Many of you may remember me from last year. I taught first-year seminars at Rice University, instructing 15 students per class. Such an intimate setting offered both rewards and challenges, many of the latter revolving around just how to teach such a small number of students. I learned much about myself and my teaching style in the process. Although I very much enjoyed those courses, I still yearned for larger courses in my direct field of study. And I now have that opportunity.
After years of stressing and worrying about the daunting academic job market, I have secured a wonderful position at a major state university. Teaching a 2-2 load is, of course, designed to facilitate personal research, but it also allows a lot of time to think deeply about how to teach a course. This semester, I am teaching an upper-division course–the American Civil War Era–and a graduate colloquium–nineteenth-century America.
I will be spending the next few months detailing my experiences primarily in the Civil War course, mainly because of the varied pedagogical scenarios involved. I am a lecturer by nature, which forms the basis of most class periods (after all, there are nearly 40 students enrolled in the course). I do recognize, though, that lecturing, just for the sake of lecturing, and “talking at students,” is often maligned, but I am determined to succeed in the lecturing model. My lectures are buttressed with daily primary source readings on which I dedicate 10-15 minutes per class period (in a 50-minute time slot) for open discussion. And, I am assigning four monographs. We will be dedicating a full class period to Charles Dew’s excellent Apostles of Disunion next week. Just in the first week and a half of class, I have found that my students–at least those who do the reading–have interesting insights into the material. Also, I seek to avoid simple regurgitation on tests, which I can’t stand and consider completely pointless. Thus, my exams (midterm and final) contain open-ended questions, asking the students to take information from the lectures, primary sources, and monographs to make an argumentative case for a position or belief. If professional history revolves around debate, discussion of ideas, and defensible positions, why cannot exams also function on the same premise? Obviously, I have not had a chance yet to see how this approach will materialize. Perhaps the midterm exam experience will be a blog post unto itself.
My overall purpose tonight is to introduce, very broadly, how I am structuring my course. My next post, on October 1, will be much more specific after I have learned the positive and negative lessons of my approach, whether my course objectives are being met, and the degree to which I think the students are learning. In every course I teach, my central goal is to hone students’ abilities to think critically. I know what I believe; I want to know what *they* believe, and I want to see how they defend their beliefs. I hope that my Civil War course will challenge my students to think critically about a crucial subject, and also to think about how to defend a position and present their ideas with confidence and substance. I look forward to sharing the surprises, successes, and frustrations of teaching an upper-division Civil War course.