Preparing for class and my undergraduate experience

The process of preparing for class makes me try to remember about my undergraduate courses. In terms of specifics, the answer is not much. Obviously I absorbed a good deal of content that I am now able to speak with varying levels of confidence about, but much less stands out about the actual classes.

Take, for instance, the equivalent of the course that I am now teaching—a survey of Greek history. I remember my professor’s opening spiel about the etymology of history and how it comes from a root that has to do with judgement, I remember bantering with a friend of mine who also went on to get a PhD in ancient history, and I remember one of the other students making a diorama from wax sculptures after taking the wax from individually wrapped cheese “cuties.” And some of those memories could easily be from other classes with this professor.

Most of all, though, I remember loving the class (and other classes like it) because the professor gave us room to explore long sections of ancient sources, even to the extent of seeming disconnected and disorganized. In fact, I remember having an argument with a fellow student in a class in another department altogether because this student hated the disorganization, feeling that it meant that she wasn’t learning anything. I vehemently disagreed at the time, which was something of a running theme in a course that had us working in a group for most of the semester. Believe it or not, we actually worked pretty well as a team.

Before laying blame on the professor, though, reflection shows this limitation of my memory is true even in courses with amazing lecturers. For instance, I have clearer memories about my favorite college lecturer declaring that blue exam booklets were the ideal form for writing lectures in, the fact that the Anatolian peninsula is, north to south, the international measurement unit “one Kansas,” and his apologies for the boring but necessary excursuses on medieval agriculture. Or that in the last week of class he never failed to take a photograph with a disposable camera and that I invariably left class every day with an aching hand. That pain and some later sweat ensures that I can go back to my notes if necessary, but, once again, I don’t remember much at any given moment.

I could go on, but there is one particular exception: language classes. The memories are almost certainly just as flawed, but I remember the act of being there, the feel and the look of the book chapters, and all of the things Homer taught to his brother. More to the point, my memories of language courses are clearer regardless of whether I liked or disliked the teaching styles of the professors. I don’t know why, exactly—maybe I found languages more difficult and so the classes left a deeper impression or the way that I learned the languages was tied to the classroom in a way that history never war—but the division in my memories is real.

Obviously I learned facts from these courses that, ten years later, have been baked into the collection of knowledge tucked into the dusty corners of my mind or else that I have forgotten. I also learned note-taking skills, research habits, a critical eye for source criticism, and something of writing. (Less by way of common sense, however, even if one of the professors mentioned above did try to warn me off of graduate school.)

I think about all of this when I am preparing for my own class. My class is just too large to toss the textbook in favor of embracing the glorious confusion of reading sources together, and I feel some responsibility cover a certain number of topics in a survey of Greek history. I tend, therefore, to err on the side of structured lectures with a powerpoint presentation modeled on the US history survey courses that form the large portion of the teaching styles I have seen in recent years. There is only so much that can be covered, so, in this sense, I look to give students a taste along with some tools to learn more.

At the same time, though, I think back to being encouraged to engage in forms of source analysis and informal, seminar-style debate with great fondness. Unstructured though those may have been, they also reflected active learning at its finest. As much as this form of class worked for me, ironically, it often takes a leap of faith for me to try it from the other side of the table (so to speak). I will probably never abandon lectures altogether in a class like this where there are details that I hope will encourage students to go out and learn more, but at the same time I am always looking for new activities where the students can grapple with the primary material together or on their own because, more than the lectures, that is often what I remember being most useful from my undergraduate experience. This experience didn’t do me any favors in terms of downloading and debating historiography for graduate school, but in the more universal tasks of evaluating how a source is presenting the world and challenging its prevailing biases, it is absolutely essential.

The Muse of Lecture

Programming Note: I have been particularly busy of late so my reading has bogged down and substantive post-worthy thoughts are coming in fits and starts, so while there are some things in the works, things are going to remain irregular for the foreseeable future.

I have been thinking a lot about lectures recently because I have been tasked with a bunch of guest lectures, some scheduled, some emergency. Everyone has their own lecture styles, sometimes more than one depending on the type of class. Some are impressionistic, with good information, but refer students to sources where specific information is to be had. Some read from overloaded slides or march the audience through topic after topic, while others have detailed historiographical essays that they spin out as master storytellers.

Everyone needs to find their lecturing style and, ideally, have their muse. My lecturing style is still immature and improving, but I thought I should make mention of the person I consider my muse of the lecture.

Picture this. You arrive to class somewhat early and get out your notebook to make sure that you can write down the lists of names and terms being written up on the blackboard. Sometimes the professor is there writing down the terms, other times it is a TA, but, without fail, there is the list. Some terms, he says, are purely to help with spelling. Other than an occasional map, this will be the only aid and the extensive bank of terms doubles as the study guide for the exams. It is important that you arrive early and start writing because the lecture begins as soon as the class starts and you can’t risk missing anything that is said. When the period is over, your hand is cramped and it is entirely possible that you will need extra sheets of paper for your notebook before the semester is over, but you will have everything you need.

The scene should be familiar to most Brandeis history majors, at least if they took a course from Professor William Kapelle. Everyone has their Kapelle stories, and he certainly had plenty for you. I remember, for instance, a mini-diatribe about the international seafood market and one about the fine print of credit card offers. But then class began, sometimes with an apology if we had to have a lecture about agricultural changes in the Middle Ages, sometimes with no prologue. At one point while I was at Brandeis he began to write his lectures in exam bluebooks, declaring that it was the perfect length for a 50 minute class. In either case, he had a topic of the day and spun it out for a captivated audience of furiously-writing students. There were snarky asides, stories, and jokes, but the lectures were informative and detailed. I still have my lecture notes from his classes.

I owe a debt to Professor Kapelle, including for his willingness to write reference letters that got me into graduate school, but, the more I prepare to teach classes, the more I realize that it is his model that I start from in terms of how I want to lecture.