This semester I teach the graduate historiography seminar in our Department's M.A. program. The class is a challenge in several ways. First, it's a large seminar with over 20 students in it. The students come from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of preparation -- some are "home grown" talent from our B.A. program, but most of them come from other programs across the country. The students' interests, as is typical for this kind of class, range from 20th century American history to the history of the Roman empire. Finally, their tolerance for abstraction, theorizing, and philosophizing varies as well. Some of the students are clearly prepared to wade into significant theoretical debates; other students prefer the relatively comfort of concrete forms and narrative.
The class meets for 3 hours on Thursday afternoon. For the past five weeks, I've tried to allow the class to find its own intellectual and social equilibrium by reserving the first half of class to open discussion about the readings for the week. I begin the class with an intentionally open-ended questions: "So, what's the deal with E.P. Thompson? Why is he significant?" So, far these open ended questions have tended to generate the kind of wide ranging discussions that one would expect from a class with such a diverse group of students.
My open-ended approach, however, has had some unintended (although not unexpected) side effects. First, the class has been dominated by a handful of the most vocal students who not only dominate the space of debate, but also, since the first part of the class is essentially open ended, establish the parameters of the discourse relatively quickly. This can be good, when they quickly seize upon particularly significant elements of the book or points of potentially fruitful discussion. On the other hand, this can be bad, when they struggle to find productive avenues of inquiry or stifle (sometimes by volume of words alone!) alternative approaches to the text.
The other challenge of this approach is that it puts pressure on me. For the first half of class, I have to allow the students to work through the texts on their own and resist the temptation to redirect discussion toward topics that resonate more closely with my reading of the text. During the second half of class, I try to redirect the discussion during the first half of class toward several salient aspects of the work or toward the relationship between the particular work to larger trends in contemporary historiography. I also ask the class to relate the particular approach under discussion for the day to their own research.
The upside of this more open-ended approach is that I have a chance to observe how students create their own social and political space within the first half of the seminar. It helps me to get to know the students better and understand how they (albeit as a group) engage sometimes challenging works. The downside, of course, is that the social space of the seminar is not necessarily "fair"; students with more confidence, more competitive instincts, or more sophisticated perspectives on the works tend to drown out students who are more reserved, less confident, or who struggled with the text. Some part of the class ends up frustrated each week and sometimes it is me when the seminar's discussion goes so strange direction or produces unpredictable or unproductive results. But other weeks, it's an education in itself as I get to sit back and watch engaged, passionate, and prepared minds struggle through the intricacies of the text.
More Teaching Thursday:
Teaching Thursday: Jennifer Ball's Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis and J. Ball)
Teaching Thursday: The Changing Meaning of the Large Lecture
Teaching Thursday: The Modern Graduate Student
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Teaching Thursday: Who Are My Students? (K. Kourelis)
Teaching Thursday: Another View on High Tech Teaching
Teaching Thursday: Transmedia Teaching
Teaching Thursday (K. Kourelis)