Thoughts on Teaching History – 2/9/2012

We had a presentation today from one of the major publishers, and in the process, we had an impromptu conversation about teaching history as well.  It got me thinking about my own assumptions about teaching history, so I thought I needed to sit down and work out some things here.

What got me going was something that I have already encountered before and that really irks me, that history teachers at the college level can’t manage to cover the material that is in the assigned history course.  We split up our American history course at 1877, but I seem to be the only instructor that actually tries to cover the time period of the course.  As far as I can tell, the rest of the department usually gets to around 1850 in the first half of the course and to about 1950-60 in the second half.  To me, that is outrageous, but I seemed to come off as some sort of traditionalist fuddy-duddy (if that’s really a word) for raising the idea that we ought to teach the period that we are assigned to teach.  I cover the first half of American history to 1877 and get to 2001 in the second half of the course, and I just assumed that should be what everyone should be aiming for.  Instead, everyone else seemed to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that teaching American history that covers a certain period of time does not mean that you have to actually cover that period.  And the easy acceptance of that has me thinking if I’m somehow wrong in my own thinking.  I remember having surveys that didn’t complete the time period going all the way back to jr high/high school, when we ended in around 1850 and started up in 1877, meaning that I did not have anything on the Civil War or Reconstruction.  In fact, since I didn’t have to take the surveys, I didn’t actually take a course that covered that period until I took the actual Civil War and Reconstruction course at Rice.  To me and my fellow history majors, this always seemed like a big joke that a person couldn’t cover the finite ground of American history and bother to actually complete the course, and I made that a priority in my own teaching that I would always make sure that the students got the full coverage.  And this is not just because I feel that they should hear about everything, although that is something that I do believe, but that I think that if students are going to understand how history is relevant to their lives, you can’t just take a few bits here and there and leave out the rest and expect them to get a full picture of how the history of the country has affected how their own world is today.  Yet, I seem to come off as naive in my department for believing that actually covering the Civil War and Reconstruction period or the period after 1960 is somehow relevant and something that the students should have as part of their course sequence.  Some of them do argue that they cover all of it because they do assign all parts of the textbook and quiz them over the chapters that are not covered in class, but that seems to be a quite limited argument at best.

I was reminded that the current state standards for history don’t actually say anything about the subjects we are supposed to cover, but instead look at communication, social relations, and other aspects.  So, maybe I am the one that is backward.  If nobody but me believes that you should actually cover the material, then maybe I am the one who is wrong here.  So, as I said to start here, I’m trying to think about why it is that I believe in full coverage in the survey.  To me, it is just what you do, so it is hard for me to get my mind around not completing the course, so I am having quite a bit of trouble here.  I especially am troubled by the fact that when others don’t complete the course, and I then get them, I am referring to material that they are then unfamiliar with, as they didn’t get that coverage in another course.  But that is a fairly irrelevant argument really, as we all teach the class in different ways, so the emphases will always be different from one class to another.  There’s also the argument that if we are more concerned with teaching critical thinking, writing ability, and the like, then the actual specifics of the subject we teach is irrelevant.  But then, what am I doing teaching history at that point.  I’ll just teach a critical writing and thinking course with a few historical examples instead and call it a history class.  Is that where I’m supposed to be going?   If that’s the implication, that the actual history we study is irrelevant to the teaching process, then I have really been doing it wrong over the years.  When I say that I want to move beyond the lecture and flip my class, I am not talking about ditching the history all together, but that seemed to be the implication today, that you should just do your best to cover the material, but that the intention of turning the students into thinking people afterwards was more important than covering the material.  I don’t know if I’m characterizing what I heard incorrectly, but I am just troubled by the implications of it.

Here’s an illustration of what I find a problem.  This is from my syllabus, where I lay out the course objectives for my first half of American history course:

Course Objectives for HIST 1301

  1. Students will understand the following historical themes:
    1. colonization of the New World
    2. formation of the English colonies
    3. development of a unified colonial America
    4. creation of a revolutionary ideology
    5. development of a slave system
    6. creation of a national identity
    7. development and changes in religious, cultural, and social identity
    8. development of a divide between the North and South
    9. causes of the Civil War
    10. consequences of Reconstruction
  2. Students will understand the development of an American nation and how it is relevant to the world they live in today.
  3. Students will learn how to analyze historical evidence for validity, reliability, and bias.
  4. Students will understand how to use evidence to prove an argument.
  5. Students will understand the concept of historical significance, allowing them to put an event, idea, or person into historical context.
  6. Students will learn how to write coherent, well-thought-out material that presents their ideas and evidence in an organized manner.
  7. Students will be encouraged to question the standard assumptions of American history and use the history studied in this course to evaluate the place of the United States in the world today.

So, in what I understand about what I am trying to do in teaching American history would remain largely the same.  I’d just lose 9 and 10 from the first learning objective (and pieces of the others as well).  Is my course lesser because I don’t cover that material?  Am I doing my job if I don’t cover those parts?  I think so, personally, but, again, I seem to be in the minority.  This whole thing makes me very uncomfortable.  As one of the instructors in the room today said, there may be 17 chapters in the first half survey, but he only does 13 of them because he spends the first month going through the idea of “what is history” with the students, and that the time he has left over only allows him to get through Chapter 13 out of 17.  When I objected to this, I felt like I was belittled because I found it important that the instructors cover all 17 chapters.  But that’s really not it, it’s not that I think all 17 chapters are important, and I leave out a hell of a lot when I do teach a survey, as we all do.  But, when these are things that I have identified as fundamental to what the students should do in the course, then I can’t help but question whether I’m wrong or what.

I’ll have to come back to this when I have had more time to think about it, as I’m still a bit bewildered at the moment.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

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