Methods and Content

On Monday, I promised my students that I would make learning about footnotes fun. We’ll see if I can deliver.

This semester I’m teaching a section of our Historical Methods and Skills course, HST 201. The way that we teach methods is to have multiple 20-person sections each semester, in which students write a 15-20 page research paper. Each section is thematic (mine is reformers and radicals in American history), and because students are often coming in with no background on your theme, each class is also a mix between teaching content and teaching methods.

This was actually the first course I ever taught on my own, back when I was finishing up the dissertation and adjuncting at Michigan State, so it’s very fun to come back to the old syllabus and figure out what to do differently now that I have a few years of teaching under my belt. And yet, the syllabus still took me a long time to get sorted out, as I’m working hard to strike the correct balance between content and methods.

It’s tricky—especially since a lot of the students enrolled are not history majors. My section’s about half and half. Some of them, accordingly, need a lot of content. Others get really frustrated if there’s too much. On the methods side, too, there’s no consensus. Aside from the difficulty of making nitty gritty research methods fun, there are questions about the choice of final assignment in the first place. If they aren’t going to become historians, or even history majors, they might not really “need” to know how to write a 15-20 page history paper, or how to use footnotes instead of in-text citations. But, really. Who doesn’t want to know how to do a proper footnote?

In all seriousness, I like this as a way of teaching methods. While it’s frustrating to figure out where to strike the balance between content and methods, having the theme helps students who have not yet written longer research papers to narrow down their ideas from the very beginning of the semester. Today I lectured on reform and radicalism as American traditions emerging from the Revolutionary era as a way of setting up some background ideas, and next week we’ll talk about the range of antislavery activism and begin with primary source analysis worksheets in class.

Over the course of the semester, my posts will focus on this course and how the assignments are working. First up: they have a series of assignments thinking about primary and secondary sources. We’re using The Radical Reader, a great document collection, as one of the major texts for the course, and it will start us off on how to read primary sources. Next week, they’re reading the excerpts from Walker’s Appeal before class, and then we’ll do a primary source analysis together. In class, they will then read one of a selection of additional antislavery documents and fill out another worksheet. Their first paper will ask them to read several documents from the reader together in a sort of DBQ. Once those are in, we will move on to talking about secondary sources, and they will have another short paper where they will have to find secondary sources to help them better contextualize the primary sources they’d already been working with. We will see how this works.

I’ve got some great library visits planned, including visits to MSU’s amazing Radicalism Collection, and very high hopes for a good semester with what seems like an eager group of students. Hopefully by the end of the term, they will be excited about their research—armed with the knowledge of both the context for understanding the history of American reform and the tools for actually writing the papers.

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