Five-and-a-Half Things I Learned Teaching My First Course

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I’m part of the relative minority of academics who chose the academy because they want to teach. I went to graduate school without a clear picture of what historians do for a living, armed only with the desire to stand up in front of large groups of people and share stories about history. So when I was offered that classic graduate student rite of passage – covering a 1000-level course for someone on sabbatical – I jumped at the chance. This is what you came here for, I told myself. You’ve got a list of cool activities a mile long. Don’t screw it up.

“Science, Nature, and Society,” our department’s introduction to the history of science, is sufficiently vague that the instructor can more or less teach what they like. I framed my class around the idea that sciences and technologies can be tools of identity formation, using place as a primary “identity,” which allowed me to cover a lot of time and space. As is typical for my department, I had no history of science or history majors in my class, and was mostly working with science majors looking to fill a general-education credit. I therefore also had heaped upon my blazer-ed shoulders the task of teaching general historical literacy: how to read sources, how to write paragraphs, and how to analyze works by other historians.

The Things I Learned below are based on a Twitter essay I wrote after uploading final grades.

1. The first Thing I Learned is that everything took way longer than I planned. Chalk it up to imposter syndrome, or performance anxiety, or some other form of over-compensation, but it took me days to prepare a single 75-minute class. Sometimes weeks, depending on the lesson. My colleagues kept telling me that building a new course from scratch feels like the rough equivalent of writing a book, and that by the end of the semester my fastidious planning would fall apart. They were right. One thing that didn’t take longer (although it still somehow took up all of my free time) was grading. Who knew that grading would be so much easier when you design the assignments yourself?

2. One of the problems with teaching non-humanities majors in general is their unfamiliarity with historical material. Most of my students’ experience came from high school, where they memorized names, dates, and linear narratives. I Learned that primary sources were the perfect key to unlock the messiness of history, and to go beyond presidents and inventors. What stood out to my students the most was that I let them work with those primary sources, rather than presenting the analyses of other historians. We did a series of short in-class research exercises where they engaged with different sorts of primary sources that came together to tell a complete story. One, themed around colonial botany, had students each finding 17th- or 18th-century primary sources about different plants. Another, based on transportation and subversive identities, had discussion groups identifying and analyzing different types of primary sources, including the “Rosa Parks Bus.” This also gave my students more of a glimpse than I ever got as an undergraduate of what historians actually spend their time doing.

3. Remember that list of cool activities a mile long? Turns out that implementing that list was like testing if spaghetti is cooked: throw it at the wall and see what sticks. One activity that stuck was a time-lapse map I built to show modernity’s collapse of space and time by tracing how long it took to send a letter across the USA at different points in the mid-19th century. Each day represented approximately a second on the map, and we all sat perfectly still and silent through the entire four minutes in the 1840s to feel the difference between that and the 0.5 seconds for an 1870s telegram. I thought what they responded to was the tech-y trick, but I Learned that they were really interested in the sensory engagement. We also taste-tested 100% cacao in our unit on plants and empire, and we researched and designed our own “honest” historical advertisements for household products to explore links between consumption, science, and gender. Yes, I teach adults. Yes, I brought glitter. This is part of what educational professionals call “Active Learning,” but I mostly just call it “fun, and a way to avoid a week of prep.”

One discussion group's "honest advertisement," for Heinz baby foods, c. 1940s, and my example: Air Canada, 1950s.
One discussion group’s “honest advertisement,” for Heinz baby foods, and my example based on my own research on Air Canada.

4. As a teaching assistant, I hadn’t realized how different the classroom looks and feels from the front of the room. I could tell when students were responding to the material, and it was almost exclusively when it was something I was particularly excited about, such as our unit on climate, race, and culture. Thinking back to my favorite professors in college, it turns out what stuck was the passion and energy, rather than the specific material. Although we can’t always teach our favorite stuff all the time, I’ve got to learn to bring some of that spark to lessons that feel more like work.

I Learned a similar Thing with assigned readings. I had hoped to provide a background on some of the major theoretical issues in the history of science and technology, but those readings, no matter how important they were, never inspired as much discussion as other topics. Those sorts of background readings are like Buckley’s cough syrup. They may taste awful, and they may work, but I’d prefer to sacrifice some theory in favor of getting students interested in the material.

5. I was initially very concerned about my age, experience, and gender. I was worried, like a lot of graduate students and early-career instructors, about appearing like an authority figure in the classroom. I planned every moment of my classroom time (see Thing I Learned #1), agonized over wardrobe choices, and wore high-heeled shoes to make myself taller. The Thing I Learned here is that some students really didn’t care about my age or experience, and I was never going to win over the ones that felt that way. Coming to terms with this helped me relax into my role at the front of the room, since I was less concerned about what the students thought about me and more concerned with sharing the material the best way I could.

One side-effect of my age and gender, though, was that multiple students came to me with mental health issues. I was glad to be of help, and recommended campus counseling services, but it’s difficult to prepare for the heavy emotional labour that comes with “approachability” and falls disproportionally upon younger female instructors.

5.5. Let me talk to you for a minute about blazers. I bought so. many. blazers. Plaid blazers. Blazers made out of sweatshirt-y material. Flowy blazers. Blazers that look like cardigans but are actually blazers. I also went through a phase where I bought several pairs of what I called “professor shoes,” whatever that means. I crafted a sartorial persona for myself that, in my mind, projected the confidence and authority I thought I lacked, as if it could be stored inside statement necklaces. Turns out I didn’t lack any of that, and I spent most of the semester in jeans, sweaters, and boots. The Thing I Learned here, I guess, was that the blazer was inside me all along. This is the job I’ve always wanted to do, and I had a really good time doing it.

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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

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