Teaching the Causes of WWI

by I.A. Isherwood

I have taught the causes of WWI in a number of contexts: from the rushed introduction to world history model to the more in depth, subject specific, class. In History 219 The Great War we are devoting two weeks to the causes and I am using each lecture as an opportunity to teach a bit of broad European history. Not every student in the class has a background in nineteenth century Europe and most probably don’t have that much experience with diplomatic history. So this seems like an appropriate strategy for tackling the material.

We are using Hamilton and Herwig’s Decisions for War 1914-1917 as our textbook for this material. The authors are more interested in demonstrating how decisions for war were made and less interested in the systemic causes. I find this approach refreshing because we can get specific: who had war powers in such and such country, how did they react to events, why did they make a decision for war, etc. We spent this week examining how the central powers and entente nations each reacted to the July Crisis and then went to war, walking through each nation’s response to events over the 37 days of the crisis.

I think we covered most of what I wanted to get across, but with any lecture, you end up summarizing the complexities within a specific time frame, relying that the students are getting the major points from class within the context of a reading assignment. My teaching style is conversational and that means that I often rely on students to fill in specific gaps as I go along. In practice, this means that I bring up an incident, or a concept or idea, and then ask someone to explain why this is important to what we are discussing. When it works, class becomes animated, even with 25 people or so, we can have a good conversation that leads to everyone getting more out of the material than if I just stuck to a powerpoint and told them what I think they need to know.

So far, I have a core group of six or seven students who are willing to take the plunge and talk about the reading. Their points have been spot-on: they’ve been building on each other, sometimes disagreeing, and are clearly working at what we all are working towards – better understanding of the material. I couldn’t be happier with their participation. The issue is that there are only a handful so far who are willing to jump in and get their hands dirty.

Those of you who teach know exactly what I am am writing about. It happens a lot and it is easy for professors to rely on these core students for the rest of the semester and just roll with it. I am not sure if the others in the class get much out of us doing that, though. By ‘I am not sure’ I certainly mean that ‘I am sure but am just being delicate.’ By articulating ideas out loud or asking questions of the material, the student learns something, and to be honest, the professor thinks about things differently too.

So I think we’re going to try our hands at a little active learning next week. This will be a little awkward at the start – our room is a lecture hall – but we can make it work. The essential thing is that everyone not only does the reading for Monday, but digests it: take notes, jot down ideas, and think about how the chapters you are going to read fit in with what we’ve been doing all along. Then we’ll see if we can turn the tide and get more people participating.

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