Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Class About What?

There is an old joke about two guys and a bear.

Actually there’s a lot of jokes that start with that setup, most of which I would not repeat on this site. My favorite of those has the punch line, “You don’t really come here to hunt, do you Bob?”

The short version of the one I’m referring to in the first paragraph has the two guys in a tent somewhere in the woods. One guy hears a noise and pokes his head out. “There’s an angry bear charging at us!” he cries. “What do we do?” The second guy starts to put his shoes on. “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!” says the first guy. “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the second guy replies. “I just have to outrun you.”

I’ve been thinking about this joke a great deal this week.

I am a historian. My field of specialty is the political culture of the early American republic – as it says in the little bio there to the left on this blog, I actually do know what this country was founded upon, as opposed to the politicians and talking heads who routinely make this claim, and I can tell you that nobody is running on that platform today and nobody would vote for them if they did. Things have changed.

In broader terms, my expertise runs to most of American history. I’ve taught both halves of the US survey class. I’ve taught upper level classes in colonial America, the US between WWI and WWII, and the atomic bomb. I’ve done a fair bit of reading and research into the history of the separation of church and state in this country, as well as the emergence of the right-wing movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, WWII naval history, the breakup of the Union in the antebellum period, and a host of other things that have caught my fancy at one time or another. It’s all interesting to me.

I also have a fairly extensive background in European history. I have a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on medieval Europe, and my American field of specialty is almost inextricably linked to the history of British political thought between 1550 and 1800, with a fair bit about the general history of the Enlightenment (particularly in France and Scotland) thrown in as well. I’m fascinated by 20th-century Europe’s descent into barbarism and the cultural forces that brought us Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. This is why I have been quite comfortable teaching Western Civ II for the last few years.

So when the kind folks at Not Quite So Far Away Campus asked me to teach a class on world history prior to 1500, I was a bit surprised.

“You do know that I have no background in this whatsoever?” I asked them.

“Yes,” they replied, “but we’ve seen your teaching evaluations and we know that you’ll do a good job if you put a class together. You can explain the material the way a professional historian does, and that is what a survey class is all about.”

When my Department Chair concurred – “We’ll give you a shot at it, go ahead,” he said – it meant that I was on.

And in truth the folks at Not So Far Away Campus are right. Content is content – you can pick up the facts about things from any reference book, and if that were all there was to teaching then everyone could do it themselves and skip college entirely. Knowing what to do with content, however – how to put the facts together to tell a coherent and historically accurate story and how to tell that story in a memorable way – that I’m already good at.

Plus, I don’t have to outrun the experts. I only have to outrun my students.

So I’ve spent much of the last month trying to wrap my head around how to organize this class. I’ve looked at a bunch of other people’s syllabi, which are conveniently posted on the web. I’ve gone through a number of textbooks to see how they are arranged. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got a workable structure at this point, one that ties together a great many different stories into a coherent whole (or three coherent wholes, one for each exam). It’s still somewhat mutable at this point, as I work on endpoints for the three stories and themes I want to push forward for those stories, but I’m feeling a bit more confident about it.

I’m keeping my shoes on, though.


Jack Lynch said...

Could be worse. Ann Matter used to have a newspaper clipping on her office door: "COURT RULES TEACHER WHO DOES NOT KNOW FRENCH CANNOT BE REQUIRED TO TEACH FRENCH."

David said...

I miss Ann. :)