The summer is when I do most of the behind the scenes work on my courses for both fall and spring semesters. I've never been able to juggle the pressures of actually teaching a course with those of developing it, so I've tended to develop my courses in the summer and put them into practice in the fall.
This summer I am redeveloping two courses that are the foundations to my course rotation: History 240: The Historians Craft and History 101: Western Civilization I. The former is our required historiography/methodology class for all history majors and the latter is the standard survey of Western history from the beginnings of time to the Renaissance.
For today, I am going to talk a bit about my History 240 course. I am working on transforming it from a small, seminar style course focused on the very deliberate construction of a 10-15 pages term paper to a larger, lecture style course focused on developing a broader understanding of the history of the discipline of history and on specific research and writing skills. The reasons for this change are complex, but have nothing to do with enrollment pressures from the administration or new curriculum requirements. The decision to transform was completely in-house and has far more to do with how I understand the development of the history major on our campus.
Traditionally, I think, we have trained history majors to become careful researchers. Reading and writing exercises across the entire curriculum (with the possible exception of 100 level survey courses) have focused on the production of either analytical essays (like on tests), critical book reviews, and proper research papers -- and these three facets of the history degree find clear analogies with the three responsibilities of the practicing academic historian: teaching, writing book reviews, and writing longer articles and books based on original "primary source" research.
Yet, while these specific reading, writing, and analysis skills are valuable and transferable, here at the University of North Dakota most of our students will not go onto graduate school in history and fewer still will become practicing academic historians. In this way, the structure and expectations of the major does not clearly align with our student's professional goals. This is not to say that developing the skills of a professional historian and using them in the field of law, politics, sports broadcasting, or whatever will not be fulfilling or even rewarding in a practical sense.
Instead, I am trying to re-imagine, through revising one course, how to communicate the core values of a history degree without following long-standing practices designed primarily to cultivate the skills required for professional historians.
I've decided, more less unilaterally, that our methods course should emphasize three basic ideas:
1. Historical Awareness. Students should be aware that history is only one of a whole range of equally valid methods for understanding past events. They should be aware that history is a discipline with rules that developed through time in response to social, economic, political, and intellectual stimuli. Thus, history has no monopoly on "the truth" about the past, but offers a widely accepted model for creating a useful past. At its best history is capable of producing a sound foundation for diverse society and at its worse emerges a tool of a tyrannical majority which seeks to suppress rival understandings of the world.
2. Organized Research. Research, in any field, requires basic organizational skills. Back in the day, this involved index cards, legal pads, and binders; now, it involves specialized software, search engines, and databases. The key, to my mind, is to show the students how to use modern methods to organize and make more efficient their research. The discipline of history grew up alongside the emergence of archives (both as physical buildings and as a concept of grouped and organized information) and has always been fundamentally a discipline that does research in the archive (rather than in the laboratory or through contemplation or reflection). Thus, history is well-positioned as a discipline to encourage a kind of information literacy that is becoming more and more important as our access to information grows at an almost unfathomable rate.
3. Critical Reading. Historians read. I might even go so far to say that we read more than we write (although it doesn't feel that way most of the time!). At the same time, we are moving into a hyper-literate world (tied of course to the rapidly expanding global archive). The foundation of history as a discipline is the practice of peer review in which good, true, history emerges through a complex node individual works validated through scholarly consensus. That is to say, as professional historians, critical reading is the first step toward making arguments and collating and organizing material from the archive. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine a course on historical methodology that doesn't involve the evaluation of historical work. Traditionally, scholars associated the ability to read critically with the ability to produce historical analysis. Thus reading is tied to writing. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we can separate the critical evaluation of texts from the ability to produce those texts.
So, what is the fundamental motive for repositioning our historical methods course around these three goals? What I have tried to do is begin the process of articulating the historical method in a way that places at the center of a changing world and not just at the center of a university and tradition-bound disciplinary rules. In effect, I am trying to look outside the discipline in my effort to teach historical methodology and articulate more clearly how understanding the historians craft can make one a better member of contemporary society outside of the expectation that one needs to acquire the full-blown skill set at the hands of a practicing historian.