The beginning of a semester is usually when we have a chance to reflect on the big goals of a course. The end of the semester is taken up with grading and other last minute details. Often, we are too burned out by course deadlines to be thinking about how our course fits into a student’s life after the grades are submitted.
Still, imagine running into a former student ten years after you had them in a US survey. Let’s face it, chances are you would not remember the student’s name, but maybe the face would seem familiar. The student, on the other hand, might remember you. They will probably be the one who recognizes you and stops to say hello.
What would you hope they remember about the class? What takeaways from the class would make you happy to hear are still with them? Even the most hardworking student will forget most course material within a few months after a final is taken. The history class they took from you was one of something like 25-30 courses they took in college. Think about how much math, economics, chemistry, or a dozen other subjects you have forgotten over time. As a student’s historical knowledge slips out, what do you hope remains?
A few months ago, I asked what skills we wish a college student would enter a college history classroom with. I came up with three priorities: the ability to write a cogent argument, a good grounding in one historical period or country, and a basic curiosity about the past. I think these three things are also what I want a student to be better at when they leave the college classroom.
Each of my three priorities is problematic. I don’t think one class alone can make a student a great writer or a clear thinker. All a history instructor can do is help develop some skills and hope that other classes or opportunities will continue to stretch a student’s analytic ability.
Likewise, most content knowledge will disappear with time. Still, I think that it’s not crazy to hope that someone will remember a couple things about colonial history or the Civil War years after graduation. They will not remember the name Alexander Stephens or the Cornerstone Speech, but maybe they will remember how vital slavery was to the antebellum South, and why men like Stephens thought it was important enough to fight over.
Still, if I had to pick one thing for a student to have ten years after my class, it’s historical curiosity. There’s a pretty good chance that the history class that a student takes with us will be the last formal social studies instruction they will ever receive. While some students will become history majors, most won’t. The student will have had history instruction at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels before they take your class. Chances are that prior instruction will be a mix of good and bad, but we will be the ones who have the last chance to convince the student that there is something interesting about the past. It’s sad to think that a cruddy experience in a survey can unmake that many years of instruction.
It would be great if we knew that even when a student was not forced to learn about history, they had developed enough intrinsic interest to learn something about the past when the chance arose. Maybe we will get lucky and run into our students down the road, so we can find out if we succeeded or not.
What do you want your students to remember years after they turn in their final exam?