Teaching theory in history (part one of some)

I’ve recently had conversations with several colleagues about teaching theory in history.  As a discipline, we’re not as obviously theory heavy as some of our compatriots in the social sciences, and much of the theory we use is grounded, or embedded in assumptions we make about sources, voices and narrative.  Given the importance, but relative invisibility of theory in history writing (and given that students – especially new majors in historical methods classes – are likely to be a little allergic to heavily theorized writing anyway) I’ve been trying to figure out how to teach students how to identify and make us of theoretical frameworks for history.

This question has been bugging me for the past year or so.  It first became apparent in a class on the intertwined histories of gender and technology, and I also see it in my current undergrad historical methods and Atlantic history classes.  This is not, I think, merely a consequence of mulling more on theory than I used to.  By design, none of these courses clear narrative path.  Gender and Technology took on several themes during the semester, often circling back to the same time, but a very different place or perception.  Atlantic history is arranged roughly chronologically, but approaches the Atlantic from a series of different spaces, and via different peoples, so we are often jumping in space and time.  Historical methods is loosely organized around the theme of American disasters, but we also skip around temporally, and often head down methodological or historiographical culs-de-sac before returning to the topical meat of the course. This shred lack of a singular storyline meant that theory was all the more important – it was the thing that could get the courses to hang together.

I wanted an assignment that allowed students to make connections from class to class, which emphasized theoretical framings, demonstrated the value of theories as organizing frameworks, and which wouldn’t rely on me lecturing at students.*

I’ve come up with something that I call “theory exercise.”  Each class uses a different variation on the same theme:

First: students review their notes and memories and write down one or two important framing concepts from the previous class.  Earlier in the semester these can be a bit vague, but I make sure that we identify important ideas in reading discussion, so that they can (hopefully) just go back to notes.

Second: some students come up to the board and write one important framing concept.  The only rules are (1) no duplicates and (2) you can amend what someone else writes

Third: the remaining students come up to the board and write down one topic from earlier in the semester, or from the reading for that day’s class that connects with those big ideas.  The same rules apply as in the second phase.

The final product
The final product

As a result of all of this whiteboard writing, we have a map of the main points of the previous class, and a visual representation of connections throughout the course.

This works with individual students working on their own, pairs of students, or even groups that have to consult and come up with one big idea or one connection.  I’ve been experimenting recently with randomly assigning students to big idea or connection and with allowing it to be more of a free for all.

I’ve learned a few things:

  • In classes where I’ve been using this exercise since the beginning of the semester, weekly reading responses do a much better job making links between a given reading and themes from earlier in the semester.  In making those links, students also invoke theoretical frameworks.  Some of these are more explicit than others, but the very act of linking disparate examples requires a theoretical underpinning.
  • In classes that don’t have a clear narrative (and this is probably true of most upper level classes) this exercise also helps students to make their own meaning out of the material covered, and to remember material from earlier in the semester.
  • On exams that ask students to identify and demonstrate the utility of theoretical frameworks, the classes that have been doing this kind of work do better than the classes that haven’t.
  • Having this material written on the board is a great way to mark the start of class with activity, rather than my recap; it also models note-taking strategies for students who aren’t familiar with documenting their participation in discussion based classes.

*I developed this assignment after many talks with Caroline Weist, pedagogue extraordinaire.

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