As a teacher, I want my students to move beyond rote memorization of names, dates and anecdotes, and I want them to realize that history is more than a timeline or a simple story of cause and effect. At their best, historical narratives help us ask new questions about our society by showing us how the choices made in the past influence our present world, and my goal as a teacher is to help students ask those questions.
To do that, students must first learn to analyze what they read, hear and see. In my classes, students practice how to evaluate primary documents and secondary texts and then discuss how to use these different sources. They must also learn how to clearly communicate their conclusions through both the written and spoken word, and in the process, they become active participants in a learning community where they can safely explore their ideas and begin to engage one another in thoughtful, respectful ways. Finally, as students learn to read sources, evaluate historical narratives and communicate their ideas, they begin to see how their lives fit into history.
When they recognize the connections between our present world and past societies, they see how the decisions we make have been influenced by our past, affect our present and lead to our future. And when students realize that our present reality is the result of past choices rather than kismet, they can begin asking the questions that will lead them to imagine a better society. This goal affects how I structure my classes, the ways I allot class time and the assignments I make.
Lectures are a key component of my classes, particularly the survey courses. I use them to help students place their readings and discussions in context, and my lectures pan over the landscape of the class’s historical topic, periodically zooming in on particular events, people or places that serve as case studies to illuminate the larger narrative of the course. I have found that wonderful stories and interesting characters help students engage with their materials.
I use lectures to structure the semester. They also provide a chance for me to model for students how historians read primary documents. I integrate clips from oral history interviews, examples of material culture and excerpts from primary documents they have read for class into class times. Together, we discuss how to analyze and apply them.
Because I want to help them learn to read critically and think about information they receive, primary documents are the most essential part of the students’ reading assignments, regardless of the class level. Most of the documents are available either through the class website or online. I find online museum exhibits to be a wonderful resource, and I also make use of such websites as the Oral Histories of the American South where students can listen to interview excerpts related to the topics we are studying. Other cultural sources—including music, fiction, poetry, food, architecture and clothing—also help students understand the societies we discuss. Particularly in survey courses, I set aside time during lectures and class discussions to talk about how to read the sources.
I also include secondary texts in all my classes. For survey courses, these are usually textbook readings that help students see how their primary documents and the class lectures fit into the larger picture of American history. By comparing the primary sources with textbook readings, the students and I explore how historians work and the nature of memory. In upper division courses, students read a selection of scholarly essays and accessible monographs that introduce them to the historiographical conversation, demonstrate the historical process and show them effective ways of presenting historical arguments.
In addition to learning to read documents and to think critically, I want students to learn how to communicate their ideas to others. To foster those skills, I emphasize classroom discussion and out-of-class assignments. Students learn best and retain more information when they become part of a collaborative learning environment, but most students come to college expecting that professors will tell them what they need to know.
During the first class period we as a class set up the “ground rules” for good discussion. We talk about being respectful of each other, the importance of asking questions in addition to giving answers and ways to prepare for our conversations. I then type up these guidelines and post them on the class website so that students can refer to them throughout the semester.
I also know that discussions can be intimidating to many students, so I help them prepare by having them post questions on Blackboard before class. These posts should be thought-provoking questions based on that day’s reading. By completing the assignment, any student who does not feel comfortable speaking extemporaneously on a subject comes to class with a way to enter the conversation and having already considered some of the topics we may touch on during our discussion time.
Written forms of communication are as important as oral communication is. Regardless of which field a student enters, he or she must know how to write clearly and persuasively. For this reason, I include a variety of writing assignments in all of my classes regardless of the level. Students cannot compose coherent prose if they do not have basic writing skills, so I make short grammatical worksheets available (for an example, click here), discuss good writing practices in class, allow time for students to workshop each others’ papers and encourage students to visit the campus writing center.
I allot varying amounts of class time to learning these skills depending on the basic writing competency of the class. I also devote time during classroom discussions to evaluating how the authors we have read have composed their arguments. Students are then encouraged to remember these models of good historical writing when working on their own pieces.
It is important to me that students realize that historians practice their craft in a variety of venues. For the final research projects in each class, students may choose how to present their work. Whether they create a research paper, an online exhibit of artifacts with accompanying notes or a movie treatment that presents the events they studied, they learn how to analyze and synthesize historical information and communicate their ideas.
Technology plays an increasingly important role in students’ lives, and they must learn to use it effectively to be competitive in the marketplace. They also see technology as a way to network and communicate. Recognizing this, I have set up a teaching website and research blog where students can learn about my interests, communicate with me and see how a historian goes about her work. I will also establish websites for each class where they can communicate via discussion boards, post their assignments and develop their own wiki sites if, for instance, they chose to make an online exhibit for their final project. Finally, I integrate Internet resources into my teaching practices as discussed in previous sections.
Ultimately, I hope that students leave my classes having learned to assess information they are given, having gained the ability to communicate their ideas effectively and respectfully with others and having realized that history is not a series of preordained events but rather the effect of choices made by historical actors. As the Queen remarked to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’” If they have realized that they, too, are historical actors, they perhaps they can work to imagine a better future.