Prepping adventures: the big questions

To the dismay of some of my colleagues, and the delight of others (and the total incomprehension of most), I am continually preparing the next class. So, even though it’s June and I’m teaching three classes that started last week, I am thinking seriously about Fall.

Fall for us begins in August, so it’s not that quirky. And next term, for the first time, I will have an intern. The SDICCA program in San Diego County, in association with San Diego State University, matches Masters students with community college professors*. The intern will work closely with me the entire year, attending my classes and campus meetings, and learning from me as his mentor.

This requires a certain meta approach from me as I design and teach my classes, particularly the on-site classes. This opportunity was one of the reasons I wanted to be a mentor. While my ego does not require a minion to learn things “my way” (on the contrary), I do require that things change up a bit to keep me on my toes. The necessity to explain why I do what I do, and to change things in response to someone else’s thinking, is a boon. Although I do change things in response to students all the time, the power relationship there is quite different than that between mentor/intern, particularly as I intend to make clear I hope to learn as much from him as he does from me.

But one thing I must “teach” is class discussion, my bugaboo. I have only one class where I really do it, my early American history online. At the beginning of the week, I post a 5-minute video from a series that considers “both sides” of an issue, and ends with a question (for example, “Was the Constitution a democratic document?”). The first few days of the week, I allow students to respond with their ill-informed opinions, vent, argue, etc. Then mid-week I summarize their contributions and reframe them, asking new questions based on their input that nevertheless point them toward deeper, thematic issues that connect to the assigned documents. It works well for them, but requires a lot of work from me: it is very much instructor-guided.

Although I have done this also in a classroom setting (using video clips from controversial issues in the news), I feel that these days some larger, philosophical issues should be considered. I do not want to simply increase polarized views by encouraging evidence-based arguments. My goal for teaching has always been to train a person see the news of the day and connect it to similar “news” from the past, to put today’s events into perspective. That’s what history is — context. THE context. It’s the way we know what the present might mean.

When I didn’t know that my modern European History class would be cancelled last spring, I prepared a list of such questions, one per week. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them, and I never got to find out. (Don’t get me started on how students are being told by equity-minded individuals to avoid European history, and how they are avoiding classes that require deep thought so they can more easily achieve “academic success”.)

I tied each question to that week’s area of coverage:

  • 1 Story So Far
  • 2 17th c Politics and Culture
    Should only people who own homes vote? -or-
    At what point should society’s leaders no longer be allowed to lead?
  • 3 Science and Enlightenment
    How important is reason as opposed to emotion?
  • 4 Enlightenment Economy and Society
    How should a country’s economy be regulated, if at all?
  • 5 Political Revolution
    Is there a point where the people can get too much power?
  • 6 Industrial Revolution
    Should we help workers who don’t make enough to live on? how?
  • 7 Socialist and Romantic Response
    How do ethics come into politics?
  • 8 19th century society
    How important is it that people have definite roles in society?
  • 9 Nationalism and Imperialism
    Does nationalism necessarily lead to treating others poorly?
  • 10 Great War and Russian Revolution
    Does war settle disputes?
  • 11 The Interwar Years
    How can fiction help us understand the present?
  • 12 World War II
    Why do people become followers?
  • 13 The Cold War
    How does one find ones place in society?
  • 14 Social Revolution
    How can literature guide people’s views?
  • 15 The Contemporary West
    What issues or values should transcend politics?

So now, keeping in mind the need to connect their own opinions to the topic, I’m starting here for modern American history:

  • 1 US to 1865
    Why study American history?
  • 2 Reconstruction
    What might have been a better plan for Reconstruction, and what would have made it difficult?
  • 3 The West
    What happens when we see people from the past as victims as opposed to people with agency?
  • 4 Incorporation and Immigration
    How do immigrants become part of the American story?
  • 5 Empire
    Does America still have an empire?
  • 6 Progressivism
    What should be the government’s role when capitalism causes problems?
  • 7 The Great War
    How should Americans who oppose war be treated?
  • 8 The 1920s
    In what sense is progressive thinking countered by traditional thinking?
  • 9 The Depression
    What is the government’s role in alleviating suffering?
  • 10 WWII
    How should the U.S. respond to authoritarianism around the world?
  • 11 Post-war and Cold War Politics
    In what sense do fear and restrictions of civil liberties go together?
  • 12 The Fifties (culture)
    Why is celebrity culture so influential?
  • 13 War and Activism
    When a college tries to make its curriculum “relevant”, what does that mean?
  • 14 Inclusion and Exclusion
    Which is more important to social justice, the laws or the courts?
  • 15 New Millenium
    What have been the impacts of the internet?
  • 16 Contemporary US
    What is the role of the idea of “privilege” in contemporary discourse?

I am not sure that these are the exact questions, or how I want to use them in class, but it’s a start to think bigger.

 


*It’s interesting. We are called “professors” in the press and in the commencement program, but when I asked for this designation on my college business card, I was told no. We don’t even get “instructor” anymore, only “faculty”.

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