The spring semester is going to be weird. I have a half-time course release from directing my university’s teaching center, as well as another course release funded by a grant project, so I’m only teaching one course–and it’s the first part of our World History survey, “The Ancient World.” What this means is that, for the first time in my nearly twenty-year career, I will not be teaching any US history courses. For someone trained primarily as a US historian, this feels…well, weird. Of course, I’m still working on book projects in US history, and I’m giving several talks on US historical themes this semester, but to not be teaching at least one US history course will make for an unusual semester, I think.
It would seem that I’ve moved as far away from the history of the United States as one can possibly go; it’s a long way between the new (historically speaking) American republic and the first states of Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus River Valley. But as I’ve been putting this course together, I’ve been struck by how much I’m drawing on my experience teaching US history. In one sense, this isn’t surprising. After all, there are common themes that unite different subfields when we teach in our discipline: trying to instill within our students a sense of historical consciousness and perspective, or the habits of mind involved in analyzing and synthesizing different information, for example. In this sense, a survey course is a survey course is a survey course.
Yet this process has also been a reminder of how seemingly disparate periods of history inform each other in interesting and underappreciated ways. The last time I did extensive coursework myself in this period was as a sophomore and junior in college (my original plan was to be an ancient historian, but my misadventures in Latin necessitated a change of course). That means I’m coming back to stuff that’s vaguely familiar, but which I’m looking at through decidedly different lenses now. And that shapes, to an extent, how I think about approaching some of the course material with my students. My reading and research in eighteenth and nineteenth-century US political history gives me an understanding of major themes and the historical durability of classical Greco-Roman political culture, for example. Having taught contemporary US history means that preparing material on recent US diplomacy with Asia helps me see the connections between Confucian thought and recent cultural and political developments in China. Helping students in a US history course gain an appreciation for the complex identities and shifting historical terrain of what we call “the Middle East” informs the ways in which I think about helping students think about the region’s past great empires and its enduring history as “the cradle of civilization.”
Of course, there’s more to this course design process than ferreting out the connections between the ancient world and the United States from the eighteenth century to the present. I’m still working in an area way outside of my scholarly wheelhouse. But as Therese Huston points out in her excellent Teaching What You Don’t Know, teaching “on the edge of [our] expertise” has a number of advantages, not the least of which is the sense of intellectual curiosity and excitement that accompanies material we’re not so well-versed in. Moreover, Huston argues, “You will probably gain a better understanding of material as you teach it,” and do some developing pedagogically in the process. History is a rich and complex field, and I’m confident that working in unfamiliar territory this semester can make me a better teacher of history, and a better historian. I’ll miss teaching US history, but I’ll “return” to it next academic year with some more tools in my pedagogical toolbox and a renewed sense of perspective towards our field as a whole.
Now, back to the Assyrians….