In over twenty years of teaching history at the college level, I learned to pursue six general goals. First, I convey sufficient information, organized as a narrative, so that students will remember an outline of the history being covered in the course and many of its details well after they leave college. Students generally find that I provide them with the narrative tools to help them remember how sequences of events fit together and thus prevent reducing chronology to the memorization of seemingly random events and meaningless dates. Secondly, I regularly refer to historical themes found in current events in presenting the narrative to convince students that history is neither boring nor irrelevant, but that the study of history produces knowledge that is usable in the present. Thirdly, I introduce students to the analytical categories of race, class and gender to help make sense of history and of their own world. I usually include discussions of these categories at appropriate moments within the narrative, in part to demonstrate that the students themselves possess the ability to overcome their own ideological views of the world and to see historical reality more clearly. Fourthly, I seek to introduce students to scholarly discussion within the historical field, so they will see the discipline of History as a process of inquiry rather than as a finite body of knowledge. Fifthly, I introduce them to the craft of historical research and take the time within class to introduce historical research methods using both traditional and online documents. Sixth and finally, I help them to write well. I particularly emphasize how to organize an historical argument and how to use evidence to make a point. My agenda in these six academic goals is to encourage students to think for themselves and to communicate what they think to others.
To facilitate learning and to achieve the goals listed above, I use written and oral assignments, as well as testing, that force students to invest their time and effort in their own education. While testing does not universally reveal the degree of knowledge students possess, it does force students to organize what they did learn so that they can communicate it to others. In addition to testing I normally assign written work that corresponds with the level of difficulty of the course.
In introductory courses, I usually assign a book review that requires students to summarize the main themes of their chosen book and to evaluate how well the book was received by at least three scholarly history journals. Since primary research is frequently beyond the resources of introductory students, I use this assignment to introduce them to secondary research sources and methods as well as to get them thinking about “historiography” as a conversation both in the present and across generations.
In upper level classes, I normally assign a research paper with specific “shared” parameters. For instance, previously in my “American South” class, students were expected to describe and explain the process of desegregation in their hometown school districts, thus making their work both original and personally relevant. In my Economic History and Industrial History courses, I usually require students to explore some aspect of the local economy or industry, usually at the county level. Upper level student are encouraged to place their papers on-line to share their research with the world. I believe that even undergraduate papers can contribute to our knowledge of the world. I frequently require students to participate in the teaching of the course. I set the topic and readings, but they prepare the pedagogy to present it to each other.
Finally, I expect to establish a relationship with every one of my students. Even when I taught a six course load, I made the effort to learn every student’s name by the end of the term. Taking roll and distributing graded assignments on a regular basis makes this possible. While time intensive, the strategy pays off with better grades as a result of students gaining a better understanding of what I desire of them, and what I will not tolerate. In the other direction, I learn their capabilities and interests and can direct them to projects in which they will more likely succeed. Ensuing from my efforts, students frequently take multiple courses from me, and many later request letters of recommendation because of the relations developed as part of the interactions during the courses, both in class and out.