The Second (or Third) Time Around

The other day I was complaining to my dad about revising an essay I’ve been working on. It’s been one of those things that really shouldn’t take that long, but I have been having a hard time getting motivated and just doing the work. He laughed and reminded me of something James Michener had said about being a terrible writer but a great rewriter. Writing is rewriting, as we all know. I’m still working on that essay, but I’m also thinking about revising and teaching. This past year, I only had one new prep and taught two courses for the third time and another for the second. Next year I will again have a new prep, with my other three courses running for either the fourth or third times. What should we do as we revise courses to keep them fun and exciting for us and our students?

This is particularly on my mind because one of those classes (my Social Science Approaches to the American Past course) is getting a twist next year. For the first time, I’ll have an honors section. I’m thinking that this means I’ll be able to assign a bit more reading and more involved assignments, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to do some real revisions to my syllabus. Every time I’ve re-run a course, I’ve tweaked it of course. I’ve swapped a reading here, shifted an assignment there. When my women’s history cap dropped from fifty to thirty, I worked some more active discussion into the syllabus. The cap has gone back up to fifty for the fall, so I might have to do some more thinking about that in the coming months as I see what the actual enrollment looks like. But this time, I’m changing the topic and the title of the course in the hopes of coming to something familiar but new that will get me excited to be in this gen-ed classroom two semesters in a row.

This spring, I realized that the second half of the semester was my favorite. This is when we started talking about history, memory, and the connections between professional historians and the general public. I decided that next time around, I’ll be building the whole class around this unit. Now, the course will be titled “Memory and American History” and I’ll be revising the syllabus accordingly.

Some of what I already do will stay on the syllabus. We will still debate whether Thomas Nast deserved to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame as a way of thinking about how we ought to remember/commemorate (or not) difficult figures from American history. We will still watch the Jamestown documentary about Jane and think about why it was important to put a name and a face to that skull, and whether it changes our understanding of colonial America. But some things will be tweaked. For example, this time when we talk about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, we will be able to spend some time with the resources from Monticello about how the site has incorporated research on the relationship into their exhibits. And of course, the hardest part of revising: some things will be cut altogether. E.H. Carr’s discussion of facts has been the anchor of the course the past three times I’ve taught it, but I will be replacing that with something more directly relevant to memory.

It will be hard to make that cut (particularly before I’m sure of what the replacement will be), but if I know to be merciless when editing my own writing, I should probably be just as merciless when editing my own teaching. A few years ago, Ben wrote about thinking about our lectures in the same way that we think about our writing and giving introductions and conclusions into every class. This summer I’ll be thinking some more about approaching my syllabi in the ways that I approach my writing, cutting what hasn’t worked to make room for the rest to expand and improve.

If you have any suggestions for readings, resources, or activities, I’d love to hear them! How do you bring public history into the classroom? How do you approach revising your syllabi to new groups of students?

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