Thursday, September 2, 2010

Teaching week 1

I'm not sure how well I'll keep up with this, but I want to try to write each week about what I've taught, the problem areas, and the successes, since this is my first year teaching as a professor, and not as a grad student.

World History
Monday - mainly the day to introduce the course, explain the syllabus and the massive online component, and try to prep them for what we're going to expect from them.

I spent a little time asking them what they thought world history should cover, and when/where it should start. Thankfully, I have a good 10 students who seem willing to throw out ideas, so we had a wide variety of ideas of what we are supposed to cover. I was able to take what they said and try to explain briefly the idea of scale: "Big history" (usually focusing on astronomic/galactic scales); geological scale; civilizations, etc. It wasn't a long conversation, and I tend to flounder once in a while with my word choice, but I think it was a decent introduction.

Wednesday - The basic topic of readings this week was "theories of human evolution and the Paleolithic." I know very little about both, so I spent most of the last week trying to teach myself about these topics. The book did a decent job talking about the makeup of early human societies (hunter/gatherers), so I didn't want to lecture on that.

I decided that I needed a few questions to try to answer in the lecture:
1) What do scientists/archaeologists think was the course of human development?
2) How can we know anything about the Paleolithic?

So for the first 15 minutes or so, I tried to trace the most current theories on human evolution, emphasizing that these are theories, and not set-in-stone facts. I covered the most important stages, according to archaeologists, and tried to give them some comparisons of stature, diet, time period, and tools. Some students were quite willing to fill in some of the blanks for me, since I told them outright that I am most definitely not an expert in this era. They had some great things to add - though it's very hard to hear the kids in the back!

After that, I talked more in-depth about how we know anything, so I talked about the kinds of material evidence archaeologists use to study this era. Throughout, I tried to emphasize the uncertain nature of the evidence, the fact that our interpretations keep changing as we uncover new and more understandable evidence, and that these are primarily our best guesses. Much of what scientists think now about the Paleolithic is totally different than what they thought only 50 years ago. So I tried to explain that - in any era of history - we can only make our best guesses based on the evidence we have. I also wanted them to see that we don't always have any answers, so I came across an artifact found in Africa that we have no idea how to interpret. I explained that we have no clue what it might have been for! I really wanted them to grasp the fluid nature of historical interpretation. And, based on many of their responses to some discussion questions, many of them seemed to have picked up on that. They have questioned some of the interpretations in the text, which is awesome.

Finally, I came across a Nova series that nicely tied together much of what they had read about and I had lectured about, so I ended up showing around 20 minutes of the final episode. I thought it did a nice job of giving them visual representations of life in the Paleolithic era, as well as emphasizing the uncertain nature of much of the evidence, and the questions that we still have.

To improve upon: I know I need to improve on how to respond to students when they provide interesting if irrelevant information. I tend to not know exactly how to respond. I need to work on that. I also want to work on incorporating more questions (for the students) into my lectures. This class seems at least somewhat willing to answer me, so I need to remember to encourage that as the weeks go on.

Things I liked about this week: I was happy to find that, despite the size of the class, I can still lecture the way I am most comfortable. For Wednesday, I created a powerpoint mainly so I could have images of the various evidence and theories I was discussing, but used almost no text. I had maybe 10 note cards to remind me of very specific data - dates, sizes, where evidence was found by archaeologists, etc. - but I was able to primarily just talk about the material. And my technology worked. Yay!

His 200
This is my "Historians and the Study of History" class. Tuesday I talked about the basic format of the class, the assignments, etc., and had them play a little game to learn their names. I had each person give their name and a random fact, and then the person to their left had to repeat the names/facts of everyone who came before. At the end of the class, I could name all 18 students and their facts.

Thursday - Today our primary goal was to talk about what history is, what it means, and how we approach it (broadly). I assigned two small books to use for the first half of the term, and I really liked the way they both approached these issues. So I gave my students 7 or 8 study questions that we talked about today:
1) What exactly is history?
2) Is there a difference between "history" and the "past"?
3) What does it mean that history is a process?
4) What do you think about the idea that [one author] posed, saying that historians must use their imagination while interpreting the past?
5) Where is the line between "fiction" and "history?"
6) What is the purpose of writing/doing history?
7) What were the different philosophies of history (schools of thought/approaches) that [one author] laid out for us?
8) Why do you, in particular, want to study history? What do you want to get out of studying/interpreting the past?

I was really amazed at how post-modern their answers were for many of the questions. They seem to be totally comfortable - at least in theory - with the idea of imagination, blurring the lines of fiction and history, and the possibility that you can't ever really "know" the past. I think they'll have a much easier time of studying PoMo than I did at their age! Their answers covered a wide range, though - everything from believing that history = past to history = narrative and only our imposition of a story on the past. So it will be interesting to see how they deal with the material over the course of the term.

I enjoyed listening to them answer, and while I had to call on people sometimes (and with three exceptions, I had all of their names today, though I mixed up three of my male students' names), the majority of them seemed willing to respond. A few were especially willing to reply directly to another student, which is awesome for the second day of class.

To improve upon: I definitely need to work on making conversation flow a bit more easily, but hopefully that will come as I get to know the individual students and their modus operandi. I also need to figure out how to make the material last the entire 75 minutes of class. I got close today, but I'm not actually sure how I'll stretch it out for these first weeks, when we're talking mainly about methdology and not historiography.

What I liked about this week: I'm beginning to get a rapport with many of the students, and I think the fact that I'm trying so hard to get their names right is a step in the right direction. I also managed to talk fairly well about the different schools of thought. Funny how once you start talking, you realize that those 600 books you read for comps actually did help you. :-p

So that was my week. I won't write about tomorrow, because the entire class is going to be wasted on logistics (long story that I'm too tired to explain tonight).

Anyway, here's to a new start, new students, and a wonderful year!