It's All in the Timing
I'm having a teaching crisis. Last year, I wrote a sign and posted it in my office: "It's the students' job to keep up with me, not my job to wait for the students." And this semester, I seem to have forgotten. One of the things I've been trying to refine in my teaching over the past few years is teaching students to think like historians. If I have to pick out one thing that makes studying history relevant, I would say that it is the approach to primary sources that many of us are trained to use.*
The problem I'm running into is that this approach that I've been honing and tweaking over the last few years worked fine at Jesuit U, and at the CCs, and garners praise from colleagues, but it doesn't seem to be working at SLAC. I think part of this is that the approach depends on the students having done and internalized the background readings. Mine aren't. About 70% just can't handle the textbook (and it's World History -- inherently more confusing), which is currently the one written by a bunch of Princeton folk. It's a lumper's book -- really, it's an anthropologist's book, I think. But in many ways, it's better than the last book I used. But part is that they just don't get it. If there are words they don't understand, they don't look them up. They don't look at the maps when they are reading -- to them, they don't matter; they don't have anything to do with the text. They don't notice that an excerpt of a primary source in the text is related to another excerpt from the same source that I've asked them to read online, nor that the textbook actually discusses that source in detail. Ideally, they would read the book, I'd come in and either give more specific information about the civilizations we're supposed to be working on, and then get them to discuss relevant primary sources, picking them apart for evidence and then tying them back to the readings. Instead, I spend about three times more time than I should just asking them what I think of as warm-up questions -- who are some of the peoples you were supposed to have read about? Where were they located? um ... yeah.
And the primary source discussions ... we don't necessarily get to talk about what they tell us about the societies they come from, because some of the concepts -- polytheism, polygyny, slavery based on debt or conquest and not justified by some wacko racial theory -- are just totally unfamiliar. I am fully confident that I am teaching my students something. I'm just starting to worry that I am not teaching them enough to qualify for credit in a college-level history course. I think that one way to tackle this is to go back to chalk-and-talk. Come in and deliver well-organized lectures on important events and themes, and then test them on that content with objective questions AND essay questions that rely on internalizing that content and applying it to defend an argument on a specific historical question? But there's no active learning there. Still, it was good enough for survey classes in my day. And damn, if I were just coming in and lecturing, I would have all my prep done much more quickly and have some time to do research and write!
But then there are the students who are getting it -- and they don't want to come in, listen, and regurgitate creatively. So I end up using teaching methods and strategies geared toward the better students, at a pace that kills some of us, but is comfortable for the majority. And I'm honestly not sure who is better served -- only that doing this is killing me. It's combining all the hardest parts of teaching, with few of the rewards. And there's no sign that the students will get better anytime soon. So I'm left worrying about them and about me. Because it's burning me out, fast. And I'm pretty scared that, if I do this too long, I will fall behind in my research AND lose my ability to teach at the level that many other SLACs expect. What if teaching at this SLAC actually makes me less employable else where?
Next time ... upperclassmen who don't read.
*By many of us, I mean generally pre-modern people. Although this is not an absolute, I have not yet met a modern historian (including most Americanists) who approaches primary sources the way Classicists and Medievalists do. From what I've gathered in conversation, this seems to have something to do with the number of sources available. We are pretty much expected to be able to draw on a primary source canon, where no comparable canon exists for them.