Thursday, February 7, 2013

James Merrell on Teaching

I imagine that many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know the name James Merrell.  He is the author of The Indians' New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal and Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier.  Both of these books won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for American History.

Over the years I have taught Merrell's essay, "The Indian's New World" to hundreds of undergraduates in my United States Survey course.  It is the only secondary source I use in this course, largely because it captures the Native American--European encounter better than anything I have ever read.

What most impressed me about Merrell's work is the fact that he has spent most of his career at a liberal arts college (Vassar College)--the kind of place where teaching is often more important than scholarly production.

Over at The Junto, Rachel Hermann (one of his former students) has interviewed Merrell about teaching history.  Here is a taste of that interview:

RBH: What parts of teaching do you still find difficult? 

JHM: Difficult? That’s easy (as it were): leading discussions. It’s curious, because most of my courses are all discussion, all the time (the others are divided evenly between lecture and discussion), so you’d think I’d have figured it out by now. That said, not having it figured out, still finding it a challenge, is among the things that still make teaching so rewarding.

The reasons running a discussion is hard are many, but a lot of it has to do with the different character of each class, each semester. The personalities, the chemistry, the mix of majors, the number of people in their first History class vs. those in their tenth—it all adds up to a damnably, wonderfully unpredictable (mis)adventure. A reading that soared one year will fall with a resounding thud the next. A question about a reading that sparked a conversational conflagration the last time I used it gutters out this time. Who knows why? But, as I say, it keeps things interesting.

P.S. Some years ago a Vassar colleague gave me a great guide to this dimension of teaching called “The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start.” I review it before every semester, and often during the term as well. 

RBH: How have you balanced teaching with research, and is this balancing act something that’s changed over time? How do you keep up with the literature in Native American history and early America? 

JHM: “Balancing act” is indeed apt. It is something of an act, and the prospect of losing one’s balance is always there. While that act and that balance have certainly changed over time—my daily and seasonal rounds when my kids were small bear little resemblance to those rounds B.C. (Before Children) or now that my wife and I occupy an empty nest—I can’t say that it’s gotten easier to find the right balance. Class preparation, grading papers, and other duties still take up lots of time and energy, and though I no longer spend hours chauffeuring kids to flute lessons or standing on the sidelines at a soccer field, there are also more requests to do this or that, both on campus and beyond, than there were fifteen or twenty years ago. I’m lucky that Vassar has a generous leave policy; that, along with summer and winter breaks, allows unbroken blocks of time for research and writing. Learning from younger colleagues here, I am also more consciously trying to find space, however small, in each day during the semester to keep momentum going on whatever project I’m pursuing.

One of those projects pursued, of course, is keeping up with the literature. How do I keep up? One answer is: I don’t. (Does anyone, truly?) The shelves in my office and in the library groan with books I really must read, to say nothing of the ever-rising tide of articles awaiting me online. With the fields of Native American history and early American history growing at such a clip, I sometimes feel that I fall farther and farther behind by the day. Another answer to the question is: define “keep up.” I constantly peruse journals’ tables of contents and book reviews to see what’s out there, and read as much as I can of that, particularly when it ties into what I’m teaching or what I’m writing about, but also ranging farther afield when I can. And a third answer comes from my undergraduate professor Doug Greenberg, when we were talking about this very issue some 35 years ago: You do your best, but in the end you just have to learn how to make your peace with all those unread books and articles.