Before the current semester began, I described my plan to assign small-group projects in Honors 121, an introductory history course. As I explained then, I hoped that this assignment would leverage the power of teaching as a way of learning. I also hoped it would deepen students’ investment in the course and would serve as a very basic introduction to library research. Moreover, I hoped the assignment would help students look beyond the course’s original framing as part of their honors program’s introduction to “the western tradition,” using it as a window into the history of the wider world.
We followed through on this plan. Now that the semester is winding down, it seems appropriate to describe what happened.
Last month, I described my updated plan for teaching an introductory undergraduate “not-a-western-civ course” called Honors 121. In that post, I mentioned my tentative plan to assign case study presentations as part of the semester’s work. “The objective of that assignment, beyond creating a chance for collaborative work,” I wrote, “is to get students themselves to expand our course beyond the usual boundaries of the west—while also helping them conceptualize history as an ongoing conversation among scholars.”
Now I’m further along in the planning process, so I thought I should describe the case study presentation assignment I’m devising.
This fall, I’m scheduled to teach Honors 121 again at La Salle University. More than two years ago, I described some of my planning process for that course. The outcome was excellent, if I say so myself. It may have been the most fun I’ve ever had teaching.
Now I’m in the late stages of revising my syllabus (PDF) for another attempt.
This time, one big thing has changed: The honors program is now explicitly trying to avoid thinking of Honors 121 as a western civilization course. What it is instead … is an interesting question.
When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.
When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.
Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?
I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.
Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.
Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)
I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.