Teaching about teaching

Today was the last exam day. Now I have a pile of grading to do and next week I have some meetings and two graduation ceremonies to attend, but after that I will be all done with SSC until the fall. I am really looking forward to the summer. I have some writing that I want to work on and plenty of work around the house to do, but it will also be good to able to relax. For almost as long as I can remember, I have lived my life on the academic calendar, first as a student and now as a teacher. The rhythm of it feels natural to me and I feel sorry for people who have to go on working right through the summer. I wouldn’t want to live without my nice long summer vacation. It certainly is something of a luxury, but on the other hand, the nature of being an academic is that during the school year I never really stop working; even when I’m out of the classroom doing something else, my mind is always working over what I’m going to teach next week. Without the ability to take a nice long break, I don’t think I could keep it up.

Yesterday I had lunch with one of my history department colleagues. She’s an early modern historian, but she has been stuck teaching World History 1 (to 1500) and she wanted to talk about it with me. We had a very good conversation about teaching, but it was also a little unusual for me. She has been at SSC for a few years and was on the search committee for my hiring, so I have always seen her as my senior, but in this conversation she revealed a lot of her insecurities about teaching outside of her period and I tried hard to show her how I teach and why I do what I do. At a few times I realized that I was talking to her the way I talk to my students. It was a strange reversal, but it also made me realize how much my style of teaching has been shaped by the nature of ancient history.

If someone wants to study, say, interest rates in European economies 1850-1950, they will go to the government archives, the newspapers, the financial records, etc. They can study the topic by looking directly at the evidence for that topic. Even for more difficult or obscure topics, in the modern period there is usually a substantial corpus of direct evidence. If you want to study interest rates in the Roman republic, however, you need to look at private letters, stage comedies, inscriptions, coin hoards, courtroom speeches—all different kinds of indirect evidence. An important part of studying ancient history is figuring out how to get the information you need out of the evidence you have. It means being able to make connections between very different parts of human culture. That kind of thinking is very much behind how I teach world history: rather than trying to teach a lot of content, I try to teach my students how to work with a limited amount of information and ask the right questions to figure from that information how a certain society works.

I tried to explain that to my colleague and it was something of a new idea to her. It was very satisfying to be able to teach something to one of my fellow teachers.

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One Response to “Teaching about teaching”

  1. khj Says:

    Sounds like a great conversation.

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