The End Is in the Beginning: What Students Need to Do the First Week of a Course

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM
Washington Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lendol G. Calder, Augustana College
It is hard to teach history well when students are operating with deep misconceptions about what history is in the first place. On Day One of a course, if after reviewing the syllabus teachers jump right into the content they have selected to teach, students’ misconceptions go unidentified and uncorrected, dampening and distorting learning for the rest of the course. To deal with this problem, I recommend that teachers design their courses to begin with “overtures,” that is, units of instructions that prepare students intellectually and emotionally to do the historical work that lies ahead.

I will report on an overture unit I use in lower-level survey or “gateway” courses. Over three class meetings, I lead students through a series of exercises and writing assignments designed to disrupt what I take to be the dominant misconception about history among non-historians: the belief that knowledge of the past comes in the form of a single, best, authoritative story. People who believe this (or worse, believe that history is just “what happened”) expect that learning history is a matter of learning by rote the teacher’s or textbook’s authoritative story. My overture is designed to challenge this misconception so that the rest of the course can replace it with a better belief about the nature of historical knowledge: that history is inescapably perspectival, where accounts of the past are judged as plausible/implausible according to how they conform to standards of the discipline.

I will ask the audience to participate in one or more of the exercises from my overture unit. And I will report on how new understandings of history learned in the overture show up (or not!) in later student work.

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