right now because I need to revitalize a few long dormant upper level classes. I’ve made it no secret that my preference is to teach big sweeping classes like Western Civilization or The Historians Craft. I like to innovate at scale and iterate in classes taught every semester rather than once every two or three years. It seems unlikely that I’ll have this luxury moving forward.

In fact, I’m going to have to dust off some classes that I last taught in the early 2000s like History of Greece and Roman History. When I taught these courses they were basically lecture and discussion and had a couple papers. They were scaled to work at 40-60 students. With our declining enrollments and the changing educational expectations, I will have to try to adapt these classes to a new educational environment with new methods and new learning goals. I literally have no idea how to do this. Part of my hopes that the department will develop their courses leaving mine to stand as “old school” experiences that evoke an earlier era.

I like to imagine that this earlier era emphasized that doing history was learning history. In other words, the humanities weren’t sensationalized, gamified, TedTalk-ed, revolutionary, or remixed to be made more palatable. The idea that history is craft (and the title of our historical methods course) emphasizes that history teaching is, at its very core, practical, vocational, and experiential. We don’t have to create some kind of student engagement experience to communicate what it is like to be a historian or to do history because students write history from the first paper in their first history class. Students don’t learn in a simulated environment (even the rhythm of the semester is more or less consistent with deadlines) like in more professional programs. Students don’t have internships or residencies because every class is an internship designed to produce historical scholarship that is substantively no different from what professional historians do.

That we struggle to see the work in the humanities classroom in the 21st century as experiential, active, and high impact, is the consequence of our growing immersion in hyperreality and our addiction to the spectacular. 

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