There are many paths to the effective teaching of introductory college history courses. This section of H/21 is a place to explore them. We hope you will articulate philosophies, practices, techniques, and examples and that others will comment on them. It will be particularly helpful to describe the goals and philosophies that underlie your approaches. The material below is only a starting point.
Some of the questions to be addressed include:
- How do I design a history course that doesn’t use a chronological narrative?
- If I use modules, how do I ladder skill-development over the course of the term?
- What are the issues with adding modules to an existing chronological/narrative-based course?
- What kinds of themes or through lines can I use to structure my course?
Breaking out of the “coverage” mentality can be challenging. Of course, no course actually “covers” history. In ten or fifteen weeks, we have to make choices (or use the choices made by textbook authors) as to what we will talk about (e.g., from the “Big Bang” to Genghis Khan or from the Civil War to 9/11). The coverage mentality affects not only the chronological scope of our courses, but also the types of history and subject matter. Standard treatments usually include a range of political, military, economic, social, cultural, intellectual frameworks.
So, if we recognize that we actually talk about a fairly small selection of historical events/phenomena/actors within the overall scope of the course, the question then arises as to what will we talk about (and why). In designing your course, the 2d question logically comes first and it is likely useful to spend a few minutes articulating this (at least for yourself). You may also choose to discuss this with your students (in the syllabus or first day of class) to help them appreciate that history books and classes come from a process of conscious selection on the part of a historian; as William Cronin says: “the stories we choose to tell about the past.”
“Dropping-in” a Module vs. Whole-course redesign
There are two basic approaches to using H/21 modules. You can construct a course built around a set of modules from us or other sources or you can ‘drop in’ a module into a previously constructed narrative-based course.
There are dozens of well-established world history textbooks available, reflecting the ideas of teams of authors, and used in hundreds of colleges every year. There is much to be said for them (other than the financial cost to students), many come with extensive support and ancillary information and apparatus. But they can make it hard for the instructor to ‘breathe;’ to adapt the material to a particular institution, set of students, current developments, or instructor’s interests.
If you want to ‘dive deep’ into a particular topic, or focus more on critical thinking skills or historical sensibilities, then you could use a module in addition to the basic text. Then you have to figure out how to carve out a few weeks in a semester for this focused effort: What do you cut? What continuity is lost by skipping a chapter of a coherent narrative?
Here are a few ways of thinking about it:
- Trim the reading and assignments throughout. This requires going through the text and dropping a section or two from each chapter, combining chapters in fewer lectures than ‘normal,’ and harvesting a few weeks in which to ‘drop in’ your module. It can feel a bit awkward, and takes some work; but its quite feasible.
- Use and alternate version of the text. Most textbooks are written in versions for semesters and quarters. You could use a ‘quarter’-sized textbook in a semester and have five weeks for modules.
- Boldly drop a chapter here and there, covering that phase of the narrative in half a lecture, instead of a week.
Here are a few general approaches to modular course design:
- Three Snapshots: This course uses multiple modules in three chronological groups to highlight interconnections and compare their nature over time. Snapshots need not have the same ‘aperture;” for example, the wars of the mid-18C, 19C, and 20C are really about 1750-63, 1850-70, and 1914-1945. Another example would be to look at the world broadly in 1805, 1905, and 2005.
- Substantive Themes: This course weaves modules together to focus on one or more particular themes, such as
- Family and private life
- Energy in human history
- War, violence, and peace
- Work and commerce
- Power structures
- Human Demographics
- Space and time
- Technology Development
- Ideas and Epistemology
- Substantive Potpourri: Pick modules randomly, shuffle them into either chronological or alphabetical order and see what emerges. You might choose this model if you want to focus on skills development or historiographic issues, or some variant of ‘history in 100 objects’. What seems like it might be the most radical model can actually open up new vistas for both instructor and students.
- A combination of the above.
Some other groups have developed other comparable approaches or groups of modules in some detail. Here are brief summaries of:
- Roots of Contemporary Issues (Washington State University)
- Reacting to the Past (historically-embedded role-playing games)
Finally, here is one model for a Modern World History course developed by Trevor Getz and Steve Harris.