Organizing around Big Questions: Rethinking Learning Objectives in the History Classroom

I’ve long held fast to the idea of a multi-thematic course structure, in which the topics and readings all develop larger themes of the course. This, of course, is nothing new — my orals exams in graduate school largely had the effect of testing me on how I would construct courses around such themes. Textbooks highlight their thematic analysis. It’s how we are taught to think about teaching.

Yet for students, I often see their eyes glaze over as I detail the thematic content of each course contained in the learning objectives.

This semester, in my upper-level elective on the United States 1945-1968, I’ve instead structured the course and all content and readings around core questions and experiences. In a similar spirit as the recent post by Carly Mutterties, I am approaching learning objectives through questions.

The key experiences are the following:

  • Reconstructing historical events based on multiple, sometimes conflicting points of view
  • Evaluating the origins of current political parties
  • Reading and evaluating scholarly articles
  • Reading and evaluating a historical monograph
  • Reading, watching, and evaluating works of fiction as historical documents

These experiences connect with skills and core curricular goals that I aim to develop in the course. They should come out of the course being able to do these things, but also having pushed their abilities in these areas to a point where they feel challenged. As such, I assign new works in the field alongside classic documents. In this semester, they will be reading Nicole Hemmer’s Messengers of the Right as their monograph.

I do provide them also with the AHA’s Tuning Core, as part of the syllabus, so they have the structure and vocabulary to understand historical learning, but the experiences are tailored more specifically to the course itself.

Perhaps more importantly, for students at least, are the Core Questions. These six questions proceed somewhat chronologically with the course material, and other than some identifications on the midterm and final, are the questions addressed in all writing assignments. They are their midterm questions to be completed in class, and they are to be developed through the use of primary sources in their writing assignments. All material leads back to these questions; they structure in-class activities (except for the Reacting to the Past game that I play at the end of class regarding Chicago 1968, which tests their reading of sources and their ability to consider the direction of the themes regarding politics and protest in the course).

The core questions are:

  1. Were the 1950s a period of political and cultural consensus, or a period of extended conflict?
  2. Did products of the media and mass culture in the 1950s and 1960s (select examples) reflect an era of prosperity and general consensus, or contain evidence of growing dissent, the presence of inequality, and/or conflict?
  3. How did the civil rights movement challenge dominant patterns of post-World War II America, in politics and culture? How did it replicate certain patterns?
  4. How do you explain the successes and failures of the civil rights movement? What moments produced the most change, what leaders and what members of the movement were most influential? What were its failures?
  5. Who challenged the political and cultural status quo in the 1960s, and did they succeed? How would you categorize these challengers, and what methods and strategies did they use?
  6. How did this era transform American life? Consider politics, society, intellectual life, economics, foreign policy, and culture.

I structured the class this way with a certain intention: when they are asked about the content of the course and how to explain it, they will have several frameworks through which to construct an answer. By tying all assignments and main discussions, reading material, and assessments to these questions, it should become clear how there are multiple interpretations for each depending on the evidence consulted. At points during the semester I plan to have students put their answers to specific questions in conversation with one another, highlighting how different texts or readings lead to different answers, or how their assumptions or worldview shape those readings and analysis. Ultimately, the goal of the course is self-knowledge through rigorous study, as well as the creation of citizens of the world who can look critically at information and solve the problems of the future.

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