Teaching Undergraduates Skills?!? Psh!

During our seminar last week, we never really answered the question, what skills are we supposed to teach students in a history class? Well, here is my (hopefully) concise recommendations for the skills we ought to be developing in students who are forced (at gunpoint apparently) to take our survey courses.

First and foremost, we must instill and develop analytical skills. Though students hate the infamous paper, it is perhaps the best tool we have to promote historical analysis. Unfortunately, many professors fail to package (or sell) the papers as means to an end. Rather, students see the analytical essay as the end. We ought to sell the essay as a tool to practice analytical thought that can be profitable and useful later in most if not all professions, not just history.

Second and apparently a popular subject in our seminar’s discussions, our lectures, assignments and assessments should promote the students’ understanding of human interaction in world history. Why not embrace the present, globalized world as a theme that ties world history together and makes it relevant to the individual student? If we can make our content relevant, then students will digest more, though still not all, of the information we so shamelessly shove down the throats of mostly unwilling students.

Third, world history instructors should take great care to foster understanding and acceptance of the myriad cultures, polities, societies, religions, languages and commodities that define and have helped to shape this world. Though this seems like a tall order, I am not suggesting we teach everything about everyone every time, but rather, we ought to provide examples of the variety of the human experience that promote tolerance.

Lastly, we ought to provide instruction and practice for students to not just learn a little bit about the wide, wide world. Instead, we need to give them the research and reading skills that will allow them to find the information on their own, since there is no way in hell we can teach them everything about world history. In the end, we ought to have provided the students the ability to find, analyze and digest the information without the help of the instructor.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list, but just examples by which we can build upon. Thoughts?

One thought on “Teaching Undergraduates Skills?!? Psh!

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I agree with all of your points, although I would say that your second point is more in line with a “world history course” where as points 1, 3 and 4 are in line with ANY history course, in my opinion. Either way, I think you make excellent points.

    To put my own two cents in, I think that points 1 and 4 are your strongest, and I would say that they are THE two things we should attempt to get across to those students taking our history surveys because they have guns to their heads. Analysis and writing are two things that EVERY student needs, whether in history or English class or in the everyday workplace. And I think that you’re 100% correct that a good term paper is the way to do this. It forces students to think about their arguments and the arguments of their sources in ways that simple discussion do not. After all, what students has not erased a sentence in a paper with the thought, “the professor won’t ever buy this argument, and I don’t want to look like an idiot”? I know that I certainly have.

    The only real question I have, in regards to this topic, is whether we should be differentiating between students who major in history and those who are only fulfilling gen ed requirements. Obviously the history majors do not need to be instilled with a love of the discipline, they wouldn’t me majoring in it otherwise, and we try to foster that as much as possible. But what about those students who hate names and dates, and don’t care about whether Ronald Reagan knew about the British attacking us at Pearl Harbor to start the First World War before it happened or not. Should we be trying to instill a love of the discipline in these students? Or should we be happy if we can get the to write a good paper using evidence and simply call it a day? Does it hurt those other students to show a bias towards those who love the discipline? Even if we are just trying to place our energy where it will be best received (and not to bother those who don’t care anyway). What happens when we misinterpret our students? What if the female student is always cut off by her male peers, then over time begins to remain silent for fear of being cut off by another student, and as a result appears to have little interest in history, which causes us to neglect her over the smart-ass who just likes his own voice and if majoring in argumentation and rhetoric, not history? Surely we’d be doing her a disservice? I certainly do not have an answer to these questions, but I think that they are worth thinking about.

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