This term I’m revisiting a course on pre-industrial western women’s history. The last time I taught it, I was pregnant with my eldest child who’s now university age. Yes, I am that old.
Obviously, the course has been completely revised for the new millennium. No dragging out reams of yellowed lecture texts. A lot has changed in history in the intervening years and I wanted to take advantage of those advances in scholarship while also implementing a more appropriate model of assignments than “some essays, maybe a midterm, and a final exam.”
It’s working wonders, no doubt aided by choosing one of my favourite recent books in women’s history as a course textbook: Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Every few weeks, students write a short response paper analyzing one part Bennett’s argument in light of another reading of their choice and we have a discussion based upon the material. Sometimes the discussions are pretty fabulous as when we tackled how history textbooks they know have (or have not) incorporated women’s history. This sparked a lot of passionate discussion about what should be and why it isn’t always in the master narratives of our discipline. I’m happily anticipating their response to her chapter on economic history “Less Money Than a Man Would Take”. Nothing ferrets out faulty assumptions and presumptions like taking your argument down to the building blocks and essential concepts – women’s history critiques of the status quo consistently makes that happen.
I’m also pleased with the way students have embraced a presentation-heavy course model. Each student makes three presentations over the term on individuals, concepts or events that were important to pre-modern women’s history. Most days we have three to five presentations at the start of class, which are worth every minute of class time that they fill as the audience listens attentively (presentation subjects are fodder for the final exam) and ask questions thoughtfully as well as answering questions posed by the presenter. I’m learning that even in a third-year course, we can set a pretty high standard for formal participation, “ownership of the course” by students, if you will, where they craft mini-lessons on the subjects they’ve chosen. It’s helped me direct the rest of the class much more usefully as I take up the reins after their presentations and can use that time to fill in the gaps or build upon their insights.
It continues to be a pleasure to teach this class, to introduce them to a wealth of fascinating history and learn from the classroom experience how invigorating a clean sweep can be from the professor’s perspective. My only regret is that it will likely be many years before I teach this particular course on campus again (for complicated issues of workload and curriculum) but I’m certain that the lessons I’ve learn here won’t go to waste.