History for eveyone

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So, it's been quiet here not because, like everyone else, I'm caught up in the first days of the new term. No, in fact, I don't teach till the week after Labor Day. It's been quiet just because not much has been going on (besides pedicures, and they provide only so much mileage for a blog post).

But since I do start teaching in about ten days, I decided that yeah, I should probably write a syllabus. Lest I seem cavalier, I have two sections of the same course, and it's a course I've taught a whole bunch of times, so I'm not that worried about coming up with the basic course schedule.

What's different this time around, however, is that I'm teaching this course as a general education, "Intro to History" kind of course. (First/second-year students at this school have to take x-number of "intro to something" courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, where x = a number I don't know. Presumably they do the same in the sciences, but that's a different academic division.) Previously, I've always taught this subject as a relatively upper-level course. I have, however, taught topics courses at the introductory level before, and this seems basically the same thing: a relatively focused topic intended to catch students' interest and show them that history can be fun, at the same time that it introduces students to what professional historians actually do. (This doesn't always look very much like what they learned in high school. Though I have to admit that wonderfully, sometimes it does - I have had a significant number of students who come to college with a pretty good grasp of what real history looks like, not just having had to learn dates and names. You still get the dates-and-names approach, though.)

So I've been thinking about what I want to focus on in this course, and trying very consciously to articulate to students the skills that historians need/use, and how each component of the course will develop those skills. For instance, in terms of writing, I say in the syllabus that there are three main skills necessary to write history: the abilities to analyze a primary source, to critique an argument (here I'm thinking mostly of secondary sources, but also primary sources, because critiquing the argument that a primary source makes isn't quite the same as analyzing the source as a piece of historical evidence), and to present one's own argument. So each of the three papers will tackle one of these skills - one paper will be an analysis of a primary source, one will ask them to critique a scholarly article, and one will ask them to present their own argument drawing on the primary and secondary sources.* (Obviously I provide more details/guidelines for each of these assignments, which I'll leave out here for the sake of space.) The main thing is that I want to be very explicit about the purpose of each of these assignments and how they relate to the overall goals of the course.

In writing these assignments, however, I realized how many things there are that I tend to assume students should know about writing that they don't - in the sense that I don't address these issues generally in class, just in individual comments in papers, which works okay but seems less than efficient. So I started writing up these guidelines too, which at this point include how and when to use direct quotations, and what kind of audience they should envision for their papers. I also plan to include the obligatory plagiarism stuff, and some nit-picky style-type things (like, don't use contractions!). Of course, a handout isn't ideal because while we can go over it in class, students (like most people) tend to zone out when being read to, and there's nothing requiring them to look at it when they actually sit down to write. (Though I should add that a lot of students actually do look at such things. For instance, once I started explicitly saying in my syllabus/assignments that students had to proofread their papers, the incidence of dumb typos and grammatical infelicities dropped noticeably. They didn't vanish, but I saw fewer things like, say, spelling "Charlemagne" three different ways throughout a paper.)

So, my purpose in writing this blogpost is twofold:

  • first (and this is directed to anyone, though especially those of you teaching history or historically-informed stuff): what do you think is the most important thing that students new to college don't know, that you need to tell them? This can be specific to the study of history, or general to the college experience - whichever. (Although if the latter, I'm really thinking about academics - certainly students learn a lot about being adults and dealing with people from going to college, but I'm not here to guide their personal social development.)
  • second (and this is again directed to anyone, though the writing stuff especially I suspect will draw out the comp people among you): what is the best way to get such things across to students effectively? I'm a fan of the old-fashioned handout, but am trying to think about how to present such things actively, so that students come to realize them through their own thought process, rather than me just telling them. For instance, I'm going to ask them to read an encyclopedia article and a scholarly article (or excerpts thereof) on the same topic and tell me what's different about the two, as a way to get them to think about NOT writing encyclopedia articles. I'm also considering bringing in a not-very-good student paper and a really good student paper and asking them what the differences between the two are, or at least to critique a poor student paper. (The advantage of being at a new school is that they can't know the authors of these papers, which is what has tended to stop me from doing this before!) (And this is assuming I can dig up an example of a bad paper from my hard drive - a did a big dump of a lot of stuff when I moved. Though I suspect if I needed an example of a poor student paper, someone out there might be able to provide one for me? ;-D)

And yes, I have taught first-year students before - although strangely, at Former College I really didn't teach them very often due to what I ended up scheduled to teach - and I do have pretty clear ideas/plans about what I want to do - I just thought it would be interested to see everyone else's ideas on the subject.

*One might also argue that there's a fourth skill: the ability to tell a story about what happened in the past. Myself, I'm not so big on this particular skill, partly because I'm not an especially narrative historian myself, but mostly because I think for students it tends to mean they write something that looks very much like an encyclopedia article, and that they tend to take "stories" at their face value and assume that they're true and accurate. So I don't want to emphasize this in their writing assignments. I do, however, tackle this issue in class; when we read a particular medieval chronicle describing the events under study, I often put them in small groups and ask them to come up with a narrative of what actually happened during the time described in the chronicle. The trick is, of course, that it's really really hard to come up with a clear narrative from this particular chronicle, as it usually is from primary sources - it's limited and presented from a very specific viewpoint, one that doesn't represent the events as a whole but only as experienced by one person, a person who has a very specific goal in writing, and moreover writes about forty years after the events described. Yeah, students love me  for this one.


 Student NameReview Date 
520 Administrator 23 Apr 2012 18:27:53
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