How to have a book discussion . . .

by I.A. Isherwood

I am very self-conscious of two things as a teacher: boredom and dogmatism. I want my students to stay focussed and engaged in the classroom and to know that I greatly value their hard work and contributions. I want them to know that history is a conversation, that historians are fallible beings, and that their interpretations matter (provided they’ve done the work to form such interpretations, he writes curmudgeonly). If the liberal arts college is to survive into this new and frustrating century, those of us in the humanities need to show exactly what real value there is in the type of learning we practice. And to stay fresh we need to remember that we are practicing this vocation, not mastering it.

What this means, for me, is to spend less time reading from a power-point, less time white-knuckling a lectern, and more time getting students to work their minds in class, to practice their critical skills by communicating.

Earlier in the week I tried a detailed book discussion with end-of-the-semester students and it blew up in my face. On Wednesday, our last day of class, I put them in a circle, and asked only one question: what is the legacy of the First World War. They wanted more clarity on the question. I wouldn’t give it to them. So they just started talking.

What I got was fifty minutes of really smart conversation. The general theme was that WWI matters for much bigger reasons than they ever supposed before they took History 219. Most had never thought of the conflict as one that changed world history, altered geographies, perceptions of nationhood, destroyed communities and lives, and upended the imperial international order. They talked about high school curricula, violence and representations, generational narratives, veterans and their memories, and cultural mythologies. The conversation could have easily been fragmented, but they all listened to each other, and built upon comments that their peers were making. It was the best kind of intelligent banter and the best advertisement for the liberal arts classroom.

Then we voted on who had the best facial hair of the First World War (Rennenkampf by a nose hair).

I have enjoyed writing this blog because it forced me to examine my teaching. It has helped keep me focussed on the big picture and to record and reevaluate what works and doesn’t work. To be perfectly honest, it has helped rejuvenate my teaching, and made me much more conscious of what I’m actually doing. Beyond that, I hope in its own small way, that by lifting the curtain into my classroom, that you got a glimpse of what we do at Gettysburg College.

So I think I will keep up with it.

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