Introducing Our New Introduction to History Course

Yesterday afternoon I was thrilled to hear from several of my colleagues at Bethel University as they shared some innovations in teaching at our annual “West by Midwest” festival. You can see all of my tweets from that two-hour event at the bottom of this post — they include links to some of the innovations mentioned.

What I couldn’t live-tweet was my own brief presentation: on my plans for our department’s new Introduction to History course, scheduled to debut next spring. So here’s a snapshot of what I have in mind:

As we revised the History major at Bethel, we agreed that we wanted to keep it small and flexible. It requires about eleven courses, most of which allow for considerable student choice: two each (at least one upper-division) in each of three choose-from categories (US, Europe, Global), plus three electives. The major will still conclude with a capstone experience, Senior Seminar. But for the first time in my experience, we’ll now require an opening course, Intro to History. Previously we let students pick one sophomore-level regional survey from a list of five or six, but we found that students in those courses (all of which also fulfilled a general education category and several of which were taught by faculty other than our full-time professors in the department) were not getting enough methodology and philosophy of history by the time they got to our upper-division offerings.

Fea, Why Study HistoryI’ve taught Senior Sem for eleven years now, but I was excited to have the chance to move to the other end of the developmental spectrum and create an introductory course from scratch.

We’ll meet for two hours each Monday night for seminar-style discussion of topics in the philosophy and methodology of history, plus its public/popular uses, Christian approaches to the discipline, and questions of vocation and career. I’ll most likely use John Fea’s Why Study History? as our text, having heard good things back from students when I tried it in Senior Seminar this spring. (Many mentioned John’s book in their closing presentations Monday night. You can also read some of their responses to it in a series at our department blog.)

But the remainder of the course will be taught online. First, I’m planning to use a course blog like the one I’ve used this semester for my Human Rights in International History course. That’s not terribly innovative (I borrowed most of my ideas from several bloggers at ProfHacker), but I think the other element is pretty distinctive: a weekly half-hour webisode featuring our faculty, alumni, and older students.

I’m tentatively planning to call it Past & Presence, as a nod, first, to our department’s mission to prepare students who are “imaginatively comfortable in a historic past and actively engaged with the present,” and, second, to James Davison Hunter’s argument that Christians should seek to provide a “faithful presence” wherever they’re called. Three themes would run through it:

Location: After my experience teaching about World War I in places like London and Ypres, I’ve been quite taken with the idea of using the Twin Cities as a classroom. I dabbled in this a bit with my World War II course this past January, requiring students to take part in an off-campus activity with me or to conduct an oral history interview of a Minnesotan eyewitness to the war. For Intro to History, my notion is that we’d underscore that sense of place by having me host (via tape) each webisode from a historic location in town: museums like the Minnesota History Center and Mill City Museum, living history sites like Eidem Homestead and Gammelgården, memorials like those on the Minnesota state capitol’s mall, or even Bethel’s old campus down by our state fairgrounds (now a job training center).

Minnesota History Center
The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul

Vocation: But aside from those set-pieces, my main role in the webisode will be to interview my faculty colleagues and selected alumni and students. To a large degree, we’d focus on autobiography. (Not surprisingly, I’ll be working on all of this with my friend, Autobiography podcast host Sam Mulberry.) What led to their interest in history? How do they refine and sustain that interest? And — above all — how did they discern their calling, whether as history professor or teacher or far afield from the study of the past?

Conversation: These interviews would also give our department’s entire community a chance to weigh in on whatever issue we’re discussing as a class. The webisodes would serve as a bridge between evening seminars: we’d conclude Monday night by setting up the topic for next week, provide multiple perspectives on it via the assigned reading and webisodes, have students start to discuss it on the blog, then gather again the following Monday primed for a much deeper conversation.

In a sense, it’s an introductory course that will be taught by the entire department — including its student members and alumni. And that by itself is intriguing, since it may be easily adapted to any number of disciplines at colleges like Bethel.

The Rest of My #WxMW Tweets from Yesterday

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