Teaching Tuesday: The End of the Semester

Usually by the end of the spring semester I’m a bit frazzled and ready for the start of my summer reading and writing time. This semester, however, I managed to stay more or less on top of things which left me surprisingly relaxed and while tired, not particularly overwhelmed. 

It has also given me more time than usual to reflect on my semester and the two class that I taught: History 240: The Historians’ Crap and History 101: Western Civilization I (Online). Both versions of these venerable classes will be retired after this semester. In the case of History 240, it will be replaced with a “High Impact Practice” class that will involve the students spending substantially more time in UND’s Special Collections in the library. My online History 101 class should have been retired a few years ago, but for one reason or another kept getting rolled out. This time, however, really is the last time, and there is a kind of symmetry as I also shut down my large “Scale-Up” style 101 class which I last taught last fall.

The odd thing about teaching a class for the last time is that they invariably leave behind a sense of disappointment. I know that my classes can be better and when I teach a class each semester or even every year, I have some hope that I can revise and improve what I do in incremental ways. After the last class, however, there’s nothing left to fix. In hindsight, the class appears to be just a rambling, slewing, careening hulk of small changes duct-taped together with hope. 

The next time that I teach either class will be in Spring 2020. My Western Civilization class will be a 40 person, 1-day-a-week night class. I really liked the flipped lecture style of my Scale-Up version of the class and will probably look to do something in that format. It not only promoted a very high degree of student engagement, but also was fun. As for the focus of the class, however, I’ve started to think about asking the students to engage with the topic of “Western Civilization” in a more critical way. Too much of my class leaves implied the continuity between our “Western” world and Classical antiquity. This approach to understanding the roots of the contemporary world not only is complicit in historical colonialism and imperialism and racism, but also the startling rise in the so-called “alt right” in the 21st century (here’s a nice primer on the historical development of the term). The problematic associations with the concept, in fact, threaten to unmoor the entire project of the humanities and require some remediation even if it’s just framing the conventional narrative of Western Civilization as a space for critical engagement rather than a fixed body of knowledge. 

The way that I’ve imagined my History 240 class likewise calls for a bit of revision. Currently I divide the class into two sections. The first half is a 7 week course on historiography from Homer to the present; the second half is a practical crash course on historical research that culminates in a prospectus. In the new version of this class the historiography section is compressed to a four week module. As a result, I need to rethinking the priorities of this section of the class. Is it really vital to link modern historical writing to Herodotus and Thucydides? How do I balance global historical writing with (North) American traditions? If I have only 8 classes and readings for students at the 200 level (that is lower-mid-level students) what should I make sure that every student reads?

One of the more intriguing challenges associated with revising these classes will be the curious new rigidity imposed on our contracts at the University of North Dakota. For various reasons (that seem to have nothing to do with faculty work and everything to do with bean counting), each class on our contract can only count for 10% of our total contract time. That means, if we assume a 50 hour work week, that each class can count for no more than 5 hours per week or 90 hours per semester. When classes are in session, each class runs for 2.5 hours and meets 16 times, so that accounts for approximately 40 hours of contract time. If we factor in 30 minutes of office hours per class over 17 weeks, that’s another 8.5 hours. If we assume another hour per week or so grading over the course of the semester, that’s 17 more hours, and it brings our total hours per class to 68.5. That leaves 21.5 hours to prep the new course or at our 50 hour week, just a little over 2 days. This seriously limits how creative I can.

It goes without saying that I’ll violate the terms of my contract by working more than 10% of my time on each of these two classes.  

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