A Medievalist Visits the Americanist Teaching Neighborhood

One of my favorite scenes in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High is when Mr. Hand, the crotchety U.S. history teacher, berates his students for their recent exam performances. “Three weeks we’ve been talking about the Platt Amendment,” he growls. “What are you people? On dope?”

Alas, if your own students are likewise befuddled by the Platt material, I’m of little use. As a medievalist, and as someone who hasn’t taken an American history course since high school, you might wonder what on earth I could offer to a forum on teaching U.S. history. That’s understandable.

But that premise holds up only if we assume that teaching and learning issues are specific to our subfields. In addition to my pre-modern teaching duties, I’ve also run our teaching development program for eight years, where I work not only with historians, but with faculty in English, composition, mathematics, psychology, biology and pharmacy, among others. This experience has heavily emphasized to me how much we have in common in the realm of education, and how the walls separating our teaching fields are more self-imposed than real.

Let me offer an example. In a meeting with physical science faculty, we somehow stumbled into the area of curriculum progression. The scientists couldn’t understand how history students could take their courses out of chronological order, since historical ability is presumably based on knowledge of what came before. My response was that, although the specific content of our history classes differs, and although an awareness of earlier events certainly helps, it’s more the habits of mind that we seek to nurture. So, historical thinking skills undergird each course, no matter what the topic, and these skills are transferable. The scientists remained unconvinced, so I asked them: How many of you have the periodic table of elements memorized? Predictably, none of them did – but such trivia, they protested, didn’t really matter. Rather, it was an understanding of why the periodic table is arranged the way it is, and how it works, that’s of fundamental importance. In other words, a basic misperception stood in the way. But we actually faced the same overarching learning issues with our students, and we had in mind similar, more ambitious learning goals transcending basic content.

I think about some of the most useful texts my faculty group has used for discussion. Some of them, such as Ken Bain’s idiosyncratic but still useful What the Best College Teachers Do (2004), are written by (though not solely for) historians. But most are not. The science of learning is distilled for us laypeople in Why Don’t Students Like School? (2010), by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, and in How Learning Works (2010), the product of an interdisciplinary team. Myriad teaching insights and best practices can be found in Learner-Centered Teaching (2013, 2nd ed.) by Maryellen Weimer, a former speech communications professor. And a fascinating, if often alarming snapshot of the state of higher education is Academically Adrift (2011), by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Each of these (and many more could be added here – see for example Kevin Gannon’s Summer Reading: Teaching & Learning on this site) readily resonated with disparate faculty, who saw their own teaching problems and possibilities mirrored in the research of those outside their fields of expertise.

This is not to devalue pedagogical scholarship within history (the journal The History Teacher is an excellent resource in this regard) or the usefulness of colleagues who teach within the same subfields that we do. Moreover, there’s an objective reality to the selection of texts for a specific course, and perhaps even best-practices techniques for teaching topics like the Platt Amendment, matters for which Teaching United States History is optimally positioned. But we do ourselves a disservice when we self-select and isolate ourselves within communities of disciplinary similarity, believing that only those colleagues can relate to our pedagogical hurdles.

Here, I’m heartened by some of the American Historical Association’s recent teaching initiatives emphasizing the similarities between our subfields. The Tuning Project (which I joined in 2015) attempts the Sisyphean task of laying out learning objectives for the entire field of history. And assignment charrettes (which I helped facilitate in 2016 and 2017) brought together a wide array of historians at recent AHA conferences in Atlanta and Denver. In these endeavors, our subfield specialties are superseded by our common goals of instilling more profound understandings of the past in our students. This seems to be reflected in the growing number of teaching-related sessions at meetings of the AHA, the World History Association and even the Medieval Academy of America. Large umbrella meetings, such as The Teaching Professor annual conferences (for which I’m an advisory board member), push the common threads of college-level teaching to their logical extremes.

Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you that medievalists and Americanists can talk productively about teaching and learning – indeed, that there is added value in conversing with those outside of our subfields or even our discipline. With that in mind, I aim to speak to some common and fundamental instructional issues in my ensuing columns. Deep learning does not occur haphazardly; it must be carefully designed to happen, so I’ll begin by emphasizing the often overlooked importance of building a course not around content, but around well-defined learning goals. Next, I’ll discuss some inherent problems of reading historical texts, and offer some frameworks to help students understand them better. I’ll end by arguing that good history courses are difficult because they have to be difficult. If there are times when you disagree (or even agree!) with me, or if you’d like further elaboration on a point, I hope you’ll speak up or send me an email. And I promise not to show up to your house and test you on these issues like Mr. Hand did.

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