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Teaching as Rejuvenation

19 February, 2007

Teaching as Rejuvenation

Today was a fantastic teaching day. It was such a good day that I thought I should write about it to counter some of the more usual whinges. I should admit that part of it was down to my not prepping as well as I should have for today, at least in some ways. Most of it, however, was because of some things I’d been dissatisfied with in terms of how the classes have been going. Because of a combination of bookstore supply problems and badly-timed snow days, I’ve not been as assiduous as I’d like in cracking down on students for not being prepared. Last Friday, though, none of the classes were well-attended (still snow and ice), and none of the students really seemed to be more than physically present. Since I’m very much not a chalk-and-talk teacher, even in a class of 25 — heck, even in a class of 50, to a certain degree — students who aren’t prepared are the kiss of death.

Last night, when I was reading up for today’s survey, I realized that I really needed to tie up a bunch of loose ends, some administrative and some content/context. Since that would necessitate moving from one topic (racism with regards to the Atlantic slave trade) to a very different one (the rise of the Ottoman Empire), I thought I’d shake things up with a quiz. The racism question was easy to deal with. It was a problem only because everybody knows that slavery in North America is all about race, right? Except that the primary sources the students read indicated that, although race was a factor, racism as they understand it might not have been. So after everyone asserted that slavery was all about racism, we went back over the documents and secondary readings we’d discussed the week before. The students brought up ideas of civilization and savagery, differentiations between different types of Africans made by Europeans and how that defined their treatment, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was a very complicated subject that couldn’t really be reduced to one simple explanation. There was disagreement, but I was so happy to see them accept that history and historical explanations can be messy and complex, and that’s okay.

The quiz was equally successful. I handed out ten terms from the reading due for the day. One student complained that they couldn’t be expected to remember all of that stuff, and it was really hard, if they did the reading a couple of days in advance. Cue the ‘comparison to foreign language’ talk. After all, when we take foreign languages, we have to learn vocabulary and grammar and remember them for longer than the next class, right? Well, you have to learn (to a certain extent) what’s in the textbook for all the classes … “but that’s foreign language!” “But it’s learning!” There were jokes, and students asked if they’d get points for good joke answers or answers that connected to Star Trek, but mostly, they looked pretty embarrassed. We went over the mostly empty quiz sheets, and I asked them to not make me quiz them again. Lesson learned? I think for a few of them. The I related why knowing such things was important for class overall, and the upcoming exam in particular, and we went over how to write an identification paragraph, using one of the terms I’d given them as an example.

From there, it was easy to get them to start reviewing what they were supposed to have read (and many did have notes with them) and relate it to things we’d been studying over the past couple of weeks. How did the rise of the Ottoman Empire fit into what else was going on in Europe and its expansion to the Americas? (etc., etc.) So basically, a good class with all of us a bit more focused.

The upper-level students have been dealing with a very different issue. Well, two. Not posting to our class blog is a big one, but it’s been more than that. It took me a long time to figure it out, and it’s something I really wanted to work on before we went any further. I like to do a lot of document analysis. These students are very good at reading primary sources and digesting them and synthesizing them. They excel at writing analyses that say, “these laws tell you about social values and gender relations in Frankish Society (or whatever).” Then they take those “about”s and relate them back to the secondary sources. They’ve been very resistant to starting cold with a primary source and coming up with a bare-bones, “this document tells us that the Franks differentiated between people of different legal and social status. For example …”

It took me a while to figure this out, but really, it’s a problem I think many of us still have. We aren’t willing to see ourselves as authorities, even when we should. I mean, I know I can do research and write. I have a piece of paper from a reputable university that says so. I have peers who are vastly better qualified who don’t think I’m a complete idiot (I think). And I catch myself getting caught up in secondary literature every time I start researching something. I mean, I know that I should be looking at the actual land transactions I’m working with before, during, and after I look at the secondary stuff on inheritance and property rights and how women exercised them (not that I’m working on anything related to that). I know that. But (partially because I have to carve out chunks of research time and it’s so hard to get to the library in the Big City) I still tend to get caught up in “what the experts say.” So for my 3rd- and 4th year students, it’s got to be much more difficult.

So, today, with apologies to the student who posted a beautifully synthesized essay for the other students to critique, we started from scratch on the same documents. Each student listed general themes for which a historian might use the documents as evidence. They came up with pretty much the same lists as I had, with some variation and a couple of things I hadn’t thought of. So, one set of legal cases can be used to talk about women and property and feudal obligations and taxes and revenue collection and the legal system and …? Yes! Then I put them into small groups, one theme per group, to pick out all the evidence pertinent to their theme and turn it into 2-4 paragraphs of “see? we’re trying to think like historians!” Had a great question right off the bat — two very similar cases separated by 40 years … “is that relevant?” “Yes, so how do you turn this thing that you’ve noticed, that over a 40-year span, the government is still dealing with rebels, into a statement using the evidence?” “Like this?” “Yes!” And then a different student piped in with, “wait … the punishments in the later case are harsher, that seems like it’s important enough to mention .. I wish we knew if this was typical!” Such conversations came up with most of the groups, and they seemed to be having fun! Plus, when I reminded them that they should be doing 2 hours of work outside class for every hour in class, and their reading load couldn’t take them more than three hours, they agreed that they really did need to be doing more work online.

Anyway, I’m not at all sure what the point of this is, except that having a day where you seem to get through makes the other days worthwhile, and does wonders for keeping my own head in the game. I feel like being productive again.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 February, 2007 12:27 am

    Interesting post, in part because it echoes a conversation D. and I had just this morning about her dissertation. We wound up agreeing that the best way forward with her diss. was to forget temporarily about other critics altogether, that she should just write the first draft of the damn dissertation “off the top of her head” (i.e., based on what she already knows and has read and has been thinking about for years) and then go back and add secondary sources to her draft.

  2. 20 February, 2007 12:58 am

    Once I started doing that, I found that I was able to get into a groove where I went back and forth as I worked. Maybe that will work, too? OH! I still have that (or maybe those) assignment for D, but I don’t have your address. Could you send it (snail addy, that is?)

  3. 20 February, 2007 4:00 am

    Thanks for posting this! It’s really useful to have such specific examples of successful teaching strategies and the problems they address. I find that it can be difficult to think of new ways to approach material or awkward dynamics in the classroom, and seeing how someone else deals with their own students’ issues is really helpful.And congratulations on a good day!

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