Teaching College History

Initial struggles (and opportunities) before even stepping foot into the classroom

My early thoughts on teaching, what the experience itself would be like, focused predominately on me.  Would I be engaging, and would I know the material enough to both lecture and test on, and would I be able to emphasize why what I am teaching matters in a grander scheme.  After these initial questions, I began to think about the students I would be engaging.  Who are these students I might possibly have in my class, and would they be interested in my class and what I have to say.

Upon reading Tony Waters’ “Why Students Think There Are Two Kinds of American History,” as seen in The History Teacher journal (a professional journal for instructors of college-level history), I became aware of the distinction between teaching and learning.  Waters argues that in K-12, students are taught history, a history that reaffirms a national identity.  However, Water’s says that when these students graduate and attend freshmen level college history courses, they are challenged with having to critically think about the development of a national identity – a learning process.  There is this dualism between right and wrong history that takes shape in the minds of freshmen.

Struggles in Academia
Struggles in Academia

Upon reading Waters, I became sort of dumbfounded.  I was dumbfounded because I had not taken into consideration the background my would-be students might have.  I forgot what my K-12 experience was like beyond the friends I made.  This disconnect however presents an opportunity.  How might I go about shaping my classes in such a way that students learn versus are taught to?

Here, Patrick Rael’s “What Happened and Why? Helping Students Read and Write Like Historians,” also found in the same journal, is useful.  Where Waters’ text was a theoretical approach, Rael’s text is an application of techniques to address such issues that Waters and others have presented.  Rael puts forth a lists of questions teachers should have students ask themselves when reading.  This list, which includes “What is the historical problem?” and “What are the premises underlying the central question?”, are types of questions historians ask themselves when reading.

Freshmen do not have the skills to formulate these types of questions on their own.  Furthermore, by having a list of questions such as the ones provided by Rael, “students can apply the principles of good reading to their own writing.”  These same questions therefore also might serve as rubric for students to think about how they might phase their responses to the assigned reading(s), and ultimately develop a basic understanding of how and why history examined from a college perspective is different.

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