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.