Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Music Industry

September 9, 2014

I’m teaching now in the Music Industry Studies program at Loyola in addition to the History Department. I was a bit apprehensive about this at first, I have to admit. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about teaching in what I saw as mainly a vocational program. And I wasn’t sure if my music industry knowledge, which is 10 to 15 years out of date, is still relevant to this generation of students.

On the second point, my concerns were unnecessary. I’m really teaching the basics, and the basics haven’t changed. I also have the personal experience in the industry to make my knowledge relevant to the students and to advise them on their own situations. And I’m really digging the chance to do this.

As far as the vocational program vs. liberal arts ideal conundrum goes, that’s a more complex issue. But I’m starting to agree with the program chair here that they way we teach Music Industry students here is genuinely in the liberal arts tradition. It’s empowering them to have a productive career in a creative field. They are developing as artists, as thinkers, as people, and very importantly, unlike far too many college students, they are doing something their heart strongly urges them to do.

And that’s why I really enjoy this teaching, so far — the kids are smart, motivated, engaging, and above all very psyched to be doing this. That’s something that’s missing, in greater or lesser degrees, in the teaching of the liberal arts, and you don’t really know it’s not there until you do something like this and see what students can be like when they are following their own ambitions and dreams.

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Capitalism Course

March 28, 2014

I’m teaching two sections of a course I developed for Loyola called The Rise of Global Capitalism. Why? Well, without going too deep into the gory bureaucratic details, the History Dept. needed new courses to conform to the so-called Advanced Common Curriculum. The main requirements were that the courses be a) global in scope, or at least cover a lot of the world, and b) cover a really long time period, either the world up to 1500 or the world since 1500. I feel myself starting to nod off even explaining this stuff, but anyway, I figured it would be fun to revisit my undergrad interest in the history of economic thought, try to bottle some of the popularity of the subject (which I knew about because of the popularity of Jon Levy’s course at Princeton), and, not least, experience the stultifying existential pain of the course approval process.

And I did all that, and it was worth it, because I’m teaching a very cool course to two sections of smart, interested kids. The sections are small enough to have real discussions, and the discussions carry on every class well past the designated stopping time — without a single sound of rusting backpacks as students start getting up to leave. Of course as always some students really get it, some are way over their heads, most are somewhere in between, but they’re all really into it and never seem to tire of the subject.

The weird thing is, I have a Ph. D. in Early American History; that’s my “field”, and in the standard model that’s what I’m qualified to teach qt the college level. But honestly there’s something about not being an expert in a field that makes it very rewarding to teach. In a way I’m taking the course at the same time as I teach it — I’m investigating the topic at the same time as the students, and that leads to a really different classroom dynamic. I’m a more experienced learner than they are, of course, I’m familiar with the kinds of questions historians ask and the techniques they use to solve them.  I can model being a judicious, critical, creative learner of this subject. And that does more, in a way, than being an “expert.” In any case I’m having a blast with the course and I hope I get to do it again.

Teaching World Civ I

October 22, 2012

Teaching is hard, I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. Teaching the number of kids I have now (about 125, spread over 3 sections of World Civ I and 1 section of the United States to 1865 survey) is even harder. And teaching something like World Civ I, which goes from the moment the earth cooled up until the medieval period — in other words, an unthinkably huge swath of history about which I know hardly anything — is ridiculously hard. I’m using the state-of the-art, Princeton-developed textbook, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, which Dan Crofts at TCNJ suggested, and some sort of textbook was obviously necessary to give me some structure, a lifeline, to guide me through this. But I don’t think I’ll use WTWA again — it’s too dense, too written-by-committee, too immersed in the sorts of analytic concepts and arguments that are the bread and butter of professional research historians, but are way over the heads of students who barely know who Alexander the Great was.

I’m learning a lot by doing this — a lot about teaching, and a lot, frankly, about early world history. I’ve learned about the evolutionary paths of early hominids, about the ancient Persian Empire, about the spread of Buddhism, about the Silk Road. Six years of studying history at Princeton — but of course I was not required to know any of this stuff. You’re concentrated on a narrow field from the moment you start your Ph. D. Zooming out and looking at the big, big, picture is something you have to do on your own, if at all.

And the idea that you’re going to teach students about Global History up until 1450 C. E. is laughable, really. There’s so much to know, and most of them start knowing so little. Not to mention that this is a required Core Curriculum course so for most students it’s the least interesting part of their whole college life, something they tolerate at best, resent at worst. The challenges are formidable. Really the only goal is to get them to open their eyes to what history has to offer, to be curious, to learn to love asking questions. (None of this is encouraged by the text, incidentally.) Am I succeeding with this? To be brutally honest with myself, no, not mostly, just a little bit here and there. But I’m learning a lot about how to do it, about how the students’ minds work, about how the classroom works. And I have enough little victories to keep me interested. Not to mention, I love my students (most of them). It’s a very special thing to get to play this little part in their lives, and I understand very well now the psychological dynamic of how so many college teachers, even resentful adjuncts working for pennies, pour so much of their heart and soul into their teaching — because you feel you owe it to the kids, and the sense of being a part of their lives imposes a very strong sense of responsibility that goes way beyond your contractual obligation to your institution or department.