Erin Bartram: Several years ago, when I was a grad student teaching at UConn, my roommate commented on how much work I put into writing lectures. She had done her undergraduate work at UConn, so she wasn’t unfamiliar with college courses, or even this specific university. I asked her what she meant, and she said “I guess I never thought about it before. I thought professors just got up and talked from what was in their head when they lectured.”
The work that goes into conceptualizing, planning, and writing the material for a course is largely invisible to the students in the classroom, let alone the general public, and that invisibility matters.
So today we’re going to chat about how academics, specifically historians, do this work, and how the invisibility of the work itself enables exploitation which leads to bad learning experiences.
Chris Bouton: Your anecdote speaks to a very common experience from students. They tend to only think of lecture as a pretty straightforward endeavor. Step 1. Professor provides information. Step 2. Student writes it down. 3. ?????
When in fact, regurgitation of information is a basic skill that isn’t particularly useful in and of itself. Especially in a history classroom. When we have higher goals than just handing out info and having it given back to us. At their most fundamental, lectures are arguments.
Erin:: That’s why it’s important that we don’t think of lecturing itself as regurgitation either
They are themselves sub-arguments of the larger argument of the course, which I think is where we start when planning a course.
Chris: If we’re approaching a course from a macro-perspective, then we start with key themes or arguments. For example, what does freedom mean in American history and how does it change over time? Who defines it, who gets it, and who doesn’t?
Erin:: Let’s start a few steps back from there, even – how do professors get to teach the classes they teach?
Chris: We’re going real macro now.
Erin: I mean, I think it matters because it’s important to know that we don’t just say “I’m going to teach this thing that I’m a specialist in this semester” and that’s what happens
Erin:: All courses that are taught have to be approved and in the course catalog – the listing of all the courses that can be taught at the university. Getting a course approved means a professor has to design it, explain its purpose, its objectives, what need it fills in the department and the college, think about who will take it and why, and then get it approved by several layers of bureaucracy, both within the department and at higher levels.
Getting a new course approved is a lot of work, but once a course is in the catalog, it can be taught at any time, but even so, what gets taught when is a thing department think carefully about (or should)
Chris: Some courses are permanent features of the course catalog, they’re offered every semester and taught by different members of the faculty: American History (generally split into 2 courses with a division occurring somewhere around the Civil War/Reconstruction period), Western Civilization etc.
These are introductory courses that fulfill university distribution requirements. Then once you take those courses, generally you can take higher level courses that are more specialized in their focus and are taught by specific faculty and are related to that faculty’s historical specialty.
Erin: Those courses often fill general education requirements, which means lots of students will take them, which means they fill up and justify their existence. There’s nothing inherently useful about them, and many historians say there’s actually little useful about them.
Chris: From a departmental teaching perspective, they’re the least appealing classes so the most accomplished faculty rarely teach them.
Erin: Some universities won’t have prerequisites for upper division history courses, though, which contributes to how faculty teach those courses. That’s the situation I’m in at my position – I can teach a 300 level course on the Civil War, but you don’t have to have taken college-level US history to enroll.
That shaped how I planned the course – what stuff that they might have learned in a 100 level course did I need to teach in this course?
Chris: The teaching responsibility then falls on the rest of the faculty. Generally meaning graduate students or adjuncts.
Erin: The reason introductory courses are often considered least appealing? They’re the hardest to teach. They require professors to master huge amounts of content and, from that, make a big argument without actually teaching all the content itself.
Chris: You have to cover several hundred years of history in 14 weeks, teach some kind of historical thinking, and design assignments that take into account the vastly different types of students you’ll find in the class.
If you don’t care about teaching, you don’t have to do these things. You can just lecture, assign 2 multiple choice tests and a paper.
We’re talking about the difficulties of making a good class
Erin:: Even if you just lecture…that’s still a ton of work
Chris: True, but you only have to do it once and then never change it. I’m just trying to suggest that the good teachers put a lot of work in on top of that.
Erin: Yes. You can never revise it at all, in response to either new scholarship or students not understanding stuff
Thinking about that first step, though, when you’re writing a class for the first time: once you’ve got a sense of the argument you’re making with the class, you have to figure out how to make it. Each topic you cover, lecture you write, and document you assign relates to the others and to the broader course.
You can think of it like inviting people to a wedding. Like, if we invite this person, then we have to invite that family, but if we invite them, what about this other person.
Chris: Right, you’ve started with the broader theme, taking my meaning of freedom as an example. And say the class is the first half of the U.S. survey. Then you have to think about the big moments of the first half of that survey, Colonization, the Revolution, Civil War etc. and how do they fit in? Then think about different groups or social trends–the experience of the poor, women, the enslaved etc. How do they fit into this theme?
Erin: This also means you don’t always teach everything in chronological order, despite it being a history class.
Chris: Yes, chronological order is flexible and it also means that you won’t touch every subject. Teaching a survey is about triage. Figuring what is absolutely essential and starting with that.
Erin: For instance, I don’t teach European colonialism in the first half of the US survey in a strictly chronological way. We do Barbados and the Chesapeake and New Netherlands and Canada and Mexico separately.
Chris: And by approaching the subject thematically, you’ve set up a basis for comparison.
Erin: I do the same with the 19th century, and I think lots of us do. It means things like the Missouri Compromise might show up “later” than you’d think, but that’s only because of how the material is arranged. It then provides us with the opportunity to do comparison work in discussion, rearranging the material and putting it together in new combinations.
And this is why lectures/lessons/documents have to be so carefully plotted: you’re setting up ideas and connections that will bear further fruit weeks and months later
Chris: You’re constructing something from the ground up, trying to make sure all the pieces fit together.
Erin:: And the hardest stuff to write, honestly, is the stuff you’re a specialist in. The idea that I could get up and just wing a 50 minute lecture on the Jacksonian period or women’s history or Catholic history…
Chris: Oh God yes. Teaching World History or Western civ was much easier. Without the insane depth of knowledge in those areas, it’s easier to focus on the broader themes that you’re trying to get across. Okay, I’ve got 50 minutes on the Meiji Restoration, guess I better figure out exactly what I want out of it.
Erin: And when we do this, we’re not just accumulating facts, or drawing on reserves of facts. We’re trying to weigh and synthesize arguments from dozens of books and articles we’ve read. Historians read hundreds of books and then have written/oral examinations on them at the end of their first few years of doctoral study, and most of us start teaching on our own after that. I’m quite sure I’d have done better on my comps if I’d done them after I’d been teaching.
Like, having to synthesize Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs for a 100 level class made me understand that book way more. I had to really figure out what I thought about the Revolution – ideological or economic – when I had to teach it.
Chris: Teaching puts these subjects into sharp focus and forces you to take a position on them in a way that comps don’t, even though that’s the point of comps. I don’t think comps are particularly effective at that, but that’s a subject for another day.
Erin: So, there’s one thing that I think is important here. We’ve talked about the increasing reliance on part-time/adjunct labor in academia, and that fact intersects with this conversation in two ways.
Adjuncts are often hired last minute. Like, the weekend before. Even full-time non-tenure track faculty, being at the bottom of the ladder and with fewer protections, can have their course schedule switched at the last minute.
All of the work we’ve talked about here, if you’re going to do it and do it well, takes HOURS and needs considered thought and time.
Chris: In CT, I was hired to teach a US-II survey in late December for a class that began in late January.
Having never taught US-II, I threw myself into course prep, outlining, writing lectures, selecting primary documents etc.
A few days before the semester started I found out that the class was cancelled because it didn’t have enough people in it.
Erin:: And that gets us to the second point: whether the class happens or doesn’t happen (ugh), adjuncts don’t get paid for the hours they spend designing and revising classes.
Chris: I didn’t get paid for a single minute of that course prep and that was time I could have spent on my dissertation.
Erin: You can see here the ways that this is exploitative and bad for students.
Either adjuncts do massive amounts of unpaid work (provided they even have the time/opportunity to do so) to make the course good or they don’t and students get a crummy learning experience.
Chris: And even if they put in the good work and make connections with students, there’s no guarantee they’ll be invited back the next semester.
Students naturally specialize in certain professors, but that’s impossible to do when you’re talking about adjuncts, so the students are missing out.
Erin: And if students are interested in your field, and might become majors, they don’t bother because they don’t know that you – and your (theoretical) specialty upper division classes – will even be there.
Chris: History departments complain about declining enrollments while they rely on adjuncts and grad students to handle more and more of the course load, 71% of all classes are taught by non-tenure track faculty, you don’t think those things are connected?
Erin: And we’re not just “I reckon”-ing over this. I have had students say this to me explicitly.
Chris: And it doesn’t take much searching to find evidence of this from articles in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed. So there’s a problem here that compounds itself.
Erin: And that’s how courses are made, boys and girls!