Teaching Outside the Wheelhouse

Classes start this week, probably a week or two later than most. Like Nora, I am thinking about teaching resolutions for the semester. Along with the first half of the US survey, I will be teaching a Western Civilization course covering the Ancient World through the Renaissance. A lot of us teach fields outside United States history, and I expect it will be continue to be more and more common for Americanists to teach classes with a more global edge. While I’ve taken a lot of coursework in non-US subjects, this will be my first time teaching college students outside my US wheelhouse.

I alternate between excitement over trying something new to panic over the time commitment of another prep. The truth is that we Americanists that teach survey have it easier than our comrades teaching an equivalent survey of East Asia, Europe, Latin America or basically anything else. As most non-Americanist scholars seem oh so willing to remind us, we only have to cover one country’s history for a time frame of a few centuries (and usually we get to break that up into two semesters). This week while planning out my syllabus for the Western Civ, I realized that I might not know how to cram a century of history into one lesson. Like others of this blog, I often have doubts about the merits of a survey, especially when coverage becomes an end in itself, rushing through subjects with the hope of getting to an end point like the Civil War before the semester ends.

Can teaching another subject help one become a better teacher of US history? I am trying to keep both the US and Western survey based around similar themes. The content may be radically different, but slavery, cities, and mobility are three themes that fit well whether one is discussing antebellum America or Periclean Athens. As a student I’ve found some of the historians who give me the biggest insights about slavery for the US are ones like Moses Finley who are marginally interested in American history at all. Hopefully this type of crosspollination can happen with teaching as well.

Already planning for the Western Civ survey has made realize how much I give certain sources the short shrift in my US course. For my Western Civ lectures I am incorporating as many images of art as possible. I’ve used political cartoons a lot in the US survey, but not much else in terms of visual art. I need to change that. The same goes for music. I plan to spend a good chunk of one lesson on the development of polyphony through the medieval period. There is no reason I couldn’t also play samples of music in the American survey. These are realizations that others will have had a long time ago; using visual culture is hardly a new concept in the teaching of United States history, but honestly it has taken planning for another survey to realize how much I favor certain types of sources and lessons in my teaching.

Am I wrong that more and more Americanists are teaching classes that aren’t US related? Has teaching something else changed the way you teach US history?

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