A Thing I’ve Learned About Teaching

One thing I’ve learned about teaching over the years is that in an undergraduate course, it’s usually a mistake to assign the best scholarly works that you otherwise rely on in your field.

There’s some exceptions. I teach an upper-level honors seminar in colonial African history where the point is to expose students to the historiography of a particular specialized field, and so there I do try to teach what I see as the canon in that field. Though even there I throw a lot of idiosyncratic choices in the mix like David Hecht and Maliqalim Simone’s Invisible Governance or Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Outside of such courses, however, it seems to me it’s usually a mistake to assign works that are the best in conventional scholarly terms. I’m not saying that as a criticism of such work, not at all. However, when you’re teaching, you need something that’s got some rough edges, some openings, something discussable. I think this is especially true in historical scholarship. A great work of scholarship assigned in a small discussion-oriented course is likely to just fall with a thud on the students. If it’s short, it may provide useful empirical information that the class can make use of later. Its usefulness as an object of discussion fades in direct proportion to its scholarly quality. A terrifically good book that is also a properly scholarly book may have a great deal which makes it discussable, but only among other scholars.

It takes a long time to sort out which books or articles may be scholarly, of high-quality, and yet also have some kind of adventuresome or speculative argument which readily engages undergraduates who have no long-term or dedicated interest in historiography or scholarly practice. These are not necessarily the same kinds of books and articles that are written by self-conscious popularizers: I would say that David McCullough’s 1776 is as undiscussable as a high-quality monograph on some aspect of the Revolutionary period. 1776 may be more readable, but there’s not that much to talk about within the text itself, just about the relationship between popularizing history and scholarly history as forms of writing.

This observation is one of the reasons that I’ve rarely used the same syllabus twice for the same course. I pretty much rip them up and start again. I actually have a hard time imagining using the same syllabus twice except in my aforementioned honors seminar, where stability from year to year is institutionally important.

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9 Responses to A Thing I’ve Learned About Teaching

  1. wow, this is a helpful to hear. I haven’t been teaching long, and have repeatedly smacked up against this particular wall. My hypotheses were (in this order): 1) I suck 2) this setting sucks 3) this reading sucks.

    None of them were entirely persuasive, the first because of my resilient inner narcissist; the second because I had plenty of opportunity to see that the settings (that is, institutions/students) were great at other times; the third — well, in a couple of instances I changed my opinion of a particular piece based on incredulous and/or baffled and/or listless student reactions. But usually I still thought — no, that’s a good article/essay/book chapter. One of the problems I’ve found is that not only are really top works fairly self-contained (as you indicated), but they are self-contained because they are densely, multiply referential in ways that are built into their style and approach, so that you must already be familiar with a broad literature to “get” them.

    All of that being said, I think this flips the other way when you step from “top notch” to “shazam!!!”. “Shazam!” pieces, the best of the best, have something for everybody.

    but wow, is it hard to design a course that is full of quality, accessible, smart and yet not too-smart work, dotted at intervals with “shazam!” pieces (which are rare in any field). I’m an anthropologist, btw.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I like that, shazam! readings. Some of them can indeed be scholarly, but it’s a very particular kind of reading, and often not what you’d consider to be blue-chip scholarship.

    I think this is one of the toughest things that most academics come up against early in their teaching career, and it’s often the thing that separates those who will adapt to teaching and enjoy it and those who will mop until they get back into a research university environment where teaching is minimized and they can largely center their day-to-day activities within the norms of scholarly debate.

    The first year you teach, you often try to use the material you’ve just been working with for the past five to seven years as a grad student, and most of it bombs to some degree or another. Some people just bull right past that, ignore it, and try to force the students to adapt to the professor rather than the other way around. If you’re in an institution where you’re also teaching grad students and you’re attending seminars, workshops, conference and so on with great regularity, then you’re getting enough confirmation about that material that you can survive that refusal to adapt. If you’re in a teaching-oriented, undergraduate-only institution, the refusal to adapt gets pretty painful at some point, because your main source of regular feedback about the materials you assign is students.

  3. slolernr says:

    you need something that’s got some rough edges, some openings, something discussable

    This goes double, by the way, if you’re writing a book for use in the classroom. One of the temptations of scholarly writing is to forestall critiques, plug leaks, and generally render airless the argument. Which of course is another way of saying, you’re writing specifically to kill discussion. It’s better — though hard, very hard, for a trained scholar to do — to run along with your argument and not mind the loose threads — you’ll be writing a more fertile book for enterprising minds.

    It might even be true that such a book does scholarly discourse a greater service, by opening avenues for argument rather than shutting them down. So let’s all write for the classroom, and do ourselves a favor in the bargain!

  4. Michael Cholbi says:

    I teach philosophy, and there’s little doubt the same approach works there as well. I rarely assign what I’d consider ‘the best work’ on a topic. The works that are best for students are those that are clear and provocative, not necessarily those that best exemplify the virtues philosophers value (a clear account of the problem(s) to be addressed, a solid grounding in previous scholarship, perspicuous argument, fair and sympathetic treatment of opposing positions). In fact, one of the ways to get yourself into the philosophical canon is to write something provocative that makes some mistakes that turn out to be obvious in retrospect. Philosophers still teach their great historical predecessors (Plato, Descartes, etc.) in part because they make “good mistakes,” mistakes that take some effort on the students’ part to ferret out and point the way to alternative positions.

  5. David Salmanson says:

    And yet there are some cases where this is clearly not the case. Environmental History is rife with “best works” that also work as discussable books, perhaps because the methodology is so different from what students expect history to be. In general though, synthetic work is usually not discussable while specific work tends to be more discussable. Particularly when you use two views of the same topic rather than one.

  6. “I’ve rarely used the same syllabus twice for the same course. I pretty much rip them up and start again.”

    That’s a lot of work, Tim; I admire your willingness to commit to it. By contrast, if I find something that works, I stick with it, and only fine tune around the edges. (Though I only have found such for a few of my regular classes; for most of those courses I’m expected to regularly teach, I’m still very much in flux, despite having taught for five years now.) Perhaps this is partly why I think a “canon” is so important when teaching the history of philosophy and political thought–because it allows me to lead my students down a path that is well-worn, with questions and provocations that will reliably catch the eye of many, if not most, attentive readers.

    Michael, Tim, could you give a few more specific examples of readings and sources you’ve recently assigned for particular courses, and why? That would be helpful to me in better understanding your point, and perhaps applying it to my field of political theory. I think I’m an fair-to-decent teacher, but I recognize a lot of myself in this thread, and it’s something I’d like to work on improving.

  7. ataraxite says:

    If I could tell one thing to my professors it would be this: Try to pretend that you don’t know all the stuff that you know. We have a lot of very smart profs at our school who have just forgotten what it was like to be unfamiliar with their particular discipline.

    Many of my professors picked readings that addressed issues that were important to them after however many years of graduate study. I think the problem with this is self-evident. Rather than assigning us your favorite book from grad school, just assign your favorite book from college, and use your accumulated smartness to tell us something interesting about it.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s certainly more and more what I try to do. Perhaps I don’t always succeed, and sometimes the course itself is the problem (for example, the History of Medicine in Africa class may simply have a premise at the bottom of it which points to some arcane debates about ethnomedicine, etcetera).

  9. Michael Cholbi says:

    Russell, I agree with your remarks about ‘the canon.’ And ataxarite is spot on that students need to be introduced to a discipline’s modes of inquiry. As I see it, the ‘shazamm’ readings should either provoke students to unlearn what they already know (I don’t mean learn something else in its place, but rather to make their existing claims to knowledge problematic) or encourage them to learn about something they know nothing about. Some examples:

    Plato (already mentioned): In political philosophy, I think good-hearted liberal (in the classic, not the contemporary political sense) students benefit from confronting a worked out political system with authoritarian tendencies. (Hobbes works well here also) Oftentimes students read the Republic, disagree with its conclusions, and can’t figure out why, thus generating cognitive dissonance and teachable moments.

    Paul Feyerabend (philosophy of science)

    Peter Singer (ethics of life and death, world hunger, etc.)

    Judith Thomson’s abortion article

    Michael Tooley on infanticide

    I realize these aren’t exactly way out of the mainstream, but again, I think their job is not necessarily to articulate the most reasonable or thoughtful position, but to stimulate students to see that there are problems where they might thought there weren’t.

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