Teaching Tuesday: Thinking about My Fall Classes

It seems like a week doesn’t go by without some news on our fall semester classes. The moving target has discouraged me from getting down to brass tacks and specific course planning, but the overall trajectory seems clear: limits on the number of students in face-to-face meetings will require us to develop more hybrid instruction methods. 

This has gotten me to think a good bit about how to make my two classes work in the fall. My musings here are prompted in part by an email which informed me that my 40 person World History I class will meet in a room limited to 8 students. The class, fortunately, meets once a week from 2.5 hours in the evening. As a result, it’ll be possible to meet with small groups for about 20-25 minutes each week to communicate important instructions and to provide a chance for students to ask questions. 

The course itself — at last as far as I have it planned — is already a “flipped classroom” which means that student led learning is the order of the day. It also centers on group work which will make it easier to divide the class into groups who can fit into the limits on the classroom. The single block of time set aside for the class — 2.5 hours no less — also makes it easier to organize the face-to-face meetings. This is just the mechanics of teaching the class, however. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about the intersection of how I teach and what I teach. I suppose some of this is prompted by my having to prepare a new class — World History I — in which the vast majority of the material is outside my area of training. Some of this is also prompted by the most recent wave of protests against police brutality, the failures of our political system to cope adequately with the COVID virus and the changing social and economic landscape, and the intense feeling that higher education shackled by conventions that in some ways prevent us from thinking about our world in different ways. As someone who teaches history and ancient (Mediterranean, Classical, Christian) history at that, my own privilege, authority, and claims to “expertise” are very much part of what we teach and how we teach it. As the COVID situation has pushed higher education en masse to rethink how we teach, I wonder whether it’ll also encourage us to rethink WHAT we teach.

Here are three things, then, that I’m thinking over the past week or so about how and what I teach against the backdrop of COVIDs and the most recent wave of protests.

First, my students never tire of telling me that the goal of history to remind people of past mistakes so that they can avoid them in the future. Anyone who believes that is a fool, of course (but ironically, would have to know about the past to come to this conclusion).

The goal of history to make new futures possible and to disrupt any feeling of inevitability by creating a critical tension between the past and the present. This means that as historians our primary responsibility is to teach students to question any kind of conventional narrative and authority and read texts (of all kinds) as new ways to understand how our encounters with the past experiences of others give us both collective and individuals responsibilities in the present. This doesn’t mean we can somehow fix the past in the present or that careful reading of the past offers a tidy template for future actions, but that by making the effort to understand the past we become aware of our own responsibilities to ourselves and our communities .

Or something like that. 

All this is to say that we need to cultivate students’ willingness and ability to question authority. Whether this means rejecting textbooks and lectures or recognizing and celebrating their unwillingness to complete assignments to specification and on time. The big-picture goal of my classes is to create room for students to find, refine, and practice their voice.

This leads me to my second point.

Second, in a class shaped by the confusion and uncertainty of the COVID pandemic and our current political, economic, and social climate, I am taking a certain amont of encouragement in remembering that less is more when teaching. 

Part of me still clings to the idea that we have to make sure that students learn certain things. These things are often, but not always, “facts” and the hope is that if students understand certain facts that they will see the world in a different way. In other words, the facts prompt students to change how they think. This evokes what educational theorists from Paola Freire to almost ever contemporary SOTL thinker has called “the banking model of education” that insists that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking.

This way of thinking has also informed so much of what we do in the public humanities. We offer a beautiful gaggle of “facts” backed by our expertise and hope that they cause the world to come around to our way of thinking. In short, it’s lame. More than that, this “information deficient model” of teaching probably doesn’t work as 30 years of research on science communication have shown.  

What we need to do is to encourage our students to think differently first and that provides the foundation for the production of new forms of “factual” knowledge. The issue is, of course, that this is hard to do. It involves patience especially as students feel their way forward because as folks like Donna Zuckerberg have pointed out, the difference between being “woke” and taking the “red pill” is not one of method, both involve reading against the grain of a text and challenging traditional authority. The social context for these ways of thinking, however, are quite different with the “red pill” movement dominated my misogyny, racism, and conspiracy theories and individuals advocating for a more “woke” view of the present challenging narrative grounded in institutional racism, classism, and white, male elitism. 

At the same time, without encouraging students to develop critical tools in the relative safe-space of the classroom, the world becomes a place of competing facts rather than competing ideas for the future and the present. History with its abundance of narratives and authority offers a perfect training ground for students who want to tear down the institutions, experts, sources of authority, and — indeed facts — that create a world sadly lacking justice. If my class encourages students to see the past in this way, then I feel like I’ve done my job. 

Finally, I spent some time yesterday mulling over my COVID-inflected teaching reviews. In my introductory-level Western Civilization Class, several students appreciated the repetitive nature of the classroom routine. They commented on how it allowed them to plan for the class and it helped refine and reinforce key practices and ways of thinking.

As a student, I remember being frustrated by repetition in the classroom as a kind of step toward rote memorization. As a teacher, however, I’ve come to recognize repetition not as a step toward memorization, but as a way to encourage students to internalize certain critical practices. More than that, during the uncertain times of protest and pandemic, the rhythm of a routine because less oppressive and more an island of predictability in a world that is increasingly disrupted, abrupt, and seemingly random.

By stripping down my class to its barest essentials and then reinforcing these things through repetition, it may be that my class can give students a chance to develop skills that allow them to reimagine the past and the future, while at the same time giving the a chance to endure the present.

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