Friday, February 14, 2014

Problems With Teaching Your Research

I completely agree with Emily Conroy-Krutz's recent post at the Teaching United States History blog.  Teaching about your research is harder than you might think.  Here is a taste:

Teaching my research is hard, though, because I want them to know everything that I do.  There are countless stories that I could tell them about missionaries and their experiences around the world in the nineteenth century, and to me, they’re all important and fascinating.  I want to be able to share this enthusiasm with my students without them feeling overwhelmed about the amount of information I’m giving them.  When I’ve taught these materials in the past, I’ve had to think very hard—perhaps more than for other lectures—about what the major points I’d like them to get out of the class are.  It’s easier to do this with topics we’re less invested in.  One of my colleagues once joked about how lecturing on subjects outside of her expertise was great, because she knew exactly an hour’s worth of material on those topics.  Teaching about our research gives us the opposite problem: how do we fit it all in?  And the answer of course is, you don’t.  Because they don’t need to know it all.  Figuring out what they do need to know becomes very important.  

Perhaps the most difficult lecture to deliver in my United States history survey course (to 1865) is my lecture on the middle colonies.  My first book was situated in eighteenth-century New Jersey and I have published other things on the early mid-Atlantic region over the years.  Some of my most recent work has focused on this place as well.  Since I only have 50 minutes to cover the middle colonies, I usually just focus on Pennsylvania.  This is because I teach in the state of Pennsylvania and I think Penn's colony is the easiest middle colony to explain. (Sorry New York and New Jersey).

But because I know a lot about the middle colonies, I always leave the lecture hall frustrated. As I walk back to my office I often obsess about everything I did not have time to cover.  As Conroy-Krutz writes, "I want them to know everything that I do." I realize that this is unrealistic.  Most of them will never know as much about the subject as I do.  (Nor do they want to know as much as I do).  This is the kind of anxiety that can often come when history professors like me are too wedded to a "coverage" model of teaching the survey.  I should add, however, that much of this coverage anxiety dissipates over the years.

I also want to know how many historians actually get a chance to teach an entire course on their research.  I know this happens a lot at research universities, but I wonder how often it occurs in teaching institutions.  I have only taught a course on my research once.  Back in 2008 I taught a class called "The Founding Fathers and Religion" while I was working on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  I enjoyed the class, and the students were great, but I would not say it was the best class I ever taught.  I remember being so overwhelmed with covering certain readings and topics that I am not sure I left enough room for student participation.  (It was a seminar course).

Next year I am going to be teaching a course on the history of American evangelicalism.  We will see if I have the same problem.