Thoughts on Teaching – First Discussion – 9/3/2013
Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class. I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester. I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today. But, I digress from my main point today.
This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class. I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class. I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.
These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:
- what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
- what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
- why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
- why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
- what we can learn about the United States today from this era
I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. This is what I wrote on the board: The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence. Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.” I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like. I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information. In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.
The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies. I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion. This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still. I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much. Still, I think it went pretty well today.
As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion. The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall. They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point. Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of history. We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.
Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day. I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways. We shall see.