This is the first blog entry of a dual blog. All the blogs I write will fall into one of two categories at this site. This entry is in the “Involve me, I learn” category, an introductory statement. This comes from a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” This is an idea that I have had for sometime (but, Ben is a lot more eloquent than I am). It is my belief that history is a subject that should be taught with one eye towards content and the other towards the skills and methods of the field. (The other category is much more of a catchall, called the “Historian’s Journal.” More on this to follow in the next blog entry.)
I want to dust off the past. Not by myself, mind you, because I know many others with similar ideas about history, but I want to put in my two cents. History is either, notoriously, one of the most painful and boring subjects; or, one of the most exciting and mind-expanding subjects! The difference is much less the content and much more the instructor. As a personality, I am an open and extroverted individual, which means I am exploratory, experimental and high energy. (It does not mean that I lack the ability to withdraw and ponder, nor that I have an aversion to solitude and quiet!) It does help me engage my students and establish a rapport, but I can hardly depend on that alone. No matter how much I bounce at the front of the classroom, they can still sleep through me in an 8 am class. I bring this up to point out that I do not believe a professor’s personality is the difference-maker for a student loving or hating a particular course. Everything I have read about the craft and art of teaching supports this claim. What invariably matters more are the following traits: dedication to one’s students, devotion to one’s field, interest in how people learn, commitment to continue learning and growing and, finally, a belief that one’s instruction should improve a student’s thinking and outlook. So, it is more specifically the instructor’s approach and philosophy that makes a class engaging or boring.
Memorizing content, merely packing in knowledge, is not an acceptable approach to the craft and field of history instruction. There are too many valuable skills and points of view that are lost in that approach. And, furthermore, you are often reducing the teacher’s role to “telling” as Ben would say, and thus the students seem likely to be “forgetting” what they are told. Truly teaching content requires teaching history in an active way. Most 101s are introductions to the mechanics of a field–English 101 includes reading literature and writing essays, Biology 101 includes dissecting a frog, Astronomy 101 includes a night sky viewing, Archaeology 101 includes a dig and Psychology 101 includes a designed and administered survey. History 101s are often content-heavy and mechanics-weak, while covering a time range that cannot possibly due any justice to the topics or cultures that are only grazed in such rapid-fire productions. In fairness, this is a trend that seems to be shifting to a more active style for students. For most students, the damage is done in high school history classes, of course, where I get the impression many teachers do not understand the mechanics of the field or are lulled into the textbook trap and teach in a boring, passionless fog dependent on distant, tertiary source material ( . . more about this in a later post!). It is a curious condition, given that other high school teachers in other fields still teach using labs and include the mechanics of their fields. Why is history different? Based on the surveys I have taken of my students at the community college where I teach, history is different in exactly the way I have described. It shouldn’t be. It doesn’t deserve to be. The students don’t deserve it, either!
So, this blog is devoted to teaching the mechanics of the field of history. More specifically, it is devoted to the way I teach the mechanics of the field of history, which is by no means the only way to do it! Very much in the spirit of Ben’s quote, I don’t want to tell my students what happened (despite their occasional pleas for me to do just that); I don’t want only to teach them so that they merely remember what happened; I do want to involve my students so that they learn! I want them to learn skills inherent to the field that I believe are vital to the health of our society, culture and democracy. In doing that, I believe they will learn a great deal of content and hopefully will be inspired to keep learning more on their own initiative!