On Teaching as Deep Thought

When a sessional instructor bowed out in August, I knew that I was the only logical candidate in our department to take over teaching the second-year survey course on early industrial Europe. However, this was a course that had been my personal bête noire for some time. I’d team-taught it on return from maternity leave in early 1997 and again a few years later. Neither time did I feel I’d done the topic justice, yet here I was volunteering to do it on a few weeks notice? What changed? A lot, and a lot of it was me.

I credit Jo VanEvery for a fair chunk of that change – a few years ago I signed up for her one-on-one sessions and it was wondrously helpful. I learned to clarify what I wanted to be doing so that I could be more mindful in what I was doing. At the time we spoke, I felt as if my research and teaching were insurmountably disconnected. Jo helped me to revisit my teaching, approaching it to find links with my research, and, honestly? That changed the entire game. I have always loved teaching, but approaching teaching as a way to link students and their studies to my own expertise helped enliven the practice. Next term, I’ll do that in one way with a course on Game of Thrones (on which I’ve published and lectured), but I have also used that perspective to help improve my classroom work on other “regular”histories. The challenge, I thought, would be to see if I could do this with a course I’d taught twice before and despaired about: Early Industrial Europe.

So I asked myself two  questions: what really had to be in the course and what could I do to make that exciting? In North America, university courses are far more flexible than they are in the UK. We’re usually only committed to a course description (occasionally a common text), not a detailed plan. The description is brief and broad

This course surveys modern Europe’s transformation from a traditional culture into an individual society with special attention to the new social, economic, political and cultural experiences of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the past, I’d assumed this amounted to a survey of Europe, 1780s-1840s. But I realized that nowhere in the description stated that this had to be the time-frame. Why couldn’t I stretch the time-frame back, and turn this course into a study of the long eighteenth century? I could still focus much of the class period mentioned in the description, albeit making this the 1780s to the 1810s, and I could use the first half of the course to show why the entire long eighteenth century was important. This immediately energized me as a pedagogical point and it would further tie into my research working with London parish and criminal records in the first half of the eighteenth century.

I found a sweeping history of the period,  Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory, and merrily went about constructing a course plan to sweep through Europe’s role in the world from the 1680s through the 1810s. Meeting once a week for three hours at a go, I decided to open each class with an hour devoted to major political and military topics – say, the War of the Spanish Succession, and then the second hour would draw in related elements on some socio-cultural themes, say, communication, popular culture, and travel. The final hour, or what we could manage as the course ran from 7-10pm!, would be for primary source analysis and discussion.

I don’t want to claim that the course was perfect – I should have done a better job of facilitating discussion throughout the class and I probably will introduce major continuing themes on the opening day rather than letting them unfold over the first month since I know students were flailing for want of a better sense of what was meant by the Enlightenment or what were the major religious and political rivalries of the era. But besides those regrets, the class was great fun to teach. I was driven to read recent research on a host of subjects I’d only touched lightly upon despite teaching western civ (Renaissance to French Revolution) more years than I wish to recall. I swotted up on the transformation of the Dutch economy after the 1680s, studied stories of Sweden and Poland in the early 18th century, dove deep into the rise and fall of the Corsican Republic, and thanked heaven for scholars who could explain to me the birth of Hasidism and Wahhabism so that I could weave those into stories of eighteenth century religious reform and exploration. Heck, I even found fabulous ways to work in the experiences of Inuit, African, and Asian travellers and immigrants to Europe and was able to offer a women’s history lecture in the class on Hallowe’en as part of our Women’s History Week events.

I will credit not only the rethinking of the course but the different tack I took in course preparation for making this such a transformative teaching moment. For the first time in decades, I wrote up detailed lecture texts for every class. I normally create detailed slides that I accompany for myself with brief outlines. preferring to let the class develop as it will, but this time, due to the emerging gap between what I wanted the class to tackle and what I already knew, I felt it was necessary to research thoroughly and write out some narratives. I didn’t deliver the lectures directly, but writing them helped to clarify what was important – what slides needed more time for the class to unpack and discuss, what elements could be streamlined or trimmed, as well as thinking about how the class material related to the primary sources we tackled each week. Writing lots (some weeks I wrote up 10,000 words or more of narrative lecture texts!) helped me think matters through and make connections that informed the class.

It wasn’t easy. I drove myself hard last term! I often finished those lecture notes in the desperate minutes between my senior seminar (wrapping up at 5:20pm) and the start of class at 7pm, fueled by a Subway sandwich and an increasing sense of panic. But the bulk of the lecture plans were already in place, I was usually just adding in some last historical examples or expanding the historiographical framework. I’m not completely happy with everything I did but I’m feeling really good about the overall course. It helped me to think through some cultural questions of the period and to better understand the interplay between economics, politics, and society. My students wrote great short research projects on individuals, events, and cultural creations, what I called “study pieces” in the assignment system. I saw many of them use elements from those in their discussion contributions and the final exams.

I’m glad that winter term ahead has only one new course. I have committed myself to only light revisions of my early Middle Ages survey – fixing problems that I noticed in the last run-through and making primary source analysis in class an everyday event instead of something reserved only for the eight tutorial sessions.  My new preparation won’t rely on lecture components as much – it’s a third-year course and much more discussion-based. However, I plan to write myself up some detailed work-through narratives of key elements, only this time with a bit more leeway than a scant hour-and-a-half ahead of class. Wish me luck!


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One response to “On Teaching as Deep Thought

  1. This makes me smile!! I’m so glad you are enjoying teaching this material.