Upper-Division Courses at a State University

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.

One thought on “Upper-Division Courses at a State University

  1. I work for a community college and was teaching the US History to 1865 course on ground this summer. I split the periods between lecture and discussion over readings. After two weeks where the students basically did not read anything including the text, I decided to have them write one page essays on the readings which we would then discuss. Amazingly they began to read the assignments and our class discussions became very conducive learning engagements.

    Dew’s book is outstanding. I used it as well. It is slim and to the point which makes it a good fit for the survey course. The conversation about the subject was interesting.

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