I am constantly debating what kinds of sources to assign in my various courses, which ones to include, and, arguably more difficult, which ones to exclude. Yet this sometimes is one of the more enjoyable exercises in teaching. When making course syllabi, I tend to revisit books and articles that, as a graduate student, had such profound impacts on my intellectual maturation and understanding of my field. I strive to establish the intellectual foundations of my courses according to the ideas and premises inherent in the readings that have shaped my scholarly worldview.
I have found, though, that it is difficult to teach books in upper-division history courses. Undergraduates generally seem to resist the “great amount” of reading that we require. I assign four monographs in my Civil War Era course, none of which exceed 250 pages of text; one is fewer than 100 pages. I even supply reading questions that help students navigate a book’s argument and purpose. Our discussions have functioned relatively well, but they do not meet the academic standard that these books should stimulate.
I attribute the problem not to the books themselves, nor to the students. Instead, I think the issue resides in the lack of training undergraduates have received in approaching academic texts, which can undermine a fifty-minute discussion. Similar to the issue of argumentative writing, how much time can we be expected to dedicate in a topical history course to the mechanics of communication, skills that should have been learned in other venues at earlier times? As professors, this poses a difficult problem because our professional livelihood depends on argumentative writing and reading.
This semester I have thus concluded that we need to do two things. First, we need to balance our reading between monographs and articles, perhaps giving greater emphasis to the latter. It seems that articles, which are just as argumentative and historiographically viable as books, can, from a student’s perspective, be approached with greater ease and less intimidation. Perhaps class discussions would be more effective when the area of focus is considerably limited. And second, as much as it might pain us to do so, we should dedicate class time to the art of academic reading. I think students would appreciate this, mainly because we are asking them to read the same materials that we as professionals take for granted. For those interested, Caleb McDaniel, an assistant professor at Rice University, has written an excellent piece for undergraduates titled, “How to Read for History,” which is a superb resource for any course. http://wcm1.web.rice.edu/howtoread.html
It seems that such approaches would ultimately yield fruitful book discussions, which could be integrated later into a semester. For all I know, many of you may already employ both tactics. If so, kudos to you; I must be arriving late to these realizations. Using articles as building blocks to larger monographs, buttressed by professional instruction on academic reading, may well change our perceptions about whether our courses, in terms of reading and discussion, are succeeding.