Designing a Course on the Roots of the Modern World

Amid the general disruption, a university has hired me to teach my first fully online history course this autumn: an introductory-level undergraduate survey called Roots of the Modern World. This is a course I’ve taught once before, about three years ago, in a traditional face-to-face setting. I will be redesigning it mostly from scratch.

As usual, the opportunity to design a course is very exciting. But this course presents some special conceptual challenges.

Continue reading “Designing a Course on the Roots of the Modern World”

Designing an Honors Western Civ Course

vermeer-artofpainting

This fall, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a course in a university honors program. (I’ll leave the institution unspecified since I’m not technically an employee there yet.) It’s also the first time I will teach a western civilization course as such. I started the basic planning weeks ago, but now that my last spring courses are finished, I can focus on the task properly.

My new course is unusual. It is part of a “triple” of first-year honors courses: My students, as a cohort of about eighteen people, will take a literature course and a philosophy course concurrently with my history course in the autumn. They will do the same thing again in the spring. Thus, their first year in college is designed to take them on an interdisciplinary journey through the history of western culture.

I’m really excited about this opportunity for a lot of reasons—including my own background in a university honors program, which provided access to a far richer undergraduate liberal-arts education than I might have had otherwise. I’m also nervous for a lot of reasons, including the politically fraught nature of any project framed in terms of “western” culture—though I usually enjoy politically fraught teaching. (I’ll leave most of that discussion for another time.)

I will coordinate with my literary and philosophical counterparts in the coming weeks, trying to align our courses as much as we can. In the meantime, I have been carefully considering how my course is supposed to fit into a larger education at this university. This is a chance for a more systematic approach to course design than I often get to take. There are several layers of objectives to consider.

Academic Objectives

First, I’ve been told that the honors program specifies that my course should meet the following official university-level institutional learning objectives (ILOs), which, together with ten other objectives, are part of the framework of the undergraduate core curriculum:

  1. Understanding diverse perspectives. (autumn)
  2. Information literacy. (spring)

The first of these ILOs seems natural for a course that surveys many different societies over a long span of time. (Stating it as an objective for a survey course even risks banality.) The second ILO, however, implies a definite shift in focus—from appreciation to research, or from accepted historical knowledge to critical historical knowledge, or from a survey to a workshop format. When I see the two objectives together, I begin to tell myself a story about how my students’ skills should evolve during the academic year. And I see what specific role the university believes historical understanding should play in the development of skills that apply to many other domains of knowledge and living.

In purely practical terms, this sequence of objectives implies that I should expect my students to engage in more sophisticated research and communication projects in the spring than in the fall.

Historical Objectives

In addition, I’m told the history department lays out four specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) for every section of the autumn half of this course:

  1. Students will identify those significant events, persons, institutions, and processes, which have shaped ancient, medieval, and early-modern western history.
  2. Students will carefully and critically read, analyze, and discuss a variety of primary and secondary historical sources.
  3. Students will learn to think historically, asking questions of the past and developing research methodologies to answer them.
  4. Students will develop clear expository and analytical writing skills.

Initially, those four objectives suggest to me that this course should meet all the content-coverage goals (SLO 1) and all the basic conceptual goals (SLOs 2 and 3) of any introductory survey course, but should also develop the student’s own research and writing skills (SLOs 3 and 4) more than a typical survey course might. None of these objectives in isolation would be unusual in any undergraduate history course. But the combination—if taken seriously—seems ambitious for a first-year course. (Which, obviously, is the idea.)

The temptation will be strong to skimp on content coverage in order to meet the analytic and skills objectives. That would be consistent with my experience taking honors courses in college; my professors usually designed them less to provide discipline-specific information and more to teach transferable humanist habits of mind. But that might be inconsistent with the university-level ILO for the autumn: to develop students’ understanding of diverse perspectives. Diversity necessitates breadth of coverage.

Furthermore, this course, as I understand it, will replace a regular history course in the general education core for my students. That is, any failure in content coverage on my part is likely to be a permanent gap in my students’ basic undergraduate education. And that is a problem I take very seriously.

During my years of teaching, I have grown suspicious of the tendency to prioritize concepts over coverage—not because there’s any problem with transferable habits and skills but rather because it is far too easy for students to evade basic knowledge throughout their formal education, and because that kind of basic knowledge is fundamental for sound thinking. I want rigor of information as well as analysis.

Possible Informal Objectives

Meanwhile, my own informal goals for a western civ course—whether they should be stated explicitly or simply pursued as the semester unfolds—might include some of the following:

  1. Students will learn regional and global contexts for western history, including knowledge of other religious and political traditions that western societies have used creatively as sources and foils.
  2. Students will critically examine western civilization and the western intellectual tradition as evolving concepts that reflect various modern ethical and cultural commitments and various conceptions of community—and which often have been put to invidious polemical use.
  3. Students will learn to appreciate history as a process of both investigation and imagination, with the object of attaining better factual knowledge as well as better understanding, rather than as a body of existing or closed knowledge.
  4. Students will gain insight into several causal mechanisms by which the so-called western intellectual tradition has been transmitted across time and space. That is, students will learn to appreciate the roles played by environmental, social, and political forces in intellectual history.
  5. Students will become more comfortable taking intellectual risks, resisting the notion that a university education can be reduced to a set of grades or professional competencies.

Potential Challenges

Finally, as I plan the course, I also need to keep a few problems in mind from the start.

First, I foresee a difficulty in the chronological misalignment likely to happen when a history course is linked with parallel courses in literature and philosophy. My course, for example, may take weeks to reach Homer or Plato, which may be roughly where the other courses begin. I will want to present all my lessons with this in mind, understanding that my students may experience any history lesson as a flashback or preview for something else in the other two courses.

Second, given the potentially vast scope of the course, I expect to need to identify from the beginning a few overarching themes that can provide some unity to the content and lines of inquiry. In a world history course, these would include general themes like “circulation,” “exchange,” or “authority.” In a western civilization survey, they might include more specifically appropriate ideas like “citizenship” or “liberty.” However, specificity is dangerous. Any theme that the course implies is specific to western civilization is likely to become (and may inherently be) a teleological imposition that reduces “the West” to a specific set of contemporary ideas rather than a set of recurring questions. Then again, in any survey, thematic coherence always involves that sort of risk.

Third, on a practical personal level, I have been asked to teach other western civilization survey course at a community college in the fall. I will be developing both courses over the summer. At the community college, although I have wide latitude on assignments and scheduling, I am required to use a specific assigned textbook, which I would prefer not to adopt in the honors course—and obviously two courses will require substantially different assignments and grading criteria in any case. My commuting time will also be considerable, in addition to the time I will spend putting together new lectures. Thus, although these two western civ courses will be far from identical, I need to design both courses together to maximize the efficiency of my own work—so that I am effectively creating, let’s say, one and a half new courses rather than two. This may be a difficult problem to solve.

Despite these challenges, which may seem much more intimidating after the semester begins, I’m very excited and hopeful as this work begins.

______________

Image: Detail from Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Public domain. The woman in costume has often been identified as a representation of Clio, the muse of history.

We Need to Cover the Recent Past

TeachingUSHistory

This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

In 2014, the former interrogator Eric Fair asked young undergraduates at Lehigh University to recall what it had been like for them to learn about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. They gave him blank looks. To these students, who had been small children in 2004, a scandal that had been a landmark in Fair’s recent life (and a turning point in contemporary global politics) was mere history.

Not just history. History they had never been taught.

Those of us designing modern survey courses this spring can do our students a favor by making sure to cover things we still think of as current events—including material from the 1990s and 2000s and probably even the 2010s. More time has passed than we realize.

Continue reading “We Need to Cover the Recent Past”

Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

Continue reading “Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey”

Building a First-Year Writing Course

Ferns growing on a stone wall

This spring, I’m adding a new course to my repertoire. It’s a single-semester class called Composition. The advanced track of a first-year writing requirement, it focuses not on basic prose but on rhetoric, or “making effective contributions in writing to intellectual discussions, academically and in other cultural settings.”

In other words, this course will initiate new undergraduates into academic rationality.

This is exciting. No, that’s not strong enough. Planning this course is really, really fun.

Continue reading “Building a First-Year Writing Course”

First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week

Jill Lepore: "To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people. You'll be dead one day, too, so please play fair. ... Your research question hasn't been tattooed on your forehead. You can change it. ... A question isn't a fish, a very wise historian once said; it's a fishing license."
One of my presentation slides, featuring an excerpt from this handout. (The newspaper photo used in the background for informational purposes is blurred here out of concern for copyright.)

When I began teaching history, I would jump into the course narrative as early as possible. My key goal was to avoid boring the students. A secondary goal was to cover a full textbook chapter each week. So after syllabus-and-roster preliminaries, I would launch directly into a lecture that introduced, e.g., the peoples of North America prior to European contact–often in our very first class meeting.

The first time I taught a survey of premodern world history, however, I decided to try a different approach. Starting out in World History I, it seemed, my students needed less a flood of specific historical information than insight into anthropology, sociology, and historical reasoning in general. Also, my textbook and document reader were a couple of chapters short of the usual fifteen, so I needed to add material. Thus, almost on a whim, I inserted something new to the schedule: “Week 1: Prologue and Basic Concepts.” It introduced my students to the rudiments of historical research and writing.

I had been worried about boredom, but my students responded well. They seemed to find it interesting to talk about history as a process of investigation, to puzzle out strategies for telling truer and more creative stories about the past. I was lecturing, yes, but these were topics that lent themselves to an interactive sort of lecture; students could directly engage with these questions without much background knowledge at all.

Taking the time to discuss basic theory made for an excellent first week in the survey. I was also amazed to note that some students brought up concepts from the first week later in the course.

These days, I start all of my survey courses this way, even when it requires some fancy footwork later in the semester to make up the “lost” time. At first, this seemed a bit more awkward in U.S. history courses than in world history courses, but I think I’m over that now.

Here’s what I tried to cover or accomplish in all of my courses last week as my autumn semester started:
Continue reading “First Things First: Doing a Methods-and-Approaches Week”