Last year, I was inspired through my Humanities Alliance mentorship with Dr. Karen Miller to finally move away from teaching with a textbook. I had used textbooks in my classes the previous few semesters, but never felt that it really aligned with my teaching philosophy or the interpretations of history that I wanted to encourage my students to consider. For the past two semesters, instead of using textbooks, I have compiled course packs for my students that consist of excerpts from books by historians. I assign a chapter or an excerpt of a chapter for each class and the majority of every class period is spent discussing that text. I use a number of different techniques in my classroom to try to make these texts interesting and accessible to students.
First, when I introduce the class on the first day and discuss the syllabus, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the readings. I talk about primary and secondary sources, and identify most of the readings that we will be doing as scholarly secondary sources. I explain that our class is not necessarily the intended audience for these texts, and they will most likely prove challenging. I discuss reading techniques. I tell students that I look up words all the time when I am reading, and encourage them to do the same. I tell them that they may have to read the texts more than once, and that I recommend doing so with a pen and taking notes. I also tell students that I am always available if they find themselves feeling particularly frustrated with the reading, and that I’m happy to meet with them to discuss it. Finally, I underscore that our class will be about interpreting these texts and I that I do not expect folks to understand them perfectly at the start of class. In each class we will work through them together, and, hopefully, end with a clearer understanding of their content than when we began.
I also try to provide students with tools and strategies that I find helpful when I engage with texts that I find difficult. These include guided reading questions. These questions make explicit the types of information that readers should be looking for in historical texts (topic, actors, time period, location, primary sources, questions that they had about the text, if they liked it). In each class one student presents answers to some of these questions for the class to get our conversation going. I also provide students with links to online textbooks in case they find themselves wanting more historical context or background. I also begin the class with a short discussion of historical context that I find to be particularly relevant for the reading.
From the introduction of historical context I move into the main discussion of the class. I begin this discussion by presenting students with the main arguments of the chapter, as I see them. We talk through these main arguments, and I ask if they identified other arguments in the text. I think assign each student or pairs of students one paragraphs from the text to focus on. I ask students to read (or reread) the paragraph, and then to take out a piece of paper and summarize the paragraph in their own words, and then write down why they think that paragraph is there. What is the author trying to accomplish in this paragraph? Does it illustrate one of the main arguments? Introduce some context? Present the argument of another scholar? I give students about 10 minutes to accomplish this, and then we begin a discussion. We move around the room from paragraph to paragraph, with each student getting an opportunity to share what they wrote down on their piece of paper about their paragraph. By the end of this process, we have moved through the text, seen all of the arguments unfold, raised questions, and considered whether we found this argument convincing or not.
I like this approach for a number of reasons. It models for students the way that historians approach history. This teaching structure facilitates a discussion of history as a series of debates and arguments to understand and deconstruct, and not as a set of facts to memorize. This pedagogical approach also allows my students and I to produce knowledge together as a class using the text as our jumping off point. It does not rely on me to bring all of the knowledge into the classroom, or on them to act as passive recipients of information presented by me. I also feel that this approach to understanding an argument-based text and deconstructing how academic arguments are made is applicable outside of history. I think this is a skill that we all learn through practice and I hope that through my class students become more familiar and confident in evaluating arguments in a number of disciplines.