Six Things I’ve Learned after Six Weeks Teaching the American History Survey

What follows is an all-but-exhaustive list of tidbits of knowledge I’ve accumulated after my first six weeks teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey. After a month and a half, I lack any horror stories or sage wisdom to impart to graduate students who have yet to to receive their first assignment as an instructor of record. I’ve benefited from a great batch of students with whom it’s been a pleasure to work thus far. The list is anything but exhaustive and some points may be obvious to some. Nonetheless, I hope some might find my humble contribution as a newcomer to university-level instruction useful or, at the very least, reassuring. 

Relax. You are probably over-prepared. The Prospect of underpreparedness for a both semester of teaching a new course and each lecture session accounted for a fair share of anxiety during my first few weeks of teaching. Self-consciousness over the narrowing boundaries of “expertise” engendered by the dissertation rabbit hole contributed significantly. Teaching a course as broad as the first half of the American survey while specializing professionally can be a recipe for impostor syndrome. The dreaded unanswerable question from a curious student loomed large over every fifty minute lecture session and the hours of preparation leading up. That fear frequently led to over-packed lecture plans and a frenzied effort to get through it all. That question has yet to materialize, and I find myself in recent weeks less concerned about amassing content for lecture.

Not all sessions will go as planned. This can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes a student question completely shifts the direction of the lecture away from its intended course. Taking the unexpected route can lead to valuable discussion with students about their historical curiosities, ultimately enriching their understanding of the subject matter on their own terms. Other deviations from the plan are more difficult to deal with. Sometimes plans to devote a large proportion of class to discussion of assigned readings fall flat when it is apparent nobody read. Leading by the nose can mitigate that uncomfortable situation, but some sessions simply won’t work very well. You can plan on that.

Public discourse has given you the perfect straw man: American exceptionalism. In my experience as a student, I learn best when material forces me to confront deeply-held assumptions. Not all subjects lend easily to that type of engagement, however. Teaching the American history survey in the United States is a unique opportunity in that regard. Historicizing the sacred cows of American exceptionalism and the American dream force students to seriously qualify seemingly transhistorical, universal concepts and attain access to the historical nature of hegemonic ideology. Borrowing a proven approach, my survey course focuses on the truism that America was founded upon and always stood for freedom. While not outright rejecting that idea, casting a critical gaze on “freedom’s” history in America seriously qualifies it. That focus provides an easy tool to teach students to think historically and critically, to deal better with subjectivity, and read through political rhetoric invoking historical claims for legitimacy. All of these skills make for better citizens.

Teaching duties can make it easy to neglect job one: the dissertation. I admit that I hardly touched my dissertation during the first month teaching the survey. Preparing lectures, grading, and other teaching duties provide the instant gratification derived from being productive and helping people. Hours spent improving a course yield more immediate results than those spent in solitude chipping away at a small chunk of dissertation research that may lead to a dead end or writing that may likely make its way to the cutting room floor. Spending too much time on teaching duties is dangerously easy to justify. A little time spent making detailed plans for time use goes a long way. After failing to adhere to simple lists of tasks for the day, I now use Google Calendar as a finely-honed time management tool. So far, my ability to partition the day and maintain steady progress on long-term projects has improved tremendously, aided by gentle reminders from my phone or web browser to shift gears. Sticking to a schedule has also made my lecture preparations more efficient, although I still haven’t realized my ideal time management goals.

Students possess a wide range of strengths and weaknesses. This seems like a very obvious point, but addressing it in practice is much more difficult than accepting it. Some students are excellent writers who clam up in class discussion. Others demonstrate a command of the material and an aptitude for critical historical analysis on the fly in class, but lack the tools to make an effective case on paper. Still others are great at retaining information, but struggle with analyzing texts to formulate an original argument that can’t be taken verbatim from a book. I have yet to fully accommodate these differences in my course design, but afford students plenty of opportunity for feedback on written work that highlights how strengths can be mobilized to improve upon shortcomings.

Like writing, the first draft of teaching will be a bit rough. My list of things I will do differently in the future is already quite lengthy despite a relatively smooth semester. Dud lectures and failed attempts to facilitate discussion happen to everyone. These experiences can be humbling, especially when trying to emulate talented professors for whom you have served as a teaching assistant. Their first forays into teaching were probably bumpy as well. Take note of material that can be condensed, themes that could be emphasized more clearly, and concepts that students had the greatest difficulty grasping as the first course goes on. Succeeding drafts will be leaner and meaner and take far less time to prepare.


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